Vigilante Justice

by Malcolm Macdonald, September 27, 2017

In the autumn of 1867 members of the Frost and Coates families engaged in a gun battle on the streets of Little Lake that would make the shootout at Tombstone's O.K. Corral look tame by comparison. Within fifteen seconds five Coates men and one Frost lay dead. Martin Frost, known to most as “Mart,” dispatched three Coates brothers with the quick trigger of his revolver. More in depth details of that day and the circumstances preceding it were accounted for in AVA articles from May, 2012.

The lone Frost family casualty was Elisha Frost. One of his surviving sons, Elijah, eighteen at the time of the 1867 gunplay, soon took to the wilder side of life as well. By January, 1874 his name appears in newsprint within the pages of the Russian River Flag: “Elijah Frost, of Little Lake, has been sent to the Ukiah jail, on the charge that he intended to abscond without paying his creditors.”

A month shy of two years later young Mr. Frost shows up in the pages of the Marysville Daily Appeal, whose editor possessed a biting sense of humor: “Elijah Frost has suspended the business of horse stealing in Shasta county, and retired to San Quentin for four years.”

The San Quentin respite was precipitated by Elijah's theft of sixteen horses from a ranch along the Pit River in Shasta County. The rancher trailed Elijah to Red Bluff where he enlisted the assistance of a Tehama County Deputy Sheriff. In Oroville they were joined by the Butte County Sheriff. Elijah, along with his wife and fourteen-year-old brother, were finally captured on the Dogtown Road by the lawmen and the rancher. By then Elijah had sold half the horses. There is no record of Mrs. Frost or Elijah's teenaged brother standing trial.

Some newspapers didn't miss a trick in reporting potential items of interest. A week before Christmas, 1875, the Sacramento Daily Union noted, “Sheriff Eckles, of Shasta county, passed through the city yesterday, en route for San Quentin with a prisoner named Elijah Frost, who is to serve four years for grand larceny — horsestealing. Deputy Sheriff Madden, of Carson City, also passed through, en route for Woodbridge with an insane man named Theodore Tally.” There's no record of Mr. Tally's relatives' reaction.

Elijah Frost gained early release, based on good behavior, on August 18, 1878. He returned to the Little Lake area, only to take up with a pair of young hooligans named Abijah Gibson and Thomas McCracken. What took place in and around Little Lake over the next year was recounted in a September, 1879, edition of the Russian River Flag: “[T]he quiet citizens of Little Lake have been harassed by a crowd of men who have engaged in stealing, robbing smoke houses, and at times getting drunk and rendering night hideous and life dangerous with their shouts, yells, and reckless use of fire arms; and no one dare complain lest his life pay for the act.”

The Flag's September 11, 1879 account continues, “[T]hese things have resulted, it seems, in the organization of a vigilance committee, whose first work was performed on the night of Wednesday [Sept. 3rd]last [actually at approx. 2 a.m., Sept. 4th] when about twenty-five of them, muffled head and foot [burlap face masks disguised identities, while sacks were wrapped around the boots of the vigilantees], entered the room in Brown's Hotel where John Tatham and Davis were standing guard over. .. Abijah Gibson, Elijah Frost and Thos. McCracken, who had been arrested on Monday [Sept. 1st], charged with petty larceny [they were caught in the act of stealing a harness] and were awaiting trial.”

Multiple versions of events pretty much verify what occurred next. The guards, Davis and Tatham, were relieved of their firearms, then bound and gagged. McCracken and Gibson were already handcuffed on a bed together. They were ordered onto their feet and each gagged. Elijah Frost's hands were cuffed behind his back. The vigilantees gagged him also. The two guards and the three criminals were marched north of town to a bridge. The rope from Jim Holman's well was produced (whether Mr. Holman was actually present was never clearly ascertained). The rope was cut to fashion three nooses.

At this point some accounts maintain that the three handcuffed men confessed to the whereabouts of chickens, geese, and other stolen goods. Purportedly, the vigilantees uttered not a word, simply pushed McCracken and Gibson off one side of the bridge and Elijah Frost off the other, where he died almost instantly from a broken neck. McCracken and Gibson dangled and squirmed for quite some time before strangling to death. The guards were released and the vigilance committee dispersed into the darkness.

When children walked by on their way to school the next morning, the three bodies were still tied to the bridge rails, boots drifting with the breeze just inches above the stream below. Newspaper editors around the county condemned the lynching. Governor Irwin put up a $500 reward for the arrest and conviction of the first vigilante and a $200 reward for each vigilante conviction that might follow, but no one was turned in and no charges were ever filed regarding the incident.

Local rumor had it that the leader of the vigilance committee, the man who'd stared through the slits in his head sack into the eyes of Elijah Frost moments before pushing him off the bridge, was none other than the noted gunman, Elijah's uncle, Mart Frost.

(Other tales that include Mart Frost can be found at:

2 Responses to Vigilante Justice

  1. George Hollister Reply

    September 30, 2017 at 8:26 am

    Great piece.

  2. Mendoza Historian Reply

    October 2, 2017 at 5:48 am

    It was ultimately ruled that it was members of the Willits F&AFM better known as Freemason who were responsible for this lynching.
    Seemed the Masonic Initiation and “threat of death” kept the Masons from revealing each other as the responsible party for this lynching. Old Willits Families and Masonic Families who controlled Willits and Mendocino County have always known this truth…. the bridge was the one at the base of Sherwood Road, the story is the three old growth redwoods behind the Venerate Building across from the Gas Station were planted in Memorial of this lynching, some of the bodies are planted 1/2 mile up Sherwood at the tiny Graveyard on Private property owned by the Wagenets.. Willits History is so rough and brutal from lynchings to genocide and expelling the Kai Pomo”s from the Little Lake Valley that it”s history is kept secret.
    Thanks for the Article, Dig Deeper.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *