So let me stage this story. The United States has had a very colorful history, and California is no exception to that rule. From the gold rush to the Indian wars and something else that is not talked about as frequently. So what is it? It is called Vigilantism. So what is Vigilantism or Vigilante?
Vigilante in Justice in America as defined by the Legal Information Institute, is the “actions of a single person or group of people who claim to enforce law but lack the authority to do so. You might be surprised to learn Vigilantism itself is not illegal under United States law but involves actions that are sometimes illegal. The main objective of vigilantism is the preservation of social stability in the face of innovative behavior.
It was 129 years ago on October 10, 1890 and known as the White Cap murders that occurred in Middletown, California. The White Caps were groups of lawless bands of vigilantes that was originally formed in South Indiana, that spread to nearby states and eventually made it to the west. The murders that occurred in Middletown was and still is considered one the most heinous crimes in the history of Middletown.
The murders occurred about 3 miles south of Middletown at a saloon called Campers Retreat and as the story goes all was quiet. Typically the saloon would be busy with the local quicksilver miners from nearby mines of Bradford, Mirable, Great Western, Oat Hills and other patrons who would normally be drinking or playing cards and generally passing time there.
A plan was devised to get the bartender Mr. Bennett who was a real bruiser/bouncer because several of the miners disliked or hated him for various reasons including the fact that Mr. Bennett had thrashed several of the men. C. E. Blackburn also had a confrontation with Mr. Bennett over a mining boundary claim and had also been thrashed by Mr. Bennett. In addition W. R. McGuire was mad at the Riche’s over the Riche’s cows wondering into his pasture.
It was C. E. Blackburn, who was accused of forming the original idea of getting the group of men together to have Mr. Bennett flogged and then tar and feather him, and escort him to the county line and order him to never come back to the county ever again.
On that quiet night there was the bartender Mr. Bennett and Mr. & Mrs. Riche. Mrs. Riche and the bartender was playing cards, when around 9:00 pm that night suddenly the door was thrown open and a masked man entered in. Followed were more men with rifles, shotguns and firearms all drawn.
Mr. Riche thought he recognized one of the masked men as one of the miners, so he thought it was an early Halloween trick. Then suddenly a bullet nearly grazed his head and he realized this was no Halloween trick.
Mrs. Riche ripped off the white cap off one of the masked men and all hell broke loose. Mr. Riche tried in vain to pull his wife to safety and shield her with his body, but at that moment a flurry of gunshots filled the room, and Mrs. Riche was wounded by gun shots on her chest and side. Even though she was wounded she was able to grab her husbands 44 winchester and tried to retaliate but failed.
Mr. Riche later testified that one of the masked men grabbed the rifle from her hand and threw it behind him. At that point the White Caps decided to leave, backing their way out with the guns aiming at them, and it is said that Mr. Bennett threw the last one out.
Mr. Riche who was deeply shaken, carried his wife to the bedroom and told Mr. Bennett to go get the doctor. While Mr. Riche was nervously waiting for the doctor, he heard more footsteps on his porch. He quickly opened the door and aimed his gun into the dark of the night, yelling who was ever out there that he would shoot him. It became deathly quiet.
That evening in town it was bustling with activity because there was a major gala social event happening “The Candidates Ball” where Mr. Bennett, who came galloping in on his horse, yelling for help where Dr. Hartley was. The Doctor left immediately from the party and was followed by Constable J. W. Ransdell, Sheriff Moore, District Attorney Sayre and many others to see what had happened.
One man, was found dead on the Riche’s porch by some neighbors. It was the body of Mr. McGuyre. Dr. Hartley stated that the body wore a fiendish looking disguise. He was wearing burlap sacks for his makeshift shirt and pants with red sleeves. A white flour-sack mask were found near the house, along with a bucket of tar. Dr. Hartley learned that Mrs. Riche had a total of five gunshot wounds and had suffered four days before she passed on from her wounds. Much of the town attended services at the Middletown Methodist church, and then formed a procession to the cemetery.
There was a total of ten men that eventually got arrested. Three men were turned into the Lakeport Jail without bail. Before the legal proceedings were ever completed, Mr. Riche died of apoplexy of the brain. It was believed along with the bullet wound to his side that never healed properly and with the sadness and stresses of the events took its toll. At the end of the trial there were no death sentences given out. They spent time in San Quentin Prison, with the longest term given to a man named Blackburn, who eventually was released on September 26, 1897.
As a final note it turns out that Riche was not the true name of our victims but instead there real names were Thompson who were debtors from England. It was during that time in England that if you were a debtor and didn’t pay your debt that you would go to prison.