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Idaho Highway Robberies and Other Crimes
Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Idaho | No Comments
The number of murders in Boise County alone in 1864 was more than twenty, with assaults and robberies a long list. The county had for sheriff, previous to the election in October Sumner Pinkham, born in Maine, a faithful and fearless officer, although a man of dissipated habits. At the first term of the district court held in the 2d district in February, twenty-one lawyers took the oath of allegiance prescribed by the legislature, drawn up by some person or persons aware of the coming condition of society, and seventeen jurymen, all regarded as reliable men. Nine indictments were found for murder in the first degree; three for murder in the second degree; one for manslaughter; for assault with intent to murder, sixteen; for robbery, two; for assault with intent to rob, one; for grand larceny, two; for perjury, one; for minor assaults, six; and for obtaining money under false pretenses, three; making a total of forty-seven criminal cases. Add to these an equal number of crimes committed between February and the October election, and the crowded condition of the county jail, notwithstanding an extra term of court in June and a regular term in the first week of October, may be readily conjectured. The cost to Boise County of its criminal business down to this date was over $31,000, besides the expenses of the courts, coroner’s inquests, postmortem examinations, and the erection of a jail at Idaho City which amounted to $28,594 more; and worse was to come.
An examination of the platforms of the two political parties in Idaho on the eve of the presidential election of 1864 reveals this difference: the administration party declared it to be their highest duty to aid the government in quelling, by force of arms, the existing rebellion; while the opposition party advocated putting an end to the conflict by “peaceable means,” or a “convention of the states.” At the same time it declared that the “interference of military authority” with the elections of the states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware was “shameful violation of the constitution; and repetition of such acts in the approaching election will be held as revolutionary, and resisted with all the power an means under our control.” In one breath it asserted its aim to preserve the union, and in the next that the states not in insurrection had no right to use the military power to make arrests, deny freedom of speech, the right of asylum, to exact “unusual test oaths,” or to deny the right of the people to bear arms in their defense; all this being aimed at the military orders of Colonel Wright, of which I have spoke in my History of Oregon, and the oath of allegiance quoted in a previous note. The administration was declared to be shamefully disregardful of its duties toward prisoners of war, and deserved the severe reprobation. In short, the platform called democratic was nothing more than a menace to union men, and an expression of hatred toward the general government which could not be misunderstood. But one union man was elected to the legislature, and the only union officers in the territory were those appointed by the president.
The result of the election was to awe administration men, although they preserved a regular organization and were ready to defend themselves and their principles if attacked. But while some might seem to surrender their principles through a dread of conflict, few were willing to surrender their property, to protect which from the organized and unorganized bands of robbers who belonged to the democratic party, the republicans were forced to adopt the methods of secret police known as the vigilant system. Not, by any means, that every democrat was a robber, or even disloyal; but every robber and secessionist called himself a democrat, and the party did not deny or denounce him.
I have treated of vigilance committees in a separate work, and give here only some examples of the crimes which led to the adoption of irregular and illegal measures for their suppression.
The rapid spread of population over mining territory outstripped the cumbersome machinery of legislation and the administration of law. Rogues and villains from the neighboring states, and from the states east of the Missouri River, flocked to a country where there was much gold and property, and no courts. The insecurity of life and property in transit upon the highways leading to and from the mines, and the reckless disregard of the former in the mining towns, led the miners of Salmon River, as early as in the autumn of 1862, to organize a vigilance committee at Florence, which action served only to drive the desperadoes from that locality to some other.
Lewiston was the second community to organize for self-defense, and the occasion was one of the most atrocious crimes on record, the murder of Lloyd Magruder, a prominent citizen of Lewiston, two men named Charles Allen and William Phillips from the Willamette, and two young men from Missouri, whose names have never transpired. Magruder had taken a lot of goods and a band of mules to the Beaver Head mines, realizing about $30,000, with which he started to return in October. Needing assistance with his pack-animals, and desiring company by the way, he engaged four men, James Romaine, Christopher Lowery, Daniel Howard, and William Page, all of whom he had seen in Lewiston, and who were well appearing, to return with him to that place. It was a fatal engagement. The three first mentioned had gone to Beaver Head with no other purpose than to rob and murder Magruder on his way home. Howard was a good looking, brave young man, of a kindly temper, but reckless in morals. From his accomplishments, including a knowledge of medicine, he was called Doctor or Doc. Romaine was a gambler, not known to have committed any crimes. Both of these men had resided at The Dalles. Lowery was a blacksmith who had been with Mullan in his wagon-road expedition, of a thriftless but not criminal reputation. Page was a trapper; some said a horse-thief, who had lived in the Klikitat country opposite The Dalles. He was an older man than either of his associates, and of a weak and yielding character, but not vicious.
