The Weight of Justice


The Story behind the Gold Scales in the J. S. Holliday Rare Materials Reading Room of the California State Library

By Gary F. Kurutz

The beautiful Howard & Davis Gold Scales now rest on an antique table. The table recalls the time when the scales were in the State Library’s facility in the State Capitol Building. Photograph by Brittneydawn Cook.


Gary F. Kurutz is the editor of the California State Library Foundation Bulletin and former curator of special collections at the California State Library.


Gold Rush expert Tom Martin (left) and Gary Kurutz pose with this antique treasure in the J. S. Holliday Rare Materials Reading Room. Martin rebalanced the scales and gave a riveting demonstration on how bankers and merchants weighed the miner’s gold dust and nuggets.

The author wishes to extend his gratitude to Tom Martin, a true expert on California Gold Rush antiques, for supplying critical information on Howard & Davis gold scales. In addition, Mr. Martin “rebalanced” the gold scales, and provided valuable information concerning how the scales actually worked.

The gold scales adorning the J. S. Holliday Rare Materials Reading Room were manufactured by the famous Boston firm of Howard & Davis.(1) They were best known as makers of banjo-shaped clocks and fine watches. The partnership existed from 1842 to 1857. The successor company, E. Howard & Company issued a catalog in 1858, with the following description of “Gold Standard Balances [scales]:”

All the Boston Banks have our Balances in daily use, and they are acknowledged as the standards throughout California. The regular sizes are of the respective capacities of 1,500, 3,000, and 5,000 penny-weights. They are made of the very best materials and the highest grade of workmanship; all the bearings jeweled, and nothing omitted to secure perfect accuracy in weighing, with beauty of finish; each is mounted on a marble slab, and enclosed in a glass case, with balanced slide front.

The Howard & Davis scales were treasured for their accuracy and fine construction. According to one source, “Miners claimed they were so accurate they could weigh a pencil mark.” Early California banks, including Wells Fargo and Company and the U.S. Mint in San Francisco regarded bullion scales as essential equipment.

The weights or counterweights used to balance against the gold nuggets and dust are generally stored in a fitted box. However, the weights within the Library’s case are incomplete, lacking the larger sizes. Within the glass case are two scoops or tools probably used to load the gold onto the scales (pans). The scales in the Library are of the largest size measuring thirty-two inches high by thirty-six inches wide. Within a cartouche on the beam of the instrument is an engraving with the following description: “Gold Standard Balance | Howard & Davis | Manufacturers, Boston, Mass, U.S.A. | Full Jeweled.”

The Howard & Davis device is considered to be the “crown jewel” of a Gold Rush collection. Present day owners of these scales often polish the brass giving it the illusion of shining gold as it rests in a protective glass case. The scales in the Library, however, have moderate oxidation and tarnishing. The Wells Fargo and Company museums on nearby Capitol Mall and in Old Town Sacramento also display highly polished Howard & Davis gold scales.

The California History Section also houses pocket gold scales that, more than likely, were used by individual miners as a way to pay for food, drink, and supplies in currency-poor gold camps.


Detail of the scales showing the ivory handle lever “whereby the beam, scales (pans,) and weights are raised for any operation in weighing, and let down as soon as the operation is completed.” Benjamin Dearborn, Balance Factory, Boston, November 1817. Photograph by Brittneydawn Cook.

When I started working at the California State Library in 1980, and had occasion to visit the State Librarian’s office in the Library and Courts Building, a large brass gold balance or scales caught my eye, not only because of its beauty, but also because of its significance. During the heyday of the Gold Rush, scales such as this one manufactured by the Howard & Davis Company of Boston, Massachusetts, were regularly used to weigh gold dust and nuggets. When the California History Section moved into its new facility at 900 N Street, Sacramento in 1994, the scales were carefully moved into the
J. S. Holliday Rare Materials Reading Room. This large antique from the early 1850s is housed in a vintage glass case. On the scales’ marble base is a typewritten card describing its intriguing history which compelled me to dig further into its past.(1)

According to the information on this card, the gold scales were once owned by a Mrs. William (Jennie) Ritter of Michigan Bar, a prosperous mining town on the Cosumnes River in eastern Sacramento County.(2) Jennie Ritter’s husband was one of the wealthiest men in Sacramento County. Unfortunately, the story associated with the Ritter family and the gold scales is not a happy one. On the evening of July 2, 1865, William Ritter was visiting with friends in nearby Willows Springs in Amador County. At the time, Jennie Ritter and her son were visiting relatives in Philadelphia.(3) Mr. Ritter’s group included John O’Brien, his wife, their young son, and a woman only identified as Miss Fulton. They boarded Ritter’s carriage to return home to Sebastopol(4) in neighboring Sacramento County but they stopped at the store of John L. Atkinson near Michigan Bar around nine o’clock in the evening. It is uncertain why they decided to make this stop.(5) As Ritter and friends pulled up to the store, they had no idea that two armed masked men were inside ransacking the place and holding Atkinson, his son George and a man named Larry prisoner. Shortly beforehand, one of the robbers had covered up the store windows and door to hide their pillaging. The following is the account of what happened to Ritter and his friends according to the July 4, 1865, issue of the Sacramento Daily Union:

