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The Cain Murder & Mr. Holmes

Last time we briefly touched on the wanton murders of Native Americans in the early days of Mendocino County, with no punishment rendered. In a tidbit of historical irony, from the time Mendocino became a county in 1859 through to the 1880s, despite sixty reported white on white murders, only one man was hanged for the offense. We took a specific look at the area between Hopland and the Sonoma County border that seemed to be cursed with one unsolved case after another, such as the shooting and bludgeoning of sheepherder Jerry Cain in 1863. That crime remained unresolved into 1865 when Cain's former neighbor Francis Holmes disappeared.

The search for Francis Holmes took several days to reach its grisly conclusion. In those same cursed canyons, south of Hopland and north of the Sonoma County line, the search party finally discovered Francis Holmes's body. He had been shot in the head then beaten about the skull with a blunt instrument to the point of decapitation.

The nearest neighbors of Mr. Holmes and all those living permanently in the entire region viewed the victim as a man without enemies. Suspicion fell on a lone interloper, George W. Strong. He had arrived at the Holmes ranch as a sheep shearer that spring then stayed on as a laborer for a spell. At the time of Holmes's disappearance Strong at first professed a lack of knowledge as to the rancher's whereabouts then later claimed Holmes had sold the ranch to him and departed for San Francisco. The friends and neighbors of the deceased expressed disbelief that he would abruptly sell his seemingly prosperous piece of property. They demanded to see a bill of sale. Strong failed to produce any evidence validating the transfer of property rights then he himself vanished from the ranch.

Messages went out to law enforcement in various counties of northern California with a description of George Strong, no more than in his mid-twenties, possessed of a charming smile and quick wit. Late in June, Marshal Knowles of Petaluma spotted the fellow in question. 

Stopped on the streets of the Sonoma County town, Strong freely provided his name. The marshal asked if he knew Francis Holmes. Strong answered in the affirmative, that he had made a down payment on the ranch and was now on his way to the City to complete the transaction. Strong produced a scribbled receipt for payment of $2,570, grinning as he stated he would be paying off a balance of $426 in San Francisco prior to the sailing of a steamer Holmes planned to board on his way to the East.

Marshal Knowles didn't care for the contradictions between Strong's story and the information passed on to him from Mendocino County. Strong pulled out a gold watch as if to blithely check the time. The message from up north indicated that the neighbors claimed Strong to be near penniless and possessed of no worldly goods.

The Marshal arrested Strong on the spot, placed him in handcuffs, and escorted him to the Ukiah jail. A judge fixed bail at $2,000. The prisoner, not offering any such sum purely of his own, was remanded into custody.

The case went to trial in mid-November of 1865. The twelve man jury included Abner Coates who two years later would take part in the infamous shootout between members of the Frost and Coates families on the streets of Little Lake. Abner's shotgun would inflict the only mortal wounds on a Frost that day. Abner survived with a shoulder wound, but five of his relations died on the dusty street outside Baechtel's store.

The proceedings commenced on a Monday and ran throughout the week, the courtroom packed each day. More and more women attended as the week wore on, supposedly drawn by the good looks of the defendant. What they most often witnessed in the defendant proved similar to an air of exuberance; a spirited young fellow frequently whispering what appeared to be instructions to his attorneys. During pauses between the twenty witnesses who took the stand, Strong hummed or sang rhyming ditties. While in custody he had let his hair, beard, and mustache grow out so that he looked more like an officer in the recent War Between the States than a defendant on trial for his life. 

Throughout much of the week one piece of evidence rested on display in front of Judge J.B. Southard. That material evidence was none other than the severed skull of Francis Holmes.

While Strong remained cool, calm, and self-possessed if not collected, only one of the many witnesses took the stand for the defense. That person did little if anything to contradict the connected thread of circumstantial evidence District Attorney T.B. Bond laid out for the jury. 

