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Pursuing the Mendo Outlaws on Two Fronts

The pursuit of the Mendocino Outlaws, wanted for the murder of two men, extended from October into November. The posse searched for the three remaining fugitives from the coast to the Eel River to Round Valley then on into Trinity County. The outlaws, John Billings, Harrison Brown, and George Gaunce, continued on to Tehama County, where they found the Pettyjohn family willing to feed them breakfast at their home near the Cold Fork of Cottonwood Creek. While his wife dished up the morning meal Christopher Columbus Pettyjohn positioned his fully armed twelve and thirteen-year-old sons and a school teacher in rooms behind the bad men.

C.C. Pettyjohn walked into the dining area twice in an attempt to get his wife to take cover elsewhere, to no avail. When he did so a third time, John Billings pulled his revolver and instructed Mr. Pettyjohn to go back to the room he came out of, close the door, and added, “I'll shoot the next person who sets foot in this room.”

Billings, Brown, and Gaunce finished their meal without further bother then rode off. Pettyjohn went out a back door, in search of lawmen. Why he didn't open fire from behind the outlaws remained a mystery.

When Sheriff Moore, Doc Standley, et al. reached the Pettyjohn place they were met by a posse out of Red Bluff. Moore, Standley, Andy Bowman, and another deputy crossed the Cold Fork, continuing north while the larger posse headed south to warn civilians as far away as Paskenta.

Standley and Bowman followed the fugitives throughout the day to where they crossed Redbank Creek then traced them onto an old Indian path in Vail Gulch. Before dawn the next morning the lawmen closed in on a log cabin. Inside, the wanted trio had spent much of the night after rummaging through a trunk full of clothing. They had hopes of robbing someone who might return to the rustic abode.

However, they were awakened to the sounds of horses nearby and slipped outside into the brush. They crept farther away from the cabin to a spot that overlooked a shallow gulch and creek bed to the east.

Farther up that creek, Standley and Bowman had stopped to inspect the ashes of a fire the outlaws built the evening before then kicked sand and gravel over in an attempt to disguise their temporary camp. Moore continued along the creek bed while Standley, Bowman, and the deputy found the cabin, as well as the wanted men's horses.

Moore rode back and forth in the creek bed trying to find traces of the outlaws, unaware they were above him with at least one gun cocked. Billings raised his revolver to fire on the sheriff, but Brown pulled it down. Billings raised his weapon again, aiming at the lawman's back. Gaunce whispered to Brown, “Stop the bloody one.”

Brown tugged Billings arm to his side once more. Then Doc Standley appeared on the other side of their hideout, peering down into the log cabin from his saddle. Billings crawled around in the undergrowth and took aim at Doc's head.

Standley possessed the long lead line to Bowman's mule and the critter refused to budge. With no slack left in the line, Doc was forced to backtrack his mount. Brown and Gaunce caught hold of Billing's hand, lowering it with a reminder that they had scant little ammunition remaining and could not afford a shootout with a posse at this juncture.

As Doc returned to the stubborn mule the outlaws slithered away to the east on their bellies, slicing their clothes and themselves in the process. They slid down into a ravine then crawled up the opposite bank to a promontory that overlooked the expanse of the Sacramento Valley. There, they concealed themselves once more, waiting out the day. In the dark that night, they walked thirty-five miles to the western bank of the Sacramento River.

Meanwhile, within the Mendocino County Jail in Ukiah, Dr. John F. Wheeler, the alleged ringleader of the outlaws, sat in his cell. In the adjoining accommodation rested James Anthony. In the summer of 1878, James had been arrested along with his brother, Jesse, and Lizzie Shrum for the murder of her husband, A.J. Shrum, in Round Valley. The authorities decided eighteen-year-old Jesse Anthony committed the deed so that his older brother, James, would be free to pursue the affection shown him by Mrs. Shrum. All three were charged with murder. Jesse's initial trial resulted in a hung jury. James, on the other hand, was convicted and languished in the county jail while he appealed the verdict.

