The Shrum Murder Mystery (Part 1)

White men first set eyes on Round Valley on an April day. Promptly they killed a couple score of the people who had been living there for who knows how long. Round Valley, where grass can grow so high this time of year, a man can fairly hide in it standing up. At least that what was said of it in the late 1870s. Round Valley, where the middle fork of the Eel River flows through it so thoroughly it almost resembles a serpent encircling its prey.

On the evening of July 11, 1878, Andrew Jackson (A.J.) Shrum stood on the porch of his home on the east side of Round Valley. Supper concluded, Shrum and his wife, Lizzie, along with neighbor Albert Smith, had moved outdoors to enjoy a chat in the twilight. The Shrums' six and seven year old daughter and son remained inside. Darkness swallowed more dusk as the minute hand on the clock edged upward from 8:30 toward nine. Mr. Shrum noticed an unfamiliar horse at some distance in his field. Loose stock gaining entrance to the property had been a problem for quite some time. 

He strode from the porch and out into the darkening field perhaps two hundred fifty yards. A single shot rang out. The horse galloped away. Lizzie Shrum ran to her husband's side with Mr. Smith not far behind. A bullet had penetrated A.J. Shrum's clothing at the waist.

Within minutes, neighbors responded to the gun shot and shouts for help. A doctor arrived in relatively short order, finding the thirty-eight-year-old Mr. Shrum fully conscience, but entirely unable to move. The bullet had passed through, splintering his backbone before making an exit. The victim spoke; however, he offered no identification about his assailant; it having been too dark to make out just who he might be. Internal hemorrhaging killed Shrum before the next dawn. 

The following day, Captain George, along with two other Indians and a number of white men, attempted to track the horse that ran off from Shrum's field. Almost immediately beyond that field the trace of a hoof print was lost. Somewhat farther along a dim trail led to the barn of the Anthony family. 

Eighteen-year-old Jesse Anthony was taken into custody, but soon released after several witnesses placed him in the town of Covelo at eight-thirty and his sister stated he returned home a few minutes before nine, heading straight to bed. 

Elizabeth, “Lizzie” Helm Shrum was thirteen years younger than her husband and six months pregnant at the time of his murder. Her father, a Baptist minister, Shelby Weeden Helm, arrived on the scene to comfort her. The local citizenry gathered $1,500 as a bounty for the arrest and conviction of the murderer. The governor's office added another $500 for the apprehension of the culprit.

A newspaper of the time described Mrs. Shrum as rather prepossessing in appearance and quite intelligent. Another recounted her marriage, at age seventeen, when she and her family lived near Guerneville. That paper stating she “bore a good reputation among those who knew her.”

Supposedly, an attachment had grown between her and James Anthony, the twenty-one-year-old brother of Jesse Anthony. A fondness so strong that Mrs. Shrum and both Anthony brothers conspired to remove Mr. Shrum permanently. So the county district attorney determined and in mid November, with Lizzie Shrum having given birth to her third child, a daughter, three weeks prior, a county judge held her and the Anthony brothers over on a murder charge.

The prosecution's theory held that Jesse Anthony had done the shooting so his brother and Lizzie Held Shrum could be together. Thus, Jesse went on trial first in mid-April of 1879. One newspaper, the Petaluma Weekly Argus, reported that the trial had “nearly depopulated the surrounding country and is the all-engrossing topic of conversation.”

Mendocino County's Board of Supervisors employed Barclay Henley (for $500), former Assemblyman and past district attorney of Sonoma County, to assist twenty-nine-year-old Augustus L. Hart (he would become California's Attorney General the following year), in prosecuting the case. More than a hundred witnesses, almost equally divided between prosecution and defense, were summoned. The jury deliberated forty-two hours before announcing they could not reach a unanimous verdict. Ten favored conviction, but two voted to acquit. 

Almost immediately thereafter, James Anthony went on trial. The Ukiah City Press reported, “Only six men are left in Round Valley. The Anthony cases have called the whole population to the number of 149, [ten] women included, to the county seat

The case proceeded along similar evidentiary lines. The prosecution rested largely on the testimony of William Brown, a neighbor, to whom James Anthony supposedly confessed while expressing a desire that the crime be pinned on Albert Smith. According to Mr. Brown, James Anthony said, “If we could convict anybody, it would do away with the damned noise, and me and Jesse would be just as much thought of as we were before we did it.”

At ten in the morning, May 2nd, the twelve jurors returned to the courtroom. “We, the jury, find the defendant, James Anthony, guilty of murder in the first degree, and recommend that he be punished by imprisonment for life.”

The Ukiah City Press opined, “The same evidence is adduced, with some slight exceptions, as was had on the first trial, and though he [James Anthony] proves an undoubted alibi [City Press emphasis], he is found guilty of murder in the first degree.”

That alibi came in the form of testimony of the proprietor of the Scott Valley House. Said proprietor making clear that James Anthony arrived at the establishment around five in the afternoon on the day of Mr. Shrum's murder and stayed at Scott Valley House until the next morning.

The same day as the verdict in the James Anthony case, Lizzie Shrum filed a new bond in the amount of $3,000 to remain free until her trial. Jesse Anthony's bond for purposes of a second trial was set at $8,000. 

James Anthony's request for a retrial was denied, but his appeal proceeded rather quickly to the state supreme court. By November, the largest transcript to that date, nearly 600 pages of testimony, made its way to Sacramento.

As the appeal moved along, James Anthony continued to be housed in Mendocino County's jail in Ukiah. In the cell next to him was John Fleming Wheeler, recently arrested in Mendocino on a charge 

of murder for his role in a crime that led to the fatal ambush of two posse men a few miles east of the coastal town. Anthony later claimed to have made a babbit key from zinc with two bricks, but it is more likely that Wheeler, a practicing dentist, who held a patent for a new type of luggage latch, fashioned the key that unlocked their jail cell doors just after dark on the first Friday in November, 1879. Another possibility: Wheeler taught Anthony the process. Dr. Wheeler earned his patent, and practiced dentistry, while serving eight years in San Quentin, 1869-1877. He'd gained parole two years early on a ten year term affixed for a conviction on a charge of robbing the U.S. Mail from a stagecoach in the Blue Mountains of Oregon.

Either two saddled horses waited for them in the Briggs stable near the Ukiah jail or Wheeler and Anthony commandeered the mounts quickly. Other than nearly dashing over 26-year-old musician Nancy “Noonie” Boulon, the pair made their way north, into the dark, undetected.

(Next time: The fates of the Anthonys and Lizzie Shrum)

One Response to "The Shrum Murder Mystery (Part 1)"

  1. Frank D Hartzell   May 6, 2020 at 6:34 pm

    A readymade Western equal to the “Shootout at the OK Corral” and a cooler dentist too. Would like to read the horse tracking forensic report in that 600 page trial transcript.

    Reply

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