During summation, Strong's lead attorney, L.D. Latimer (who would go on to be a U.S. Attorney), did his darnedest to turn the tables on behalf of his client. “I am but an instrument, an humble officer of the court, the representative before them of the defendant, and stand here to do whatever I can in my humble capacity, and with my feeble ability for the protection of his interests. Gentlemen of the jury, sitting here as you do, the sole and exclusive arbiters of his fate, standing as it were between this young man and eternity... This is an extraordinary case; extraordinary in the enormity of the offense charged; extraordinary in the seeming mystery that surrounds it; extraordinary in the great popular excitement it has produced; and extraordinary in the seeming extreme desire and determination of some of the witnesses in the case to convict the prisoner.

“The testimony is entirely circumstantial, and consists of many isolated facts that are attempted to be fastened together as a chain of evidence, but many of the links of the chain were wanting; and, therefore, it could not be conclusive. They spoke of the murder of Cain in that vicinity a year ago, and now the murderer of Cain doubtless still lives there, and if Holmes has been murdered, show me the murderer of Cain, and I will show you the murderer of Holmes. Cain was killed in his cabin, shot with a revolver or pistol, and if that be the skull of Holmes [Latimer gestured toward the crushed skull]... the means of death was the same in both cases.”

Again, Latimer referenced the skull. “[It] was found secreted in a canyon with those marks of violence upon it; but none but He who reigns omniscient above, knows how those marks of violence came. I do not know, [Latimer spun and faced the jury] you do not know, for the evidence fell far short of convincing the mind of any reasonable man that they came through the agency of Strong.”

Latimer continued, reminding the jury of the difference between a civil case in which a simple preponderance of evidence may sway the jury to the necessity for a criminal case jury to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt. “There is a great danger in this class of cases, and this kind of evidence should be taken with the utmost caution, especially when, as in this case, great popular feeling existed against the accused.”

Latimer proceeded to go through the circumstantial evidence, questioning particular by particular. “The identity of the body has not been established by the proof. Why were not the clothes found on the deceased brought into court?”

The defense attorney asserted Strong's basic alibi: that he purchased Holmes's ranch, that Strong had said as much to others. “Strong could not have murdered him to obtain property he already owned and possessed. He could not have murdered him for the money, for all the money found on the defendant was accounted for. A guilty man would have secreted the watch....”

Latimer detailed a chain of the circumstantial evidence that he claimed could just as well point to others as much as to the defendant. He concluded by citing once more the inherent prejudice evident in the demeanor of the prosecution witnesses. “I hope the jury will carefully consider … the contradictions and inconsistencies in their testimony, and return a verdict that will satisfy your consciences, so that in after life, when thinking calmly over the circumstances of the case, you may have no occasion to regret your actions.”

The summations ran late into Friday night. The judge sent the jury to their chambers between one and two a.m. Saturday morning. Eleven of them agreed on their first ballot. It took nearly four hours to convince the lone holdout. At six in the morning they returned to a sleepy-eyed courtroom with a guilty verdict.

Court recessed until four in the afternoon. At that hour Judge Southard pronounced sentence: death by hanging at the county jail on December 29th.

A motion for a new trial was denied, but an appeal was made to the state supreme court. That auspicious body granted another trial to Strong. The locale was the same, the county courthouse in Ukiah with Judge Southard presiding. During the sweltering days of July, 1866, not only did onlookers cram the courtroom, the case excited such interest the entire town jammed with visitors. Beds rented at a premium, even balconies and outhouses served as cheap dormitories of rest. 

This second trial of George Strong ran its course in three sweat-streaked days. The jury deliberated forty-three hours. The result proved the same, guilty as charged. The crowd inside and out shouted their approval.

Less than two months later a scaffold had been erected outside the county jail. On the eve of execution day it is said that Strong confessed to Sheriff Warden of Mendocino and Sheriff Clark of Sonoma that he had killed Holmes. He supposedly directed them to points where Holmes's missing hat, shoes, and belt could be found. The only man executed for his crime in Mendocino County between 1859 and the 1880s, George W. Strong went to his death without a word mentioned about the murder of Jerry Cain.

One Comment

  1. David Heller December 21, 2021

    Fine writing Malcolm!

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