On the evening of May 28, 1915, 25-year-old Clarence Tracy set out on horseback from his mother's home in the Cummings-Spy Rock district, northern Mendocino County. He was headed to his own cabin less than a mile away, where he planned to retrieve some items and return straightaway.
Around 9 p.m. Clarence's mother said she saw Clarence's horse standing motionless on the dirt trail south of Leggett that is now a section of Highway 101, but Clarence was nowhere in sight. Other reports suggest the riderless horse returned all the way to Mrs. Tracy's cabin.
Either way, Clarence's horse without Clarence was a cause for concern. Had he fallen? Was he unconscious somewhere on the trail?
Mrs. Tracy immediately sent a second son, Lawrence, out to search for his brother, but Lawrence could find no sign of Clarence in the dark, semi-wilderness of 1915 Mendocino County, a region whose menace is as present now as it was then.
The next day's rising sun brought illumination but no solace to the Tracy family when Clarence's bloody corpse was discovered sprawled in the dirt just off the path leading from his mother's house to his cabin.
It had been close to midnight by the time Mendocino County Sheriff Ben Byrnes, District Attorney McCowen and Court Reporter Prather arrived from Ukiah to examine Clarence's body. The government men quickly determined that Clarence had died from two shots fired at close range into his back. The young man had been murdered.
The best tracker in the county, Andy Bowman, was summoned to analyze the crime scene. After spending a considerable time studying the horse and human prints, Bowman read the evidence as follows: Clarence Tracy had arrived at his own cabin, tied up his horse, and gone inside. He then left his cabin, remounted his horse, and started riding back to his mother's home. After traveling but a short distance Clarence had dismounted and walked off the trail, as if going to meet someone who had called out to him.
Bowman believed Tracy had been challenged to fight. His coat was partially removed, its left sleeve stuck on his arm, and that seemed to be the moment he was shot twice in the back with a .38 revolver. One slug struck near the right kidney, and the second shattered his right collar bone.
The intrepid Bowman tried to follow the path of the killer or killers, but the trail was too obscured by the tracks of other horses and mountain pedestrians.
Suspecting a cold-blooded murder, Sheriff Byrnes and District Attorney McCowen began interviewing neighbors and whatever potential witnesses they could turn up, and soon discovered that Clarence Tracy had been involved in a long-running feud over land rights and livestock with a “half-breed Indian couple” named Millard Means and his wife Alice “Nellie” Means.
Old-time locals said that the rivalry stretched back to the year 1900, and had ignited over hogs, specifically the theft of hogs, and hog grazing rights.
The Means and the Tracys lived on adjoining homesteaded parcels of federal land; and only the previous week had Clarence Tracy had testified against the Means in federal court regarding their ongoing arguments over hog grazing access. Yes, they were uncomfortable neighbors, but two shots from behind on a dark night over hogs?
When Sheriff Byrnes and his entourage visited the Means' cabin, the couple made no attempt to hide their responsibility for Clarence's death. At first the 33-year-old Millard Means admitted that he had shot Clarence Tracy. But he soon changed his story, gallantly claiming that his wife Nellie had done the shooting.
Mrs. Means fessed right up. She said that her husband and Clarence had been fighting, but when Clarence pulled a pistol she had shot him to save her husband's life.
Clarence Tracy's family indignantly denied that Clarence was armed at the time of his death, and no weapon belonging to Clarence was recovered at the crime scene. But the .38 revolver used to kill Clarence was also missing, with Nellie Means claiming it had been lost in the ensuing panic and chaos of the fighting and the shooting,.
District Attorney McCowen saw Clarence's death as a clear case of homicide. He charged Millard and Nellie Means with capital murder. Bail was set at $10,000 each, the equivalent of a million dollars today, and a sum far beyond the ability of Spy Rock hog farmers to raise.
