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The Sheriff’s Tragic Accident

The Byrnes family arrived in Mendocino County around 1880. The patriarch, Michael J. Byrnes had been born in Boston, Massachusetts either in 1840 or 1841. He headed westward in 1862. One might guess that he was distancing himself from the Civil War draft, but nothing could be farther and further from the truth, for in August of 1863 Michael Byrnes volunteered at Noyo for the California Battalion of the US Army. He attained the rank of sergeant before being mustered out at Fort Humboldt nearly two years later in June of 1865.

He settled as a farmer in Humboldt County for some time. His wife, Mary Hite was a native of Virginia. Around 1880 Michael, Mary and their burgeoning family moved to the Mendocino Coast where Michael worked in the woods and lumber mills of Albion, Little River, and Mendocino. Fairly soon he turned his attention to the law, law enforcement that is. He served first as local constable then as a Mendocino County deputy sheriff for several years. Mary and Michael Byrnes were the parents of five children: John, Grace, Ralph, Miles, and Dorothy.

Let's turn our attention to the third born, Ralph Byrnes. Born in March of 1883 Ralph attended schools in Mendocino, where he excelled at sports if not in the class (The Kelley House Museum in Mendocino possesses a photo of the 1896 Mendocino High School football team, barely more than a dozen strong — Bill Hurley and Fred Lyons were among young Byrnes' teammates). Ralph was only a year or two removed from high school when his father died 1902. Like his father he went to work in the lumber business, mostly with the Albion Lumber Company (slight full disclosure disclaimer: both Michael and Ralph Byrnes were well acquainted with my grandfather, John Macdonald, who worked on occasion for and with the Albion Lumber Company; first as a logging contractor, but later and more extensively as a timber cruiser and surveyor/mapmaker).

According to Aurelius Carpenter's History of Mendocino County (the edition published precisely 100 years ago in 1914): “His [Ralph Byrnes'] genial temperment and attractive personality have brought him into local prominence and have made him popular...”

So popular that at the relatively tender age of 27, not only did Ralph follow his father's footsteps into law enforcement, but the Republican Party nominated him as their candidate for Mendocino County Sheriff. As A.O. Carpenter put it, Ralph entered “the race with customary energy, [and] was elected by a gratifying majority.”

Carpenter went on to describe Byrnes' term in office from 1910 through 1914, stating that Byrnes had “served his constituents honestly, faithfully and intelligently, and proved an enemy to lawlessness in every form. By doing his duty, he made the office of Sheriff feared and respected by evil-doers and law-breakers.”

Ralph proved so successful that he was re-elected to his post as County Sheriff in the June, 1914 primary by a majority of more than four thousand votes (Consider that Mendocino County's population a century ago was roughly one-fourth what it is today and readers will grasp how decisive a four thousand vote majority was in the spring of 1914).

Great success oft times presages something akin to the opposite in fortune. And so it was a mere four and a half months after Ralph's overwhelming electoral victory of June, 1914. Here we turn to the vicinity of Anderson Valley, more precisely Bell Valley, where a hunting party consisting of Sheriff Ralph Byrnes, his brother John, and Game Warden Bert Miller set out one October morn. No sooner had the men walked into brushy country several yards apart, Sheriff Byrnes spotted a covey of quail. He shot at one flying away from the group. He lowered his gun, then a moment later another bird bounded from the brush near his feet. This one flew above a thicket that disguised the presence of John Byrnes, standing alongside a fence. Most of the charge from Sheriff Byrnes' 12-gauge struck the left side of his brother's head. John Byrnes' free arm jerked up toward his face for a moment before he dropped to the ground.

Game Warden Miller sought help from the nearest farmhouse and John Byrnes was transported by automobile all the way to Ukiah in an effort to seek appropriate medical attention. He never regained consciousness and died just short of two days later.

The aftermath was best described by August Heeser in The Mendocino Beacon: “The remains were taken to the coast on Tuesday's train for interment, with all the members of the family accompanying same, save Ralph, who has been confined to his bed since the regrettable accident happened. His many friends in this section fear that it will be some time before he will be able to attend to his duties as promptly as he has since being in office. The Sheriff and the members of his family have a host of friends here who are doing all in their power to make the burden of the sad affair as light as possible. As coast residents are nearly all well acquainted with the entire family and the deceased, it is needless for the Beacon to dwell on the esteem in which all are held by a large circle of friends throughout the entire county who sympathize with the family in their sad bereavement.”

It is certainly worth noting, in the hindsight of a century gone by, that Ralph Byrnes did return to duty, being elected to the post of Mendocino County Sheriff far more times than any other individual. He was still apprehending “evil-doers” for decades to come beyond 1914.

One Comment

  1. Bill Brazill December 10, 2014

    Thanks for writing an article on our family. I bet it’s the best public writing that has ever occurred. I have tons of information on them but have never put it in an organized way. If you would like to learn more about them please let me know. Again, thank you, Bill

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