John Wheeler not only practiced dentistry during his eight years in San Quentin, 1869-1877, he also used his spare time conjuring inventions. He first learned dental skills from his father, Gabriel, as a boy as the patriarch practiced at least the rudimentary skills of the craft in Missouri in the 1840s and early 1850s. Where John Wheeler developed his penchant for key locks on luggage remains unknown. Nevertheless San Quentin inmate Wheeler worked so cleverly and hard at perfecting a new type of  luggage lock he successfully obtained a patent for that particular invention.

In some unknown manner James Anthony acquired the material necessary and Dr. Wheeler coached him into the manufacture of a key to unlock their cell doors about a half hour after dusk on Friday, November 7th.

This proved an opportune time as Under-Sheriff Seawell took his dinner break at a restaurant at this hour. He dined that evening with one of the extra guards deputized to oversee the extraordinary number of 1879 murder suspects and convicted men. As Seawell embarked on dessert he instructed the guard to return to the county jail and remain at his post until Seawell appeared. Seawell said, “Most escapes occur between six and seven.”

Too late. Wheeler and Anthony were already out of their cell. The pair offered the same opportunity to two other prisoners. Wheeler said, “Would you like to take a trip o'er the mountains with me?”

The two other prisoners politely declined. Wheeler and Anthony made their way out of the jail, saddled two horses at a livery, and galloped north on State Street before young musician, Nancy “Noonie” Boulon became the first astonished citizen to notice them. Mrs. Boulon rushed into the county courthouse, meeting Under-Sheriff Seawell on the way. She told him about the two suspicious figures sprinting their mounts out of town.

Seawell not only found their cells empty, but each had left a letter behind. James Anthony addressed his correspondence to Sheriff Moore. It accused the chief witness against him of perjury. However, Anthony also expressed regret at leaving the sheriff's hospitable mansion, and said he “had stayed as long as staying would do any good; that the Board of Supervisors had hired a lawyer to fight his application for a new trial before the [State] Supreme Court.”

Perhaps with future considerations in mind, Dr. Wheeler addressed his letter, “To Sheriff Moore or Donohoe.”

The body of the document read, “Respected sirs:  I have committed no crime, as God is my judge. Among all the witnesses who testified against me, there was none but those who acknowledged that they were concerned in crime with the men who were supposed to have done the killing. They were offered inducements to swear against me, and have done so to get out of trouble themselves, if possible. When I let Brown have a gun he was at work every day, and I never dreamed of him doing harm with it. It was months before the tragedy that I gave him the weapon. I have always tried to do right in Mendocino, and everywhere else since I got out of trouble. I was always afraid of something occurring that might bring detectives to town, and some of them would be likely to know me, and inform the people that I had been in prison before. I knew well that then I could not be respected and would be unable to make a living at my profession. I was right, you see, for the first that occurred occasioned my arrest, and I was thrown into jail, where I am near dead with heart disease, and am liable to be mobbed at any time. God knows I am innocent of the crime of which I am charged. If I was away until the excitement was over I would gladly stand trial. I don't think it right to let ex-convicts swear my life and liberty from me, in order to escape justice themselves. I worked hard Sundays and all other days to make an honest living, and was robbed all the time by men who had just got out of prison, and who would have told on me if I had not given them money when they asked for it. I have had a hard time, and tried to do right. Now, without a cause, I have been compelled to leave a good, dear, innocent wife to the mercy of the world, and disgraced, and that wrongfully. But be it known to my dear wife and the world that I am innocent, and if I lose my life in the attempt to evade re-arrest, I have the consolation of knowing that I am innocent, and have tried to do right to all the world, as well as to my dear, good, little wife. I hope that no good man, who loves his wife as well as I do mine, will ever be brought to my position and feel the bitterness which one must suffer. I don't want to hurt anyone, but perhaps some one will be kind enough to kill me before ever convicting me of a crime of which I am innocent. I am an unfortunate man, but a good-hearted man. It is hard to be treated in the manner I have been. God bless true women and truthful men.”

(Coming soon: The results of Wheeler's escape… More western wistfulness at

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