After attending local schools and working on the family farm, he found employment in the iron and lumber business. Higby then enrolled in the Essex County Academy at Westport and went on to graduate from the University of Vermont. After studying law, he began practicing in Elizabethtown in 1847. Three years later, nearing the age of 40, he felt the call of the West amid dreams of striking it rich in California’s gold mines.
Higby settled in Calaveras County, about 90 miles east-northeast of San Francisco. Deposits that had been patiently worked there for three years began yielding results, and men became rich. Higby wasn’t one of them, but after observing the wild-west version of law, he saw an opportunity to improve life in nearby mining towns, which had set the bar quite low. Law enforcement was regarded as unfair, unreliable, and downright corrupt. Vigilance committees (vigilantes) sometimes co-existed with official legal systems delivering their own justice outside of the law.
In many cases, vigilance committees acted openly. One example cited by Higby involved a California statute imposing the death sentence on burglars. When a burglar was caught in the act one night at 9 pm, a quick vigilante trial was followed by sentencing and execution—at 2:30 am, less than six hours after the crime was committed.
Higby abhorred the idea of lynch mobs, which sounds odd coming from a guy called Bloody Bill, but at this point he was still William Higby, citizen and hopeful gold miner. In 1853, Higby became District Attorney of Calaveras County. He advised that true justice must be a thoughtful process, not something handled by mobs seething with outrage. Higby set up office in Mokelumne Hill and began establishing credibility for his office in the eyes of the public. A key component of his plan was vigorous prosecution of all criminals. Even as he did so, a vigilance committee continued operating in Calaveras County during his first four years in office.
In 1854, the committee promptly executed a man accused as a horse thief, something Higby simply couldn’t accept. He visited the town and lectured the citizenry. Higby later wrote to his father about it, describing himself as “possessed with mixed emotions to find such a total disregard of law, of right, of justice, of humanity, of public decency and morality, in the village where I had resided for so long, and when too I had done so much to punish crime, as was admitted generally.”
In part to combat vigilantism, Higby successfully pushed for convictions and harsh sentences, and soon became known as Bloody Bill Higby, a man whose courtroom was to be avoided at all costs. Leaving office after six years, he was credited with bringing civilization to the mining towns by establishing the legal system’s integrity.
The office of District Attorney proved to be Higby’s stepping-stone to higher achievements. He next served as a district judge for two years, a state senator for one year, and then won three terms in the House of Representatives (1863–69). A strong supporter of President Lincoln, he was a regular visitor at the White House. Higby was also among the strongest proponents of the Alaska Purchase, which was completed in 1867. From 1877 to 1881, by appointment of President US Grant, he served as collector of internal revenue for the 1st California District. Courtesy of prominent positions and lucrative investments, including mining companies, he died a wealthy man in 1887 and was buried in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery.
Higby’s own story ends here, but if you’re a fan of irony, read on. Shortly after William’s death, Mrs. Higby (26 years his junior) took her inheritance of bank bonds, gold, and the deeds to several properties, and moved to Oakland. As an affluent widow, she had plenty of options among the city’s bachelors.
But Ellen Higby became a supporter of the Society for the Reformation of Criminals, which she joined on many visits to Folsom and San Quentin prisons. Over time, she became close to San Quentin inmate Charles Callan, a violent felon. After 18 months in prison, he was released in July 1890 with a promise of good behavior. Two months later he was back in the slammer for assaulting a policeman during an arrest.
Ellen seemed to hesitate, leaving Charles in jail for a month under charges of assault with a deadly weapon. But she finally posted bail and took him home with her to Oakland. Ten months later, she expressed to a local pastor an interest in joining his church, with one condition – that he accept a two-fer and agree to marry her and Callan. After hearing the convict’s story and his sincere promise to reform, the pastor agreed. They were married in September, with retired criminal Callan assuming joint control of the William Higby fortune.
Was that a temblor that followed, or just Bloody Bill rolling over in his grave?
But hey, it’s California. Maybe it was a small earthquake after all. The Callans moved to New Jersey, where the marriage ended about twelve years later with the death of Charles. Ellen finally passed 22 years later in 1925, and was plunked down – no, not with Charles – next to William in Mountain View Cemetery.
Within two days of her burial, Oakland was hit by a sharp earthquake. Now that time it had to be Bloody Bill.