When Magruder was about to start he was joined by the other persons named, Allen and Phillips, having about $20,000 in gold dust, and the unknown men with some money. They travelled without accident to a camp six miles from the crossing of the Clearwater, where a guard was stationed as usual, Magruder and Lowery being on the first watch, and the snow falling fast. When the travelers were asleep, the mules becoming restless, both guards started out to examine into the cause of their uneasiness, Lowery taking along an axe, as he said, to make a fence to prevent the animals wandering in a certain direction. Magruder was killed with this axe in Lowery’s hands. Howard and Romaine murdered the two brothers about midnight in the same manner, and soon after killed Allen and Phillips, Allen being shot. So well executed was the awful plot that only Phillips cried out, when a second blow silenced him. Page appears to have been frightened, and to have taken no part in the killing. The bodies were wrapped up in a tent cloth and rolled over a precipice; all the animals except eight horses wore taken into a canon off the trail and shot; the camp equipage was burned, and the scraps of iron left unburned were gathered up, placed in a sack, and thrown after the bodies down the mountain. All this time the murderers wore moccasins, that the damning deed, if discovered, might be imputed to Indians.
The guilty men now agreed to go to Puget Sound, and attempted to cross the Clearwater forty miles above Lewiston; but the weather prevented them, and they kept on to Lewiston, where, partially disguised, they took tickets by stage to Walla Walla, and thence to Portland and San Francisco. Something in the manner of the men, the mark of Cain which seldom fails to be visible, aroused the suspicion of Hill Beachy, owner of the stage line, who, on examining the horses and saddles left in Lewiston, became convinced of the robbery and death of Magruder, whose personal friend he was, and whose return was looked for with anxiety, owing to the prevalence of crime upon all the mining trails. With A. P. Ankeny and others he started in pursuit, but before they reached Portland the murderers had taken steamer for San Francisco, where they were arrested on a telegraphic requisition, and after some delay brought back to Lewiston December 7th to be tried. The only witness was Page, who had turned state’s evidence, revealed minutely all the circumstances of the crime, and guided Magruder’s friends to the spot where it was committed, and where the truth of his statement was verified.
Meanwhile a vigilance committee had been formed at Lewiston, which met the prisoners and their guard on their arrival, and demanded the surrender of the murderers; but Beechy, who had promised them an impartial trial, succeeded in persuading the people to await the action of the law. On hearing the evidence, the jury, without leaving their seats, rendered a verdict of guilty, January 26, 1864, and Judge Parks sentenced Howard, Romaine, and Lowery to be hanged on the 4th of March, which sentence was carried into effect, the gallows being surrounded by a detachment of the 4th United States infantry from Fort Lapwai. Page was himself murdered by Albert Igo in the summer of 1867.
The Magruder massacre alarmed the whole country, and gave a stronger motive for the formation of vigilance committees than anything that had occurred up to that time west of the Rocky Mountains. Nevertheless, the Lewiston committee, seeing that the courts were disposed to administer justice, disbanded about the middle of April, having hanged three murderers and thieves, and exiled 200 gamblers and highwaymen, whose absence left the place as quiet and orderly as a New England village.
But these outlaws were still in the territory or on its borders. Owyhee, while having its mining quarrels and occasional crimes, was not infested with criminals to the extent of needing a vigilance committee. South Boise and the Lemhi mines were cursed with the presence of desperadoes overflowing from Montana, where a very active committee of safety was in operation; while on the other hand Warren had never been a resort of villainous characters – why, it would be difficult to say, since they followed up the trails to the paying diggings in every other instance.
The Boise basin was distinguished above every other part of Idaho as “the seat of war,” from the frequency with which blood was spilled upon its soil. As the state of society had not improved with the introduction of courts of justice, and as politics entered into the division of the community into classes, the union men of Idaho City organized themselves to meet the coming crisis, precipitated by the democratic victory in 1864.
As I have before said, robberies and horse-stealing were carried on by organized bands, who had little difficulty in clearing the ‘horse ranches’ where the miners left their animals to be cared for; and none the less that the keepers of these ranches were often in league with the thieves. Settlers and farmers in the Boise and Payette valleys suffered equally with the miners, the Indian and the white robbers leaving them often without a horse to draw a plough or carry their products to market. This was the plight in which W. J. McConnell, a gardener on the Payette, found himself in October 1864; and out of this condition grew the first vigilance committee in the Boise basin.
