STORIES OF STANISLAUS
A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County
Sol P. Elias
The Vigilante Era
“We have made no order we do not mean to enforce: no promise we do not intend to fulfill. No notice has been given without positive proof that the parties named were guilty as charged. We take nothing back; apologize for nothing. We wage war on none but the evil doer. No one, be he laborer, saloon keeper, merchant or farmer, need fear anything from us as long as he conducts himself as a law-abiding citizen – but we do intend to make every one responsible for the gang he keeps around him and protects and supports, and for the character of the house he keeps. Our work is before the people – they can see what we have done. Compare the condition of affairs in Stanislaus county now with what they were prior to March 19th and see if we have done anything good or saved the taxpayers any burdens. But one arrest in Modesto in six weeks; no fights; hardly a drunk. Our wives and daughters can walk the streets without being insulted or being pushed from the walk by prostitutes. Our nights are no longer made hideous with drunken rows; the “Alley” is silent and deserted; and our courts are no longer blocked with criminal cases and all with no cost to the taxpayers, but is solely the work of the San Joaquin Valley Regulators.
Modesto, Cal., April 28, 1884.”
The foregoing was one of the last proclamations made by the San Joaquin Regulators in Modesto in 1884. It contains a statement of their purposes and intentions. It gives a resume of the activities of this organization which worked swiftly and decisively in the dark to ameliorate peculiar conditions in Modesto which, because of the dominating influence of certain social and political forces, the elected officers of the law were powerless to cope with. Containing the justification of their acts, it was transmitted to and published in the local press.
After its publication, the Regulators as quietly vanished from the scene of their operations as they suddenly sprang into action.
When the J. N. McCrellis family, consisting of the father, mother, and their two daughters, aged respectively nine and eleven years, early in the year 1883, moved from Mariposa county into Stanislaus and took up their abode in the small house in the rear of the saloon and home of Joseph Doane on the Waterford road, it seemed that the heavy hand of fate had marked Doane as a victim. Through all the tragic events that followed in rapid succession after this apparently insignificant incident, the shadow of the McCrellis family hung over the entire drama as it relentlessly unfolded before the public eye.
Doane's association with the McCrellis family set in motion a series of circumstances that plunged Modesto into a turmoil of excitement for several months and caused the courts to try two of the most prurient cases that ever arose in the county. It was Doane's relations with the McCrellis family that was the incentive for the creation of a lynching party at the Modesto railroad station in which J. J. Robbins was the person sought by the infuriated mob, and for the reorganization of the San Joaquin Valley Regulators that made the spectacular raid in 1879. It was Doane's connections with the McCrellis family that finally led to his death. And it was these episodes that divided the community into two factions – one to pro-Regulator and the other anti-Vigilante – with the prospect of an open clash between the opposing elements, that invited a general clean-up of the town, resulting in the exile of a number of its citizens, and brought to the city unenviable notoriety as a village in which lawlessness stalked unmolested.
The outburst of resentment and indignation that manifested itself in the raid of 1879 left an impress on the community for but a few months. There was no change in the conditions that continued to exist after the effect of this occurrence ceased. Modesto was still in the vise-like grip of the rougher elements. On the Front the old life that the Regulators sought to eliminate flourished without abatement. There were the brutal pistol duels, the customary bruisings, drunken brawls and fights, the wide open gambling, the highway robbery, pocket picking, petty thievery, and thuggery, and all the other accompaniments of saloon and tenderloin control.
The police were unable to keep the denizens of the Front within the bounds of decency. The red light districts were as disorderly and as obtrusive as ever.
While the criminal elements were supreme in Modesto, the saloon faction continued to be the dominating factor in the county, possessing the decisive power and influence in the nomination and in the election of all public officials from the judge on the bench to the least important constable. Delivering the votes that elected, the saloon received in return protection and non-molestation. In vain would the candidate inveigh against the saloon activity. Many a worthy and competent candidate, many a legislative nominee who would have served the county with conscientious honesty during the saturnalia of official corruption that in that day prevailed in Sacramento, remained in private life because the saloon element had been bribed with the money and influence of the predatory politicians to vote for his opponent.
