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Robert & Nancy Darr

A little over a year ago this space covered the case of Harvey Mortier who was tried, convicted, and hanged for the murder of a young man named Richard Macpherson. The murder took place in March of 1880. In writing about Mortier's trial and subsequent appeals by his attorney, C.C. Hamilton, I misplaced a year, having him hanged in October, 1880, when the ultimate punishment actually took place a full year later in October, 1881.

The one year difference proved important in local history because in the summer of 1881, Harvey Mortier shared a Ukiah jail cell with one Robert M. Darr. As avid readers may recall, Harvey Mortier went to his hanging in San Quentin calmly and without protest, one might say his last actions were much more manly than the deed for which he was being punished. It turns out that his mindset was not so pure whilst he shared that Ukiah jail cell with Darr. After Mortier's death and after Darr vacated the cell, sheriff's deputies found that the cell's window bars had been sawed through, the gaps filled in with soap.

Robert Mason Darr started life in Virginia in 1834, the eldest of seven siblings. The family moved on to Missouri in the 1840s. His father and mother died there when Robert was just thirteen. In 1850 the siblings appeared to still reside in Missouri, but records show Robert in Colusa County in 1860. The following year he married sixteen year-old Jerusha Adams, an Illinois native. They took up residence in the Colusa town of Grand Island. Jerusha gave birth to a daughter in 1864. Her birth certificate name was Elrada, but she commonly answered to Sadie. With Jerusha's parents accompanying them, the Darrs moved on to the south coast of Mendocino County where sons Wirt and Jesse were born in 1872 and 1874.

Early in March, 1875, Robert Darr shot and killed Abner McNeil in a Point Arena saloon. At trial that fall a jury convicted him and Sheriff Chalfant escorted the prisoner to San Quentin where he was to serve a five year term for the slaying. According to the Russian River Flag, “It is a popular belief that Darr got off very easy. It seems that there is no hanging or life imprisonment for murder at Point Arena.”

Robert Darr served just two years of his sentence before being paroled. He returned to Mendocino County, establishing a saloon along Ten Mile River about a quarter mile from Hunter & Stewart's lumber mill. Phil Gibney, employed at said mill spent the Fourth of July, 1881, as well as much of the next day celebrating at Kibesillah. He returned to the mill that night, sleeping in late, before going to Darr's saloon in the middle of the afternoon on July 6th. Later in the evening four customers departed the bar leaving only Darr, a sleeping imbiber, and Gibney, who sat on the front steps of the establishment, his boots resting on the ground. At that point Gibney was shot from behind, the fatal round entering between his shoulder blades.

Given that no other waking person was present, Robert Darr stood trial in Superior Court in Ukiah. There, he shared the cell with Harvey Mortier until his hanging in October. That same month Darr was convicted of his second killing and sentenced to San Quentin for life.

Jerusha divorced Darr to marry Albert Schiller in 1882. They took up residence at Cuffey's Cove, near Elk, and had one child of their own, Dorothy.

Robert gained a pardon in 1896, returning once again to the north coast. Late in that year he married Nancy Heldt, the Native American widow of Dutch Fred Heldt. Along with his business partner, Silas Osborne, Dutch Fred had run one of the earliest saloons in the town of Mendocino during the 1850s. In the following decade, when the Mendocino Indian Reservation land was sold off, Fred Heldt acquired a large number of acres from Bald Hill on north toward Ten Mile River. It's not certain when Nancy and Fred met, but likely it was at a dance, both Nancy and Fred were avid waltzers. They officially married in 1879. Which tribal group Nancy haled from is not ascertainable, but one reference states she came from the Pit River area, another cites a cousin at the Covelo reservation. At any rate, by the time Nancy had inherited Fred's estate and married Robert Darr, she was more of an avid drinker than dancer.

In September, 1910, Darr filed for divorce from Nancy, complaining that she beat him, threatened his life with a butcher knife, and scalded him with hot water. The allegations may well have been true. Nancy once fired a shotgun at Dutch Fred when he galloped his favorite horse home late to their Bald Hill ranch. The blast nicked one of Fred's ears and hat, but did no significant damage.

Near the end of 1910, Robert asked a judge to declare a guardianship for Nancy, stating that she was incompetent on account of her drinking habit.

In January, 1914, a coastal marshal arrested a man for selling liquor to Nancy. A contemporary newspaper account concluded, “The woman has been more or less of a nuisance here for some time. She is continually getting drunk, and being found in a stupefied condition in the street.”

Later that year Robert Darr perished, not at the hands of Nancy, but seemingly of natural causes. She lived another three years before succumbing. Legal battles over her Bald Hill estate went on for years.

*Sober as a judge at

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