Confined to the County Jail at Ukiah, Millard Means eventually admitted to Sheriff Byrnes that he had thrown the murder weapon beneath a burnt tree just north of the site of his death struggle with Clarence Tracy. He described in detail the spot and the fire-damaged tree, and soon the relentless pair of lawmen, Sheriff Byrnes and Tracker Bowman, were searching for the fatal .38. Bowman spent several hours in careful observation of the signs leading off from the burned tree before “discovering the instrument of death,” as the Ukiah papers described it, half a mile away.
The killers had hidden the pistol in the upper branches of a fallen pine.
Millard Means was the first to be tried for murder. In an intriguing twist, the presiding Judge White had, as a younger attorney, defended Millard Means's father on a murder trial, and won the father's acquittal.
Sensational homicide trials being something of a family tradition, Millard Means, in a show of bravado, took the stand to defend himself. From a police photo it's apparent that Means was a handsome man whose dark looks might have landed him work in Hollywood as a Egyptian deity or, in keeping with his personality, a dastardly Italian count. Millard did land quite a few outback maidens in addition to the comely Mrs. Means, or so the talk went on those long winter nights in cozy Spy Rock cabins when story telling was the primary entertainment.
Means coolly reasoned that he had not fired the shots that had killed Clarence Tracy, so how could he be the murderer? True, there had been bad feelings between himself and the deceased, but it was, he claimed, the bitter and violent Clarence Tracy who provoked the attack.
The jury deliberated for 23 hours, then announced the verdict: not guilty. Millard Means was a free man.
The trial of Mrs. Nellie Means for the murder of 25-year-old Clarence Tracy commenced soon afterwards. As unflappable as her husband, Nellie astounded the courtroom by calmly confessing that she had indeed sent two slugs into Clarence's unsuspecting back. But as a member of the weaker sex set upon by a frothing madman on a deserted country path, what was she supposed to do? Nellie Means said her actions were nothing more than a variant of the “unwritten law” defense, whereby many a frontier man had been acquitted of murder where the killing had been in the protection of his wife's honor.
Nellie Means described the fateful circumstances: “My husband and I left home to go hog hunting the afternoon of the shooting. We separated and, while I was waiting for him, I saw Clarence Tracy coming up the hill, riding pretty fast on a horse. He jumped the brush fence and headed my husband off. I heard him say: 'What right have you to hunt hogs on my land?' When my husband protested that he had a right to hunt hogs wherever they ran, I saw Tracy jump off his horse and pull a pistol. He started towards my husband and I shot him.”
District Attorney McCowen reminded the defendant and jury that no gun was ever found on or near Tracy's dead body. But Nellie Means remained adamant: Clarence Tracy had a gun, and he was about to use it on her husband.
In his closing arguments, Charles Kasch, one of Nellie's defense team, stunned the courtroom by claiming Clarence Tracy was the most vile and despicable creature to ever darken Mendocino County, and that the courageous and faithful Nellie Means deserved a crown of glory for ridding the public of his presence. Kasch insisted that Clarence was unfit for a proper burial, as he was a specimen too villainous to fertilize God's fragrant flowers, and that his poisoned corpse should have been hanged from a tree as its fetid odors dissipated by heaven's eternal breezes.
The Ukiah papers, there were two of them then, managed to accurately capture Kasch's thunder, which was too much for Clarence's grieving mother. Mrs. Tracy fled from the courtroom as shocked spectators agreed that defense attorney Kasch's Old Testament rhetoric was “nefarious” and “degenerate.”
The jury deliberated for 17 hours before reaching its decision. Nellie Means, who admitted to shooting Clarence Tracy twice in the back, was also found not guilty. She was free to join her previously emancipated husband, Millard.
(In an interesting sidenote, E.E. Robinson, who later became a judge, recalled that his work as a young lawyer helping to defend both Mr. and Mrs. Means was among the most memorable of his career, despite that both skipped town without paying a single penny of his modest fee.)
A year later, Nellie Means disappeared.
The mountain people would say that the old gods have their own systems of justice. Only a year after being acquitted for shooting Clarence Tracy, Nellie Means mysteriously vanished from her remote Spy Rock cabin. No one had seen her for weeks, maybe longer. And no one ever saw her again. Had the family of Clarence Tracy gotten its long-anticipated revenge?
