Notes On A Lynching

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A View of the Madeline Plains, Looking East, toward Nevada.  ca. 1855.

On January 28, 1886, a bright and brisk Sunday morning in Susanville, California, the bodies of Holden Dick, a Pit River Indian, and Vicente Olivas–known as Mexican Ben–were found hanging from a crossbeam in the woodshed outside of the Lassen County courthouse.  Both men were convicted murderers.  Dick had been sentenced to death by Judge Marstellar and was awaiting, on appeal, a decision of the Supreme Court of California.  Olivas was awaiting sentencing, pending judgement on a motion for a new trial.  Sometime, in the night of the 27th, they had been prised from their cells in “the iron tank,” where they were being held.  Dick was severely beaten and found covered in blood, wearing a torn shirt and pants.  He was initially hung by his hair, until his scalp was nearly ripped from his head.  Olivas was found wearing only a shirt, with his trousers hanging at his ankles.  He had bruises on his neck consistent with attempts at manual strangulation.  Eventually they were both hung, the rope thrown over a beam and tied off to an upright post, and their necks were broken.  Sheriff Leakey, who normally slept in the courthouse, was attending a dance elsewhere in town.  So was deputy Forkner.  Nearby residents reported hearing two loud cries and a single gunshot.  It was the last lynching in Lassen County, which had been established less than two years before, and the event was notorious enough to receive mention in the faraway New York Times.

But the story runs much deeper, as they often do, and I believe it hinges principally on the life of Holden Dick.  Olivas, whose lynching appears to be largely a crime of opportunity, given that dead men don’t testify, had been convicted for the murder of Griffith Logan near Pittville, California.  The details of what might have precipitated Olivas’ crime are sketchy, and even those sketches are difficult to find, but what is known is that Olivas shot Logan, wounded another man named McCoy, and it is alleged that he would have “killed the entire party, consisting of four men, had not his pistol repeatedly missed fire.”  There is no evidence to suggest that Olivas and Dick were friends, partners in crime, or even knew each other prior to being housed together in the Lassen County jail.

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“Since the lynching of Olivas and Holden Dick, the act of taking the law into your own hands is becoming quite popular in Susanville.  A party to a suit in a Justice Court there, not liking the way a witness was swearing, presented a sixshooter at his head as an inducement for him to correct the testimony”–Daily Alta, February 12, 1886                       

Roll back the clock five years.  In the spring of 1881 an ore wagon, laden with several hundred pounds of gold ore, and protected by three armed guards, was traveling from the Black Rock country of northwest Nevada, to Sacramento.  Their route brought them out of the mountain passes straddling the state line and down toward the Madeline Plains of northeast California.  As they approached the southern Warner Mountains, near Moon Lake, a lone rider appeared in the distance.  The escorts assumed the rider to be friendly, and waved for him to approach, but as the stranger rode up he pulled a rifle from beneath his poncho and shot two of the guards from their saddle horses.  The two remaining escorts surrendered.  The bandit, who wore a broad brimmed hat down over his eyes and his poncho pulled up to his nose, then ordered the two survivors off the wagon.  He told them to start walking south, where the nearest settlement was twenty miles away.  When they were off, he tied his horse to the back of the freight wagon, climbed aboard, and whipped the team into a run, heading north toward Alturas.

And so it was that not long after this robbery-homicide Holden Dick began to show up in Alturas and Susanville, where he would buy supplies and spend his evenings in any number of the booming local taverns.  He paid for his goods and services in small amounts of gold ore, but the assumption was that he was a poor indian, working some lonely claim in the mountains.  Some time later he came into Susanville with a large, fully-stuffed pack, and paid for his drinks with a handful of pure gold he brought out of that pack.  Some gamblers at a table nearby noticed this, and invited Dick to join them.  Holden bought all of their drinks, but he would not reveal where his gold had come from.  The evening ended in stilted pleasantries, and after a couple of days in town Dick loaded up his pack horse with fresh supplies and rode northward out of town, toward Alturas and the Warner Mountains.

sheriffrachford

C.C. Rachford.  Born in Quebec, Canada, Rachford was an original settler of Surprise Valley.  He was the third elected Sheriff of Modoc County, was permanently injured in a battle with Paiute Indians in Fandango Valley, raised 7 children, and arrested Holden Dick with the help of a posse.

He was followed.  It isn’t hard to conjure why Dick was followed, or to what purpose the card players and itinerant miners who comprised the tracking party were about.  What has been reported is that Dick knew he was being followed.  Spotting the party behind him, across some broad and nameless ravine between Susanville and the Warners, Dick made his camp, built a fire, and watched as the party relocated to within a half mile of his location.  He let his fire burn for a couple of hours, then snuffed it, quietly packed his outfit, and rode away into the early morning dark.

