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The Disappearance of Mrs. Strong (Part 2)

(Last time, we perused the early history of Sherwood Valley and nearby environs, then followed the arrest and imprisonment of road house operator R.G. Strong in 1873 and the early February, 1874, disappearance of his wife.)

John Simpson (think Simpson Lane south of Fort Bragg) and Robert White, early white settlers of the coast and employees of the Mendocino Indian Reservation at Noyo, traveled inland, to the head of Long Valley, as early as 1856. In 1861, they opened a hotel in what came to be known as Cahto. Four years later they erected a split redwood lumber building to stock goods. This grew into Cahto's first general store. Much of the labor to transport goods inland was borne on the backs of Indians. White and Simpson had located near an Indian settlement. By the time of Mrs. Strong's disappearance, Indians outside the Round Valley reservation were essentially indentured servants of white men. In the cases of newspaperman Aurelius O. Carpenter and later Doc Standley, these servants were paid a wage and fed much the same food. One source describes Simpson killing an Indian for stealing an ox. There is some Kato history claiming that White helped save them from something close to annihilation at the hands of the Yuki when he first arrived in their territory. How well Simpson and White fed their workers at Cahto is not clearly documented, but one telling detail arose years later at White's death. He was accorded a wailing, keening send off by the native people who knew him best.

Mr. White deployed several Indian trackers to travel to the Strong home and set out in search of Mrs. Strong. According to the Mendocino Democrat published on Valentine's Day, 1874, the first Indian to find Mrs. Strong would receive a reward. How much was not specified. Speculation at Sherwood to Cahto to Little Lake ran from foul play to Mrs. Strong having gone insane and wandered or ridden off to unknown parts. An initial scouring of the woods nearby turned up no trace of her.

Sheriff S.J. Chalfant put twenty-eight-year-old deputy Jeremiah “Doc” Standley on the case. He arrived at the Strong house on February 18th. That day the Indian trackers found Mrs. Strong's mare at the bottom of a steep gulch. The terrain was too treacherous for a horse to meander into the gulch of its own accord. The horse had a bullet hole through its head and assuredly had been pushed from the top of the bluff above. Additional horseshoe markings could be seen near the top of the precipice where the mounts must have been tied to a tree. Standley and Alfred Sherwood noted that one of the tracks belonged to a mule and David Geiger owned such an animal.

The search on February 19th involved forty to fifty men fanning out from the spot where the horse was found. By the end of the day it produced a comb, with strings and pieces of whale bone used to splice and fasten where it had been broken in the past. More than one member of the search party believed it to belong to Mrs. Strong.

The men returned to the Strong house and sent for a large amount of provisions. On the 20th the searchers started from the locale where the comb had been discovered, but found nothing more of significance. On the 21st they strode the area around Box Springs and on around to the eastern tributaries of Ten Mile River. Standley had been informed about the conflicting statements made by Geiger and Alexander, particularly that they claimed to have seen Mrs. Strong days after anyone else. That evening he spent the night in the home of Geiger and Alexander with the intention of searching it the next day. However, on the 22nd, the deputy skipped that search, returning instead to the area of the comb discovery. Others fanned out in the direction of the mare's body. About a half mile below that location, four searchers, including W.H. Braden and Dr. Wilson, made their way to a place where the gulch dropped precipitously, causing a near freezing waterfall to plummet into a pool beneath. There they spotted the knees of a human body protruding upward from the chilled, fifteen inch deep, water frothing with white foam around the remains. Scrambling carefully down and wading into the frigid pool they found Mrs. Strong attired in her night dress, calico wrapper, stockings and shoes. A large stone pinned her chest beneath the surface. Standley estimated the boulder weighed one hundred fifty pounds. Braden said it might be two hundred fifty or more pounds. The stone was “15 inches one way, 12 the other way, and 8 another way,” according to Deputy Standley.

Braden, being Justice of the Peace for Little Lake Township, requested Dr. Wilson examine the body. The physician removed a portion of the scalp, discovering the head to be fractured all the way across the top. Next, he cut open part of the skull, revealing, as Braden saw it, “the ball had passed near the back of the head a little on one side to the right eye. It [rested] on the blade of the eye—right against the eye.”

With another deputy, David Woodman, Standley traveled directly to the Geiger and Alexander house. He placed them under arrest then took them by horseback to another home for the night.

