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Mendocino Outlaws: Manhunter vs. Wylackie John

The last of the Mendocino Outlaws to be captured, George Gaunce and Harrison Brown, stood trial in Santa Rosa in the first week of December, 1880. Both had gained a change of venue for their part in the ambush killings of William Wright and Tom Dollard east of Mendocino on October 15, 1879. The jury brought in guilty verdicts for both. Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Pressley read Brown's sentence first, with the defendant standing calmly, perhaps indifferently. The jurist included several Biblical references. “Since the blood of the first martyr cried for vengeance, the murderer has been an object of abhorrence to all good men.

“When God pointed out to Noah and his sons, the bow which he set in the clouds, he also said to them, 'Whoso sheddeth man's blood by man shall his blood be shed,' for in the image of God made he man. In the law promulgated amid the thunders of Sinai it is written, 'Thou shalt not kill.' All civilized nations have adopted the same law and the same sanction in order to deter the transgressor and protect the unoffending...”

Judge Presley went on to the inevitable conclusion. “The judgment of the Court and your sentence is, that you be, by the Sheriff of this county, hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul. A warrant will hereafter be issued fixing Thursday, January 27, 1881, for the execution of the judgment.”

Next, Presley turned to George Gaunce. “You have reason to be very thankful that the awful fate which has overtaken your associates has not overtaken you. I advise you to use the life that has been spared you in repentance and reformation. Look to the Giver of innocent life which you have taken for pardon and forgiveness.

George Gaunce adopted a stoic posture, much like his fellow outlaw, as Presley read the final pronouncement. “The judgment of the Court and your sentence is that you be confined in the State Prison during the term of your natural life.” 

The Sonoma County authorities transferred Gaunce immediately to San Quentin. About Brown's fate, an old timer, speaking outside the court in Santa Rosa said, “Well, this is the first time in about fifteen years that the civil authorities have hanged a man in Sonoma county; but I have since seen several hanged by Judge Lynch, here and elsewhere.”

A lynch mob did not get to Harrison Brown. He appealed the verdict and in the second week of January, 1881, the state supreme court agreed to hear that appeal, effectively suspending the punishment. While in the jail at Ukiah, Brown may not have played the violin like Dr. Wheeler, but he could sing A cappella. His renderings of ballads such as “The Wandering Ranger” brought visitors to tears more than once. Whether he continued to sing while confined in Sonoma County remains unrecorded.

Eventually, in the early days of June, 1882, California Governor George Clement Perkins commuted Brown's sentence to imprisonment for life. The Petaluma Courier editorialized, “If Brown is not executed, we predict that the next murderer arrested in Mendocino will be tried by Judge Lynch, and neither the Courts nor the Governor will be given the opportunity to interfere.” Harrison Brown re-entered San Quentin on June 13th to serve out his life sentence.

To complete the fates of two important figures in the posses that tracked the Mendocino Outlaws, John Wathen and Clarence White, turn back to the 1850s when rancher George White, an older cousin of Clarence, took control of the cattle ranges from Round Valley on to the basin around the North Fork Eel River. Wathen was employed by George White to help acquire land and to run others off the land. This Wathen, known to many as “Wylackie John,” did, with the help of a cadre of “buckaroos” employed by White as enforcers. By the 1880s, White controlled thousands upon thousands of acres of land, running thirty to forty thousand head of cattle, along with thousands of merino sheep. In the early 1880s, White added large numbers of acres in southern Trinity County to his holdings. In one week during 1881, thirty-six deeds for Trinity land were sold to George White or to White and Wathen. 

By 1888, George White owned nearly 150,000 acres. He claimed to own judges in three counties. What he couldn't get through financial intimidation, he acquired by physical force, often killing. Wylackie John Wathen being the main actor in such deeds. Many tales existed of John Wathen's youth among the Indians. Where truth and legend intersected proved a difficult conundrum by the late 1880s. He lived with his Indian wife, Ellyn, and their daughter on a 160 acre sheep ranch, owned in partnership with George White. Wylackie John owned another parcel just south of Red Mountain Creek, up against what is known as Wylackie Hill.

Despite his ruthless ways, Wathen also presented himself as a kindly neighbor, always tipping his hat, even to a passerby. He dressed neatly, even in the saddle. He eschewed all tobacco products. However, when homesteaders tried to settle in the hinterlands of White's empire, especially on lands he had designs on, a pattern played out repeatedly with Wathen or the hired buckaroos poisoning water troughs then wells. Cattle, sheep, or horses ran off never to be recovered. If the settler still refused to leave, violence ensued. Wathen or the buckaroos flat out murdered folks. Records show at least a dozen and a half situations in which Wathen planned or actually took part in murders. 

Wylackie John and the buckaroos crossed over the Yolla Bolly Mountains from time to time, rustling thousands of sheep on the fringes of the Sacramento Valley. These rustling raids proved so well known that one San Francisco newspaper described them as “one of the recognized industries of that country.”

George White had been married three times by 1888. He apparently bought off the first wife and a child for $650 in a divorce suit. His second wife died young. This leads to the third marriage, to Frankie White, the daughter of a cousin. By 1887, however, she'd had enough and filed for divorce after overhearing her husband and Wylackie John supposedly plotting to kill her. The case for divorce against such a wealthy man attracted attention up and down the state as well as in the national press.  

The third Mrs. White's brother was none other than Clarence White. He had worked for George and was all too familiar with the ways of Wylackie John, which at the time of the divorce trial getting underway in San Francisco during December, 1887, included paying numerous witnesses to sully the reputation of Mrs. White. 

On January 9, 1888, Clarence White strode across a City street, on his way to inform his sister's attorney about yet another plot by George White and John Wathen.  As Clarence entered a hallway next to the attorney's office, Wylackie John accosted him. “Where are you going?”

“To speak to McPike [the attorney] about this lying woman [a potential witness] you have just taken in there.”

“No you don't.” Wathen declared.

Clarence stood his ground. “Who will prevent me?”

Wylackie cursed then said, “I will! I'll just 'do' you right now.”

It being January and the weather wintry, Clarence White wore a long coat, buttoned down to his ankles. His revolver rested in a trouser pocket. He jerked the coat upward as one might an apron.  Wylackie John reached for his own pistol, but it snubbed against the edge of a pocket. Pressing through his coat, Clarence pulled his gun's trigger. The round tore through Wylackie John's head at the temple and into his brain. He fell onto a nearby stairway, dead.

Mrs. White eventually won the divorce case. A few months after the shooting, all charges against Clarence White were dismissed.  

One Comment

  1. George Hollister September 5, 2021

    Thank you, Malcolm.

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