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Clarence Ford’s Ride with Dr. Wheeler

After Dr. John F. Wheeler had been arrested as the suspected ringleader of four other men who ambushed a constable's posse, killing two civilians, the dentist faced an arraignment. Under a second day of questioning, Wheeler acknowledged that he had given money to former San Quentin convicts, but only as a blackmail payment to keep them from ruining his reputation in Mendocino. Feeling as if he was at their mercy he also furnished one with a gun.

Meanwhile, County Sheriff Jim Moore had been to Mendocino, out on the trail, then circled back to town  with his posse. George Cortez (known to locals as Spanish George) and three other trackers had ridden to the site of the shooting then followed hoof prints northward. Jeremiah “Doc” Standley, of Sherwood, who had been deputized by Moore, also arrived in Mendocino.

As Wheeler's testimony wrapped, A.B. “Al” Courtwright was brought to Mendocino City, in custody. Courtwright had been captured at the same cabin, near Ten Mile River, where the four gunmen, Harrison Brown, John Billings, Samuel Carr, and George Gaunce had holed up for much of September. 

Courtwright told Justice G. Canning Smith's courtroom that Dr. Wheeler had taken the stage from Mendocino to Westport to visit the outlaws at the cabin, that Wheeler had sent a letter to Bodie requesting the other four come to Mendocino. Courtwright identified Brown, Billings, and Gaunce by name and stated that Wheeler sent money to purchase food and supplies for them.

Courtwright's testimony proved enough for Justice G. Canning Smith to bind Dr. Wheeler over for trial. In the meantime, the accused would stay in the Mendocino City jail awaiting transport to the county seat in Ukiah.

Following Justice Smith's findings, word began to filter around town that a gang of lumberjacks and mill workers were intent on simplifying the procedure by lynching Wheeler in retribution for the deaths of their friends, Tom Dollard and William Wright. Chester Ford, superintendent of the lumber company, got wind of the lynching plot. Desiring to see the law run its normal course, Ford contacted the local deputy sheriff, Jack Flanagan, who kept a saloon in addition to his part time legal duties. 

Ford procured a two seated wagon and a span of horses. In the dark, with temperatures dropping into the lower thirties, Constable Nelson quietly ushered the handcuffed Wheeler out of the jail and onto the wagon's front seat next to Ford. The twenty-three-year-old lumber company superintendent held the rein with one hand, with the other stuffed in his coat pocket. Flanagan and the constable climbed aboard to sit in the back seat, each with a rifle in hand.

The cold kept potential lynchers off the street, so Ford and the lawmen acceded to Wheeler's request to stop at his house to say goodbye to his wife. This brief rendezvous was accomplished as briskly as the weather and without public notice. The four clambered aboard the wagon once more. Ford drove the pair of horses as quietly as possible down the grade to the Big River bridge, across, then east onto the Comptche-Ukiah Road. Once they reached level ground on the prairie, Ford let the team race. Wheeler was supplied with a flask of whiskey, and, after several sips and gulps, he begged for the steel handcuffs to be taken off his wrists. With little discussion, Constable Nelson unlocked the cuffs near the sweeping bend of the road denoting Prairie Camp to their right hand side. Wheeler wondered if local resident, Tom Bell, might still be awake. Only a month before, Tom had brought a large box into town to rest inside the Norton Hotel barn, awaiting shipment to San Francisco. Inside the box rested a young bear, only a cub some months prior when Tom Bell found it wandering alone and hungry. The bear in the box was intended as a present for Dr. Whittell, late of Mendocino City and now residing near San Francisco Bay. Unfortunately, the bruin broke loose from its packaging. Roaming about, but still imprisoned inside the barn, the creature grew frantic and enraged. He tore open and scattered the contents of twenty sacks of grain. With no prospect of herding the bear back into its box, the hotel's owner, William Norton, called on his former tenant, the renowned shootist, Dr. Wheeler. The dentist obliged his friend. Using his Henry rifle and a minimum of cartridges, he dispatched the bear.

The wagon and its passengers paralleled the main fork of the Albion River, passed the mouth of Surprise Valley, and headed past the handful of houses that made up the west side of Comptche. Frost covered the fields and the wagon wheels crunched the frozen dirt when the party decided to stop at the Ottoson place to warm themselves.