Having discovered one of his horses in a stable in Boise City, in recovering it by process of law, I found the costs in a justice’s court to exceed the value of the animal. This he paid amid the jeers of crowd composed of idlers and disreputable characters who rejoiced in the discomfiture of the vegetable man.’ Thereupon he addressed them in a short speech, which contained the following pertinent words: ”I can catch any damned thief who ever stalked these prairies, and the next one who steals a horse from me is my Injun; there will be no lawsuit about it.”
A few days later $2,000 worth of horses and mules were taken from his rancho and those adjoining. McConnell and two others immediately pursued, over-taking the robbers near La Grande, killing three and mortally wounding a fourth, in a short and sharp conflict. Finding the leader of the gang had gone to La Grande for supplies, McConnell followed. By a series of well-devised maneuvers, the man was captured and taken to camp. A confession was exacted of all the names of the organizations of thieves with which these men were connected, and the prisoner was shot.
The knowledge thus gained by McConnell induced him to offer his services to recover any stolen property, on which proclamation most of the farmers throughout that part of Idaho joined with him in a compact to allow no future depredations to go unpunished. This association was called the Payette Vigilance Committee, or Committee of Safety, whose history is full of strange and exciting adventure.
During the winter of 1864-5 an effort was made to put down the Payette Vigilance Committee, by arresting between thirty and forty of the members as violators of law. They were taken to Boise City, where the businessmen engaged counsel, held meetings, and accomplished their release. The organization continued to exist, and the farmers had no further trouble with horse-thieves, although travelers still continued to be despoiled at a distance.
Among the many crimes committed in Boise County in 1864 were two that created unusual feeling in the breasts of its solid citizens; namely, the unprovoked shooting of J. R. Seeley, an inoffensive and respectable resident of Idaho City, at a public ball, by John Holbrook; and the equally unprovoked shooting of John Coray by Fitz-Gibbons. Holbrook was arrested, and on the impaneling of the first grand jury in the county was charged with murder in the first degree, but on trial the jury failed to agree, and it was found impossible in his case, as in that of all the others, to convict him of murder in the first degree.
Coray was arrested and confined in the county prison, while elaborate funeral ceremonies reminded the community hourly of its bereavement. Murmurs of mob violence gathered strength, which prompted the stationing in the jail-yard by the authorities of a large posse armed to protect the prisoner. On returning from the burial of Coray about 100 men halted on the brow of the hill above the jail and prepared to make a descent. Judge Parks, who was present, induced them to desist. Nevertheless, Fitz-Gibbons was not convicted of murder in the first degree when his trial came.
The election of October, by putting A. O. Bowen, a tool of bad characters, in the office of sheriff, in place of Sumner Pinkham, a good and brave man, did not mend matters. In December Ada County was set off from Boise by the legislature, with Boise City as the county seat, D. C. Updyke, a rogue, being chosen sheriff. Thus the Boise basin was at the mercy of desperadoes in office and out of it. About this time, flour and bread becoming scarce, the idlers and desperadoes attempted to help themselves, and a riot ensued. This was followed by the destruction of Idaho City by fire.
In July 1865 the crisis came in Boise County, when Ferdinand J. Patterson, a gambler and disreputable person, shot and killed Pinkham, the murder being well-known to be a political one. The affair happened at the warm springs, near Idaho City, on the 23d of July. Patterson coming suddenly upon his victim with a threatening expression, Pinkham attempted to draw, when he was instantly dispatched. Patterson was arrested as he was escaping, and examined before Milton Kelly of the 3d judicial district, who had him committed for murder; but his case being presented to the grand jury, the indictment was ignored by four of the jurors, eleven being for indictment. A preliminary examination before Chief Justice McBride, successor of Edgerton and Silas Woodson, resulted in his commitment to await the action of the next grand jury.
Previous to the killing of Pinkham, who was regarded as the leader of the loyal element of Boise society, no vigilance committee had existence within the precincts of the mining district proper, but the action of the grand jury in ignoring this crime, and threats made by desperate characters to burn the town a second time, brought about an organization. A meeting was called by C. S. Kingley, Methodist preacher, and the business men of the city were invited to participate, an organization being formed similar to that of the Payette committee of safety, Orlando Robbins being sent to confer with McConnell, the president of that organization, and to solicit his aid. The meetings were held in one of the underground warehouses of which I have spoken, where, between rows of boxes and barrels, their anxious faces dimly revealed by flickering lanterns, half a hundred earnest men resolved to adopt measures for the better protection of life and property. The hanging of Patterson was determined upon, but the purpose of the committee becoming publicly known, the sheriff, James T. Crutcher, rallied the rough element, and to avoid a general conflict, the case was allowed to go to trial. Patterson was acquitted, and realizing that his life was in peril among the friends of Pinkham in Idaho, he lost no time in leaving the country. But the avenger was upon his track, and he was shot down at Walla Walla, in the spring of 1866, by order of the committee. Patterson was followed to the grave by a large concourse of persons of his class, of whom there were many in Walla Walla at that time. His death seemed to serve as a warning, and there was a perceptible lessening of the crime of murder in the Boise basin thereafter.
