Friday, October 13, 2017

Cattleman Bower Describes “Self-Defense” Shooting of Sheepmen Wilson and Cummings [otd 10/13]

On October 13, 1898, James E. Bower, Superintendent for the Sparks-Harrell Cattle Company, appeared before a Cassia County Justice of the Peace and made a sworn statement about the killings of sheepmen John Wilson and Daniel Cummings.  The two had been found shot to death at a spot about 25-30 miles south of today’s Twin Falls, Idaho. The bodies had been discovered in mid-February 1896 [blog, Feb 16].

Sheep wagon. Library of Congress.
Bower stated that he and cowboy Jeff Gray had ridden into a sheep camp between 11 o’clock and noon on February 4th [blog, Feb 4]. The sheepmen had located their wagon well west of the “dead line,” the boundary established by gentlemen’s agreement between sheep and cattle range.

The cattlemen did not recognize either of the herders, leading them to suspect that they were “tramps” out of Utah. So-called “tramp” stockmen – who could be running sheep or cattle – grazed their herds on range normally used by settled stockmen, but hurried the animals away before a tax assessor showed up.

Bower stated that they were invited into the sheep wagon, where he queried the sheepmen about their status in the area. One herder asserted positively that they did pay taxes in the county. The cattleman, who felt sure the animals were not on the county rolls, said, “I think you are mistaken about that.”

The sheepman angrily leaped at Bower and grabbed his coat collar near the throat. The older man tried to pull a revolver to protect himself. His opponent wrestled it away from him, although Bower still had his arm. Meanwhile, the sheepman’s rush had dumped Gray out of the wagon. Gray yelled at the attacker to stop. When he persisted and the other man lifted a rifle, Gray fired two shots … frightening the sheepmen and ending the attack on Bower.

Bower claimed that when they left the camp the two strangers seemed all right, except for a superficial scrape on the man who seized Bower’s gun. Both sheepmen had, of course, been fatally wounded. Later, Bower realized that he had left behind a new corncob pipe. That pipe had been found along with the bodies of Wilson and Cummings, but prosecutors never attempted to explain its presence.

Diamondfield Jack Davis.
Denver Public Library, Western Collection.
The deposition, with its self-defense assertion, caused a sensation. Eighteen month earlier, a jury had convicted cowboy-gunhand “Diamondfield” Jack Davis of the killings. His attorneys easily answered the prosecution’s flimsy and deeply flawed circumstantial evidence. Yet, despite “reasonable doubt,” Jack’s reputation and earlier threats against sheepmen led to a quick conviction … by a jury made up of sheepmen, farmers, and one miner.

That verdict was under appeal – but several appeals had already failed and Jack was scheduled to hang on June 4. Incredibly, the confession, supported under oath by Gray, only bought time, it did not win Jack’s freedom. After more legal fireworks, the Idaho Board of Pardons set a new hanging date of December 16, 1898.

In fact, Jack Davis twice came within hours of  being hanged for a crime he had nothing to do with. In July 1901, the Board revisited the physical evidence. Then, totally ignoring the Bower-Gray confessions, they decided Davis could not have done the shooting … so they rescinded the death decree and imposed a sentence of life imprisonment!

Davis was not pardoned and released until late in 1902 [blog, Dec 17].
References: David H. Grover, Diamondfield Jack: A Study in Frontier Justice, University of Nevada Press, Reno, Nevada (1968).
Mike Hanley, with Ellis Lucia, Owyhee Trails: The West's Forgotten Corner, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho (1973).
Byron DeLos Lusk, Golden Cattle Kingdoms of Idaho, Master's thesis, Utah State University, Logan (1978).
William Pat Rowe, “Diamond-Field Jack” Davis On Trial, thesis: Master of Arts in Education, Idaho State University (1966).

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