The Meeting Between Hill Beachey and California’s Governor Leland Stanford That Didn’t Happen — Part 1, Sources

Editor’s note:  For more on Hill Beachey and the Magruder murders, see my THE HILL BEACHEY PROJECT page.

A room in Leland Stanford's Sacramento residence, which residence also served as his place of work.

A room in Leland Stanford’s Sacramento residence, which residence also served as his place of work as governor.

Ladd Hamilton’s 1994 book, This Bloody Deed: The Magruder Incident (Pullman, WA: WSU Press), lodged no little significance in a purported meeting between Hill Beachey and California’s Governor Leland Stanford.  As it happens, the alleged meeting would have had to take place on or a little before November 2nd, 1863, the date Stanford granted leave for Beachey and his assistant, Thomas Farrell, to take charge of the prisoners.

Beachey, according to Hamilton’s account, went to Sacramento to meet with the governor in order to convince him to release four murder suspects being held by San Francisco police chief Martin J. Burke into his [Beachey’s] custody.  Hamilton also employed the meeting to emphasize the significance of Beachey’s premonitional dream about Magruder’s murder. In Hamilton’s rendering, Beachey’s dream created a sympathetic bond between Beachey and the governor.  Moreover, Hamilton, much later in his book’s narrative, anchored Beachey’s remarks to an angry Lewiston crowd to a promise made in his meeting with Stanford — which crowd greeted Beachey’s prisoners’ return with nooses at the ready.  Beachey quelled the crowd, according to Hamilton’s account, by relaying the solemn promise he’d given Governor Stanford that the prisoners would not be lynched and they would receive a fair trial in Lewiston.

But did such a meeting between Hill Beachey and Governor Stanford actually happen?

Well, I think not.

I’m going to review some of my reasons for this negative view in the next two or three blog posts here.  The first post — this one — will deal chiefly with Hamilton’s sources (or, more to the point, his lack of sources) for the Beachey/Stanford meeting. Subsequent posts — I’m not sure at this point how many there will be — will offer other sorts of evidence relating to my no-meeting-actually-happened historical contention.  Before turning to the sources issue, however, a word should be said about the semi-fictional orientation of Hamilton’s book.    

Ladd Hamilton readily conceded that his book offered a fictionalized — or at least partially fictionalized — treatment of the Magruder murders and Beachey’s role in that story. Hamilton provided a candid disclaimer to that effect in his “Author’s Note” at the book’s beginning — which note, incidentally, also bore on his treatment of the Beachey/Stanford meeting.  “For some parts of the story,” Hamilton (p. ix) wrote,

…there is no record, and in writing these parts I have set down what I thought probably happened or might have happened.  For instance the details of Hill Beachey’s interview with the Governor of California and his visits to see the murderers in the San Francisco jail are undocumented, although they did take place.  I had to imagine what probably occurred.

To emphasize:  Hamilton wrote that he did not know what was said at the Beachey/Stanford meeting but he did, however, and seemingly with confidence, know that both meetings he mentioned actually “…did take place.”

At least one subsequent author may have taken Hamilton at his word.  “It is a testament to Beachy’s doggedness and credibility,” wrote Frederick Allen, in his excellent book, A Decent Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes (Norman: U of O Press, 2004, p. 237),

that he managed to talk California Governor Leland Stanford into signing the extradition papers.  Beachy also won every point in court, based in large part on his solemn oath that he would protect his prisoners from lynching and guarantee them a fair trial.

Allen’s footnote appearing at the end of the paragraph in which this passage appeared makes it clear he invoked Hamilton’s account of the meeting as his source.  It seems therefore that merely acknowledging that the work contains fictionalized elements does not wholly nullify it’s potential utility as as credible source for future writers.

Ladd Hamilton's book's cover

Ladd Hamilton’s book’s cover

We may turn now to the main question I wanted this blog post to address, namely:  What were Hamilton’s sources for his assertion that a Beachey/Stanford meeting occurred and occurred before Stanford’s warrant was published releasing the prisoners to Beachey?

Unfortunately, we’ll find no help on question in Hamilton’s book’s endnotes.  His  account of the meeting occurs in his book’s chapter’s 20 and 21 (see pp. 126-133 and pp. 136-138). Neither of Hamilton’s two endnotes for Chapter 20 (see p. 237) concerned the meeting. Hamilton, moreover, provided no endnotes at all for all of Chapter 21.  Like I said, no help here, then.

Hamilton’s annotated bibliography may yet provide a window on his sources for the meeting.  It is, I think, probably fair to say that Hamilton’s main sources were books. “Listed here are the major sources consulted in the preparation of this narrative,” Hamilton wrote introducing his bibliography section, “with brief summaries of their contents and, where applicable, their points of view” (p. 241).   Books dominated his bibliography.  Two dozen were listed and briefly described therein.  Of these, however, only a minority may be said to have dealt directly with the Magruder murders.  In my judgment, five of Hamilton’s 24 listed books would have served as his chief sources, namely:  Dimsdale (1866/1953), Langford (1890), Shiach (1903), Hailey (1910), and Welch (1991).

