Press "Enter" to skip to content

Mendocino Outlaws: Bloody Vengeance

In the same week as a judge handed down a death sentence for Dr. John Wheeler, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors voted to allow the following claims for those who took part in the manhunt for the Mendocino outlaws: The Board allotted two claims to former sheriff Jim Moore totaling $410.90. Sheriff Donohoe, who had taken office in March, 1880, garnered $340. Doc Standley received $150 for two months of non-stop work. The use of Andy Bowman's horses, mule, and tracking skills earned two claims amounting to $44.00. John Wathen, who led the Round Valley posse, received $97.75. More than four dozen others earned small amounts. The supervisors rejected all fees claimed by those assisting in the capture of James Anthony and Dr. Wheeler after that pair's escape from the county jail in November, 1879. The hundreds of dollars pocketed by Sheriffs Moore and Donohoe can be compared to their monthly salaries as they left and entered office, respectively: $500.00.

Lawyers for George Gaunce and Harrison Brown filed appeals of their first degree murder convictions. Before Wheeler's trial commenced those appeals succeeded in gaining a stay of execution for both Brown and Gaunce. In August, the California Supreme Court granted both defendants new trials. Feelings ran high throughout Mendocino County and the two accused men felt their chances of survival depended on earning a change of venue. Brown had a brother residing in Round Valley. He sent his two grown sons and a cousin around the inland part of the county in an effort to collect money from sympathetic persons to help pay for the legal efforts to support a change of venue filing. 

Meanwhile, Brown and Gaunce languished in the county jail at Ukiah. James Anthony sat in a nearby cell. Apparently, Anthony retained the skills learned and employed ten months earlier. As September, 1880, rolled around, he had fashioned pewter spoons into seven keys to the cells and the outer exits of the jail. Along with those implements he also possessed a shackle key, two chisels, a saw constructed from a case knife, a jackknife blade, and three other rough case knives not yet worked up for practical usage. He had also obtained a wooden handle which he fastened to the jackknife blade. 

Anthony's keys were not for he himself alone. Gaunce and Brown planned to make their escape as did others including convicted murderer Harvey Mortier. Anthony and Gaunce thought it best to slit the throats of the two regular jailers as they made their way out of the jail. Brown and some of the other inmates opposed this course of action.

Gaunce, Anthony, and Mortier wanted Brown to lead them as a group to a ford in the Eel River where a stash of provisions supposedly awaited. Brown preferred an every man for himself brand of escape once they were outside the confines of the jail. Arguments over which methods of escape bubbled throughout the cells on Friday and Saturday, September 3 and 4.

Someone either verbally squealed or a note passed through the guards to the sheriff. On Monday September 6th, before breakfast, Sheriff Donohoe ordered a search of the cells. A guard plucked the shackle key from James Anthony's vest. Two of the door keys spilled out of the same prisoner's mattress, four more turned up in the toilet, and one in the cell block stove, unused for months in the summer heat. During interrogations, Sheriff Donohue also discovered that the prisoners knew which number sequences opened every combination lock in the facility.

At least one local newspaper and many citizens made a fuss about this breach of the county jail's security. The combinations were changed. The prisoners watched and searched more thoroughly and regularly; however, no outside parties were detained as possible accomplices.

In the first week of October, Judge R.G. McGarvey granted a change of venue for both Brown and Gaunce. In his ruling McGarvey cited the potential for bias. “The evidense that was taken down in the Wheeler case was published in a paper of this county, in extenso; and it is alleged [by Brown and Gaunce's attorneys] that persons who have read the evidence in this case, or in the case of Wheeler, are disqualified. It is said in answer to that allegation that the reports in public journals and common rumor do not disqualify a man from serving as a juror. I agree with the District Attorney in his proposition. But is the publishing in full of the evidence, just as it came from the lips of the witnesses, is that such a thing as a public rumor? And wouldn't, as a matter of fact, a man be disqualified, legally disqualified, who had read the evidence, just as it came from the lips of the witnesses? I take it that he would be just as much disqualified as though he had been in court and heard the evidence... 

“I find no fault with the newspapers for publishing those facts, but I think it is unfortunate. They have a legal right to do it. The allegations of the moving party [Brown and Gaunce] going to show there is a widespread prejudice, have not been met by the affidavits of the other party.”

The ruling went on at some length, but it ultimately led to Brown and Gaunce's trials being moved to the Superior Court of Sonoma County. In his writing, McGarvey estimated the trial would have cost Mendocino County $9-10,000. A Sonoma County newspaper queried Sheriff Donohue on the same financial matter. Donohue placed his estimate at $8,000 or more. 

Not long after McGarvey granted the change of venue, Harrison Brown's two nephews and a cousin named Dobbs stopped at a saloon in Calpella. The bartender, Al Williford, formerly held a similar post at the halfway house on the road from Little Lake to the coast, where he had made many a friend and acquaintance from the county's cooler climes. Hearing of Judge McGarvey's decision to move the trials to Sonoma County, Williford verbalized a vociferous critique of the recent legal action, concluding with his desire to be present at the hanging of Brown and Gaunce, so that he (Williford) could have the honor and pleasure of placing the ropes around their necks and jerking the lever that would set them kicking to hades. The Brown brothers and Dobbs leaped over the bar then broke bottles and wooden clubs over Williford's head until the barkeep lay bloody and unconscious, nearly fatally beaten.

Al Courtwright, who had helped house Billings, Brown, Gaunce, and Carr at a cabin north of Ten Mile River in the summer and early fall of 1879, gained legal pardon by testifying against John F. Wheeler. During the autumn of 1880, Courtwright made statements in public expressing his disdain for those officials who had arrested him for his collaboration with the Mendocino Outlaws. His verbal threats directed at Doc Standley, but more often centered on thirty year old Constable G.A. (George Andrew, often called “Dick”) DeVilbiss, a Missouri native who had lived much of his life in the area around Ten Mile. 

On Monday morning, Nov. 22, 1880, DeVilbiss and Courtwright happened to run into each other at the Ten Mile River public house run by W.S. Moss. Courtwright told Dick DeVilbiss, “I have a document for you.”

DeVilbiss asked to see the document, but Courtwright declined the opportunity to produce it. However, before the two parted ways Courtwright insisted that he'd let him have it in two or three days.

After DeVilbiss departed, Courtwright turned to Moss to make clear that the “document” in question was a knife. Referring to DeVilbiss, Courtwright said, “I'll kill that stinking son of a bitch.”

Late that afternoon, between four and five o'clock, DeVilbiss and another fellow, stopped at the Moss establishment, calling for supper. At this point, Moss took it upon himself to warn the constable about Al Courtwright's threat. 

Before the meal was served, Courtwright entered the premises. DeVilbiss rose and called everyone present to the bar for a drink. Courtwright stepped up alongside DeVilbiss, slapped his left hand on the constable's shoulder, and said, “I've got that document here for you.”

DeVilbiss drew his revolver. “This is my document.”

Courtwright tried to race to a stack of guns at the far end of the bar. DeVilbiss commenced firing his handgun and Courtwright fell dead, his head and hands almost touching the guns.

At an inquest, numerous citizens testified to hearing Courtwright's threats that day and at other occasions. More than one described the “document” as a knife as large as a meat cleaver. One witness said that Courtwright sometimes referenced the knife as his “Arkansas toothpick.” The inquest judge discharged DeVilbiss, stating he had acted in self defense.

(Coming soon: More on the bloody aftermath surrounding the Mendocino Outlaws.)

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *