BENJAMIN KENT THORN
Conditions in some parts of the west have been such as to develop a class of professional marshals and sheriffs, men ready to take their lives in their hands in the defense of law and order and safely to be depended upon at any moment. In its issue of March 5, 1899, the Los Angeles Sunday Times referred to “Ben Thorn of Calaveras,” as the “last of the race of professional sheriffs in California.” Mr. Thorn’s career is in many ways so unique that it could not be passed by in a work of this kind.
Of Danish and English ancestry, Mr. Thorn was born at Plattsburg, New York, December 22, 1829 a son of Platt and Elizabeth (Platt) Thorn, his mother having been of a family of early settlers at Plattsburg, for whom the town was named. In 1833, when Mr. Thorn was four years old, his parents removed to Chicago, Illinois, then a small, muddy village with some three or four thousand people living there and thereabouts, one half or more of whom were the Pottawatomie Tribe of Indians. While they remained in Chicago, the family lived in the old Clayborn House and “Ben,” as he has always been known, was for a time a pupil in an infant school; but they soon removed to Ottawa, Illinois, and there lived in a little log cabin, whose walls were pierced with one window containing a single pane of glass, and with several loop holes, through which the inmates of the cabin could defend themselves from the attacks of the Indians. About one hundred feet from the cabin were the graves of sixteen white settlers who had been massacred by the savages but a few months prior thereto, and all buried hastily in one common mound, as there was no sawed lumber in that country with which to bury them otherwise.
The boy was brought up to farm work, amid such primitive surroundings, and was sent to the best school Ottawa afforded at that time; and, considering how hard it was for pioneers to make a living in Illinois at that time, the boy was not badly situated. Produce brought very low prices, and exorbitant prices were charged for such domestic supplies as it was necessary to buy. When Ben had grown to be a “chunk” of a boy he became a clerk in a store at Ottawa, and when he was sixteen he began teaching school at Platteville, Illinois. Sometime later Mr. Thorn sold his farm and removed to Ottawa, where he built a large tannery and carried on the business of tanning, giving employment to many men until the time of his death in 1859, in the fifty-ninth year of his age. His wife died at the age of eighty-four, at the residence of her son at San Andreas, Calaveras County, California, November 2, 1890. This worthy couple had six children, of whom Sheriff Thorn and his brother, Deputy Sheriff Abbott Thorn are the only survivors.
Sheriff Thorn crossed the plains to California in 1849 and encountered many of the hardships of such a journey. Several members of his party were victims of cholera, and several of them died on the way; but though Sheriff Thorn was constantly exposed to the influence which brought the others low, and watched with one of them (Charles Zeliff) during the night preceding his death, he fortunately escaped the disease even in its mildest form. He arrived at Deer Creek, Lassen County, California, where he remained in camp three weeks with his company.
In September he commenced mining on the Yuba River, some twelve or fifteen miles above the site of the present city of Marysville, Yuba County, and continued on Yuba River, without much success, as a “rocker” cost a hundred and twenty-five dollars, and he and his companions took out only about eight dollars worth of gold, per man, per day, and each of them could have hired out at sixteen dollars per day, as that was the wages paid at the time.
In the month of November following he left the Yuba, and went to Sacramento City, where he purchased a winter’s supply of provisions and went to Volcano, Amador County, and there mined during the winter of 1849-50, taking out an average of two ounces of gold dust per day to the man in Indian Gulch. In February, 1850, he went to Mokelumne Hill, Calaveras County, and from there to Upper Rich Gulch, some six miles distant therefrom, where he mined a short time. Then he removed to San Antonio camp, in Calaveras County, where he located and purchased several mining claims on the San Antonio and Calaveritas creeks, and employed several men mining for him until 1857.