In a word, not one of these sources makes any mention of a Beachey/Stanford meeting.

Let’s take a look.

  • Thomas J. Dimsdale’s volume, The Vigilantes of Montana: Or, Popular Justice in the Rocky Mountains (Norman: U of O Press, 1953/1866), recounts the Magruder murders story only very briefly.  Dimsdale’s only text concerning Beachey’s pursuit and retrieval of the murder suspects was this (p. 112):

Beechey followed them right through to California, and there arrested them on the charge of murdering and robbing Magruder and his party.  He found that they had changed their names at many places.  Every possible obstacle was interposed that the forms of law allowed; but the gallant man fought through it all, and brought them back, on requisition of the Governor of Idaho, to Lewiston.

  • Nathaniel Pitt Langford’s Vigilante Days and Ways: The Pioneers of the Rockies; the Makers and Making of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming, 2 volumes (Boston: J.G. Cupples, 1890/1912) offers only this (p. 343), with no mention of Governor Stanford:

Four weeks were spent in San Francisco, in the effort to obtain the custody of the prisoners. As fast as one court would decide to surrender them, another would grant a writ of habeas corpus for a new examination. At length the Supreme Court of the State decided in favor of their surrender to the authorities of Idaho for trial.

  • [William S. Shiach’s] Illustrated History of North Idaho, Embracing Nez Perces, Idaho, Latah, Kootenai and Shoshone Counties, State of Idaho (n.p.: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1903) was a source Hamilton particularly valued.  Of the prisoners’ retrieval from San Francisco, however, Illustrated History offers only this single sentence:  ““Beachy got custody of the men after some delay and started back to Lewiston with them” (p. 38).  No Stanford.
  • John Hailey’s History of Idaho (Boise: Syms-York, 1910) devoted a full chapter to the Magruder murders and how Beachey brought the murderers to justice.  Once again, however, this author dealt with the retrieval very briefly (pp. 70-71):

These three murderers gave Mr. Beachy some little trouble by applying through an attorney to the court for a writ of habeas corpus to discharge them, but it was very promptly denied by the court. By this time Tom Pike had arrived, so Mr. Beachy engaged Captain Lees, and he (Beachy) Pike and Captain Lees brought the four men safely to Lewiston.

  • Finally, we come to Julia Conway Welch’s The Magruder Murders: Coping with Violence on the Idaho Frontier (Helena: Falcon Press, 1991).  Once again, no meeting with Stanford assumes a part in Beachey’s retrieval of the prisoners (p. 56):

Renton began scheming to get them out of jail right away.  When a writ of habeas corpus failed to do the trick, he tried bribery.  Page told about a deal whereby authorities would receive all of the “treasure” (some had been deposited at the mint) except for $1,000.  But in the end, the men were turned over to Beachy, and he took them on board a ship in irons, bound for Portland.

And hence, if I’m more or less correct in my assessment that these five would have served as Hamilton’s chief sources for his Magruder/Beachey account, and if I have not missed any mentions of a Stanford meeting in these works (incidentally, I searched electronically for “Stanford” in all but the Welch book, so missing a mention is unlikely), then Hamilton had no identifiable source for his account of the meeting.

I might add that I’ve found no mention of such a meeting in the contemporary newspaper clippings I’ve collected as well.  But that part of the story comes later.

For now, all I’d like to conclude with this post is that Hamilton’s assertion that such a meeting took place may very likely hang in the air of Hamilton’s authorial imagination quite as much as the content of the conversation between Beachey and Stanford his book offered, there being no evidence of the occurrence of such a meeting in the main Magruder-story sources he probably relied upon and I’ve reviewed.

More to follow on this.  Stay tuned.

[Added 3/9/15:]  I might have included Robert G Bailey’s book, River of No Return (Lewiston: Bailey-Blake Printing Co., 1935) in the above list.  It also appeared in Hamilton’s annotated bibliography and devoted several pages (pp. 81-88, to be exact) to the Magruder/Beachey story.  Bailey also made no mention of a meeting with Leland Stanford.  He covered the whole retrieval-of-the-prisoners segment of the story in a single sentence:  “Beachy ketp to his overland course, and on his arrival at San Francisco, after many heartbreaking delays finally had the satisfaction of getting the men turned over to him, loaded onto a boat headed north, and the return trip began to Lewiston” (p. 85).

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One Response to The Meeting Between Hill Beachey and California’s Governor Leland Stanford That Didn’t Happen — Part 1, Sources

  1. Margo says:

    Amazingly thorough as always Ron. I look forward to the subsequent blogs…..

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