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Mendocino Outlaws: And Then There Was One

At dawn on Friday, December 5, 1879, Mendocino County Sheriff Jim Moore, Deputy Doc Standley, a stage driver, and twenty-one-year-old Clarence White surrounded a cabin a mile outside of the Butte County community of Nimshew. In the one-sided gun battle that ensued, the most violent of the Mendocino outlaws, John Billings, was shot dead. Harrison Brown and George Gaunce escaped. After attempting to follow the uneven tracks of Brown, Standley and White concluded that their quarry had been slowed by gunshot or injury, thus his ultimate capture might prove easier than his one remaining comrade. They returned to the cabin to follow Gaunce instead.

Standley and White found traces of Gaunce's track in Butte Canyon and followed it downstream four miles. At that juncture, the fugitive's boot prints turned ninety degrees. Soon thereafter the trail turned another right angle, heading back toward Nimshew. The rain abated, but nightfall overtook the pursuers. They lit lanterns and plodded on to within a dozen rod's distance of Nimshew. At that point, Standley lost sight of any tracks. The time neared midnight and the two men had been without sleep for a full twenty-four hours and then some. 

They sought refuge in a hotel in Nimshew for a few hours sleep. Standley awoke at dawn and made his way about the community seeking information. No one claimed to have seen Gaunce, but one man said that a buggy robe had gone missing overnight. The buggy's usual residence happened to be in a shed alongside a vacant cabin across the muddy road from Harrison Brown's sister's home (see previous section for details on Brown's sister and brother-in-law). 

Both Standley and the buggy's owner surmised that the buggy robe had been taken by someone seeking warmth in the cold December weather at Nimshew's twenty-five hundred foot elevation. Doc Standley made his way into the seemingly empty cabin with his revolver drawn. Walking from the front room into another, Doc spotted a sizable bureau which had recently cut a path back and forth across the dusty floor. Standley stuck the barrel of his gun behind the bureau while commanding anyone present to make themselves known. As Clarence White strode into the room with his Winchester in hand, George Gaunce pushed the bureau away. Even with the buggy robe wrapped around him he cowered, shivering, in the unheated building. “Boys, you have got me,” he announced. “I'm ready.”

Gaunce disclosed that he had made it back to Nimshew before Sheriff Moore arrived with John Billings' body. He witnessed the gathering of a crowd outside the hotel where the brief inquest had been held. He also saw an empty wooden coffin carried toward the hotel. He presumed it to be intended for his dead partner in crime.

Standley transported Gaunce in a buggy to Chico where he turned the prisoner over to Sheriff Moore. Billings body had rested in the Chico morgue, where on December 6th  hundreds of gaping souls took a gander at the near naked remains with at least three recent bullet holes in it along with the scars of long ago affrays.

From that Butte County city, Moore traveled south and west to San Francisco in company with Gaunce, in leg irons and handcuffs. John Billings' corpse made the ride with them.  At the City, Gaunce lodged within the jail. 

Newspapermen were allowed to inspect the prisoner. The San Francisco Examiner described him as “a small, spare man.”  

Gaunce appeared in a talkative mood. He told reporters how the other outlaws considered Billings the bloodiest of them all. It was here that he recounted Billings' desire to assassinate Sheriff Moore and Doc Standley from cover of brush in Tehama County. 

He also received visits from his mother and three brothers, who ferried across the bay from Oakland. After the family members departed, Gaunce informed a cell mate that he would not reach Mendocino County's jailhouse alive. Displaying a pen knife he had secreted he ran the blade in a slashing motion no more than an inch above the veins in his left wrist.

Whether the fellow San Francisco prisoner snitched or the guards were more thorough in a second search remained unknown, but “Frenchy” Gaunce's instrument of suicide was confiscated before Sheriff Moore took custody once more. On the ferry crossing to Marin County, Moore shackled Gaunce to him. For the train passage north the same procedure held true. 

When the train stopped in Cloverdale an elderly local inquired of a man standing next to him, “Which is the prisoner?”

The second fellow knew Moore on friendly terms, so he sighed and replied in jest, “A bad looking man.”

Despite his prediction, Gaunce arrived in Ukiah safe and relatively sound. Almost two months after the Mendocino murders, the outlaws' ringleader and two of his cohorts resided in lockup. The most violent member of the gang, John Billings, returned to the county seat in a coffin. Harrison Brown remained the only one of the Mendocino Outlaws on the loose.

Harrison Brown headed through the woods toward a pass that would take him through the Sierra and on across the state line into Nevada. Doc Standley and his young right hand man, Clarence White, set out to track him down.

(Coming soon: A hat, a coat, and deepening snow.)


  1. Wendy June 25, 2021

    Great story!! Can’t wait to read more. :-)

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