In May, 1884, after the San Joaquin Valley Regulators had passed from the scene of activity, in the Democratic convention that convened in Modesto, the saloon influence determined the result of the deliberations of this political party as it had done for many years theretofore and thereafter. Barney Garner, owner of the “Golden Sheaf” was the leader of the saloon forces in the convention and a most formidable candidate for sheriff. On the first ballot, the vote stood: Barney Garner, 27 1/2; Pat Manning, 4 1/2; A. S. Fulkerth, 19; R. B. Purvis, 16; Silas Bishop, 28; Humphrey Jones, 10; On the twenty-eighth ballot the vote was: Bishop, 35; Purvis, 46 1/2; Garner, 17 1/2; Jones, 2. The decisive vote came on the twenty-ninth ballot. Purvis received Garner's votes and with them the Democratic nomination for sheriff, the ballot being Bishop, 37; Purvis, 62; Jones, 2. This incident was typical of every primary, convention and election until the saloon, with its malign influence, was removed from existence by the voice of the people who became weary of its political domination. By the relation of this occurrence no aspersion is sought to be cast upon the personality or the memory of genial “Dick” Purvis.
He was a most likable man – a prince among men, a competent official, and charitable in the extreme. He held the position of sheriff until his death a number of years later, the entire county mourning his demise. Purvis merely played the political game according to the rules then in vogue.
While these were the social and political conditions in Modesto in 1884, a series of events occurring in rapid succession to a focus in August. In May four or five Front street toughs and gamblers led by the notorious Joe Buckner, familiarly known as “Long Joe”, made an unprovoked attack upon two inoffensive Frenchmen at the “Bridge House,” adjacent to the Tuolumne river bridge south of Modesto. These Front street habitues clubbed the Frenchmen with their own guns and nearly killed them. There was much excitement over this affair among the farmers living in the neighborhood of the bridge. It gave rise to what was called the “Bridge House Riots,” a struggle in which no one was killed though much bad blood was engendered and many blows exchanged. “Long Joe” was sentenced to serve a term in the penitentiary for his crime, leaving behind him a beautiful young wife and an infant child. In August a gambler, known as “Munn” murdered in cold blood a sixteen-year-old boy by the name of Case at Turlock. This wanton crime created even greater excitement than the so-called “Bridge Riots.” The lynching of both Buckner and Munn was openly broached and was circumvented by the vigilance of the officers.
Within a short time after the murder of Case the public was startled by the disclosures in the Doane and the Robbins cases. Doane was accused of misconduct with the elder McCrellis girl at his home whither she had gone at his request and with her mother's consent. She remained with Doane for three days and nights. The McCrellis family had previously removed to Modesto, where the father had eked out a precarious livelihood as a casual carpenter. All being of a low order of intelligence and shiftless in the extreme, they led a life of almost naked poverty. Nothing was known of their antecedents. They bore a questionable reputation. Robbins was charged with misconduct with both girls and with others in his office in the Brown building.
Both men were taken into custody. They secured the services of the best legal talent in Modesto and Stockton, gave bail and were released.
As the alleged details of the two cases spread throughout the community, feeling against the accused became bitter. The first definite step taken against either of them was on the afternoon of the 18th day of August, 1883, when Robbins was expected to return in charge of officers from Lathrop whither he had fled on the morning of his arrest after having given bail furnished by his attorney and another citizen. It was not until that afternoon that the reported outrage of the two girls was generally known and the seriousness and the magnitude of the charges against Doane and Robbins realized. It was an exciting day in Modesto, the parallel of which had never before nor since been seen in this city. There was subdued whispering among the small knots of men gathered at the street corners. As Doane possessed an unsavory reputation, the story against him was readily credited. Robbins' good standing in the community secured him temporary immunity. Later in the day, however, a revulsion of feeling took place against Robbins. Several hundred armed men, some possessing rope of goodly size, gathered at the railroad depot and with eagerness awaited the arrival of the afternoon train from the north. It was a vengeful and determined mob that greeted the train. Had Robbins returned to Modesto, he would have been lynched. A telegram had been sent to the officers at Lathrop warning them of the ominous situation. As a consequence the prisoner was taken to Stockton and lodged in the jail there. The vigilance of the officers cheated the mob of its contemplated victim. There was apparently no desire on the part of the mob to take summary action against Doane on this occasion, for his case was mitigated by the fact that the elder girl had willingly submitted to his embraces. As a measure of protection, the sheriff hustled Doane into the county jail for safety.