As rumors of a blood vendetta swirled, Sheriff Byrnes and his posse searched the sparsely populated hills northwest of Laytonville for the absent Mrs. Means, but without success. While some believed that Nellie's disappearance was the work of the Tracy clan; others, including the reliably clear-sighted Sheriff Byrnes, suspected that Millard himself had murdered his wife, in order to pursue a romantic entanglement with a certain Mrs. Thurman of Point Arena.
Millard Means, once again in the interrogation chair, gave the skeptical Sheriff Byrnes several conflicting stories about his missing wife's whereabouts, and also about the circumstances of their last meeting. A search of the Means' cabin and ranch revealed nothing — no impromptu grave or bleached skeleton could be found. Nellie remained missing, and neither her unfaithful husband Millard nor a member of Clarence Tracy's family was ever charged.
Millard Means did not stay on the right side of the law for long. In March of 1918 Sheriff Byrnes was on Millard's trail again, this time for passing fraudulent checks. On a trip to Chicago while chasing another Mendocino crook, Sheriff Byrnes somehow encountered Nellie Means's mother, Mrs. Harriett Powell, who also happened to be in the Windy City.
Mrs. Powell told the sheriff that while she had no information about her missing daughter or her scurrilous son-in-law, that rogue fancy man, Millard, she had received a curious letter from a person calling himself Henry E. Thurman, of Fort Bragg, asking for a loan of $3 to be sent to an address in Washington, D.C.
At first Sheriff Byrnes thought nothing of the strange letter, but two days later, watching the desert sage from the window of a train headed back to California, the lawman remembered that Millard Means was amorously involved with a Mrs. Thurman of Point Arena.
Was Millard Means posing as Henry E. Thurman? Was he so desperate for a measly 3 bucks that he was sending fake begging letters to his mother-in-law?
Sheriff Byrnes sent a telegram to Washington, D.C., where police arrested the 35-year-old Millard Means, who had been posing as a soldier named Henry Thurman.
Sheriff Byrnes, eager to at last nail Means even on a relatively petty charge, got off his train at the next station, then hopped onto the first eastbound train available to personally bring Means back to Mendocino County.
In the nation's capital, the Sheriff learned that Means had left Mendocino County for Washington state, where he had changed his name to Thurman, the same name as his Point Arena girlfriend, then enlisted in the U.S. Army. Means was taken into custody a mere two days before his unit shipped out to France and World War One.
When Sheriff Byrnes and his prisoner returned to Ukiah, Means was held on charges of forgery and issuing fictitious checks. Specifically, Means was accused of forging the name of Philo Short of Island Mountain for $125 on a check cashed in Willits; he had also cashed two checks totaling $30 in Little Lake, despite having no money in the bank to cover them. Additionally, Means faced the federal crime of enlisting under an assumed name, which carried a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. (That charge was not pursued.)
Means pled not guilty to all charges, but this time the court disagreed, and in 1918, he was packed off to San Quentin to serve one to seven years on three forgery counts.
After leaving San Quentin, Millard Means next made local news on June 20, 1924, when Mrs. W.G. Altheimer of Walker, California, lost control of the car she was driving, and plunged 20 feet down the brand-new Klamath River Highway, near Yreka. One of her passengers was Millard Means, who was thrown from the rolling vehicle and suffered a broken jaw. The car's third occupant, Mrs. Ellen Price, escaped with mere cuts and bruises. The driver, Mrs. Altheimer, sustained a broken shoulder. The car was destroyed beyond repair. The handsome man never lacked for female company, but bad things tended to happen to his love interests.
Three years later, on April 15, 1927, Millard Means was arrested once again, this time for changing a 10-cent United States treasury check to $1,000. The check for a dime was issued to Steven S. Green of Siskiyou County. Apparently Means, described as an “itinerant miner,” found the check and altered the payable amount to its wildly implausible multiples. Its clumsy swindler was arrested while attempting to cash the falsified government note at a bank in Weed, and sentenced to 366 days in the Sacramento County Jail.
