Tinker, Trader, Piano Tuner

July, 1900, evolved into a hot, dry month in Northern California. As thirty-eight-year-old J.E. King and his wife left their small Skaggs Springs ranch they had little idea the season would turn deadly. They traveled by day in their four horse wagon, camping at night in a tent that proved spacious for two. Also in their possession: a light spring buggy and several other horses to be offered for trade or sale.

They followed the old Indian trail that had become a road to the west. At Stewart's Point they turned south. J.E earned money here and there sharpening knives, scissors, axes, and other implements. He possessed skills as a jeweler and piano tuner, but that kind of employment was scarcer.

Sometime during July 22nd, King and his wife fastened one corner of their tent to a fence in the vicinity of Two Rock. Mr. King had tuned the piano at the Two Rock Grange in recent times as well as performing piano tuning in some homes in the area.

That fence turned out to be almost smack dab on the Sonoma-Marin county line. The fence also belonged to Samuel Howard Church and had for almost four decades since he settled in the area in the early 1860s following a trip from Iowa in a wagon pulled by a team of oxen.

With the county road on the opposite side of the fence, the Kings set up camp at the end of a row of eucalyptus trees. A single silver poplar provided shade. A wire mattress placed atop cracker boxes served as a bed inside their tent. The tailgate of the wagon doubled as a sideboard and table to prepare and eat food.

Mr. King, a diminutive man of no more than five and a half feet in height, weighed about one hundred thirty-five pounds. Perhaps to compensate, he carried a rifle with him. Mrs. King possessed a double-barreled shotgun, usually lodged beneath the seat of the buggy.

Mr. Church was seventy years of age, with a wife, ten grown children and grandchildren. One of his children, Dr. Frank Church, had died only three months previous. Samuel Church's sizable ranch straddled the Sonoma and Marin county line.

It being exceedingly dry, early the following morning, Mr. and Mrs. King walked the four wagon horses onto the Church property in search of water. They found a trough in a barnyard adjacent to the family creamery. Silas Stice, a son-in-law of Mr. Church, stepped out of the creamery telling King that he had a lot of gall to water four horses without first asking permission, particularly on a ranch in short supply of such liquid.

King allegedly responded in a surly manner, threatening Church's son-in-law for speaking in a harsh tone in front of Mrs. King. However, the couple retreated with their horses in tow.

A short time later, Mr. Church accompanied his son-in-law on a look-see stroll out toward the county road. King had found a boarded over well not too far from where he had attached the corner of his tent. He busied himself prying away timbers that covered the well then employed a long eucalyptus branch to dip a bucket down to the water. By the time Church and his son-in-law arrived on the scene a rope had been procured to replace the eucalyptus branch. The pair of men started in nailing boards over the well again. Some cursing ensued before King retreated beyond his tent to the county road, saying, “You can't drive us from the public highway.”

Mr. Church acknowledged as much, but also said that he could make King detach his tent from the fence. Next, he more or less formally requested King do just that. The piano tuner and horse trader stepped toward the tent, announcing, “Damn you, I will shoot **** out of you.”

Church responded, almost blithely, “Well, shoot if you want to.”

King strode out of the tent, rifle in hand, face red, and fired a single round from his rifle. The shot struck Church in the right side of the abdomen, sending him straight to the ground.

Supposedly, in the moments after downing Mr. Church, J.E. King expressed sorrow for shooting the much older man. However, as the son-in-law ran away in a serpentine route, dodging behind gum trees, King took aim at the moving target. He fired once, but missed, and Stice made it safely back to the house.

The shooter walked over to Church, turned the wounded man on his side and said, “I got the old man.” He rolled Church over farther then commented to his wife, “There aren't any bloodstains on the ground.”

According to Mrs. King, she thought Mr. Church had made some sort of threatening movement toward her husband, precipitating the shot. She also described what they did next. “After the unfortunate affair we started out for Petaluma, and it is my belief that my husband intended to give himself up to the authorities. Had he carried out that plan I have no doubt that he would have easily established his innocence.”