After this episode Modesto assumed its wonted aspect of quiet. Feeling subsided. The orderly processes of the law were permitted to take their usual course.
Without the knowledge of the public or of the officers, the San Joaquin Valley Regulators, under the leadership of their former “Captain” - the citizen who in 1879 had marched in the van of the black masked and armed platoon from the darkness of “No Man's Land,” between Ripperdan and Modesto into the gleaming night lights of Modesto's tenderloin and closed forever the notorious dance halls, depopulated the bawdy houses of the “Alley” and razed the Chinese opium joints – quietly reorganized with practically all their former membership. They sent out the courier as in the previous campaign, assembled in the now historic warehouse in the northern part of the town, discussed the developments and prepared for eventualities.
Both Doane and Robbins were given preliminary examinations before C. W. Eastin, justice of the peace. Doane was discharged, it being proved that the elder girl was over ten years of age – the age of consent – and had given consent to the advances of Doane. The younger McCrellis girl being only nine years of age, Robbins was held to answer before the superior court.
After many irritating delays the Robbins case was called for trial in the superior court on February 11, 1884, Judge A Hewel presiding. Three days were consumed in the selection of the jury which was chosen as follows: J. M. Board, Henry Gregg, R. R. Snedeger, J. M. Watson, J. McGovern, S. LeClert, J. R. Mickey, J. F. Beausong, C. B. Brooks, A. M. Staniford, A. R. Anderson and Frank Jenkins. District Attorney J. C. Simmons, W. O. Minor and General J. R. Kittrelle, represented the state, W. L. Dudley, of Stockton, and W. E. Turner, of Modesto, two of the ablest and most adroit criminal lawyers in San Joaquin valley – forcible, persuasive and eloquent jury pleaders – appeared for the defendant.
Owing to the widespread interest manifested, the courtroom was crowded with curious spectators. Additional interest was given to the proceeding by the repeated claim of W. E. Turner that the case would never reach the jury. When it was first called for trial in the superior court there was a postponement which coupled with the statement of Turner created an undercurrent of mild excitement. On the day of the trial on February 15th, Robbins appeared early with his attorneys and displayed an air of confidence. He was a finely formed man, apparently over the age of sixty, with a long flowing white beard and silvery gray hair.
He was a newspaper reporter, employed on the Farmers' Journal, edited by W. E. Turner. He also followed the occupation of real estate agent.
After the case was called, W. L. Dudley for the defense moved the court that the action proceed with closed doors. The request was seconded by W. E. Turner. General Kittrelle opposed the motion on the ground that the evidence had already appeared in the public press and that none of the ends of justice could be subserved by the privacy of the trial. Judge Hewel granted the motion and the disappointed crowd left the courtroom.
Turner's prediction was rapidly verified. The prosecution's case suddenly collapsed. The defendant was quickly acquitted and discharged from custody. The principal witnesses, who claimed to have been violated by Robbins, in addition to the details given on the preliminary examination, swore to the existence of certain marks and tattoos on the person of the defendant. Robbins immediately stripped for examination in the courtroom. No such marks were found on his body. The attorneys for the prosecution were dumbfounded. They abandoned the prosecution. This one false statement in a material piece of evidence upset the entire case of the prosecution. If the girls had lied in this instance, it was evident that the whole fabric of accusation was false. The principal witnesses having failed, corroboration was useless. Under the instructions from the court, the jury acquitted the defendant. This unexpectedly abrupt termination of this celebrated case became one of the unsolved legal mysteries in the history of criminal practice in Stanislaus county.
As the consequence of these mistrials, public opinion became bitter against the McCrellis family, Doane and Robbins. Neither the people, nor the members of the jury were satisfied with the verdict in the Robbins case. They believed he was guilty. Doane's dismissal was held to be a mere evasion of the law.
After the acquittal of Doane and Robbins, public sentiment in a large degree subsided but as the days passed persistent rumors flitted through the community that the vigilance committee had been reorganized. Despite these reports the chief actors in the salacious drama remained in Modesto. That these surmises were justified was made evident when Doane, Robbins and the McCrellis family received notifications to leave the county.
