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Home History Gordon F. Lull In The Name of the Law

In The Name of the Law

Charles Rankin and D.M. Pyle with deputies and grand jurors, 1890s

Laws are for the lawless and the lawless are richly represented in the race. And just as written laws, in theory, circumscribe the appetites and evil inclinations of most, so law enforcement shoulders the task of controlling those in the real world who need more coaxing.

Truth be told, Kern County has had its share of those who needed coaxing. After the annexation of California and the defeat of Mexican forces the entire territory fell under military control. The discovery of gold in 1848 brought hordes of “Argonauts” (so the gold-seekers were called) who swamped the state, pouring out from the port of San Francisco, north, east, and south, to the Central Valley. From the south and east they also came, spilling over into the Tejon basin and through the Walker Pass.

The new settlers, minds ablaze with visions of future wealth, found no elaborate infrastructure. They resided in huts, caverns, tents, wagons, and the fitted hulls of the small boats which had brought them to shore. Camps grew into towns. Among the first structures to rise were saloons and gambling houses. Communities like Havilah, Randsburg, Johannesburg, Weldon, Onyx, Whiskey Flat, Caliente, Keysville, and Isabella popped up like mushrooms in the forest to serve the prospectors.

Chester Avenue from 18th Street in the 1890s - by the turn of the century Bakersfield had earned a reputation for being the “roughest and most hellish [town] of its day...”

Between 1847 and 1850, Zachary Scott’s army and the U.S. Navy having successfully dispatched Mexican claims to Texas and California, what was to become the 31st State in the Union was guided by military commanders. For law enforcement, government had at its disposal a mere 600 army troops to enforce the law. There were no regular patrols through the growing populations to the south. Writes Thelma B. Miller in her History of Kern (1929), “In California, the first Americans had put between themselves and the law a nearly impassable desert and rugged chains of mountains. The wonder is not that there was lawlessness in the new western empire, but that there was any order at all.”

The lives of men and women unfold as a succession of small events interrupted by periodic discontinuities. So it goes with societies and cultures. Several large discontinuities, events of high significance, have exerted enduring impacts upon Kern County’s law enforcement community. Two are summarized here.

While we did not have the many means of entertainment those days that have developed since, we nevertheless enjoyed ourselves. We had picnics, shows, dances, buggy rides, and some other forms of entertainment, and on one occasion five horse thieves were taken from jail and hanged. Some historian has said there were six. I say five, and I should know as I saw them hanging—George Wallace Wear, former publisher Bakersfield Californian, October 25, 1937.

1890s Kern County Sheriff’s Office and Jail

The Gold of that Land is Good

One pivotal event for Kern County’s development occurred in 1853 (according to Wallace Morgan, History of Kern County, California) when gold was discovered above Kernville. Word of the find spread quickly throughout the mining camps in central California. Within one year, prospectors flooded the banks of the Kern River and the mountain gulches beyond. No well-developed land title system had developed but gold fever forced the evolution of a mining claims system. With little formal law enforcement in place, the defense of civility came through the barrel of a gun, the edge of a knife, or the swing of a fist.

At times, Kern County residents dispensed “justice” themselves, sans lawman, judge, or jury. In Gilbert Gia’s excellent account of how this approach worked for the infamous Yoakum brothers, “Lynchings at the Kern County Jail, 1879,” he quotes of one of the few newspapers refusing to condemn Kern County for its vigilantism. According to the Modesto Herald, loopholes in the law and the ability of some to buy their freedom meant that, “for their own protection the people must take the matter into their own hands.” [Note: See Mr. Gia’s writings at www.gilbertgia.com.]

Governors or U.S. Marshals would often deputize locals to serve as peace officers. Traveling circuit judges would mete out what justice was possible during infrequent visits. In the case of sudden and savage violence, armed locals banded together and formed posses. Or hanging parties. Investigations usually involved relying upon ground intelligence, which included friendly persuasion of those most likely to come into contact with criminals at large, such as liverymen, bartenders, rooming proprietors, and ladies of the night. As the communities grew, chaos consistently won in its struggle with order.

Sheriff William H. Bower

Kern County remained wild for many years, providing proper cover for notorious criminals such as Joaquin Murietta, Tiburcio Vasquez, the Mason Gang, and, much later, convicted killers like Harry Tracy. One report even has William “Billy the Kid” Bonney residing in the Greenhorn Mountains for a time.

In 1866 the State Legislature appointed W.B. Ross as Sheriff and Tax Collector. Thus the Kern County Sheriff’s Department became the first law enforcement organization in Kern. Ross was followed by a succession of men, some committed to defending the letter of the law, others well-connected to the vice which ate away at the city’s heart. Redmond B. Sagely served one term (1868-1870), William H. Coons (1870-1874) two. Sheriff William H. Bower dominated the office for over two decades, serving three times (1874-1876, 1878-1887, and 1893-1895), interrupted by Matt Wells (1876-78) and Dallas McCord (1887-89). Under Bower, according to an enactment of the Board of Supervisors, the office of Sheriff was separated from that of Tax Collector. Sheriff W. J. Graham held the office for one term, followed by Henry L. Borgwardt, Jr. (1891-93) who served again (1896-1903) after the State Legislature. Borgwardt’s death near the end of his term brought former Randsburg City Constable John W. Kelly to the office. In Randsburg, Kelly may have run into someone at the heart of an event which, in Thelma Miller’s words, “rocked the city to its foundations.”