At this moment the carriage drove up, and one of the three men in the rear of the store exclaimed, “There’s Ritter.” One of the robbers quickly exclaimed, “Bring him in.” But both [outlaws] then moved to the door, and rushing out, each seized a horse by the head and demanded of Ritter his money. Ritter commenced to whip up his horses and strike violently with his whip at the robbers, and they both commenced shooting at him in return. The ladies begged Ritter, as the shooting commenced, to yield to the demand made upon him. As soon as young Atkins [Atkinson] could regain his self-possession he ran for a shotgun, with which he came out and fired at one of the robbers. Although it is supposed that the shot did not take effect, both robbers at once let go of the horses and made their escape. During this time O’Brien occupied the front seat of the carriage with Ritter and the ladies, and the boy in the behind seat. Neither of the men had weapons of any character with them. The horses had moved about twenty feet from the starting point in their struggles to free themselves from the men. Ritter realized that he was wounded, but made no examination as to the character of the injury and started forward for the purpose of reaching home.(6)

Valiantly, Ritter grasped the reins of the horses and tried to move on but soon fainted. O’Brien seized the reins and drove the carriage to the ranch home of a Mrs. Marcy. A coroner’s account states that Dr. G. L. Simmons and a Dr. F. W. Hatch came to examine him but the doctors found that the gunshot had entered his abdomen and the bullet lodged near his spine. Little could be done and Ritter died the next day.(7)

Because of his prominence and the horrific nature of the crime, the State of California and the Ritter family each offered a reward of $1,000 for the capture of the masked outlaws. To make the situation even worse, the Union reported that John Atkinson was stabbed to death at his store and home in August 1865, only a few months after the murder of Ritter. His son George Atkinson firmly believed that the same outlaw who shot Ritter had also killed his father. Apparently the senior Atkinson did get a good look at the outlaws while in their store despite their masks and stated he would be able to identify the perpetrators. George speculated that his father was killed because the outlaws feared he would become a witness against them.(8) However, this nefarious duo, hiding out in the back country of Sacramento, Amador, and Placer Counties, outwitted all efforts to apprehend them until June 2, 1868, when Marysville sheriff officers went after a supposed horse thief. They located the suspect on B and First Streets in the city’s downtown and exchanged gunfire and the outlaw fell dead. According to newspaper coverage, the deceased was identified as the notorious outlaw “Mountain Scott.” Maryville officers identified him as either Charles Williams or Bill Scott. An article in the Marysville Daily Appeal stated: “It was afterwards ascertained that the deceased was the notorious ‘Mountain Scott,’ the highwayman who murdered Mr. Ritter at Michigan Bar several years ago.”(9) A coroner’s jury and Deputy Sheriff of Yuba County M. R. Casad, further identified the corpse as that of Mountain Scott and connected him to the death of Ritter. Three years later justice had finally been meted out. However, no one found his partner in crime.(10)

Before this tragic event, Ritter had achieved a great deal of success and recognition in the gold mines and boasted that no one could rob him. Ironically, his elevated status caused him to be recognized by Atkinson, who unwittingly alerted the masked brigands. Ritter was one of the discoverers of the Manzanita Mine near Nevada City and used the profits to acquire mining interests near Michigan Bar as early as 1855. He specialized in constructing mining ditches and established the Ritter Ditch Company. Winfield J. Davis, in An Illustrated History of Sacramento County, California, wrote: “In 1857 Mr. Ritter laid the solid foundation of a dam and ‘sea-wall’ on the South Fork of the Cosumnes and thus began the construction of the Prairie Ditch, extending about twenty-one miles to Michigan Bar, completed about 1858.”(11)

No doubt a man of such riches needed gold scales as a means of determining the value of the ore that his company harvested from its ditches. The beautiful Howard & Davis scales owned by Ritter were considered the finest and most accurate of gold weighing instruments. Following his violent death, Jennie Ritter inherited much of her husband’s belongings, which would have included the gold scales. She, in turn, must have sold the Ritter Ditch Company to the Cosumnes Irrigation Company. As recorded on the card within the exhibit case, Robertson Topp McKisick (1871–1925), the donor of the scales, purchased them from the irrigation company when he served as its attorney. According to a separate donor card dated 1925, Mr. & Mrs. Robertson McKisick gave the scales to the Library. The card further stated: “Information given by C. B. Ruman, Michigan Bar, the man who brought the scales into Mr. McKisick’s office.” Ruman also noted: “The scales were considered very expensive and valuable even in the early days.”