The warning to Robbins read as follows:
“March 1, '84.
“J. J. Robbins: From this date you are notified to leave this county within ten days of date, fail not on pain of death.
“San Joaquin Valley Regulators.”
On receipt of this portentous missive, Robbins posted on the bulletin board in front of his office a manuscript of which the following is a copy:
“Will be paid for information leading to the detection of the cowardly scoundrel who addressed me an anonymous letter on March 1st and signed “San Joaquin Valley Regulators.”
“J. J. ROBBINS”
The request for information remained in its place for three days. On being informed that the “Notice to quit” was only a joke,” Robbins removed his offer of reward. The notes sent to Doane and to the McCrellis family were couched in identical terms, written in the same broad back hand chirography on the light brown tinted grocer's paper bag on which all of the proclamations of the Regulators were inscribed. To those who were acquainted therewith, notwithstanding the evident attempt to disguise, the handwriting was identified as that of a well known merchant, a politician of some note, and once a candidate for the postmastership of Modesto. The tragic sequel demonstrated the authenticity of the orders.
The receipt of the message from the Regulators caused Doane to became violent in language and conduct. Ignoring the advice of his friends that he transfer his business to his assistant and leave the community for several months, and being a fearless and desperate character, he immediately visited Modesto to defy the Regulators. He took delight in displaying the letter to his cronies on Front street. They plied him with liquor and advised him to “fight the gang that wanted to run him out of town.” Thus intoxicated he wandered up and down the streets of Modesto asserting in a maudlin manner that he was not a coward and that he defied the Regulators to come and “get” him.
Matching the word to the deed, he acquired an extensive arsenal for his home and for the reception of the Regulators. Continuing in his violent course, on March 10, and while intoxicated, he drew two pistols on W. C. Clark, a highly respected farmer and the father-in-law of Superior Judge William O. Minor, and would have shot him, had not Clark used a cane on Doane's body to good advantage and had not bystanders interfered to prevent bloodshed.
He placed the visible evidence of his crime in plain view in his bar-room and flaunted them to the gaze of patrons and passerby, admitting and giving the shocking details of the outrage in coarse language and coarser jest. With this evidence in his possession he paraded the streets of Modesto, taunted the officers and dared the police to interfere. In this scandalous conduct he was unmolested. It was the brazen attitude and not so much the crime that caused the Regulators to decree his death.
Rumor that emanated from an indefinable source at the time of these occurrences, now recalled by the writer, was to the effect that the death of both Doane and Robbins was decreed by the Regulators at an assembly held in the warehouse in the northern part of the town, and that at this meeting the “clean-up” of Modesto's tenderloin was determined. Robbins escaped by permanently departing for San Francisco. Doane invited his fate by remaining in Modesto, by defying public sentiment, and by his drunken utterances and profane4 conduct.
On Wednesday night, March 19, 1884, the Regulators gathered at the old Dry Creek bridge. It was their intention to take Doane alive, convey him to the bridge, hang him and leave the body dangling from it. Twenty-five men were left at the bridge to guard it. Others were scattered along the road approaching Doane's home. Another twenty-five, led by the “Captain” - all on horseback – journeyed to the Doane place to capture him. Halting close to the saloon they dismounted. Seven or eight of them, heavily armed and completely masked, entered it and pointing their guns at all present, ordered the uplifting of arms. J. R. Briggs and Steve Girard, who had been playing cards with Doane since their supper with him earlier in the evening, immediately complied.
Doane started toward the door of the room in which his arsenal was kept and in which he slept. One of the Regulators fired. Doane fell dead. Briggs and Girard were ordered out of the saloon, placed in their buggy and requested to return to their homes. Instructed to leave the locality, the barkeeper went to Turlock. Briggs and Girard had been in the neighborhood, conveying cattle to pasture and on their way home had remained over to dine with Doane.
The effect of the killing of Doane was indescribable. It created consternation among an element that had assumed that it was immune from official molestation. That the Regulators were a living force was evident, and that they intended to execute their threats was apparent from their course of action. Their membership was unknown. Their origin, number, plan of conduct, meeting place, their next step and the probability of their continued operations – these were interesting problems to Modesto's citizenship. While these matters were being discussed the McCrellis family pleaded poverty, and having been exiled from the county as indigent paupers, removed to Los Angeles on the day succeeding the death of Doane.
