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Even before the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, friction between Northern and Southern sympathizers began to intensify in El Dorado County.
Generally, local residents sided with the Union, but a number of Confederate supporters made their sentiments very clear.
In the community of Newtown, for example, a family from the Deep South began to make trouble when the gun-toting patriarch went around town threatening to shoot himself a few Yankees. His wife boasted that she had a Confederate flag ready to hang from her balcony when the South won its first battle. After threats of tar and feathers, they decided to leave town.
In April of 1860, a well-dressed gentleman arrived in Newtown carrying a carpetbag allegedly filled with “frilled shirts.” He told the local bartender he had traveled from Virginia for his health and didn’t know how long he’d be staying. The dashing man – whom the townsfolk called “Doc” – journeyed to Placerville twice a week for a bath, a haircut and a shave.
The nights Doc was in Newtown, he played draw poker in the hotel’s gambling room and began his evenings drinking Iron Fences, a strong potent potable made of applejack and bourbon. Later, he switched to Virginia peach brandy. A quiet player, he held his liquor well and most nights, broke even.
Doc spent most days walking or riding a horse along the roads and trails of Newtown, Pleasant Valley and Fort Jim. He met the Pony Express when it rode into Placerville and read the letters and newspapers delivered by its riders. After a couple of months, however, Doc wasn’t seen much – except for on the stagecoach to Virginia City or Sacramento and on the riverboats to Marysville or San Francisco.
Word began spreading that Doc belonged to the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secessionist group said to have a big membership in El Dorado County. Rumor also had it he was a Yankee, spying on Senator Crittenden, who belonged to a political party that supported California’s secession from the Union and the formation of a Pacific Republic on the West Coast. Reportedly, Senator Crittenden was storing firearms in Virginia City and Silver City where his followers hid them in cellars and storehouses.
One stormy night in January 1861, two strangers rode into Newtown and entered the hotel. When he saw them, Doc got up, saying he needed some air to clear his head of the imbibed Iron Fences. He threw a raincoat over his shoulder, lit a lantern and went out in the squall. A few minutes later, the strangers departed.
“The next morning Cy (the bartender) found Doc’s body on Cemetery Hill with a bullet through his head,” recalls a man named Rocco in Newtown’s Spy: A Pre-Civil War Incident. “Cy looked after the burial. He put a wooden marker on the grave with ‘Doc. January 1861’ carved into it. Doc’s pocket had been frisked of all papers by the man who shot him. Cy found one identification among Doc’s frilled shirt, a San Francisco address. He wrote to that address telling how Doc died . . .We heard a year later that Doc wasn’t spying on Crittenden, but was one of his men hoping to find firearms for the Army of the Pacific in Dead Man’s Gulch (located between Newtown and Fort Jim).”