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Murder at Monte Diablo



Monte Diablo/Convict Lake







On October 1st 1871, in a desolate lone cabin about a mile from Pinchowers store, near Bishop California, a trial was being held for three escaped convicts, but the verdict was already known. The trial lasted only two hours, and in the end, two of the men were sentenced to hang, while the other was saved from the same vigilante fate.

Less than a month earlier, twenty nine of Nevada’s worst outlaws escaped from the Nevada State Penitentiary, in one of the most brutal events ever recorded. After dinner was served, the men were being led back to their cells on a quiet Sunday September 17th, when the guard was attacked. The prisoners knew that since it was the weekend, the staff would be minimal with only the one guard, and he was easily overpowered. After the guard was taken the prisoners went to the second floor where they knew there was an attic that was large enough for some of the prisoners to get into. They then started to cut holes into the plaster ceilings of their cells, and made their way to a small storeroom, which was used to house the prison’s weapons. But they had to be quiet, because this room was located near the wardens’ office.

While making their way there, the ceiling collapsed in the room of the assistant warden Zimmerman. All the while lieutenant governor/warden John Franklin “ Frank “ Denver, whose brother is the namesake for Denver Colorado, was entertaining guests in an adjoining room, along with his wife and his six year old daughter Jennie.

Frank Denver

Frank Denver

The prisoners were now armed with shotguns, Henry rifles, pistols and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Then all hell broke out! By the end of it, Denver was shot and cut but lived, all in all about 10 to 12 prisoners were shot and approximately five prison personnel were shot, stabbed or both. But Jeannie emerged unscathed due to the help of a prisoner named Goyette. There were, however, twenty nine prisoners were now on the run.

Of these, thirteen headed to Pine Nut Valley, where six of them, Charlie Jones, Tilton Cockerill, Moses Black, John Burke, J. Bedford Roberts and Leander Morton were now on their way to the Pine Nut Mountains but not before robbing a Dutchman. The prisoners stole four horses and stripped three cabins of provisions. According to the Dutchman, the prisoners had three Henry rifles, a shotgun and a couple of pistols. To make matters worse for the posse, Jones, Burke and Roberts knew the area well, since they at one time or another worked within the region.

Chief of Police George Downey, with Sheriffs Swift and Atkinson and detective Ben Lackey along with an Indian guide were on the hunt. The Indian guide followed the rocky trail until after dark when the trail went cold. But the Indian knew of a spring some three or four miles away and was sure that’s the way they were headed. So reluctantly, the posse crossed the thick brushy and rocky valley floor, reaching the spring late that night. In the morning they were able to pick up the trail again, and were now headed into Smith Valley. By late Monday night the prisoners had made it to Smith Valley via Sunrise Pass and by early the next morning they had reached Hot Springs by the Walker River. They were beat, and decided to rest awhile to think about the best way to travel. They knew that the road to Aurora would be out of the question, so they took the long way into Sulphur Springs, passing east of Pine grove and completely bypassing Wellington. The Indian guide and Sheriff Swift were within six hours of the prisoners, when their horses gave out and they had to turn back, but the rest of posse continued.

At 1 PM on Tuesday in the town of Sweetwater, a young eighteen year boy named Billy Poor was making his first run as a pony express rider for Billy Wilson, he was also heading to Wellington via Sulphur Springs. Shortly after, Sheriff Atkinson’s posse gave

up; the only one left on the trail was the lone Dutchman, still hoping to get his horses back. The convicts again avoided going into another town, Sweetwater, by heading southeast from Sulphur Springs to Elbow Joe’s and then on just east of Aurora. But they may have been spotted; Charles Belknap received a telegram from John Wheeler stating he knew where the prisoners were and would begin tailing them.

