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The Mendocino Outlaws: The Recapture of Dr. Wheeler

Dr. John F. Wheeler had been hiding in an abandoned cabin in Salt Hollow, a mile west of Cleveland's mill, for parts of two days and nights since his November 7, 1879, escape from the county jail at Ukiah. Around noon on Nov. 9th two members of a posse spotted smoke rising from the cabin's chimney. Moving in close, one of them called, “Who's there?”

From inside, Wheeler weakly replied, “Me”

“Who's me?”


The two posse men ordered Wheeler to exit the cabin. The fugitive said he was too sick to walk. “Then crawl out.”

The door of the cabin inched open and, indeed, the wanted man pawed his way forward on his belly. “Are you heeled?”

Wheeler raised his head and grinned. “Yes.”

“What with?”

“Acorns and manzanita berries.” The posse men chuckled. Wheeler reached into a pocket and flung a handful of berries a few feet.

The searchers lifted Wheeler onto a horse and rode with him to Calpella. There, five deputized men placed him in a wagon and drove him to Ukiah. News of the fugitive's capture reached town ahead of the prisoner. By the time the wagon drew near the county courthouse and jail, a crowd of men gathered. Shouts of “Hang him,” spurred Wheeler. When the wagon closed in on the courthouse, the supposedly weakened prisoner jumped from the wagon and ran into the jailhouse to escape the mob.

Deputies raced inside as well. They tried to close the courthouse door, but a boot literally kept it wedged it open. At least one pistol was drawn and cocked outside. Finally, the door slammed all the way shut. With no way into the jail and Wheeler out of sight, the crowd dispersed.

The next day, Under-Sheriff Seawell invited A.O. Carpenter, editor of the Ukiah City Press, to visit Dr. Wheeler in his cell. At about the same eventide in which Wheeler and Anthony had made their escape, Carpenter dropped in on the Mendocino dentist. 

The newspaper man found Wheeler fully clothed but abed in his dimly lit jailhouse accommodation, blankets tucked up to the prisoner's jutting chin. The accused apologized for retiring early, citing his injuries during the escape attempt as the cause. 

The doctor continued to deny any knowledge of Billings, Brown, Gaunce, and Carr's plans to rob the sheriff of tax collection dollars and he strenuously asserted his innocence in connection to the foursome's murder of Dollard and Wright, of the Mendocino posse.

Wheeler recounted his exit from San Quentin in February, 1877, how he set up a dental practice nearby in San Rafael, then married. According to the dentist, as other ex-convicts were released with but three dollars in their pockets they obliged him to assist them monetarily under threat that they would tell his patients about his prison stint. Wheeler apparently omitted any detailed reference to his violent stay in Bodie, instead, simply implying that he had been driven from his San Rafael practice by these fellow jailbird acquaintances. He told Carpenter of a short stay in Point Arena in the early summer of 1878 before finding success and respect for his dental and medical practice in Mendocino City from August 1878 until his recent arrest. 

Wheeler specifically stated, “Why I had every reason to avoid connection with these men. I had married a dear, good wife, was honored and respected, was making a good living, and if I could only have trusted to the good feeling of the community [Mendocino], would have told everyone my whole history, and asked for the help of all true Christians in leading an honest life. But I dared not do so until time had proven me, and I delayed too long. I every day feared some convict or detective would give my secret away. And permitted every one of the former who knew me to call on me for money. 

“Courtwright had nothing to fear, as everyone knew he had been in San Quentin. Brown bought a gun of me more than two months ago, but I was told he had been working hard for months, and I supposed he was determined on an honest life. My only hope is that some one of the band will do me the justice to exonerate me from all complicity in their scheme of either murder or robbery. I bought no more ammunition one month than another. Hunting was my only recreation, and I sometimes shot away a whole box of cartridges in a day. I had a large part of my recent purchases on hand when arrested, and could have accounted for them, if they would have given me a chance.”

 As the evening cell visit progressed, Wheeler reminded Carpenter of his fellow journalist, John G. Howell, who once edited the Russian River Flag, claiming to have served two years as a deputy under Howell when the newsman was sheriff at Boise City in the 1860s. According to the deputy turned convict then dentist, in the summer of 1868, an acquaintance named Bailey approached him on the streets of Boise, saying he had gotten into some sort of trouble. Wheeler responded, “Don't tell me what it is, but tell me what you want.”

Bailey replied, “I want to leave here and go to Michigan.”

Thinking it a good way to free the territory of him, Wheeler gave Bailey money, a horse, and bid him goodbye. Not long after, federal authorities arrested Bailey. 

Dr. Wheeler told newspaperman Carpenter that Bailey's testimony about the Blue Mountain stagecoach robbery sent the good dentist to San Quentin.

( Next time: What really happened in the Blue Mts. of eastern Oregon in the summer of 1868.)

One Comment

  1. Marla Howard May 23, 2021

    Love this…love Mendocino and Lake counties.

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