One year later, in 1928, the long-simmering Means-Tracy feud erupted again in spectacular violence. For a quarter century, Horatio “Don” Patton and Ed Tracy had lived as uneasy neighbors, but as old timers noted, “never without a rifle at their sides.”
By all accounts the two men had been involved in disagreements over livestock and property lines for decades. It was Patton's stepdaughter, the disappeared Nellie Means, who had shot Ed Tracy's son, Clarence, twice in the back, before going missing herself a decade earlier. That grim fact didn't do much to take the heat out of their property disputes.
It was common knowledge around Spy Rock that Don Patton didn't share Sheriff Byrnes's belief that Nellie was slain by her husband, Millard Means, so Means could pursue a seaside romance with a married Point Arena woman.
Patton believed that Ed Tracy had taken Nellie's life as vengeance for his son Clarence's death.
According to District Attorney Lilburn Gibson and Sheriff Oscar Weger, it was a Tuesday afternoon when Ed Tracy appeared at the ranch of 69-year-old Mrs. Harriett Powell, his neighbor, and the mother of the disappeared Nellie Means. Staying with Mrs. Powell was her on-again, off-again husband, Don Patton, age 70, who had been Nellie's stepfather. We can surmise that Mr. Patton and Mrs. Powell were not pleased to see their neighbor and long-time adversary.
When the two old men met outside Mrs. Powell's house that day, Tracy accused Patton of spreading malicious lies about him regarding the theft of goats and the murder of Nellie Means, missing goats being the priority subject.
Patton ordered Tracy off the property, but Tracy replied he'd leave only if Mrs. Powell wanted him gone. Mountain hospitality seemed to move Mrs. Powell to invite Tracy to stay for a while. Her enraged ex-husband and Tracy's blood enemy, Patton, retreated to the barn where, in lieu of Tracy, he slaughtered a goat, then hung its carcass to skin and butcher.
Having warmed up on the goat, Patton then returned to the front of his some time wife's house and once more advised Ed Tracy to leave the premises. When Tracy did not immediately depart, Patton walked around the house, and returned with a rifle.
Patton would claim that Tracy was now brandishing his own gun, pointing it at Patton. Patton said Tracy swore at him and demanded that Patton stand back, at which point Patton, believing himself to be in mortal danger, fired. A single bullet pierced Tracy's left eye, killing him instantly.
Having finished off his old enemy, Patton walked to a nearby neighbor's place, a man named Cheney, to tell Cheney what had happened. After listening to Patton's version of events, Cheney hurried to Mrs. Patton's house to confirm that Patton had indeed shot and killed Tracy, and then Cheney went off to notify Ukiah that the two ancient enemies were now down to one ancient enemy.
When District Attorney Lilburn Gibson and Deputy Sheriff Oscar Weger arrived at the grisly scene they discovered that Tracy's features were unrecognizable, having been gnawed away by either Patton's dogs or his hogs. The lawmen believed that Patton had purposely set his dog on the dead man but could never prove it.
DA Gibson and Deputy Weger confirmed that Ed Tracy had been killed by a single rifle shot through his left eye.
At the celebrated murder trial presided over by Judge Hugh Preston at the County Courthouse in Ukiah, District Attorney Gibson argued that Patton had deliberately killed Tracy, after having forced the old man at gunpoint from Mrs. Patton's house to the ranch gate.
Patton's defense argued that Ed Tracy had traveled to Mrs. Patton's homestead that day looking for trouble with Mr. Patton. But Tracy's son Lawrence testified that his father had carried only his .22 rifle that day, not his heavy-caliber long gun or the large-bore shotgun he would have brought if he'd expected violence. Deputies McCabe and Weger confirmed that Tracy was armed only with the .22.