Church remained conscious for some time, but died from his wound late that afternoon. J.E. King did not follow through on his intention to travel to Petaluma. Instead, he left his wife's side and disappeared.  Sheriff Taylor of Marin County formed a posse that set out in pursuit.  

The wagon was abandoned at the scene of the crime. Mrs. King took the buggy and extra horses into a Santa Rosa livery. She gave her version of the shooting to a deputy sheriff at the Eagle Hotel in Sonoma's county seat. She also said that she and her husband parted company at the eucalyptus grove, believing he was bound for Petaluma on foot. She denied to the deputy that her husband fired on Silas Stice. After failing to sell any of their horses in Santa Rosa, Mrs. King returned to Skaggs Springs to stay at the home of a neighbor. By then, readers of Sonoma County newspapers had been reminded that some months prior the superintendent of county schools had instructed teachers, in writing, not to pay the exorbitant rates demanded by Mr. King for tuning pianos and organs in school houses.

Sheriff Taylor of Marin County formed a posse that set out in pursuit of King. Newspapers published a description of King that not only highlighted his height and weight but also his thick, dark mustache, “light complexion and light eyes” as well as the dark colored clothes he was last seen in along with a black Derby hat and negligee shirt.

Lawmen stationed themselves around the Eagle Hotel while Mrs. King remained in Santa Rosa, hoping to catch her husband trying to slip in for a visit. No such luck. J.E. King effectively disappeared from public view. On July 27th, Mr. Church's widow drove with her sons to the sheriff's office in Santa Rosa to post a $200 dead or alive reward on the accused, with an additional $75 offered for information leading to an arrest.

The following day, the Petaluma Argus-Courier made light of the failure to apprehend the shooter, printing a front page story about J.E. King visiting the paper's office. The article headlined that King, same height, build, and mustache sauntered into the office looking to register to vote. Of course, it turned out to be another J.E. King.

The reward offer from Mrs. Church was printed and posted all over most of the towns in Sonoma County. This set amateurs out to scour the hills, valleys, and barnyards, but to no success. Fortunately, no partial lookalikes, alternate J.E. Kings, or other innocent civilians were shot down in the scurry aimed at the reward money.

Reports of King's whereabouts varied. A man in Fairfield thought he saw the wanted figure passing through town on his way toward Vacaville. Two domestics working for the state prison director in San Rafael spotted a man they identified as J.E. King. Sheriff's deputies arrested him, but, alas, he was not the killer of Mr. Church after all.

An alleged sighting of the wanted man placed him at a farm near Cotati only a few hours after the Sonoma County Sheriff had visited the place. The stranger ate dinner with the farmer, gobbling the food as fast as it hit the plate. The ravenous eater told his host that he had spent the previous day and night hiding in a barley field. For whatever reason, the farmer waited almost a full day before reporting the incident to law enforcement. He said he last saw the man he believed to be King heading east toward the railroad tracks.

Ray Church, the victim's youngest son, and according to the San Francisco Chronicle purportedly a crack shot, set out on his own the same day as the reward offer. He headed toward Skaggs Springs upon hearing that Mrs. King had returned there and a report came through of King having eaten breakfast at Sebastopol a few days prior. The same rumor held that King had set off toward the coast.

The following day a Petaluma newspaper ran a story in which Ray Church, still at home, denied virtually all of the Chronicle story. He added that he was no more a crack shot than any of his brothers. The case had become something of a turn of the century media circus with posses from multiple counties chasing after a lone suspect. False rumors of his capture made the pages of newspapers from Mendocino County to San Francisco. His whereabouts were an even more frequent subject of speculation, with seemingly sincere stories describing King heading east and west as well as north.

(Next time: The search for the elusive James Edward King broadens to Mendocino County.)

One Response to "Tinker, Trader, Piano Tuner"

  1. Frank Hartzell   June 27, 2020 at 6:31 am

    Church and King would probably recognize the Two Rock and Marin-Sonoma line area today- not many places still home to cattle ranches and hay fields left like that area.

    Reply

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