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Highway Robbery (Part 2)

When Mendocino County Sheriff Jeremiah “Doc” Standley arrested twenty-two year old Joseph McKay at the Burns Hotel of Santa Rosa in late November, 1891, it would have been reasonable for the lawman to assume his work was through. The arrest and transport of young McKay to the county jail in Ukiah proved simple enough, but McKay asserted that he was innocent of holding up the Eureka to Ukiah stage, mid-month, at the locale commonly called “Robber's Ridge.”

Standley went looking for more evidence to pin Joseph McKay to the crime. Two days after locking his suspect in the jail, Sheriff Standley received word that on the night of the stage robbery a young man had stopped at the Thomson place, west of Angle's Ranch, near the head of Big River. In addition the sheriff learned that a similar young man had paid a call the following night at the logging camp of Byron Clark along Big River, where the Chinese cook fed him (full disclosure: Byron Clark was an in-law relative of this writer).

Doc rode west to investigate. Mr. Thompson told the sheriff that a man fitting the suspect's description had asked if he could spend the night in the rancher's barn. Thomson found the young man friendly and unarmed, so he acquiesced to the request. During the night the rancher was awakened by the barking of his dog outside and a noise among his turkeys. He gazed out his window, but things quieted, so he returned to bed. Arising at dawn, Mr. Thomson found that his guest had already departed.

Backtracking upstream to Byron Clark's camp, Doc learned that one night after the visit to Thomson's place a youthful looking man, fitting the same physical traits as described there, ate and ran, being seen only by the cook.

The sheriff reined his mount over the hills to Caspar Weist's place. Weist described an exact match for the suspect being seen the next morning after the meal at Clark's logging camp. He also apprised the sheriff that a cabin had been broken into near Low Gap in the same time period.

Satisfied that he had the right fellow in custody, Standley headed back toward Ukiah. During his absence, according to a Mendocino Dispatch and Democrat report, “Under Sheriff Wheldon kept working the prisoner pretty hard for points of evidence.”

Under this interrogation the prisoner confessed that he had escaped from an Oregon penitentiary where he was serving a two year sentence for burglary, but he still insisted upon his innocence in the stage robbery. Unbeknownst to the prisoner, Joseph McKay, Doc Standley had employed from the Ukiah House, a waiter who brought meals to prisoners in the county jail. The waiter, Will Evans, feigned a friendship with McKay, who eventually promised the waiter a payoff if he would supply the prisoner with tools he could use to cut his way out.

Evans also agreed to mail letters McKay had written to his aunt in Oregon. When confronted with the letters by Under Sheriff Weldon and told that he had caused Evans to be arrested for conspiring with a prisoner (Evans was not arrested), young McKay called for Sheriff Standley. Once Doc arrived at the cell, McKay confessed to the stage robbery in full detail, including how he had walked to Thomson's ranch, Clark's camp, broke into the cabin at Low Gap, stealing a ham and an ax in the process, then laid in wait to rob the Big River stage on a ridge east of Low Gap. However, he was unprepared when the stage passed by, so he decided to wait and rob it the following evening, but the weather turned rainy and windy. Instead he headed down from the hills to Ukiah and on to a spot outside of Hopland where he camped, calling for his mail at that locale late the next day. From there, just as Doc had tracked him, McKay made his way along the railroad tracks to Cloverdale and on over to the Guerneville area where he camped out the better part of a week before tramping to Santa Rosa where he was nabbed at Burns Hotel. He had been forced to camp outside all that time because when he broke open the express box from the stage robbery all it contained was the way bill and a pair of baby shoes.

McKay voluntarily accompanied Standley to the location alongside the Big River road where the Ballard rifle and stolen ax had been cached. In the midst of his confession McKay told the sheriff that his real name was Henry Miller. His father being Joaquin Miller, known at the time as “The Poet of the Sierras.” His mother was Minnie Myrtle, Joaquin Miller's first wife.

Minnie Myrtle

Minnie Myrtle Miller was born Theresa Dyer in Brookville, Indiana, on May 2, 1845. In 1859 she made the journey to Oregon with her parents. They settled on a farm in Curry County, not far from Port Orford.

She grew to be a skilled horsewoman and an expert shot with a rifle. Using the pen name Minnie Myrtle she submitted poetry and prose to Oregon newspapers. In 1862, her poetry caught the attention of Cincinnatus Hiner Miller, editor of the Democratic Register newspaper in Eugene, who would subsequently change his first name to Joaquin. After a whirlwind courtship, the two married on September 12th. Years later Miller wrote: "I arrived on Thursday. On Sunday next we were married! Oh, to what else but ruin and regret could such romantic folly lead."