The jury took four hours and 25 minutes to reach a verdict of manslaughter, reluctantly agreeing that Patton was simply defending himself. The jury had been deadlocked, unable to unanimously agree to convict Patton of first-degree murder. A somber Judge Preston sentenced Patton to one to ten years at San Quentin, stating on the record that Patton was lucky to get off with manslaughter, and that he should be made to serve the maximum jail time.
On Wednesday, January 30, 1929, a southbound train called the Eureka Express stopped at the Ukiah station, and Deputy A.T. McCabe escorted the manacled 70-year-old Horatio “Don” Patton to San Quentin Prison.
Two years later, ghastly rumors of more bloodshed in the Spy Rock vendetta rasped back to life: now it was Mrs. Harriett Powell, nee Patton, who had disappeared. Her home was deserted, and her livestock and dogs were found emaciated and starving. There was no evidence of a crime or disturbance, but there was no sign of the former Mrs. Patton either. Had the Tracy family taken its revenge for the killing of their patriarch, Clarence Tracy?
Sheriff Ben Byrnes and a team of expert riders braved a lashing winter storm to search for Mrs. Patton-Powell in the remote wilderness. Mrs. Patton-Powell's two sons, rugged mountaineers familiar with the local geography, conducted their own frantic search independent of Sheriff Byrnes.
Three days later, Mrs. Patton-Powell's body was found a mile and a half from her home. Her corpse had been “lacerated and torn apart by coyotes,” and in the mordant added description of the Ukiah newspaper, “also by kindred beasts with appetites for soft flesh.”
Deputy Coroner Lou Anker of Willits declared that the old lady had died of a simple heart attack, with no evidence of foul play.
But North County cynics weren't convinced. Why had the frail elderly woman wandered on foot over a mile from her home? Spy Rock old timers noted that her daughter Nellie had walked free after killing Clarence Tracy decades earlier, before going missing herself. As the sole witness to the shooting death of Ed Tracy, Mrs. Patton-Powell's testimony had been critical in reducing her former husband's probable murder sentence to manslaughter. Had the Tracy family exacted its own lethal counterpunch for the deaths of two of their own?
Mrs. Patton-Powell's official cause of death will forever remain heart attack.
The body of Nellie Means has never been found.
The fancy man who set these terrible events into motion, Millard Means? Last heard of he was alive and well in the Yreka area.
Timeline of Events:
1900 - stray hogs lead to bad feelings between the Tracy family on one side, and the Means and Pattons on the other.
1918 - 25-year-old Clarence Tracy is shot twice in the back near his other's cabin. Millard Means and his wife Nellie plead it was self-defense and are acquitted of all charges.
1918 - Nellie Means disappears from her Spy Rock cabin. Sheriff Byrnes suspects her husband Millard Means, who has taken up with a Mrs. Thurman from Point Arena. Nellie's step-father-in-law, Don Patton, believes that Nellie was disappeared by the Tracy family taking revenge for the death of their son, Clarence.
1918 - Millard Means forges several checks, and flees the law to Washington state, where he assumes the name Thurmond and enlists in the U.S. Army. He is arrested in Washington, D.C. and serves time in San Quentin Prison.
1924 - Millard Means breaks his jaw when a car driven by Mrs. W.G. Altheimer plunges off a road near Yreka. A third occupant of the vehicle, Mrs. Ellen Price, suffers minor injuries, but Mrs. Altheimer breaks her shoulder.
1927 - Millard Means is sentenced to 366 days in the Sacramento County Jail for falsifying a federal check, by changing the amount from one cent to $1,000
1928 - Former stepfather of Nellie Means, Don Patton, is convicted of manslaughter for the shooting death of Ed Tracy, father of Clarence Tracy on the property of Mrs. Harriet Patton-Powell.
1930 - Mrs. Harriet Patton-Powell goes missing, and authorities and Spy Rock neighbors suspect a vendetta killing by the Tracys. Her body is found a few days later a mile and a half from her home; the coroner deems the cause of death as a simple heart attack.
(with research by Deborah Silva)