It has been reported that Dick was followed on other occasions, after resupplies in town, and it seems that we can safely assume that suspicion of Holden Dick was rife, that the gamblers and miners who knew of his travels also suspected him of hiding the not-so-forgotten load of gold stolen from the freight wagon.  And it was on one of these horseback surveillances that Dick, who had been trailed deep into the Warners, somewhere close to the supposed site of his buried gold, shot and killed Samuel Shaw.

Little is known of Shaw’s life.  He has been reported variously as an old man living alone in a cabin, a cattle rustler, or as a general “nuisance to the community.”  One report has him killed, and beheaded, by Dick in a murky murder for hire scheme.  What is known for certain is that Dick killed him, but Shaw himself fades into history at the moment of his death, except as the center exhibit of a murder trial.  In March, 1885, Holden Dick was riding south toward Susanville when Modoc County Sheriff C.C. Rachford, himself no stranger to hostilities with natives, arrested Dick for the murder of Shaw and transported him to Susanville.

Holden Dick was also suspected of, but never charged, with murdering a Chinese cook, whose body was found by cowboys on the desert long after and identified by a pig tail, and even his own indian wife, but the reports are unreliable, inconsistent, and smack of the human habit of piling every unsolved crime and open case onto the one guy in custody.

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Eagle Point, Warner Mountains.  Supposed site of Holden Dick’s buried gold.

The rest of it we are left to assemble out of tatters, brief commentaries that appear in the record here and there.  But even from this high hill, it seems entirely reasonable to ask why, outside of revenge or simple racism, a group of men would assemble in the dark of night and break two convicted men–two men who were, without much reasonable doubt, headed to the gallows anyway–out of jail for the purpose of murder.  This was no mob of hotheads murdering in the heat of passion.  “The whole affair was systematically arranged and carried out,” says the Lassen Advocate.

It seems likely to this student that Olivas was killed merely to keep him quiet.  In the lynching of a murderer, meant to cover a greed motive, what’s one more convicted murderer?  One an Indian, one a Mexican, and no one the wiser?  The marks on Olivas’ neck might lead one to conclude that there was an attempt to strangle him first, to keep him quiet before his resistance forced a conclusion to simply hang him.  It seems highly convenient for Sheriff Leakey and his deputy to have been off dancing.  And it also seems probable that the torture and murder of Holden Dick was conducted less from notions of frontier justice than in an extended attempt to extract the whereabouts of his hidden gold.

Piecing together what scant records exist, I believe that the gunshot allegedly heard by nearby residents was actually the sledge-hammer used to break the cell locks, as a Lassen Advocate reporter noted in his initial report of the crime.  “Marks on the casing of the door show that the first attempt was with a bar, but this proving unsuccessful, a hammer was used.”  The locks were carried away into the decades, and one can’t help but wonder on what shelf they might be residing today.

Much of this story is lost to conjecture, but the cries heard that winter night, unanswered in the event, scream out across the years as a story begging to be teased out of the ether and finally told, and I assure you, dear readers, I intend to tell it.

  1. Looking forward to reading the rest. These small and insignificant stories lost to history always intrigue me. I find myself seeking out more and more specific stories from history. I like reading of the large events that shaped our world today but the individual accounts of what life was like and the perspective of one man’s experiences can bring a world into detail that may otherwise be lost.

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    1. Agreed. More and more I find myself drawn into these types of accounts. The research is challenging, and I have the librarians working overtime right now, but I think the payoff is worth it. There will always be large gaps in what we can know, but by no means should the narratives be allowed to die. They say something not only about the times, but also us, I think.

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  2. Fascinating stuff…I see another book in the making.

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    1. There is certainly one in there. I’m awaiting a few inter-library loans that will hopefully fill in some gaps in this story–if for no other reason that pure curiosity. But hey, Ron Hansen made nice career out of historical fiction.

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  3. Most folks don’t really think of California as a “frontier” state — but it was in some ways the wildest frontier in America. John Boessenecker has written a bunch of great books on frontier crime in California http://www.amazon.com/John-Boessenecker/e/B001HMUB04.
    This is a great story and I can see why it lured you in and pulled you into the bottomless rabbit hole of research.

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    1. This is true. Northeastern, California, in particular, interests me on many levels. It is geographically isolated from the rest of California, and so taming the frontier in that region took, arguably, quite a bit longer than other areas of the state. Really, it should have been part of Nevada, and was once, at least territorially, but this didn’t last. I would also put forward that this fact of geographic isolation, until very recently, slowed development–on many levels–in Lassen and Modoc counties by decades, in comparison to the rest of the state. The history of the region is simply full of banditry, murders, small scale wars with natives, corruption. In short, it was a kind of Deadwood west. The well is deep, indeed.

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  4. Very interesting and look forward to your continuing story of “justice by hanging” when these men were “allegedly defending” thier delves against self made outlaws. It was not too long ago and in some situations.. It continues today.

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  5. […] Mi amigo Craig Rullman is illuminating a particular piece of frontier noir in his “Notes On A Lynching” on his blog The Bunkhouse Chronicle. […]

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