By noon on Wednesday September 20th, Billy Poor the young mail rider, was still not heard from, and Billy Wilson feared the worst. Sometime late afternoon or early evening on Wednesday, the convicts stopped by a mill owned by George Hightower near Benton and asked for some salt and flour. Charlie Jones explained that he had a party of miners nearby in need of some provisions. Later we would find out that he had murdered Billy and was dressed in Billy’s coat and boots. At about 9 PM, the Aurora posse which included Deputy Sheriff Palmer, Ned Barker, P. Kelly, John McCue Horace Poor- Billy’s father- along with a man named Lewis mounted up and began to trail the convicts to Adobe Meadows. On Thursday the 21st the Aurora posse turned the chase over to Deputy Sheriff George Hightower of Benton, due to some of their men being sick and fatigued.

convictlakeHightower sent word to Benton that a reward of $500 each dead or alive was being offered by the state of Nevada and by the morning nine more people showed up to help hunt down the convicts. Mid afternoon on Friday the 23rd the Benton posse was making good time, they had crossed through Taylor Canyon to McLaughlin creek and down into Long Valley. By that evening, they had finally caught up to the prisoners, but decided to stay at the McGee ranch three miles away, and deal with the convicts in the morning. On Saturday morning, Jones, Cockerill and Burke decided to look for berries to help quell their hunger. Meanwhile the Benton posse started their way down Monte Diablo creek, now called convict creek, towards the lake when they spotted someone ahead running down a hill. They gave chase and soon were at the convict’s camp where Black, Morton and Roberts began to shoot, killing two horses and wounding a couple more.

Roberts was spotting in an opening and was shot in the shoulder and foot while Black and Morton hid behind a tree. Roberts was told to hide out in willows as Black noticed one of the posse, Robert Morrison, crawling down a canyon to get a closer look. Black went up to confront Morrison but was seen and shot at, but the pistol misfired. Black immediately shot Morrison in the side; he was wounded but not dead. It was then that Black walked up to Morrison and calmly and coolly shot him straight through the head, killing him instantly. As the convicts were trying to make their escape, an Indian named Mono Jim, who was left back to watch Hightower’s horse, called out to them thinking they were part of the posse; it would be a grave mistake. Black sent a shot at Jim and knocked him down, but Jim shot back hitting managing to hit both Black’s and Morton’s horses. Morton then pulled his pistol, shot and killed Jim, then took his horse. While the shooting was going on, Jones, Cockerill and Burke were able to make their escape. But Burke and Cockerill were both captured in Fish Lake Valley while Jones was never seen again.


Mount Morrison

Later that night, Morrison’s body was recovered and buried at Benton, while Mono Jim was buried in the canyon where he died. This bloody gunfight also had a lasting impression on the region, as the highest peak in the Sherwin Range is now called Morrison peak, with the Mono Jim peak nearby as well. The Monte Diablo creek and lake were also renamed as Convict creek and Convict lake.

A telegraph message was sent to Bishop informing them of the last known whereabouts of the prisoners, and shortly after, a posse was formed led by John Clark and John Crough. Ten days after their escape from prison the convicts were hoping that their freedom lay just beyond the next ridge, as they climbed the Pine Creek Canyon into Round Valley, but it was not to be. After a small skirmish just five miles from Round Valley, Moses Black and Leander Morton gave up, and Roberts was found two days later in Pine Creek Canyon. Roberts was ready to give up, he was still suffering from the wounds at the Monte Diablo shootout, and had not eaten in days. During the skirmish Black was shot in the temple, but incredibly he was still able to talk.

Black and Morton were taken to Bircham’s homestead nearby and a few days later Roberts arrived as well. On Sunday October 1st the three convicts were being sent to Carson City via wagon and armed guards, but they would never make it. Near Pinchowers store they were confronted by a large group of “citizens“ and it was clear to the driver and guards who they were, vigilantes. The convicts were driven to a vacant cabin where I trial was held with two guilty verdicts decided. Morton and Black were to be hung for their crimes, but Roberts was saved with a hung jury.

2 Responses so far.

  1. Ed Delaney says:

    Great story – where did you find this information?

  2. Steven Schlah says:

    I really appreciate this detailed story of the flight , gun battles and capture of the “cons” that gave my favorite lake in the whole world, its name. I have been going to Convict Lake since 1954, at the age of 8, and at the age of 11, climbed “Mono Jim” (next to Mt. Morrison) solo, without knowing that it had a name. As an irony, being adopted, I found out in 2006 that my ‘biological’ mother, Mary, with her husband Ray Steffen, built the store, now known as Smalley’s, in Benton, in 1946, which they ran into the 1970s. So I really have a close connection to the area, though unknown until 2006.