Though just seventeen at the time of their marriage Minnie was already a celebrated writer, probably more so than her husband. In Oregon she was revered as “The Poetess of the Coquille,” in reference to the river near her home. The couple moved to San Francisco for a time. There they both wrote for the Golden Era, a literary minded newspaper edited by Bret Harte that published the work of Mark Twain among others. 

The Millers returned to Oregon before long, settling in Grant County. By 1870 they were in divorce court. Minnie asserted to the judge that her husband had failed to provide for their three children. In response, Joaquin Miller charged that Minnie was not only an unfit mother, but that her youngest child, Henry, was not even his. He requested custody of the older children, Maud and George.

The court granted the divorce in April of 1870, ordering that Minnie would care for Henry, granting custody of Maud and George to their maternal grandmother, with Joaquin Miller to pay for their support. Not long after Joaquin left the West Coast, sailing for England. A year hence the London publication of his Songs of the Sierras gained worldwide acclaim.

Minnie fell ill and also sank into poverty, occasionally buttressed by more economically sound literary friends. Though these friends and acquaintances wanted her to assail Joaquin Miller publicly, Minnie attributed her former husband's relative inattention to his children as merely a side effect of his literary talent and artistic temperament. In 1882, Minnie died of pneumonia and consumption in the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

A complete history of Joaquin Miller would fill a volume or two. In short, he'd wed before he met Theresa Dyer, aka Minnie Myrtle. That alleged relationship, with a Wintu princess who supposedly nursed him back to health after Modoc warriors inflicted wounds, occurred in the mid-1850s. Many historians assume that he fathered a daughter with her, a daughter named Cali-Shasta.

Shasta County briefly jailed Miller on a charge of stealing a horse. Less than a year on, he rode with the Pony Express. He claimed to have earned as much as $3,000 in that employ and bought land in Oregon. Before meeting and marrying Minnie/Theresa he edited the Democratic Register in Eugene, a newspaper that shut down four days after his and Minnie's nuptials because its writings were so pro-Confederacy Miller likely would have been charged with treason if he had not desisted.

Joaquin Miller portrait by Mathew Brady (Library of Congress)

After Joaquin Miller achieved fame, he sought out Cali-Shasta and took her to San Francisco to be educated by his literary friend, the first poet laureate of California, Ina Coolbrith (her pen name, she was born a Smith, the niece of Mormon founder Joseph Smith). In the late 1870s Miller authored an anti-Mormon play that proved a commercial success in many productions around the country. In 1886, Miller published The Destruction of Gotham, one of the earliest depictions of a prostitute as the heroine of a book.

During that same year, he moved to Oakland, California, and built a home for himself he called "The Hights," misspelling it purposefully. It was here that his son George was living when he corresponded with his brother in Hopland. Henry Miller told Doc Standley, “My life might have been different, but I never had any show. I was never encouraged to go to school and make something of myself.”

Henry Miller further claimed that four years before, at the age of eighteen, he'd asked his father for help in getting a job. Joaquin Miller put him to work digging up young redwoods on the Oakland property for thirty-nine cents apiece. When Henry completed the task, his father refused to pay him. Dismayed at this result, Henry took one of his father's horses and rode off, vowing never to return.

Sheriff Standley turned Henry Miller over to federal authorities, who were bringing charges of attempted robbery of the U.S. mail. Early in 1892 he was convicted and sent to San Quentin to serve a two year term.

Cali-Shasta died in 1903 before her forty-fifth birthday. In 1909 Henry Miller was arrested again and convicted on a forgery charge. Sentenced to two more years in San Quentin, he was paroled a year and a quarter later. Joaquin Miller died at his Oakland home in 1913, at age seventy-five. George B. Miller died in 1929 almost two full years before his brother Henry perished at San Quentin, his longest known residence (he was in Quentin at least two other times: in 1911 and the early 1920s). Henry Mark Miller was serving another sentence for forgery when he took ill in his cell then died in the prison hospital on November 13, 1931.

(Poets who don't rhyme & dime novelists at

One Comment

  1. George Hollister June 29, 2018

    interesting. Somethings change, somethings remain the same. People moving through were noticed. Not so much today. But, people growing up with a lack of parenting, did just as well then as they would today. The presence or lack of money has little to do with it.

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