Word spread of the arrest and indignation grew rapidly. Geiger had told more than one searcher not to bother looking in the area where the body was eventually found. He attempted to direct them to a diametrically opposite location. Anger overcame others who had tromped hundreds of acres earlier in the winter, looking for missing sheep belonging to Geiger. He swore “the old woman” had killed them, but the men who helped in the ovine search only discovered a handful or two. All had died of starvation rather than some nefarious act on the part of Mrs. Strong. These lies and deliberate obfuscations spurred men into a fury that led to a disorganized mob trailing Standley, Woodman, Geiger, and Alexander on horseback as the lawmen and their prisoners galloped their mounts south toward Ukiah.

One of those searchers who'd been lied to by Geiger recounted that someone rode up to his place, with a horse already in a lather, hollering to him that Geiger and Alexander were about to get away and demanding to know if he was going to stand up for law and law abiding citizenry. The other man sped off on his horse, and so the man retelling the incident ran into his barn, saddled his own horse, and started after what he believed was Geiger and Alexander on the lam. “I could hardly tell you what we were running [the horses] for. I hardly knew myself at the time, did not have my wits about me. I was very much excited... I was trying to overtake Mr. Alexander and Mr. Geiger.”

He passed other riders, there were eleven in pursuit all told, and thought he saw the dust of Geiger and Alexander when another man galloped up alongside, shouting that deputies had the accused in custody. That bit of knowledge stopped his pursuit. Standley and Woodman along with their prisoners, latched to their mounts, rode sprinting horses for the last twenty miles before Geiger and Alexander scampered into the county jail, fearing the mob far more than a cell.

By the third week of March a grand jury formally indicted Geiger and Alexander on charges of murder. Petitions from Cahto and Sherwood thence southward through the inland section of Mendocino County circulated from more or less the day of the arrest, petitions for the release of R.G. Strong from state prison. As the grand jury indicted the accused, Governor Newton Booth accommodated the petitioners, pardoning Mr. Strong.

The defendants secured a legal team of five lawyers. Most prominent stood David S. Terry, a past justice on the state supreme court who had resigned that post in 1859 so he could engage in a duel with former Democratic Party ally David Broderick. Terry proved victorious in that challenge, shooting and killing Broderick. The mob sentiment in Mendocino County in 1874 as well as the large number of pardon petitioners potentially tainting the jury pool helped Terry secure a change of venue for Geiger and Alexander.        

In August the defendants' trials were severed; Geiger's case coming to court in Santa Rosa first. Two witnesses testified that after Mrs. Strong went missing, they happened to see Geiger conceal his horse in a clump of bushes and walk to a precipice above a steep gulch, apparently examining something below. Of course, this turned out to be the precise location above the waterfall and pool where Mrs. Strong's body was eventually discovered. A gunsmith from San Francisco testified that the ball taken from Mrs. Strong's head as well as the one procured from her horse's head matched rounds fired from the Smith & Wesson pistol of David Geiger. Another expert gunsmith corroborated the match of balls to weapon.

In Geiger's defense, referring to the mule tracks near the scene of the dead horse, Mr. Sherwood stated the defendant's mule had resided in Sherwood's pasture since July and Geiger had not ridden it sin the interim. In a slight contradiction, another witness said he hadn't seen Geiger astride the mule since autumn. Testimony concluded on August 27, 1874. Prosecution and defense summations consumed the entire day of August 28th, on into the evening. After 7 pm, the judge charged the jury, which deliberated until one in the morning before retiring. At 9:30 am on the 29th, the jury requested the opportunity to reread the testimony of six witnesses. According to the Sacramento Daily Union, “At 2 p. m. the jury returned into court, finding the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree, and fixed the sentence — Prison for life. As her husband's doom was pronounced, Mrs. Geiger fell clinging to his neck, she and the children sobbing bitterly. The spectators were moved to tears at the sorrowful scene, and there was scarcely a dry eye in the the room.”

The Alexander trial began the following Monday. The first day and a half of testimony mirrored the opening of the Geiger case in laying out the basic scenario surrounding Mrs. Strong's disappearance. However, near midday on Tuesday, the defense moved to dismiss evidence of Alexander being a co-conspirator with Geiger. The judge granted the motion. He based the ruling on facts that pointed to Geiger being the perpetrator of most of the circumstantial acts of deception toward the searchers and the mouthpiece of hostile accusations against Mrs. Strong, not to mention it was Geiger, alone, who witnesses observed secretively returning to the scene of the crime while the search remained active. The prosecution was left with no alternative but to present to the jury with limited testimony. The jury did not bother to leave their seats, freeing James Alexander with a not guilty verdict.

Next: Two final twists in the fate of David Geiger

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