The purpose of the Regulators was shown when the following notice was posted on the numerous trees that then adorned Modesto's business district and sent to over thirty citizens of the town:
“You are hereby notified to leave Modesto within twenty-four hours and never return, under peril of your lives. Remember Doane's fate.
“SAN JOAQUIN REGULATORS”.
“Modesto, March 21st, halfpast 10 p. m.”
Another notice contained the general request that all persons, winning their bread by gambling, living about houses of ill-fame and by means not visible to the public, leave Modesto by the following Saturday. These warnings caused many to tread the ragged path of uncertainty, and to impell the flight of the rough element who feared the fate of Doane. Many departed for the north at once. A warehouse at Salida housed a number of them for several days as they journeyed to safer quarters.
Other remained in Modesto, refusing to obey the dictum of their unknown enemies, and arming themselves, prepared to resist. Modesto promised to become a scene of bloodshed. Not a few called loudly upon the authorities – whom they had theretofore ignored – for protection.
In response to a telegram sent him, imploring the services of an attorney to plead with the sheriff, the district attorney and the superior judge in behalf of the prospective exiles, a well known saloon keeper of San Francisco delegated a man by the name of Hurlburt to represent the persons proscribed by the Regulators. This ambassador having arrived in Modesto, he introduced himself to the sheriff and vigorously demanded that the outcasts be protected from the so-called mob. Receiving no satisfaction he produced a petition to the governor, requesting that the latter invoke the aid of the militia, upon the alleged ground that the county authorities were powerless to meet the situation. He requested the sheriff to sign this petition. The sheriff declined. Hurlburt then desired that the sheriff call out the Hancock guards, a local military organization. The sheriff again refused. Hurlburt received no assistance from either the district attorney or the superior judge. He was in fact one of San Francisco's tenderloin lawyers, and represented that Chris Buckley and Colonel Flourney had sent him to Modesto. He subsequently acted so boisterously, talked so loudly, and imbibed so freely of liquor that he was summarily ejected from the bar-room of the Ross House. Thereafter he disappeared after advising his clients to fight the Regulators.
On Saturday, April 5th, about ten o'clock in the evening, the Regulators again appeared on the streets of Modesto. The pedestrians were ordered to their homes. The Regulators then visited the famous “Alley” which had revived after the effect of the previous raid in 1879 had worn away. The inmates of the houses were ordered to depart from Modesto at once. The houses in the other portions of Modesto's red light district were instructed not to permit boisterous conduct about them. After these forays the Regulators marched to Chinatown, followed by Constable Clark who was the only officer in Modesto who possessed the courage to attempt to ferret out the identity of the Regulators. In Chinatown, they destroyed all the opium layouts and opium that they discovered.
As Clark approached within thirty feet of the Regulators, he remarked: “How are you getting along?”
“All right”, was the answer from the “Captain.”
Clark then went into the wash houses and instructed the Chinese to make no resistance to the Regulators. As he stepped out from one of these places, the Regulators cried “Halt” to him. He complied with this request and asked that they do no injury to the Chinese stores, assuring them that the Chinese prohibited the use of opium by the whites. The “Captain” approached Clark, who had started to go back to the center of town. As Clark turned the “Captain” hurled a beef bone at him which struck Clark on the head, cutting a hole in his hat and a gash over his eye. For the moment he was stunned. Blood flowed profusely from the wound. Believing himself to have been seriously injured, Clark hastened away for help, which he received in one of the saloons. Here he met his son who reproved the father for having the temerity to endeavor to molest the Regulators.
Remaining in the town for a considerable period that evening, the Regulators in the work that they attempted to do hit one resisting Chinaman over the head, but did not seriously injure him. The women of ill fame who were ordered from the community sold their furniture at a great sacrifice between the darkness and the daylight and left for parts unknown.
