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The Murder of Cain

In 1859 Mendocino split off from Sonoma, forming a county of its own. In the first year of its existence marauding militias, like the one led by Walter Jarboe, murdered hundreds of Native Americans in the vicinity of Round Valley. Of course, Jarboe and his killers were not prosecuted. Quite the contrary, they billed the state for more than $11,000 in expenses.

In a bit of historical irony, during the next twenty years Mendocino County would apply capital punishment to only one man. That occurred amid a period in which as many as five dozen murders were reported to authorities. Of course, that number does not reflect the frequent and sometimes barbarously random acts of lynching deaths that befell Indians throughout the county.

In the 1860s locals deemed certain specific areas in this county to be infested with outlawry—to the extent a civil citizen faced more danger than a gunman or robber. One such place existed south of the Sanel township, in the canyons below Hopland and north of Cloverdale, on the east side of the Russian River. Even those native to the locale for generations began to say the region was cursed by the presence of an unknown murderer. 

Right around the time Mendocino earned its separate county identity, folks found a woman murdered in that rocky, desolate canyon region. The killing remained an unsolved mystery. 

In 1863, sheepherder Jerry Cain sold his land that bordered that of fellow Sanel sheep man Francis Holmes. Cain moved south in the canyon to a new homestead within three miles of A.C. McDonald's considerable spread, a scant few miles above the Sonoma County line. In the autumn of that year Cain's eye turned toward hunting. He made a plan with an acquaintance a week or so ahead of time to do just. The hunt was to commence bright and early on a Thursday morning, so the acquaintance arrived at Cain's cabin Wednesday as dusk settled in. The fellow hunter found the door padlocked and no sign of anyone about the place. He called Jerry's name, but no answer. Cain's horse was nowhere in sight either, so the fellow hunter assumed Jerry had ridden off for a short visit elsewhere.

The hunter, having waited outside until plumb dark, eventually forced open the door to the two room abode. He built a fire, hoping to have the place warm for Jerry's return. More time passed, so he cooked and ate his supper there in the front room. By the time his yawns overcame him, the man ventured into the back room, looking for blankets or a spare mattress to sleep on near the fireplace. 

He found the blankets and a mattress from the bed strewn on the floor. Upon dragging them toward the front room he discovered the lifeless body of his hunting companion. A bullet had been shot through Jerry Cain's back, the ball passing through near his heart. Holding a lantern for closer inspection showed bruises all over Cain's head, indicating that the gunshot did not kill him instantly. He fought for his life, but the assailant beat him after firing, beat him to death and beyond. 

The hunting companion saddled and rode his horse through the dark, six miles to Cloverdale, where he reported what he'd found. Law enforcement discovered no other physical clues at the scene of the crime. Other circumstances that related to the murder included Cain's sale of his sheep ranch near Sanel less than a month before his death. Friends knew that the victim possessed three to four hundred dollars on his person or in his home. On the Sunday or Monday preceding the murder, Cain hired a complete stranger to do work about his new home. On Tuesday morning, that stranger passed through Cloverdale riding Cain's horse. 

The Cain case remained unsolved into 1865. On June 13th of that year Francis Holmes, the former neighbor of Jerry Cain, was reported missing by neighbors who dropped in and could not find the middle-aged sheep and cattle rancher.

Did a connection between the two cases exist?

One Comment

  1. Mark Taylor December 18, 2021

    I sure hope they were connected, Malcolm, otherwise, you’ve left us hanging, instead of the killer whom, I would assume, deserved to be.

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