While Ford took care of the team, the others found the house empty for reasons unknown. By the time Ford made his way into the living room, Wheeler sat in a chair in front of the fireplace. Flanagan crouched at the hearth, rekindling a fire that had burned nearly out. Alf Nelson lay on a couch behind Wheeler. A rifle stood propped at either end of the mantle, within easy reach of the prisoner. Ford gathered the rifles and moved them to the far side of the room.

Flanagan soon had the fire blazing. The four men rubbed their hands together as close to the flame as they dared then turned their backsides to the blaze. Once they'd sufficiently warmed themselves they returned to the wagon with small talk speculating about where the Ottosons might have gone. As they set out on the road eastward again, Ford couldn't help thinking that Wheeler could have grabbed either of the rifles and shot the careless lawmen. 

By the time they started up the first steep grade, east of Philbrick's ranch, talk turned to the Norton Hotel where Wheeler had first practiced dentistry. Margaret Norton was Deputy Flanagan's sister. She and her husband William had expanded what had once been a single family house into a full scale hotel, with a bar, a billiard table, a separate barn, and livery service as well as being the official stopping place of the North Coast Stage Line. 

Scarcely more than a month earlier, on a trip to San Francisco, their ten-year-old son, Charlie, had gone along. When Mr. Norton returned to Mendocino, his wife and Charlie stayed behind to shop for items to be used in the hotel. On Tuesday morning, September 23rd, they were about ready for the journey home when Charlie sprang upon the third floor baluster of the Brooklyn Hotel's winding staircase. He slid, tipped, and lost his balance, falling thirty-five feet to the first floor. His neck was broken instantly.

Deputy Flanagan noted that his nephew died one month short of his eleventh birthday. Atop the grade where one fork of the old Indian trails led down to Daugherty Creek and another off to the Low Gap Road, Ford brought up the subject of a favor he'd performed for Wheeler earlier that summer, sighting a rifle, and not just any weapon, but one with a silver sight.

The dentist changed the subject to reminisce about his childhood in the southwest corner of Missouri, just across the line from Indian Territory. He'd been born there in either 1842 or 1843. Wheeler wasn't sure, but he preferred the latter because it made him appear younger.

Those who settled in McDonald County, Missouri, were generally from the south. A large number, like John Wheeler's three older sisters were native to Tennessee. Many lived so primitively that a cast iron stove proved the exception; most cooking got done at the fire place. 

Wheeler elbowed Chester Ford as he recounted that he'd been destined for trouble with the law because McDonald County was crooked. In addition to magnetic variation, the west line of the county veered off course so much that it ended up three-quarters of a mile wider at its southern terminus than its northern starting point.

Ford asked where Wheeler had learned dentistry. The latter responded that his father, Gabriel, had practiced, in a more rudimentary form. He'd also taught the eldest son to play the violin. 

The California Gold Rush drew the family west in the early 1850s, but for some reason Wheeler could not recall, part of the family made a trip eastward in 1852. Somewhere on the Great Plains, Sioux Indians captured young John Wheeler. He lived among them for three years. The exact nature of his experiences with the Indians was a matter the dentist refused to go into, other than to say that many of the people he encountered afterward took him to be part Indian. 

Whether it was a skill learned in early childhood or from the Indians, Ford knew the six foot tall Wheeler to be an avid hunter, who seldom wasted a shot. Silently he questioned the intelligence of removing the handcuffs from this prisoner. However, Ford had considered Dr. Wheeler to be, if not a thorough gentleman, a welcome professional addition to Mendocino City. 

Of course, Ford was keeping a secret from Deputy Flanagan, Constable Nelson, and Dr. Wheeler; a secret that could prove deadly.

(Next time: Ford's secret revealed as well as Wheeler's lethal ties to Mendocino County in the 1850s. … More early history exposed at


  1. Thomas Allman March 19, 2021

    Another fantastic history lesson by Malcolm! I learn something new with every article he writes. Thanks Malcolm.

  2. George Dorner March 20, 2021

    This tale was interesting in “Badge and Buckshot”, but the MacDonald version is a lot more detailed and livelier.

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