by Malcolm Macdonald, August 9, 2017
The history of Mendocino is dotted here and there with mortal crimes. In the broadest sense, the early years following the California Gold Rush filled the calendar with mass murder of the indigenous population. After the native folk of this county were laid low things settled down, literally and figuratively, for some time. However, the years 1879 and 1880 saw an uptick of heinous activity, particularly on the Mendocino Coast.
The first great entrepeneur of the coast was Alexander Wentworth Macpherson, who operated lumber mills in Albion and on the flats near the mouth of the Noyo River. Macpherson was a 49er, having arrived in San Francisco from China, where he had been in the employ of Jardine, Matheson & Co. This enterprise, owned and run by Highland Scots, controlled a triangle trade between India, China, and England whose principle products were opium (from India) and tea (from China). Alexander Macpherson continued to trade in opium after he was established in Albion and Noyo, where he built a fine house overlooking the mouth of the river (essentially where the Lodge at Noyo River sits today, just northeast of the Highway 1 bridge).
Alexander's brother Cameron Macpherson (they were both born and raised in the area around Inverness, Scotland), arrived in California in 1851. On the Mendocino Coast Cameron worked for his brother, principally at Noyo. By 1880, Cameron's son, Richard Macpherson, was a grown man of his own, about twenty-one years of age. Richard was known as a quiet yet industriousness young man, seemingly well-liked by all. Like as not one could often find him pitching in to help a friend or neighbor, which was the case on Thursday, March 18, 1880, when young Richard Macpherson helped Niela Offer clear small trees and brush from the Offer homestead about two and a half miles south of the Noyo. By the afternoon a considerable amount of land had been cleared.
What happened next is best seen from the testimony of Niela Offer, as evidence given before Justice August Heeser, brother of the founder and editor of The Mendocino Beacon, in which Harvey Mortier, described in that paper and others as a teenaged “half breed” approached Richard Macpherson and Mr. Offer. The testimony of Mr. Offer commenced with, “Harvey Mortier was speakng angry to Richard Macpherson about a wedge ax that Harvey Mortier accused him with stealing, accused him for taking a wedge ax, and Richard Macpherson says to him, he didn’t do it. He says he would go to Hi[ram] Stalder and find out who took the ax. The ax belonged to a man named Hi Stalder.
“Well! says Harvey Mortier to him, why don’t you come down now and find out who took the ax? Now, says Richard Macpherson, I won’t go till this evening. He [Harvey Mortier] says, you had better come now. He [Macpherson] says no, he won’t.
“I will find somebody down in the woods that will put a good head on you; give you a good licking. This last was said by Mortier to Macpherson. Macpherson didn’t go down to Hi Stalder’s to find out who took the ax. He remained with me chopping, and I was chopping at the time and Richard Macpherson was working with me.
“He started to work and Harvey Mortier went away, passing where we were. He went on a little, small trail. Before he left he asked me if I see any deers? I said, yes sir. I says, I seen some deers over there in that direction; so he passes along that little trail going that way, towards that way, and I was chopping wood. Didn’t pay no attention to it.
“In a few minutes the gun was fired and I looked and seen Macpherson and Mortier. I saw Harvey Mortier shooting. I seen the smoke and the gun in front of him, and he taking the gun down from him. He was standing in bushes that were chopped down, about two feet high.
“I saw the smoke in front of his face, and he was trying to hide himself. Mortier was thirty-four yards from Macpherson at the time the shot was fired. I measured it the next day with a six-foot pole.
“The smoke was right at the end of the gun. I saw Mortier’s face distinctly and recognized him. I had known him five or six years.
“After the shot, Macpherson and I ran away. He ran two hundred and thirty-five steps after he was shot. We ran as soon as the shot was fired. The last I saw of him he was leaning against a fence. He fell down. I then went after help to bring him home. At the time the shot was fired Macpherson was standing in front of Mortier and I was standing on one side. Macpherson was chopping a tree about six inches through. Macpherson lived about half an hour after the shot was fired.”
