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Life On The Job In Early California

Written By Retired Sergeant John Basalto

I have always been fascinated when I read about the men who kept the peace and enforced the law in early-day California. The era encompassing the late 19th and early 20th centuries is particularly interesting to me. I think about what it must have been like living and working back then and enjoy comparing what the job must have been like then with the way it is now. Although the job was routine for the most part, early lawmen also saw their share of action. The experiences of sheriff’s deputies from San Joaquin County appear to have been similar to those of other officers around the state.

Imagine what it must have been like to be a lawman from a time when California was still considered an untamed frontier to the coming of the automobile and airplane. Joseph Long idd just that. Originally hired as a deputy in 1865, Joe spent the next forty-six years working as a deputy and undersheriff.

In January 1866, Deputy Long teamed up with the Stockton Police Officer Jerome Myers to make one of the first arrests of a career criminal named Bill Miner. Thanks to Old West historians and Hollywood filmmakers, Bill Miner’s life-long criminal career would become legendary. He was the subject of the movie The Grey Fox and a book by respected author John Boessenecker.

Miner and a partner of his named John Sinclair had stolen a couple of horses in Oakland and had ridden east into San Joaquin County, where they held up a man named Porter along the road. The bandits demanded all of Porter’s money at gunpoint. Porter complied but begged Miner and Sinclair to spare him $10, telling them he had been on the way to town to buy a new pair of boots. Porter showed the robbers his worn-out boots, with his toes sticking out of the ends. Apparently moved by Porter’s story, Miner and Sinclair handed him back $10, so he could buy some boots.

Officers received information that evening that Miner and Sinclair had been seen on the road leading north out of Stockton. Deputy Long and Officer Myers headed out after them in the pouring rain. It took officers all night to travel the fourteen miles from Stockton to Woodbridge on the muddy road. When they arrived in Woodbridge early the next morning, the officers took Miner and Sinclair by surprise as they slept. Although the two outlaws were armed with Colt revolvers and Bowie knives, they were taken into custody without incident. One of them was quoted in a local paper as having told the officers: “You fellows think you’ve done a smart thing, arresting us while we were asleep. If you had met us on the road and attempted to arrest us, you wouldn’t have found yourselves quite so smart.”

After making an unsuccessful attempt to break out of the Stockton jail, Miner and Sinclair were convicted of the Porter robbery and sent off to Quentin. A newspaper reporter was on hand as they boarded a boat at the Stockton waterfront for the trip to San Francisco bay.

“They were jovial and appeared unconcerned. When the streamer moved off they threw apples into the crowd on the wharf, and waved their pocket-handkerchiefs, as if bidding adieu to friends. A more thorough evidence of perverted nature we never saw”

Another one of my heroes was William “Billy” Wall, who became a sheriff’s deputy in September 1894 and served until his death in February 1902. Wall had been serving as a deputy constable in Lodi when he came to Sheriff Thomas Cunningham’s attention during a court hearing where he single-handedly held off a lynch mob and saved a prisoner’s life. Sheriff Cunningham would come to depend on Deputy Wall when the going got tough.

During one incident from Wall’s career, he was detailed to return a prisoner named John Breen to Stockton from state prison so that Breen could stand trial for an arson that had occurred in town. Breen was bigger than Wall and had been bragging to other prisoners that nobody would take him back to Stockton. Despite this, Billy and been given the assignment alone.

Wall got his prisoner back to Stockton without incident, and they were crossing the street in front of the jail when Breen made his move for freedom. He began a violent attack on Billy Wall, hitting him hard in the face and head. using his revolver, Wall countered with a blow to Breen’s head, knocking the prisoner down and dragging him through the front doors of the jail before help arrived.

On another occasion, Wall and Deputy George Black were assigned to ride a Los Angeles-bound train out of Stockton after officers got word that a robbery attempt would be made on the train. It was late at night when the train approached a place called Morano Switch, about three miles north of the town of Ripon, in southern San Joaquin County. About a mile north of the switch, the engineer saw a large fire burning on the tracks. The train robbers had stacked about a dozen railroad ties across the tracks from a nearby pile and set them on fire.

Billy Wall had been riding in the cab with the engineer, while George Black rode in one of the cars. As the train chugged to a stop thirty yards short of the burning obstruction, both deputies jumped off the train to investigate. No sooner had their feet hit the ground than the train came under fire. Several hobos were stealing rides on top of one of the cars, and one of them was hit in the thigh by one of the shots. Several other rounds hit the side of the train, but nobody else was hurt. The passengers were in a panic, thinking they were about to be robbed or attacked. Muzzle flashes were seen off to the west, but as soon as the gunfire stopped, the culprits disappeared into the darkness. Wall and Black returned fire and started out in the direction of the shots, but soon returned to the train when they realized it was impossible to find the shooters at night.

The robbers escaped into the bottom country around the San Joaquin River. Because of the dense undergrowth and rough terrain, it took officers seven days to catch up with the two. Members of posses from San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties finally arrested them along the river near the town of Newman. The outlaws, George Schlegel and George Williams were both convicted of attempted train wrecking and received life sentences.

It seems that every department has at least one story teller or practical joke in its ranks. The 19th Century version of the story teller in the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office was Deputy Thomas Benjamin. Benjamin served for twenty years, starting in 1887. Thomas enjoyed a good tale, and was often quoted in the papers. One such quote appeared in the Stockton Record in March 1899, when a reporter listened in on a story he was telling a small group as he was having his shoes shined. Benjamin told of a trip he took to Fresno to serve some court papers:

“Well,” he began, “I had a subpoena, I think it was, to serve on a fellow, and when I got down there I asked a chap whom I knew where I could find the man, mentioning his name. He thought for a few moments, repeating the name, and then remarked ‘Why that man dropped dead today’. I went over to the morgue, and there was the man I had to subpoena.”

Someone asked, “What did you do?”

“I read the subpoena to him,” said Benjamin. “But say,” he continued, “It was a good thing that it wasn’t a habeas corpus, eh? I’d have to bring the body into court. That would be a josh on the judge, eh?” But, sir, I had the blamedest streak of luck for a time you ever saw. I went out to the Asylum a few days later to serve papers on a woman out there, and when I got there she was dying, and I had not left the building when she was dead. Just as I passed through the gate on California Street, the funeral of an old friend of mine came along, and I jumped into the buggy and attended the burial. That broke the Jonah. Had it kept on I’d have had to telephone a man that I had a paper to serve on him, and tell him to make his will before I found him.”

One benefit that early California lawmen did not enjoy was a nice retirement at a relatively early age. Joe Long retired at the age of seventy-six in January 1911, and died a month later. Long’s career had spanned six decades. When he started, the state of California was only fifteen years old. By the time Joe retired in 911, the San Joaquin County Sheriff was driving to calls in an automobile, fingerprinting and photography were firmly established as aids to law enforcement, and the Wright brothers had made their historic fight.

Billy Wall remained a deputy even while being hospitalized with tuberculosis in August 1901. he died of the disease on February 11, 1902. Deputy George Black went on to head the sheriff’s Identification Bureau when it was created in 1908. He stayed with the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office until 1913, then served as a guard at San Quentin for several years. Tom Benjamin served as the chief jailer in the early 1900s. He and his family lived in an apartment on the top floor of the jail in Stockton, and the newspaper often reported the sounds of children’s laughs and screams coming from the jail during birthday parties for one or the other of Benajmin’s children.

Even though the officers of the late nineteenth century did not know of the amenities and technological advancements that assist us with the job today, I can’t help but think that being a deputy back then would have been great.

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