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Dr. Wheeler Cheats The Hangman?

On May 13, 1880, a visiting Sonoma County judge sentenced Dr. John F. Wheeler to death by hanging for his role in the ambush slaying of two Mendocino City men in October, 1879. Deputies returned Wheeler to Cell Number 1 in the county jail to await the July 2nd execution date.

During Friday, May 14th, Wheeler's wife visited him as she had done several times since his incarceration. Not long after his recapture in November, she had brought his violin to him to help pass the hours. On this May day he played Scots and Irish airs for her until visiting hours drew to a close. She hugged and delivered a quick kiss to her husband as the guard beckoned her away.

Following her departure, Wheeler conversed with fellow prisoners. The guards noted a cheerfulness in the dentist's voice as the talk rambled from topic to topic. A coastal newspaper had been obtained wherein an advertisement for a Littleriver hotel and eatery touched upon the political subject of the time. The ad hailed “No Chinaman cooks.”

After the evening meal, guards allowed Wheeler the use of pen and paper and a candle. Throughout the night he constructed five letters: to his wife, his attorney, a woman from San Francisco who had befriended his wife, Judge McGarvey, and his sister. The heading of the letter to his wife read, “My Dear, Dear Angel of a Wife.” It continued, “Why has your sad misfortune been thus. You are the best and dearest little angel on earth and dearer to me than my own heart's blood. God knows it; you, dear wife, know that I am innocent; and it is that that will break your dear, pure, tender heart. If it is the will of the All-wise God to let such perjured villains swear the life of an innocent man away, that he, the deep dyed sinner might live, let it so be.”

Wheeler alluded to his wife's past medical travails. “Dear wife, it was my desire, should you have died in San Francisco when you were so sick, that I would be buried n the same coffin; for after your death, life would have no charms for me. You are my heart, my soul, my all.”

The correspondence also referred to the death of “little Jimmy.” Perhaps a reference to a child who died at birth or soon thereafter. Wheeler's writing wonders if Jimmy had been united with past friends and family in a “spirit land.” He went on to ponder, “Tis there that poor Dollard and Wright will know whether I am innocent or not. I am thank God. I hope they are happy.”

At some point late in the night, Wheeler set pen and paper aside to pick up his violin once more. With chin and shoulder supporting the instrument, the lanky artist swept the bow across the strings as precisely as he'd ever handled a gun. He drew out the notes to “Home, Sweet Home,” so clearly prisoners in the other cells drifted off to sleep while others whispered the tune's opening lines, “Mid pleasure and palaces though we may roam/Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.”


  1. Mark Laszlo August 6, 2021

    Do i hear “Freind of the Devil” in the background?

  2. Jim Armstrong August 6, 2021

    I think I am missing something here.

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