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Tinker, Trader, Piano Tuner (Part 2)

See last week's piece for details from the dry summer of 1900 that led to jeweler, horse trader, and piano tuner J.E. King's killing of seventy-year-old farmer Samuel Church on the Sonoma-Marin border.

King had lived in Humboldt County prior to his purchasing his small ranch at Skaggs Springs. Sheriff Grace of Sonoma County contacted Sheriff Smith in Mendocino County. One theory held that King sought a north coast port to gain passage on a schooner to faraway climes. Among other actions taken, an all night guard watched over the span on the bridge at Big River.

No one spotted the fugitive on coast roads, but rumors spread that J.E. King had paid a mid summer visit to Mendocino County. Sheriff Taylor of Marin County recalled that King was the same fellow who had shot and wounded a man some years past. Taylor maintained that in that instance King retreated first to his father-in-law's ranch near Skaggs Springs. There he enlisted a hired hand, whom Taylor described as a half breed Indian, to guide him through Mendocino County's rugged northeastern territory and on over mountain passes into Trinity County.

Taylor seemed certain that the same method was being followed in August, 1900. Taylor's posse traveled north, stopping at Laytonville then Covelo to set up temporary headquarters. At the same time a Trinity County posse, under Deputy Sheriff Grubb, patrolled from the north. Taylor made it clear to posse, public, and press alike that he considered King's guide to be dangerous, asserting that if surrounded a bloody fight would ensue.

As to King's criminal past, in 1891 he was found guilty by a Stanislaus County jury of indecent exposure (an earlier trial ended when the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict). The defendant, King, received a fifty dollar fine. At that time, advertisements in local papers represented him as a “Jeweler, Watchmaker, and Engraver.”

In November, 1891, King was convicted on a battery charge for whipping an eleven-year-old boy who King claimed had taunted the jeweler and his wife about the earlier case. King was fined $60 and sentenced to sixty days in county jail. The Stanislaus County Weekly News concluded its coverage of the matter with this line, “King sometimes acts as if he were demented.”

Throughout the first week of August, 1900, King remained on the loose. Governor Gage raised the reward for his capture to $500. The case appeared solved when word spread south that King had been taken into custody by lawmen in Fort Bragg. Unfortunately, that bit of news turned out to be as untrue as so many other sightings. While Sheriff Taylor encamped at Laytonville briefly, newspapers in Sonoma County reported that he, Sheriff Taylor, had captured King on the coast at Manchester.

Taylor's posse contained twenty-five men, some accomplished trackers. They pushed on beyond Covelo as an account came in from a man on the Mad River who claimed to have positively identified King there in the company of a another man described in the newspapers as “a half breed.”

On August 6th, the San Francisco Chronicle reported from Covelo. “The hunt for J.E. King, the slayer of S.H. Church, is assuming proportions of a great manhunting expedition, and though the fugitive and his half-breed Indian ally are still at large, they had narrow escapes yesterday from capture.”

Taylor's posse had surrounded a cabin in Trinity gulch at nightfall. At some time soon after a lone figure darted out of the cabin into nearby timber. A member of the posse fired once without effect. No trace of another man and only a tiny amount of food was located in the cabin. A second Marin posse, under command of a deputy sheriff, was positioned nearby, but they too missed out on the man fleeing through the woods. Further searching in the dark showed that the pursued possessed two horses.

Meanwhile, a different brand of tragedy lurked at the home of Silas Stice, the house to which Samuel Church was carried to when shot. After he died the local undertaker came and along with him he brought a full jug of embalming fluid. Somehow the jug was left behind and someone placed it in the kitchen pantry. About two weeks after Mr. Church's burial, his son-in-law, Silas Stice, mistook it for a vinegar jug he had recently refilled in town. He mixed a portion of the contents into a salad dressing then served the entire family. Everyone grew more and more violently ill during the night. Fortuitously, no one succumbed. Several days later, the jug, not having been suspected in the previous incident, Mrs. Stice used it again, perceiving it to be vinegar. She poured some of the contents over a cucumber salad. Again, illness struck, but, thankfully, no fatalities. This time, backtracking through the food served and condiment containers, the remaining embalming fluid was discovered.

The posses stuck to what they thought was the trail of J.E. King throughout the first two and a half weeks of August. Combing the Yolla Bolly Mountains, on into Trinity County, and back again. Around the 18th, Sheriff Taylor and his exhausted, overheated men returned to San Rafael. By then, officers of five counties, numbering near a hundred in total, had been after their man for almost a month, traveling as far north as Hayfork. Much of the latter two weeks, Covelo turned into the center for multiple dispatches daily to several newspapers. Often the dispatches proclaimed capture was imminent. The posses did find multiple campfires with live coals, but never the intended target of their search nor the ghost-like Indian said to be his companion.