In April, 1855, he was appointed deputy sheriff by Charles A. Clarke, then the sheriff of the county, in order that he might have authority to do what he could to rid the county of gangs of Chilanoes, Mexicans and other desperadoes and cut-throats, who infested the mining camps with no better objects than plunder and murder; and from that day to this with the exception of four years, he has held the office of sheriff, or deputy sheriff, or foreign miners’ tax collector. In the fall of 1855, while a deputy sheriff, he ran and was elected constable of the township in order to secure the official business of the justice’s court, which in those days reached a considerable amount. Immediately following his appointment, young Thorn started the hunt down and bring to justice the absconded murderers who had prior thereto committed many murders in San Antonio Camp and immediate vicinity, and he was not long in locating and arresting John Phipps, who had killed Morales in San Antonio Camp in 1854 with an ax, and who was hung for the crime at Mokelumne Hill; also Pedro y Barro, who killed a man and woman at the same camp; also Bratton, who killed Thomas Titcomb; also Howard Maupin, alias “Pike,” who killed James Dill and four Mexicans who murdered a German on Indian Creek for his money, some of whom were convicted and sent to the state prison, as many jurymen in those days were disposed to deal leniently with the criminal element, besides many others arrested by Thorn for lesser crimes.
In 1867 he was elected sheriff of Calaveras County, and has held the office continuously by re-election since except for the period mentioned, when he engaged in quartz mining and was not a candidate. Whether a candidate on the Democratic ticket or an “independent” candidate, has always been a matter of indifference to him; he has been elected by flattering majorities. Sometimes he has had no political nominee in the field against him, while twice some of the would-be leaders of the Democratic Party wanted to give the office to someone else, for obligations thus acknowledged, and his name did not appear on any ticket; but just before election he announced himself as an independent candidate and was the only such candidate in the field, and he was re-elected to the office by his usual large majority of from four to five hundred. Forty-five years have elapsed since he was first appointed a deputy sheriff and thirty-three since he was first elected sheriff of Calaveras County.
From 1855 until the office was segregated from the sheriff’s office, he was foreign miners’ tax collector, and deputy sheriff of Calaveras County, and was elected to the office of tax collector and assessor for three terms, after it became an elective office, up to 1867, when he was elected sheriff of the county.
Politically Mr. Thorn is a Democrat, but not a strong partisan, and cares little for politics when it comes to filling local offices with good or poor men. His public spirit is such that he has always taken a helpful interest in every movement in which in his good judgment has promised to benefit the town and county.
Sheriff Thorn’s official history is one of peculiar interest, and there is enough in it that would make exciting reading to fill a volume. His success and popularity have been well earned, for he has many times risked his life, against great odds, in the interest of order and justice, and has almost invariably captured the criminals he went to take, and recaptured the only criminal who during his long career as sheriff was successful in breaking jail. He has never shrunk from any duty that confronted him, and has never asked any man to do any dangerous or disagreeable work for him. No amount of money could hire him to hang a man, nor would he hire any man to hang a man for him; but in pursuance of his official duty he has hanged and assisted in the execution of five in the same spirit in which he would have met any other obligation to the public. No officer in California has accomplished more than he in ridding the state of desperadoes who have made life and property insecure; and he has always commanded the respect of the criminals he has arrested, and no mob has ever taken a prisoner from him, although three different attempts have been made.
Some of Sheriff Thorn’s most dangerous experiences may be briefly referred to here, and the writer regrets that there is not space to relate them in detail. In the month of June, 1855, soon after he was appointed deputy sheriff, the notorious Sam Brown, or “Long Haired Brown,” as he was sometimes called, and Bunty Owens, killed two Chilanoes over a monte game at Upper Calaveritas, and in fleeing from the place were closely pursued by the infuriated Chilanoes, upon whom they turned and fired, mortally wounding one of them, when the pursuit was abandoned by the Chilanoes. A messenger was then dispatched to young Thorn at San Antonio notifying him of the affair who immediately summoned to his aid one of the men employed by him in mining, by the name of Edward Hopkins, and going before Judge Spencer some three miles distant. Thorn swore out warrants against the murderers and started in pursuit, traveling about all night in search of them, and early the following morning obtained information that they were at John Hick’s cabin, on O’Neil’s Creek, with four of their friends. Proceeding thereto, and arriving in sight of the place, Brown appeared with rifle in hand, which he immediately raised to his face, taking aim at the approaching officers; but Thorn, thinking Brown too brave a man to fire on them before hailing them kept right on, while Hopkins, apparently not possessing that confidence in Brown, stayed back in the rear. Thorn had proceeded but a short distance toward the place when Brown lowered his rifle off of him, and Thorn said that he never felt so happy as he did about that time. Arriving at the cabin, Thorn placed Brown and Owens under arrest, and Brown remarked to Thorn that he had just arrived in time, as he had intended “skipping the country,” using his language, immediately after eating his breakfast.