Darkness in the Joss House

So much has been written about the bloody sojourn of James McKinney that one is tempted to correct the record of repeated errors. No, McKinney did not escape from Bakersfield after the shooting and stay at a ranch in the Greenhorn Mountains. He died in the joss house. No, he did not flee Porterville proclaiming he would not be taken like the infamous killer Harry Tracy. Tracy, in fact, was then on the loose, dying by his own hands months after McKinney’s Porterville shootout.

The agreed-upon facts are these. By the turn of the century Bakersfield had earned the reputation, in the words of western historian Joseph E. Doctor (Shotguns on Sunday, 1958), “for being the roughest and most hellish [town] of its day…” It was also the frequent haunt of one James McKinney, an Illinois-born cowhand, drunk, ex-felon, and generally twisted soul, who was every bit as dangerous as he wanted the world to think he was.

W.R. Bower and W. H. Coons  on steps of court house with judges, 1890s

Included in his resume was the unprovoked pistol-whipping of a Randsburg miner in 1899; the December 13, 1900 killing of Tom Sears in Bakersfield who, according to bartender John Carey (Kern County Criminal Case No. 556) had been “flourishing [his revolver] back and forth on his finger in front of McKinney’s face,” while the two drank together. McKinney shot Sears dead as a hammer behind Cohn’s Store on 19th Street; and one explosive morning in July of 1902 when, for reasons not entirely clear, McKinney shot up the town of Porterville, killing one, wounding five, and escaping with two horses.

McKinney made his way south and east, all the way to Mexico. Not much is disclosed regarding his months away from California except the return trip. Outside of Kingman, Arizona he murdered two men in cold blood. He fled to a small ranch where he forced the owner to ready a pair of horses for him.

During the week following Easter, in 1903, McKinney hid in a Chinese joss house at the intersection of L Street and 21st. The two-story block-like building housed an opium den, gambling room, saloon, an area for ancestral worship, and rented rooms. McKinney stayed there with his friend, Al Hulse, a seedy make-it-happen operator who had worked both sides of the law, making many enemies, including the new-elected City Marshal, Thomas Jefferson Packard. Forty-three-year-old Packard, had won his job through a hotly contested election. His aim was partly to clean up vice in Bakersfield. Now arose the prospect of acclaim should he capture the dreaded McKinney.

On Sunday morning, April 19, 1903, Packard arrived at the joss house with ten men, including members from Arizona, New Mexico, Tulare County, and San Bernardino County. Along with Packard came two friends, special Sheriff’s Deputy William Tibbet and his younger brother, Berton Tibbet. Packard and Will Tibbet entered through the front while the other men surrounded the building.

Sheriff William B. Ross

Several shots shattered the morning calm. Packard, mortally wounded, took refuge in a privy. Will Tibbet lay dying in the backyard. Kneeling down by his brother’s side, Bert Tibbet caught sight of a wounded McKinney at the back entrance. His shotgun blast shattered the left of McKinney’s head. McKinney slumped dead over a railing.

People from all over Bakersfield crowded into Chinatown, surrounding the site of the shootout. One young lad trotted down L Street on his donkey, stopping not far from the Joss House entrance. To a boy of twelve, the wonder and terror of the shooting formed an irresistible magnet. And in years to come, the boy, Earl Warren, would face two more acts of violence which would forever haunt him. The murder of his father, Methias Warren, beaten to death at his Niles Street home, remains an unsolved case for the Bakersfield Police Department. And on November 22, 1963, one of the most infamous assassinations in American history would be investigated by a commission bearing Chief Justice Earl Warren’s name.

Visit the lobbies of Kern County’s Sheriff’s headquarters or its many police departments and it becomes clear that “protect and serve” is not just a motto. The photographs of many in Kern County law enforcement, who have served, protected, and died, grace the walls and transform that motto into grim reality.

From that single gold nugget, dug up from a dreary gulch in the Greenhorn Mountains, sprouted communities which forced the development of more direct, regular policing.

That mayhem in 1903 at the Chinese joss house marked Bakersfield’s transition from the frontier epoch to the modern age. It was as though, if history were a movie, one screen depicting the old age of gunfights and lamplight dissolved while another, heralding the age of electricity, complicated divisions of labor, and industrial might, came into focus.

As Robert Kennedy once wrote, “Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists upon.”

Photos courtesy Kern County Museum/Chris Brewer/@istockphoto.com/elenavizerskaya/jarector/spanishalex

Article appeared in our 28-5 Issue - December 2011