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The Disappearance of Mrs. Strong (Part 3)

(The previous two installments described the imprisonment of R.G. Strong in 1873, the 1874 murder of his wife in the Sherwood area, the trial and conviction of David Geiger for that murder, as well as the acquittal of his partner, James Alexander.)

Geiger spent time in state prison, but under the law of the time once an appeal process started he was returned to the county in which he had been convicted. Thus, he bided time at the Sonoma County jail while an appeal for a new trial traveled the judicial halls to the state supreme court the following spring. Late in May, that august body denied the motion for a new trial. The court's order sending Geiger back to state prison was not immediately forthcoming that day, so the prisoner remained locked in one of the boiler-iron cells, as he had every night in those confines. The Sonoma Democrat described what ensued in the county jail during the night of May 24th. “The frames of the doors are of solid iron, one inch thick, into which the bolts of the lock pass to secure it. Geiger worked the brick out from behind one of the side panels and then bent the panel in by means of a brace or lever, sufficient to relieve the bolt which secured the door. After getting out of the cell he sawed a hole through the ceiling, which was of two inch pine boards, then through floor joists and floor of the jury room above. From the jury room, which is in the second story, he let himself down to the ground by a rope made of blankets. How he became possessed of the tools to saw both wood and iron is a mystery. No one was allowed to visit the jail without an officer. His wife was allowed to visit him, but she was always searched, and every precaution taken by the sheriff and his deputies. It is presumed however, that she managed to give him the saws with which he cut his way out. The prisoners who did not go say it took him about six hours to accomplish his escape.”

Only one other prisoner, John Jones (alias Fisher Parker) joined in the escape. He eluded capture for about ten days before a peace officer found him in Petaluma. The officer earned a fifty dollar reward. Jones told a reporter that upon hitting the ground outside the jail, Geiger disappeared into the darkness. The Sonoma Democrat recounted the description of another prisoner about the night of the escape, “He will never forget the wild look that beamed from Geiger’s eyes when Jones told him he would help. He fairly sprang to the cell with a bound, and in a very short time the lock was broken. The same prisoner says before he went away he came to the wicket of my cell and said, 'This is a fearful thing to do, but love of liberty and my family drives me to it. I will live in the woods, die a miserable death, and fight for liberty to the end. Don’t follow in my footsteps,’ and was gone.”

Governor Pacheco almost immediately offered a reward of $500 for Geiger's capture. Ironically, the April term of the Sonoma County Grand Jury had written among its findings about the county jail, “[It] is neatly kept, but we do not consider it a secure prison, and we think the officers in charge should keep irons on desperate characters, such as Geiger, and keep him in the most secure cells.”

In its July 15, 1875 edition, the West Coast Star of Mendocino ran the following item, “Geiger, who made his escape from the Santa Rosa jail a short time ago, is said to be in the vicinity of the Hot Springs, on the south fork of Big river. A Spaniard living about a mile south of the springs says that Geiger was at his place last week, that he came to the house late in the evening and asked for some food and a pair of blankets to sleep in. His request was granted, and he departed in the morning at early dawn. After inquiring for the road to the coast he took the trail leading to the springs. After his departure it was ascertained that the blanket which he had over him during the night was badly cut up. which proves that be must have had a knife in his hand, while in bed, to defend himself, perhaps, in case of an attack upon him during the night.”

Nine days later, the Mendocino Democrat, of Ukiah, printed this subjective rebuttal to the West Coast Star story, “The West Coast Star has a report that someone had seen Geiger, the notorious, in that region of country recently, and that this 'someone' had given him food and a blanket. We can hardly place any reliance on the report, for if true and the man he visited knew him he must have known also that it was his duty to arrest or give an alarm. There's another thing to be considered, and that is is that there's no probability, judging from the past, that Geiger needs to steal food or blanket, for he evidently has friends with means if no means himself, and then again there's his late partner, Alexander, to help him in his need. We may concede that Geiger, if friendless and remaining in the country, might drift into Mendocino County, the place where no one would expect him to come, but the time and manner of his exit from the Santa Rosa jail and his further disappearance, while the party who left with him was rearrested, tell too big a story to allow us to think for a moment that Geiger is now anywhere near this vicinity.”

James Alexander did not linger long in Mendocino County. He moved to the San Joaquin Valley, marrying in Stanislaus County in 1877. He fathered two sons with his wife, Isabella, and lived in Modesto until his death in 1915, at age seventy-five.

After R.G. Strong gained release from San Quentin, he returned to Mendocino County. In the spring of 1874, Doc Standley accompanied him to the site where his wife's body had been discovered. Some twenty-two years later, Standley remembered the journey with Mr. Strong this way, “He was a mean looking fellow and I didn't much relish his company. When I showed him the pool he said coolly, 'So that's where they stuck the ole gal, is it?'

“The next moment he declared he was powerful hungry, and guessed we could eat lunch while he was talking. So we sat down, and he ate greedily, cutting his beef and bread with his old tobacco stained jack-knife, and all the time asking questions about the murder. When he was through he got up and stretched himself, and said, 'Well, I guess I'll take a drink out o' the hole where the ole gal laid.' He got flat down on his stomach to suck up the water, but I turned so sick at the sight that I lit out of there without waiting for him.”

So the story should end... Except that in March, 1898, the San Francisco Call published a story about a man named E.M. Bailey, from Berkeley, who had grown up in Mendocino County. During the previous year, 1897, he had camped in Yosemite and spotted two suspicious men near the campsite. One of them appeared to be past seventy years of age, with long white hair and beard. After the two wandered off, Bailey thought back through decades of memories, trying to recall the aged but familiar face.

Several days later, Bailey meandered off his intended trail in the Minarets, not too many miles south of the upper Yosemite area of Lyell Canyon and Donahue Pass. Stumbling over boulders as he climbed higher and higher, he heard what he considered the unmistakable 'click, click' of a Winchester rifle. He looked upward to spy the same old and young duo from the camp site. By then he remembered who the elderly fellow was and boldly called Geiger's name. “Why do you call me that?” the old man asked without lowering his gun.

Bailey is said to have recounted favors he did for Geiger in the Sherwood vicinity more than a quarter century before. This seemed to relax the old man and he showed Bailey about their system of caves, with a clear, running stream, supplies that ranged from more rifles to books, recent newspapers, and a Dutch oven. Geiger bragged of visits he made to San Francisco unnoticed even by a well known detective.

According to Mr. Bailey, the elderly Geiger was well supplied with cash and appeared content with his lot. Bailey left, promising not to discuss his discovery for at least six months.

A geographical note that may interest readers: The distance from James Alexander's home in Modesto to Yosemite Valley was about seventy-seven miles.

No other reports of Geiger's whereabouts have come to light. One other minor mystery remains. Speculation abounded for several months on whether Geiger killed Mrs. Strong's dog and concealed the body successfully or the poor fellow bolted in fright, never to return. Eventually, the dog, the Strongs, and even the elusive David Geiger faded into forgotten memories.


  1. Frank D Hartzell March 31, 2020

    This is a truly amazing historic thriller and just what we need to read during these times. Such a compelling escape from the pandemic panic news cycle.

  2. George Hollister March 31, 2020

    Malcolm does a very good job writing these local histories. I believe it would be beneficial to compile these non-fiction writings in a single volume, at some point. I know I would want a copy. There are still descendants of some of the characters in these writings living in Mendocino County today.

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