On leaving the place with his prisoners, to take them before Judge Spencer’s court, some three or more miles distant therefrom, Brown asked the favor of Thorn to be allowed to pack his rifle along with him, as he believed that they might be attacked on the way by the Chilanoes, and which under the circumstances was granted him. The examination before the justice of the peace lasted two days, and was one of the most exciting that ever occurred in the county, as about one hundred Chilanoes gathered about the place, besides which over forty of the prisoners’ friends were present; and as the ill feelings between the two opposing factions were at a fever heat, it was all that Thorn could do to prevent a bloody conflict. It became an open secret that Brown’s friends intended to take him away from Thorn; so the latter called on some of his friends to remain with him during the night, but they all framed excuses for not so doing so he sat all night alone on a box with a six shooter in hand to prevent the execution of their intentions, and stop the sale or giving away of liquors to anyone there, which was obeyed by the proprietor of the bar.
At the conclusion of the examination before Orrin Spencer, justice of the peace of the township, when they were committed a friend of Brown’s by the name of Lafayette Choiser, attempted to hand him a loaded revolver which Thorn snatched and knocked him down. Another friend of Brown’s, by the name of Alfred Richardson, then swore out two warrants on false accusations against two Chilanoe desperadoes who were standing with their kind in a crowd close by, and who it was believed would try to kill Thorn if he attempted to serve them. Thorn understood the situation perfectly, but the warrants had been issued and placed in his hands, and it was his duty to serve them, and he served them without hesitation and came out of the affair in safety.
That day Thorn, with two assistants, took Sam Brown, Bunty Owens and the two Chilanoes referred to, to Mokelumne Hill, and placed them in the county jail. Brown was sent to San Quentin only for a few years, after which he returned to Calaveras County, and in a short time went to Carson City and Virginia City, and was afterward killed by Van Sickle on Carson River, who had a record of seventeen men that he had killed in his lifetime!
A blacksmith by the name of Anderson and another man were killed at Greenwood Valley, El Dorado County, in 1857, or thereabouts, by a Chilanoe desperado named Santiago Molino, who made his escape and for whom large rewards were offered for his arrest dead or alive by the citizens of that place and Georgetown, and notices sent to the officers throughout the state. Deputy Sheriff Thorn used his best efforts in the case and finally ascertained that Molino was at Col-o-ro, a small mining camp in Mariposa County, in company with three more of his countrymen of the same ilk. Selecting Fred Wesson, a worthy assistant, they started and arrived at the above camp in two days thereafter, and late in the evening ascertained the cabin in which he and his associates were stopping a short distance from Col-o-ro, to which they went, and entering the cabin found only two of the occupants therein; but Thorn soon recognized one of them as the man wanted and commenced asking him a few questions when suddenly Molino sprang from his bed, seized his six-shooter and attempted to use it; but they wrestled it from him and informed him that they were officers and that he was their prisoner.
On leaving the cabin for camp, Thorn took charge of Molino, while Wesson took charge of the other man, and on the way Molino made a desperate break for liberty, closely pursued by Thorn, who fired at him with fatal effect; and on Wesson’s arrival at the scene, with the other Chilanoe in charge, Thorn requested him to go to the camp and procure the help of the only three Americans in the place to take the body to camp while he remained there. Some fifty or more of the Chilanoes came pouring into the little place and looked daggers at the officers, who watched their actions closely, but no demonstrations were made on their part. The coroner’s jury rendered a complimentary verdict in the case to Thorn. No reward was ever asked for, or paid by the parties offering it.
