Berdue & Wildred

San Francisco County, California
Date of Crime:  February 19, 1851

Thomas Berdue and Joseph Wildred were convicted of robbery.  The victim, Charles Jansen, was the proprietor of a wholesale dry goods establishment on Montgomery Street.  Jansen was struck on the head with a bar of iron and robbed by two men of several thousand dollars in coin and gold dust.  Police recognized from Jansen's description that one of the robbers was James Stuart, the leader of a feared band of escaped Australian convicts.  Stuart was also wanted for the murder of a sheriff in Yuba County.

The following day, Australian immigrants Berdue and Wildred were arrested.  A mob wanted to lynch them, but to avoid that fate, the authorities reluctantly agreed to a “Lynch Court,” composed of individuals voted on by the mob.  Jansen positively identified Berdue as the robber who struck him.  Many other witnesses testified that Berdue was Stuart, some of whom spent months in the same mining camp as Stuart.  Because the defense attorney believed Berdue and pleaded for time to check out Berdue's identification, the jury could not agree on a verdict.

Berdue and Wildred were turned over to a regular court, which sentenced them to 14 years of imprisonment.  Berdue was sent to Marysville, Yuba County for the murder of their sheriff.  Under the name “James Stuart,” he was convicted and sentenced to be hanged in three weeks.  A week later, the real James Stuart was arrested and brought to San Francisco.  Stuart confessed to the crimes and everyone realized the mistake that was made.  While visiting San Francisco, the California Governor interviewed Stuart and afterwards sent a pardon to Berdue.  The pardon reached him two days before his scheduled hanging.

Berdue returned to San Francisco in time to witness the hanging for which he was sentenced.  Stuart was hanged at the California Street wharf on July 11, 1851.  After viewing Berdue and Stuart together, a reporter noted, “I never before or since saw such a resemblance.  Stuart was, perhaps, a trifle the stouter; but, having seen either one, I think I should have unhesitatingly, at any time thereafter, been willing to swear to the other as that one.  It scarcely seems possible that the men could have so perfectly resembled each other.”

According to a different, seemingly more reliable account (CTI), a few witnesses who knew Stuart well had little trouble recognizing that Berdue was not Stuart at his Marysville trial.  These included a Yuba County judge and another individual before whom Stuart was often brought to face charges.  Stuart's movements were reportedly much quicker than Berdue's.  The witnesses also stated that Stuart was more than an inch taller.  However, even by this account, these trial witnesses were outnumbered by others who swore that Berdue was Stuart and stated they could not be mistaken.

Along with Berdue, Wildred was also pardoned.  Since neither of them was willing to run the risk of another such adventure, both returned to Australia. 

References:   The Galaxy, Convicting the Innocent

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