On the evening of the second and last appearance of the Regulators on the streets of Modesto, an amusing incident occurred which for a time threatened to disorganize their plans for the night. A charming society belle was the unwitting cause of excitement in the ranks. There was a social dance in progress in old Rogers' hall at the hour that the Regulators passed up H street. Several of the participants had just emerged from the hall and were passing over the bridge which was a part of the exit and were coming down the stairs when the Regulators passed in review in their uncanny costumes. This sight so frightened one of the ladies of the party that she stumbled and rolled into the street under the feet of of one of the Regulators, causing him to fall and drop his gun. The Regulators picked himself up and marched on. Recovering her equilibrium, the young lady rapidly left the locality.
The wrap she lost in her hasty departure was placed on a pole in the neighborhood. The Regulators continued in their course.
During the intervening periods there was exhibited much opposition to the activities of the Regulators and they received severe criticism. Many of the men who came under their ban were members of the first families of Modesto. These were more the victims of the rude environment of the open town than tough characters at heart. After sowing their wild oats, they adopted other means of livelihood. In all cases they became successful in the larger affairs of life. Others of the gang were just hard characters whom the community could well afford to eliminate from its citizenship. The opposition came from both of these classes and their friends. The general public was satisfied with the work of the Regulators and was pleased with the riddance of the undesirables.
For a time it was thought that the opposition would develop into an open clash, many residents having received notices to refrain from censure and opposition. Despite this antagonism and disapproval, the Regulators went forward in their mission. One of the notices that the Regulators caused to be posted in the most prominent places in the town read as follows:
“Modesto, April 17, 1884.
“Whereas, On the 21st and at different times since, certain persons were ordered to leave Modesto and never return, and,
“Whereas, Many of them are lurking in the vicinity of Modesto:
“Now, Therefore, all such persons are ordered to leave Stanislaus county immediately and never return under penalty of death, and all persons are forbidden to harbor any one ordered to leave, under the same penalty.
“All gamblers, pimps and prostitutes are forbidden to come into Stanislaus county. Remember Doane's fate.
“SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY REGULATORS.”
The Regulators proceeded relentlessly with their program. Later on this day while crowds were discussing the latest developments in the Regulators' activity, an affrighted individual joined the men and exhibited the customary paper bag on which was written:
“Pardee and Dyer: You are hereby notified to leave the town and never return, under penalty of your life. Remember the fate of Joe Doane.”
Notices were also posted in Hill's Ferry warning all persons of evil repute to leave that community.
Even in this critical time, Modesto was not without its practical joker. Several prominent citizens whose characters and careers were above reproach, received letters purporting to emanate from the Regulators, requiring them to perform impossible feats or leave the community. This practice evoked the following from the Regulators, which was published in the Farmers' Journal:
“It is reported that evil minded persons have been sending notices signed 'San Joaquin Valley Regulators' to a number of citizens of Modesto, including Dr. Tynan, ordering them to leave town and to perform other impossible deeds.
“Now, therefore, this is to inform all such persons that if we ever find out who they are, we will deal with them according to our law.
“SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY REGULATORS.
“Modesto, April 8, 1884.”
Probably the last notice issued by the Regulators was the one addressed to Barney Garner, who presumably was the leader of the opposition. It read as follows:
“Barney Garner: This is to notify you that if any disturbance is made, property destroyed, or persons injured by the gang ordered out of the county, or if any band is organized to resist the Regulators, or, as has been threatened, any person's property is burned on the supposition that the owner is a Regulator, you will be held personally responsible with your life.
“SAN JOAQUIN REGULATORS.
This letter was published in the News by Mr. Spencer at the request of Garner and twenty other citizens who accompanied him in his visit to the newspaper's office. These men desired the Regulators to withdraw the threat, protesting that under it Garner could be made the victim of his enemies. In publishing the letter Mr. Spencer deplored the attitude of the Regulators in denying the right of free speech, and also the evil reputation they had given the community as a city of lawlessness. Garner, however, was never molested by the Regulators.
This period of Modesto's history – the reign of the Vigilante – was an exciting era. The justification of the existence of the Regulators is found in the accomplishment. Through their activities the town developed into a safer and more law abiding community. The sturdy men who constituted this extra-legal band believed that when the fabric of society falls into untoward hands, when the elected officers are either unwilling or unable to cope with lawlessness and to afford the protection that the forces of government should give to the citizen, it is proper to combat lawlessness with lawlessness until the majesty and the dignity of the law are vindicated. The Regulators left an indelible impression on the town and county.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County. Modesto, CA. 1924.
© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.