Saturday, December 17, 2016

Unjustly-Convicted “Diamondfield Jack” Davis Finally Released from Prison [otd 12/17]

Diamondfield Jack Davis.
Denver Public Library, Western Collection.
On December 17, 1902, the Idaho Board of Pardons annulled the life sentence of cowboy-gunman Jackson Lee Davis – better known as “Diamondfield” Jack. This action ended a six-year nightmare for Davis.

Verifiable facts are scarce, but penitentiary records indicate that Davis was born around 1870, somewhere in Virginia. He appeared in Idaho in the early 1890s. Pioneer Charlie Walgamott, who lived in the area at that time, wrote, “Jack Davis was very companionable, good in his manners, extremely fond of children, and kind-hearted almost to a fault, but he was a great talker.”

Because of that “talker” reputation, listeners took his bunkhouse stories with a considerable dose of salt. At various times, he claimed to have fought as a revolutionary in South America, lived with Apache Indians in Arizona, and hobnobbed with Cecil Rhodes in South Africa.

He also said he had been a miner in Sonora, Mexico, which might have been true. He performed quite capably during a year or so working in a mine near Silver City. He was among many who chased rumors of diamond strikes in the West … that gave him his “Diamondfield” nickname.

Jack mostly worked as a cowboy in northern Nevada and southern Idaho. He loved to brag about “cutting it in [gun]smoke” in purported battles on the range. This too appeared to have some substance. No one doubted his gun skills, and he had enough of a reputation to get run off one ranch where he sought work.

Local stockmen had reached a “gentlemen’s agreement” concerning the range south and east of today’s Twin Falls: Sheep would remain to the east, cattle stayed west. However, some sheepmen pushed across the so-called “dead line” anyway.

Thus, during the summer of 1895, the Sparks-Harrell Cattle Company [blog, Aug 30] hired Davis as an “outside man.” For a monthly salary of $50 (ordinary hands got $30), the foreman expected Jack and the other outside men to keep the sheep off “company” range.

Intimidation escalated to violence and two sheepmen were shot to death. Suspicion fell on Diamondfield Jack [blog, Feb 16] and he was arrested and tried. The prosecution presented a badly flawed case, but obtained a conviction from a jury composed almost entirely of sheepmen and farmers.

While lawyers appealed Jack’s conviction, the actual shooter and an associate confessed to the killings [blog, Oct 13]: They pled “self-defense” and were acquitted on a murder charge. Yet despite this, Jack twice came within hours of being hanged for the crime.

Authorities finally conceded that perhaps a miscarriage of justice had occurred … and, in July 1901, commuted the hanging sentence to life in prison! Davis spent another seventeen months in prison before a pardon finally set him free.

Afterwards, Jack moved to Nevada and prospered in the mines there, especially around Goldfield, where a boom started about that time. (Goldfield is about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas.) In fact, Davis became something of a celebrity, with write-ups in national as well as regional magazines and newspapers.

But ultimately, the Depression crippled Jack's mining investments and he lived his last years in tight financial circumstances. He died in January 1949 from injuries suffered when he inattentively stepped off a curb in Las Vegas and was struck by a taxicab.
References: David H. Grover, Diamondfield Jack: A Study in Frontier Justice, University of Nevada Press, Reno (1968).
William Pat Rowe, “Diamond-Field Jack” Davis On Trial, thesis: Master of Arts in Education, Idaho State University (1966)
Charles S. Walgamott, Six Decades Back, The Caxton Press, Caldwell, Idaho (1936).


  1. (From Carol Edgley Mecham)

    "Jack Davis (known as Diamondfield Jack) was a hired gun for "the Sparks-Harrell cattle company of southern Idaho and northern Nevada. He was paid $50 a month to keep sheepherders off of what was considered cattle territory. The company instructed him to “…keep the sheep back. Don’t kill but shoot to wound if necessary. Use what measures you think best. If you have to kill, the company will stand behind you – regardless what happens.”

    After “shooting up” several sheep camps, and wounding a sheepman named Bill Tolman, Diamondfield Jack headed south into Nevada to stay out of sight. He realized he might hang if Tolman died. While in Nevada, he bragged about his activities and said he was paid $150 a month in Idaho to kill sheepherders." From Albion Historical Society. Bill Tolman was my great great grandfather. He was shot in the upper right shoulder and never regained full use of his right arm. Diamond field Jack became somewhat of a folk hero. But to our family he was anything but."

  2. The Diamondfield Jack case has been thoroughly explored in a number of full-length books (published before 1980). I've seen the quotes at the top in one of them, but I can't place it.

    As for Jack being a "folk hero" ... I certainly do not consider him one. He deserved some jail time for the assault on Tolman, but a conviction for murder was just wrong.