About this time, while Jesus Be-a-lova, a Mexican horse thief and murderer, was under sentence of death at Mokelumne Hill, and, three days before that set for his execution, was taken out by Thorn and assistant officer, to be photographed at the request of his mother; and on the return back to the jail, some little distance away, Thorn’s assistant, claiming that he had forgotten something, left Thorn alone to proceed back to the jail with his big burly and unironed prisoner, when, like a flash, he turned on Thorn and seized his pistol; whereupon Thorn threw him down and alighted astraddle upon him, and, catching hold of the barrel of the cocked weapon, turned the muzzle from his person, and ramming his finger of the other hand up the Mexican’s nostril, held him securely until assistance came!
One night at a toll-house near West Point, John McDonough and Gwin Raymond was badly shot through a window from the outside. The house was then entered by the two would-be murders, and robbed of considerable money, etc., one of whom was captured, while the other, whose name was Charles Williams, escaped through the darkness. Shortly afterwards Deputy Sheriff Thorn found out where he was, near Princeton, in Mariposa County, chopping wood in the forest, and, riding up to him, demanded his surrender, when Williams rushed at him with an ax, uplifted, with the evident intention of splitting his head open; and when Williams got so close that the situation began to look unhealthy to Thorn, he shot him down.
Soon afterward Thorn was elected sheriff for the first time; he and Constable Mathews started in pursuit on the Kinney Said murderers, and on their way stopped overnight at Columbia, Tuolumne County. After supper Thorn, not anticipating any trouble, handed Mr. Fallon, the landlord, his weapons to keep overnight, being too heavy to pack. Later in the evening Thorn and Mathews’ attention was called to three Mexicans, well mounted and dressed, who rode up in front of Kelly’s livery stable on a back street. The officers, proceeding over to the stable, recognized them as men wanted by Sheriff Lincoln of Santa Cruz County for highway robbery. Thorn, seizing one of the men by the collar and bridle of his animal, ordered him to dismount, which not being complied with, Thorn hauled him off of his horse, at the same time going after the Mexican’s weapons, who also held on for possession, while another jumped off his horse, at whom Mathews fired and who ran into a dark harness room. While Thorn was thus engaged in tussling for the possession of the weapon the other Mexican opened fire on him with three shots at close range wounding him, however but slightly, under the armpit while another passed through the rim of his hat, and then the desperado ran away as another party fired at him in order to save Thorn. Securing his man and placing him in Mathew’s charge, Thorn entered the room and brought out the other Mexican both of whom with their outfits, were taken by Mathews and assistant to Calaveras County; while Thorn started for Mariposa in search of the Said murderers, one of whom he secured in that county and from whom he obtained a full confession of his participation in the above murder, and in a short time captured the other in Amador County, near Oleta, who was afterward hung, while the former was sentenced for life at San Quentin state prison.
When Thorn was a deputy sheriff under High Sheriff Paul, and was returning home from a sheriff’s sale at the old Bascoe ranch of a lot of stock accompanied by his wife, on horseback, in traveling along the trail in the evening two disguised men on horseback were seen a little distance ahead, on the side of the trail, under a tree, apparently waiting and watching for them; so Thorn drew his revolver, and as he approached nearer them they made towards the trail on which he was traveling, apparently to head him off, whereupon he immediately covered them with his weapon and demanded of them what they wanted and what they were doing, at which they halted a moment in a hesitating manner, and then turned around and rode off a short distance and stopped. The officer and his wife proceeded but, still coveting the money which the officer had from the proceeds of the sale, they followed them along on the side of the trail some little distance. Thorn, not desirous of another attempt at a bold hold up, especially under the circumstances, let their horses go at full speed and thus left the would-be highwaymen in the lurch. Sometime afterward Thorn found out who the parties were, but the attempted crime was then outlawed.
Sheriff Thorn has had many risky experiences during the many years that he has held his position, and has also been very successful in saving the tax-payers of his county many thousands of dollars by securing confessions of guilt from many of the criminal element. Notably amongst the number was that of Charles E. Bolton, alias Black Bart, the Po 8, who confessed his guilt to Thorn in the presence of Captain A. Walker Stone, of San Francisco, the captain ably assisting him on that occasion, through which a large amount of stolen treasure was recovered and restored to Wells, Fargo & Company, and Bolton pleaded guilty to the charge in the superior court of Calaveras County, thus saving the county a long and expensive trial with probably no conviction.
Transcribed by Gerald Iaquinta.
© 2010 Gerald Iaquinta.