But the struggle with desperadoes was not ended, when Idaho City and vicinity experienced some relief. All along the stage route from Boise City to Salt Lake robberies were frequent and murders not rare. As in other places, resort was had to committees of safety. In April 1866 John C. Clark, a gambler, shot and killed Reuben Raymond in a quarrel over some accounts. He was placed in the guardhouse at Fort Boise, but was taken out in the night by vigilantes and hanged. A few days afterward David C. Updyke, ex-sheriff of Ada County, and Jacob Dixon, formerly of Shasta County, California, were hanged on a tree on the road to South Boise. Updyke had resigned his office of sheriff on being detected in trading in county warrants and failing to pay over to the county the tax money collected. A grand jury was called, which preferred two indictments, and some papers issued preparatory to his impeachment, when suddenly a nolle prosequi was entered, and the whole matter dismissed. Such was the power of his friends who had elected him. The attention of an organization of vigilants extending from Boise to Salt Lake City, of men in the service of the stage company, was called to the movements of Updyke, who was finally proved to belong to a band of highwaymen guilty of various crimes, among which were some aggravated cases of stage-robbery, one within six miles of Boise City and another in Port Neuf Canon, near Fort Hall, in the first of which a passenger was wounded, and in the second the driver killed. For these and other crimes Updyke was hanged with one of his accomplices, the others escaping through the courtesy of the law. The act which led to the ex-sheriff’s taking-off was the malicious burning of a quantity of hay belonging to the stage company. The perpetrators were traced to their rendezvous and captured, when Updyke made a general confession, which revealed the names of the gang that for two years had infested the road. This, with the ex-termination of Patterson, cleansed somewhat public morals. Whether or not the same end could have been attained in any other way under the peculiar condition of the territory, overrun with the concrete ruffianism which for fifteen years had been gathering on the Pacific coast, to which protection was extended by a political party, will never be known. It has been estimated that in Idaho, and in Montana which was even more tormented, no less than 200 outlaws were executed by committees between 1861 and 1866. Such a carnival of sin and violence could never be repeated. Had crime been confined to professional criminals, vigilance committees might have crushed it. But such were the temptations to dishonesty, that few of those who had the handling of public money came out of office with clean hands. The first United States marshal, D. S. Payne, was removed for corruption in office. Alfred Slocum, treasurer of Boise County, was arrested in November 1865 for defalcation in the amount of $13,000. Charles D. Vajen, treasurer of Boise County in 1863-4, was found to have been a defaulter to the amount of between $6,000 and $7,000. It was notorious that many officers failed to render any account of their trusts in Idaho for the first few years, during the reign of mining excitements and mob law, and it was little that the territorial judges could do to bring about a better condition of society, juries, grand and petit, being tampered with, and witnesses as well. The chief justice, McBride, maintained a character for integrity and industry during the three years of his judgeship; but it is still a conspicuous fact in the history of the territory that, notwithstanding the great number of capital crimes committed in the first two years after the organization of the territory, the murderers of Magruder were the only ones hanged by the legally constituted authorities, and that robbery in office as well as highway robbery found its defenders in society.
Governor Lyon left affairs in the hands of the secretary, C. De Witt Smith, a native of New York, a young man of promise, educated for the bar, and for some time employed in one of the departments at Washington, but who could not withstand the temptations with which he found himself surrounded in Idaho. His honor was tainted with suspicion of peculation, and he died from the effects of dissipation, at Rocky Bar, on the 19th of August 1865, six months after his arrival.
The territory was thus left without either governor or secretary. Horace C. Gilson of Ohio, who had been serving as acting secretary under Smith, was commissioned secretary in September, and became acting governor. In the following summer he too became a defaulter in the sum of $30,000, and absconded to China; and Governor Lyon made such unwise use of the public funds as to amount in effect to robbing the territory.
Thus while the county officers sequestered the county funds, the territorial officers either stole or squandered the money appropriated by congress. One of the channels through which the public funds were embezzled was the territorial prison. An act of the legislature of 1864-5 made the territorial treasurer ex-officio prison commissioner, with a general supervision of the territorial prisoners, the county jails of Nez Percé and Boise being designated as territorial prisons, and their respective sheriffs keepers. The next legislature made the Boise County jail alone the territorial prison. Thirty per cent of the whole revenue of the territory was set apart for the expenses of this prison, besides which it had at the end of two years brought the territory $22,000 in debt.
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