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Mendocino Outlaws: After the Manhunt

After the capture of the last of the Mendocino Outlaws, Harrison Brown spent a night in the Oroville jail. The local newspaper lauded those who played the largest part in his capture. The Weekly Mercury of Oroville wrote of Clarence White, “[He] has shown himself to be possessed of considerable sand.”

The same publication paid tribute to Doc Standley as well. “Mr. Standley is deserving of great praise for the persistent manner in which he has ferreted out the murderous gang. He has been on the track for over two months. What makes his conduct the more meritorious is the fact that he is not an officer, and undertook the extremely hazardous job out of friendship for the murdered men, with the understanding that the citizens of Mendocino county would pay his expenses while thus engaged.”

Doc Standley had served as a deputy for Mendocino County as far back as 1867 when he infiltrated a band of gunmen at Usal in order to make an arrest. However, Mendocino County's inability to fully fund deputy sheriff positions caused Standley to be laid off periodically. These layoffs occurred despite Standley's sleuthing efforts providing solutions to 1870s cases like the Strong Mountain murder and others. As alluded to in Standley's letter to Mendocino businessman Eugene Brown, the most prominent figure in the posses in search of the outlaws essentially worked for expense money. He was not on salary.

Nevertheless, Standley knew how to garner attention. He wrote details of the long pursuit specifically to newspaper editors in Mendocino and Ukiah. Thus, he, above all others, received the greatest accolades in the press. Sheriff Moore's role in the shootout outside Nimshew did not go overlooked, but it was Standley who continued to gain attention by continuing his successful pursuit of Gaunce and Brown.

Harrison Brown arrived in Ukiah on December 14th, shackled on the outside of a stagecoach. A crowd gathered at the stage depot to gawk at the prisoner. The gathering remained muted for some time until a man quietly asked Brown to remove his hat, which he did. Soon thereafter deputies escorted Brown inside the county jail where the irons were removed from around his ankles. 

Outside, a fellow called for three cheers for Standley and Sheriff Moore. Whereupon the crowd obliged and grew more boisterous. When the news of Brown's placement in custody reached Little Lake and Willits, a salute fired into the gray December sky served as expression of the popular enthusiasm.

Word reached the same locale that Doc Standley would arrive there two days hence. Immediately plans sprang forth to organize a grand reception in his honor. At 7:30 p.m., on Tuesday, the 16th, twenty guns fired simultaneously. At 8 p.m., the Little Lake Odd Fellows Hall filled and overflowed  out its doors with citizens proud to celebrate the local hero's return. Reverend Ross provided a welcoming speech. Doc responded briefly in humble tones and words about the simple objective of capturing those responsible for the horrible deeds of mid-October. A string band played, all those present, including Doc and his wife danced. At 10:30, the Brown and Davis served supper. The revel continued until nigh on 3 a.m.

On the fringes of the crowd in Ukiah and the celebration in Willits, mutterings about methods of lynching Brown and Gaunce slipped into general discussion. Three months earlier a trio of young men had been hung from a bridge at the north end of Willits . Dozens of locals apparently took part in the lynching, but no identities had been revealed.  One of the hanged trio was a member of the Frost family. A whispered rumor had it that the leader of the vigilantes was his uncle, Mart Frost. The same noted gunman who had assisted Standley in the capture of Samuel Carr.

A grand jury had already requested charges be filed against Brown and Gaunce for the murder of Thomas Dollard and William Wright. 

The grand jury also recommended the same charges for Dr. John F. Wheeler. Though he had not taken any part in the actual shooting of Dollard and Wright, his charge stemmed from providing weapons to Billings, Brown, Gaunce and Carr.

Though the legal system moved forward in the matter of the Mendocino Outlaws, the threat of vigilante action caused A.O. Carpenter of the Ukiah City Press to editorialize in late December. “We warn all good and true citizens against any thought of mob violence. To others we say, a bullet from a Sheriff's posse may save your neck from the rope. Let the law have its course. If it prove insufficient whose fault is it? Who sits on the jury and prescribes the punishment that shall be meted out to murderers? The people. Then we say the people have the punishment of them in their own hands as surely by law as by mob.”

Standley did not give up the cause of making the case against the outlaws once he returned to Mendocino County. In early January, 1880, with J.J. Morrow and Eben Potter (two members of the October 15, 1879 posse with Wright and Dollard), Standley retraced his ride to the cabin where he and Mart Frost captured Sam Carr. In the woods between Ten Mile River and Westport, Doc relocated the cabin, and not far away, in a brush shanty, discovered the shotgun Carr had secreted. The weapon remained loaded, with twelve buckshot in each barrel. The firearm was subsequently identified as the shotgun purchased at William Kelley's store by none other than John Wheeler.

The case against Dr. Wheeler provoked controversy from the day of his arrest. Public defense of the Mendocino dentist appeared greater the farther one moved away from the coastal town. At his arraignment in Mendocino, Wheeler had been represented by a Ukiah attorney. The editor of the Democratic Dispatch, published in Ukiah, proved a strong proponent of Wheeler's innocence in the early weeks after the dentist's arrest. The same editor also questioned the methods of justice used in the Mendocino courtroom and in the immediate aftermath of Wheeler being taken into custody, implying that the coastal citizenry were surely planning to lynch the good doctor. Surely, the actions of some of Mendocino's Committee of Public Safety, like Chester Ford and the local constables, in quietly ushering Wheeler out of town in the dead of night, did nothing to disprove the accusations about mob vengeance.

Nevertheless, G. Canning Smith, the Justice of the Peace who had presided at Wheeler's arraignment in Mendocino City, saw fit to rebuke the inland theories and the editor of the Democratic Dispatch in particular. In a letter to the editor, published in the Mendocino Beacon of November 22, 1879 (only days after the arraignment), Smith wrote, “Why, I would say to the Editor of the Democratic Dispatch, is it that he undertakes to dictate to the people of Mendocino City, what they shall do, and how they shall do it?

“Why was it that I presumed to bind over poor, innocent Wheeler?

“Why was it that the community did not mob and hang Wheeler?

“Why is it that anyone here dares to do anything before asking leave of the superlative Editor of the Dispatch?

“Why is it that Coutwright was allowed to go free?

“Why is it that an attorney of Ukiah comes over here to defend a criminal, and feeling that he cannot have his own way, and 'bulldose' the Justice's Court, returns, and tries to manufacture sympathy for his client, through the columns of the Dispatch?   Are the editor and the lawyer both engaged on behalf of the criminal?   

“They whys and wherefores of these things, as far as they concern us and justice, we propose to dispose of ourselves, without the help of the Editor of the Dispatch. I would as soon appeal to Wheeler or either of the other outlaws, what I shall do, in the administration of justice, rather than the aforesaid editor, and of the two, I should not hesitate, the former having more brains and good common sense.

“This community is blessed with a little education, brains and common sense, if they do so far away from Ukiah.”

Clearly feelings ran high as the trials of the outlaws approached. Each would provide its own heightening drama, as Gaunce demanded a separate trial and his wish was granted. Wheeler, too, preferred to go his own way in the court system. Thus, Brown would go it alone as well. Samuel Carr admitted his guilt in exchange for a relatively light sentence. He would serve as the prosecution's star witness in each case.

(Coming soon: the trials and aftermath for the surviving members of the Mendocino Outlaws.)

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