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Mr. Mudgett’s Murder

The year, 1896. The season, autumn. The time, murderous.

A neighbor discovered the half cremated body of John Mudgett, a wealthy rancher of Usal, among the embers of his partially burned home. The passing neighbor noticed the altered appearance of the house from a distance. Riding closer he saw the Mudgett place had been at least partially burned. Inside the scorched abode the smell of kerosene still haunted the air. Rags and paper lay strewn about the floor. Two empty cans of kerosene had been hacked open by something akin to an ax or hatchet. Investigating the smoky bedroom, the neighbor found Mudgett in bed, fully dressed, decomposing, with both legs burned off.

John Alexander Harris Mudgett, an unmarried man in his early fifties, lived alone on a tract of land said to include eight hundred to a thousand acres. A native of Penobscot, Maine, he had settled in the northwestern corner of Mendocino County, between Bear Harbor and Usal, a quarter century before his demise. He prospered financially grazing large numbers of cattle and sheep, working the expansive acreage diligently day after day, year upon year. Reputedly a hoarder of the wealth he accrued over time, rumors abounded in those remote environs that Mudgett had money stashed about the house or property.

His body bore unmistakable evidence of death by gunshot before the flames reached him. The house had been fired and the conflagration extinguished by lack of a draft. Kerosene oil had obviously been used to help ignite the fire.

In accounts written as far away as the San Jose Mercury-News, neighbors indicated that much was missing from a recent shipment of winter supplies, including sacks of flour, canned goods, meats, and more. The precise date of the robbery, murder, and fire proved difficult to ascertain due to the isolation of John A.H. Mudgett's home. The neighbor who discovered the scene lived several miles distant and even he had not seen the flames from the blaze or smelled the smoke. The nearest neighbors, the Dodge family, claimed to be unaware of any recent activity at the Mudgett place.

The coroner delayed an inquest. The arrival of Mendocino County Sheriff Johnson's deputies took longer than usual due to an early November election day keeping said officers in the county seat of Ukiah, some ninety far flung miles from the remote site of Mudgett's fiery passing. A local constable declined to undertake any arrest alone, believing it unduly hazardous. However, many residents of the surrounding area acted as if they knew the identities of the guilty party or parties, though they dared not state their charge aloud for fear the offenders would either bolt or wreak revenge on finger pointers.

Once Undersheriff F.C. (Philo) Handy and a posse arrived at the scene, the law abiding folk of the vicinity shared their suspicions, identifying the men they believed to be the culprits as young John Dodge (whose father was a pioneer of the section with an Indian wife), Rube Noble, Charles Smith, and a man named Ferguson. All were labeled well-armed and mounted when last seen.

A full accounting of Mudgett's property by the undersheriff showed $800 in coin missing along with bank drafts totaling a much greater sum. The posse followed the hoof prints of the alleged criminals' mounts eastward toward Island Mountain, so named because the rock formation proved nearly impervious to erosion over the eons. This forced the Eel River to run in an “S” curve around it.

A report in the San Francisco Call identified the pursued as “members of well-to-do families about Usal and the others are halfbreed Indians.”

The Mendocino Beacon elaborated, “Noble and Dodge are half-breed Indians and are known to be treacherous and remarkably accurate and quick with their rifles.”

Island Mountain lies within a range that continues into Trinity County. On November 8, 1896, members of the posse spotted two of their prey on a high pass near that county line, about forty miles distant from the crime scene. The suspects glimpsed the posse men as well then turned their horses into a precipitous gulch, the mounts sliding a hundred feet or more down a rocky incline to hasten their escape. The posse followed a more circuitous route north in an effort to head off the criminals, but were blocked by terrain too difficult to cross. Circling around they caught sight of hoof prints that appeared to double back toward Island Mountain, but lost their quarry amid heavy night rains when their horses entered a thick forest.

On November 9th, the Call opined, “The excitement in this region shows no abatement, and threats of lynching made by friends of the dead man are not idle and grow more alarming.”

That paper went on to detail the identification of Noble and Dodge. “Noble, in particular, has the sneak instincts of a full-blooded Indian. He has but one eye, has remarkable ability as a marksman, and frequently exhibited his skill about town by tossing up a quart can into the air and, with a revolver in each hand, keeping the can dancing in midair until the chambers of the guns became empty. Should the officers corner this man he will shoot and will not waste ammunition.”

After tracking and retracing routes for nearly two hundred miles in three days, traversing as far east as the Yolla Bolly Mountains then returning to the confines of Island Mountain, the posse finally left a well traveled route looking for a favorable campsite as dusk approached. Passing through a marsh, the peace officers noticed smoke rising above a clearing amid brush nearby. Fastening their horses, the posse crept to within a short distance of a campfire. Spotting two persons hurriedly preparing grub, the lawmen pointed their revolvers and rifles and demanded surrender. Without incident they captured one of the known suspects, nineteen year-old John Dodge, and his wife of just over a year's time, Ida.

Half of the posse bound the husband and wife to their mounts with ropes and led them through pouring rains nearly fifty miles back to Usal, arriving drenched at nine o'clock at night. The Dodges were imprisoned at that place pending a decision to hold an initial hearing in Usal or at the county seat in Ukiah.

By this time, news accounts reported, “The evidence as shown against Smith, Ferguson, and Noble is said to be all indirect complicity.”

The other half of the posse eventually apprehended Ferguson and young John Dodge's father. The Dodge family had been sorely pressed for money for some time prior to Mudgett's killing. While no one yet knew of Mudgett's death, folks in the Usal, Bell Springs, and Bear Harbor region grew suspicious when members of the Dodge clan made lavish purchases well beyond anything in their past history.

In testimony given at Usal to a deputy sheriff, John Dodge confessed that John A.H. Mudgett had more than once reached out to furnish the Dodge family with provisions which sustained them when impoverished. Nevertheless, on October 28, 1896, John Dodge loaded his shotgun with homemade buckshot, traveled to a spot near Mudgett's house, and lay in wait. When Mudgett appeared, Dodge emptied the barrels of his shotgun.

The assailant returned to his abode, telling his wife he had been forced to kill Mudgett in self-defense. The couple returned to the Mudgett home, tied sacks around their feet, and tugged the deceased's body into the bedroom. They ransacked the place, taking coin, cash, and bank drafts before pouring kerosene and lighting a match, hoping the entire house would burn to the ground as they made a hasty retreat.

Drawing of John Dodge in San Francisco Chronicle (January 17, 1897)

At trial in January, 1897, the jury did not take long to return a guilty verdict on a charge of murder for John Dodge. At that point, the district attorney dropped the charge of accessory after the fact against Ida.

The judge sentenced John Dodge to a life term in Folsom Prison. However, at some point in the early 1910s, he must have been paroled. A 1933 marriage license for a Myrtle Dodge, aged nineteen, cites her father and mother, named John and Ida Dodge, as residents of Cowlitz County Washington. John Dodge lived in that locale until his death in 1965.

*John A.H. Mudgett does not appear to bear any relation to Herman Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes, the notorious serial killer, most vividly portrayed in Erik Larson's non-fiction book The Devil in the White City. Herman Mudgett descended from a colonial era New Hampshire family. John A.H. Mudgett, as noted, stemmed from Maine. The Mendocino County Mudgett had a nephew, Dr. W.H. Nason, of Usal, who administered the rancher's will. Dr. Nason's mother, the sister of John A.H. Mudgett, was the sole heir. The state of Pennsylvania hanged Herman Mudgett five and a half months before John Dodge shot John Mudgett.

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