By Patricia Perry, For the Union Democrat

Great excitement occurred in September 1881 when the Tuolumne County treasury was stolen.

The Tuolumne Independent of Sept. 24, 1881, reported the robbery in detail. At that time, the county treasurer kept the county’s money at his home or place of business. It was not kept at the county courthouse. The treasurer was required to post a bond to cover any possible loss of money. The sureties on these bonds were usually friends of the treasurer.

Donald McLean, who was the treasurer, kept the county’s money in a safe at his stable on Washington Street. McLean had two partners, Kelly and Pease. The three men usually made sure that one of them was always at the stable. Business was slow on the night of Sept. 19, 1881, so they decided to go across the street to Slocum’s saloon for a drink. They stayed about an hour and left. Kelly went home; McLean briefly returned to the stable, leaving a dim light burning in the usual manner; Pease went uptown and returned to the stable around 10:15, shortly after McLean left.

It was Pease’s night to watch. He testified that he went to bed about 10:30 after locking the office door. It was still fastened when he got up the next morning. McLean testified that: “About six o’clock next morning (Sept. 20) I looked in the door of the room as I went to hang my coat up, and noticed that the door of the safe stood open three or four inches, with the handle thrown up. Saw at once that something was wrong. Went to the safe and discovered that a box in front, in which a part of the money was kept for convenience of paying out, was missing, and papers scattered.”

McLean immediately sent for Sheriff George McQuade. The perpetrators of the crime were never found. There was $16,178.21 in the safe at the time. An audit showed that $6,864.21 was missing. It is possible that the robber(s) didn’t realize there was additional money in the safe. McLean’s bondsmen had to reimburse the county for the $6,864.21. In return, McLean gave the men a mortgage on his home and sold the stable. He also resigned as treasurer.

Shortly after, McLean and his wife moved to Oakdale, where he died in 1896.

The last mention in the Tuolumne Independent was on Oct. 1, 1881: “Nothing new has developed to the treasury theft, that we are justified in making public, unless parties are willing to back it up on the witness-stand. The bondsmen are satisfied, the county is out a small sum for expenses, and the officers keep out of Court. The probabilities are that this matter will prove to be another chapter in Tuolumne’s secret history.”

Patricia Perry is the historian for the City of Sonora.

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