McKisick himself led a fascinating life. The California History Section holds an undated biographical form filled out by him probably when he served as the deputy attorney general for the State of California and had his office in the State Capitol Building. Prior to his appointment as deputy attorney general, McKisick held the position of city attorney for the City of Sacramento. In filling out this form, he made special note of his favorite hobby: “Have practiced rifle-shooting as a pastime for over 30 years. Was coach and instructor at U. C. [University of California] from 1890–92, am expert rifleman and deem my services would be more valuable in present crisis as instructor in rifle-shooting and care of rifles than in any other capacity — am president [of] State Rifle Association.” The “crisis,” may have been World War I. It is ironic that shooting rifles was his hobby as it was a rifle shot that killed Ritter. Unfortunately, the State Library does not have a statement from McKisick stating what prompted him and his wife to make this generous donation. At the time, the Library was also in the State Capitol Building and had on display many mining artifacts, and perhaps they may have thought of these spectacular gold scales as a good fit. Nonetheless, the Ritter scales serve as a fascinating artifact and as a grim reminder of the dangerous conditions that permeated the mining camps of that era.

This article came from Foundation Bulletin #125, pp. 14 to 19. See the foundation website ( for more info.


1. The author wishes to thank Sharon Stewart of the State Library’s California History Section and archivists Kim Hayden and Sean Heylinger of the Center for Sacramento History for their generous assistance. In addition to the card in the display case, the State Library has a donor card dated 1925.

2. Mildred Brooke Hoover and Hero Eugene and Ethel Grace Rensch, in their Historic Spots in California, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966, p. 301, wrote: “Michigan Bar was the most prominent of all the early gold camps on the Cosumnes River in Sacramento County. Founded in 1849 by two men from Michigan, it reached a population of 1,500 or more in the early 1850s. The original townsite has since been washed out by hydraulic mining.”

3. Davis, Winfield J., An Illustrated History of Sacramento County, California. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1890, p. 585.

4. According to Erwin G. Gudde, California Gold Camps, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975, p. 313, Sebastopol in Sacramento County was then located on the old Ione Valley Road.

5. In researching this article, I found conflicting facts in the newspaper. One issue called it the store of Atkins & Son and another, stated a store owned by John L. Atkinson. A search of other sources did not confirm either name. Sacramento County (Cala.) Coroner’s Office Records. Wm. Ritter. Box # 59. Folder 11. “Inquest on Body of Wm Ritter. July 6th A.D. 1865,” Center for Sacramento History. J. W. Reeves, Coroner, referred to Atkinson; whereas the Sacramento Daily Union, July 4, 1865, p. 3, c. 2, used the name “Atkins.” On the issue of why they stopped at the store, the coroner’s report stated “hauling some lumber.” Whereas, the Sacramento Daily Union, July 4, 1865, p. 3, c. 2, referred to “refreshments.”

6. “Robbery and Probable Murder,” Sacramento Daily Union, July 4, 1865, p. 3, c. 2.

7. Ibid and “Inquest of Body of Wm. Ritter,” Sacramento County (Cala.) Coroner’s Office Records, Center for Sacramento History.

8. Sacramento Daily Union, Aug. 17, p. 3, c. l and Aug. 18, 1865, p. 3, c. 1.

9. “A Desperado Killed,” Sacramento Daily Union, June 3, 1868, p. 3, c. 1. Another account appeared in the Marysville Daily Appeal, June 3, 1868, p. 3, c. 1. The Marysville newspaper on June 10, 1868, p. 3, c. 1, reported that the local sheriff identified Ritter’s murderer as Bill Scott, a mulatto, who went by the nickname “Mountain Scott.” Peter J. Delay in his History of Yuba and Sutter Counties, California, Los Angeles: Historic Record Company, 1924, pp. 108–109, wrote: “It was later ascertained that the deceased was a noted criminal, wanted for several offenses; that he was a native of Jamaica, aged thirty years; and that his correct name was Charles Williams.”

10. “Justifiable Homicide,” Marysville Daily Appeal, June 3, 1868, p. 3, c. 1 and Coroner’s Inquest,” Marysville Daily Appeal, June 10, 1868, p. 2, c. 3.

11. Davis, An Illustrated History of Sacramento County, California, p. 585.



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