Sheriff Taylor eventually abandoned the chase and returned to San Rafael on Sunday, August 19th. Eight days later, August 27th, J.G. Clark, constable of Orland and a deputy sheriff, buried his wife at a well attended service. Afterward, William Miller, a longtime friend, told Clark that a man fitting King's description, but calling himself Charlie Jameson, had been on his ranch a few days earlier. This Jameson told the ranch foreman that he was a cousin of William Miller. Mr. Miller informed Deputy Clark that, indeed, he did have Jameson cousins; however, the description the foreman gave fit another second cousin, J.E. King.

Constable Goe, of Chico, was also at the funeral. He and another deputy joined J.G. Clark in a wagon ride to Miller's ranch approximately several miles north of Orland. Not finding King on the Miller property, the lawmen rode on to nearby farms and ranches. They soon discovered that the man in question had circulated among most of these properties, grinding scissors and razors in exchange for meals and small amounts of cash.

Between 10 and 10:30 in the morning, Clark and his fellow officers arrived at the Leybeck red hill turkey farm approximately seventeen miles north of Orland. The owner was absent and had left the scissor-sharpener in charge. He sat on the steps of a porch, appearing ragged and forlorn. He explained that he had been out herding turkeys. A shotgun rested behind him on the porch. When asked his name, he proclaimed that it was Charlie Jameson.

In a bit of irony, one of the deputies asked if there was a place to water their horses. When King walked to a well to draw a bucket of water, and at a distance from the shotgun, Officer Goe pinned the man's arms behind his back, announcing that he was under arrest. “What me?” King responded.

With King continuing to claim the Jameson name, a cousin of nearby rancher Miller, the lawmen tied his hands, placed him in the wagon, drove directly to Orland, caught the next train south, and had King in San Francisco by 8:30 that night. The next day he ferried to Marin County in custody. Silas Stice and two local lawmen positively identified the prisoner as J.E. King. The prisoner received that news rather coolly, responding that he was a cousin of King, but not the man himself.

Finally, after hours and hours of conversations with one of the local officers who had seen him repeatedly at nearby stables, King admitted his identity, that he had shot Mr. Church. He recounted some of the details leading up to the rifle shot, but claimed he was not guilty of murder. Beyond that confession, King remained guarded and periodically silent. Occasionally, he spoke of Sheriff Taylor's pursuit. “He was within two or three miles of me several times, but the best man on earth could not have found me up on those mountains.”

King recounted that when he parted from his wife near the Church ranch, he possessed three changes of clothing. Thus he was able to, in some way, alter his appearance every two to three days. He laughed while recalling a time when he sat on a mountainous vantage point and watched Sheriff Taylor's posse passing almost directly below him. He said his only regret was that he had not continued north to Oregon, where felt he would have been safe from capture.

By mid-September, the Marin County District Attorney decided to charge King with murder. In early October, King pleaded not guilty. The trial was set to commence on October 22nd. The prosecution's case was rather straight forward in recounting the events surrounding the shooting. Since no casing for the second round fired was found, the defense questioned whether King had fired a shot at Silas Stice as he fled the scene.

The defense's case rested mainly on character witnesses recounting times when Samuel Church had allegedly uttered violent threats. The trial itself took up five weekdays. Lengthy closing arguments on both sides and the judge's charge to the jury ran through Saturday into the night. The jury took two hours to reach a verdict the next day, much of it taken up with the appropriate degree of punishment. They returned to the courtroom with a verdict of guilty as to manslaughter. King sat without expression during the reading of the verdict. His wife burst into tears then clung to her husband for several minutes before Sheriff Taylor led him away. With no particular inflection, King told the Sheriff that he had expected an acquittal.

The judge sentenced King to ten years in San Quentin. The judicial system wasted little time in 1900. King was processed into state prison on November 5th.

Little if anything survives about King's life at San Quentin. He gained release after six and a half years, in early May, 1907.

In 1908, he was accused of indecent exposure in the spring then tried on a rape charge in the autumn. He beat that when the victim recanted on the witness stand. King moved south to San Bernardino County. In 1909, he was tried on an a sexual assault charge, found guilty, and sentenced to fifteen years in Folsom Prison.

Folsom released him in 1918. He moved to Santa Clara County, first lodging with others then earning enough as a watchmaker and jeweler to own his own small home. He died in the summer of 1941, a year dry enough that Los Angeles, not satisfied with only the Owens Valley, began diverting the water that fed Mono Lake as well.

As to the Indian alleged to have helped King through Mendocino County rugged hills and mountains, King refused to acknowledge such a person. If he did exist, he slipped into perpetual anonymity.

(More tales of the long gone at

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