Harvey Mortier retreated to the Hare Creek Hotel, owned by his father, Frank Mortier, known to some on the coast as “Belgian Frank.” Nicknames were a common practice here at that time. My grandfather, John Macdonald, was one of a handful of John Macdonalds, John McDonalds, and John MacDonalds, so many knew him as “Three River John,” since he'd been born in a part of Nova Scotia near the confluence of a trio of waterways.
A year prior to the Richard Macpherson killing, Frank Mortier had placed the following notice in the Beacon, “ ATTENTION – My wife, having left my bed and board, without just cause or provocation, all persons are hereby cautioned not to trust her on account as I shall pay no debts of her contracting after this date.”
A generation earlier, in 1857, Frank Mortier, had been caught red-handed stealing clothing on Washington Street in San Francisco. He spent a short time in jail for the petty larceny. On the evening of March 18, 1880, Frank and his son Harvey readied themselves to depart for Westport, but got no farther than the Noyo River where Civil War veteran John Byrnes detained them. Byrnes's son Ralph would go on to become a longtime sheriff of the county, and something of a legend in his own right.
At some point soon thereafter Constable Alf Nelson of Mendocino (a brother-in-law of Beacon editor William Heeser) formally arrested and handcuffed Harvey Mortier outside the Byrnes establishment. Nelson marched Harvey inside where the young man displayed his bound hands to his father, Frank, saying, “Do you see these irons? Didn't I tell you so!”
Apparently due to the beloved nature of the deceased there was much talk of lynching both Mortiers, but as William Heeser put it in his newspaper, “The common sense of the people restrained them from violating the law.” The editor's brother, Judge Heeser, was able to bind the Mortiers over to the county jail in Ukiah. Frank was eventually freed, though many on the coast believed that he had sent his son off to kill Richard Macpherson because the elder Mortier suspected Macpherson of informing on him regarding a series of recent petty thefts.
Contemporaneously, at least four murder trials, including a wife and paramour killing as well as the ambush murder of deputized posse members, were ongoing in the county seat, but young Harvey Mortier scarcely raised a hand to have his day in court delayed. He was convicted and sentenced to be hanged in mid-July. His able attorney, C.C. Hamilton got the August 20th hanging date postponed. He even traveled to Sacramento in October, 1880, to plead before the governor for a commutation of sentence.
The Sacramento Daily Union published one of the most detailed accounts of an execution day in Ukiah within its edition of October 15, 1880: “The condemned man made astatement of the facts... He confessed the justice of his sentence, and deplored the evil associations that brought him to the gallows. No signs of fear have been apparent throughout the ordeal. He has slept well and had a good appetite. Rev. Father Sheridan attended to his spiritual needs. Sheriff Donohue stood guard over the prisoner Thursday night, and reports that Mortier slept from 11 to 5 this morning and scarcely stirred. He awoke in a cheerful frame of mind. Father Sheridan administered the rites of the Catholic Church to Mortier, who was in a hopeful mental state. He was reconciled to his fate as the penalty for his grave offense. About 9 o'clock he ate a hearty breakfast, consisting of a steak and onions, five hard-boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, bread, and coffee. He then lit a cigar, and his spiritual adviser returned and remained with him... At 12:50 Sheriff Donohue, accompanied by Sheriff Burnett of Lake county, Sheriff Dinwiddie, of Sonoma county, and Sheriff Mason, of Marin county, went to Mortier's cell and read the death warrant. This proceeding occupied five minutes, and the prisoner endured the ordeal without tremor. He was then left with the priest. At 1:05 the Sheriff summoned Mortier to the gallows. The prisoner walked calmly by the side of Father Sheridan, who continued with him, directing his thoughts to the future. As he passed the Sheriff's office he addressed Under Sheriff Sewell, “A thousand thanks for kindness,” and walked on. He mounted the steps to the scaffold and took his place on the drop with a steady step and unbleached face. After a short prayer, the Sheriff asked if he had anything to say. Mortier said no, and the straps were adjusted, the cap fixed, the rope placed, and at two minutes past 1 the drop fell. The body remained suspended twenty-three minutes, when it was taken down. Drs. Rozier and Robinson examined the body and found that the neck was dislocated. The pulse ceased in three minutes. The prisoner's bearing was manful throughout, and he carried out his promise to the Sheriff that he should not hang a coward.”
(The living and the dead haunt the pages at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)