By J. L. Starkey
All around in my home town they’re trying to track me down.
They say they want to bring me in guilty…
For the life of a deputy.
It was the family legend that couldn’t be ignored, but was it true? Did Cap Lilly, my first cousin three times removed, really die in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906?
Family members and researchers think he did . The tragic story even appears in his Find-A-Grave memorial:
“According to family tradition he left home as a young teenager. He resided in San Francisco, California. He has not been heard of since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. He is presumed to have died there.”– Find-A-Grave Memorial for Casper Lilly
But the legend didn’t stop with that memorial. Cap’s story is all over Ancestry and FamilySearch, and it has been shared again and again (and again!) for years.
As I read about cousin Cap’s death, I wondered why no one had shared any documents to prove the legend. Were the records destroyed in the earthquake? Did the family find it too painful to discuss the tragedy? There were many questions, but where were the answers?
Finding Cap became a someday task for me. We all have those items on our to-do list, and we’re all going to get to them…someday.
“I need to find out what really happened to cousin Cap,” I told myself. “But first, there are those Baugh legends…and there’s that Brown family mystery, and then the Kennedy conundrum. But someday, I’ll find Cap. Really, I will!”
Someday got a bit closer late last year when genealogist Melanie McComb discussed “Records That Survived The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake” on a superb Extreme Genes podcast . I tweeted my thanks to her, explored the resources she recommended, and added “prove the legend of cousin Cap” to my 2020 research goals.
This week, someday became today. And that legend? Well, it isn’t a legend anymore.
The Legend Begins
Born in Jennings County, Indiana, in 1871 to Andrew Lilly and the former Hannah Delaney Lewellen, Casper Celestine (or Cap) was the eldest of at least eleven children . A short-lived marriage – and an even shorter stint in the army – defined his younger years . By June of 1899, the military had taken him to San Francisco, where he would “die” in 1906, according to some family members .
Since Cap was apparently never heard from again after 1906, it was logical for relatives to assume he perished in the earthquake. A check of obituaries supports this theory, since he was not listed as a survivor when his siblings died.
But something didn’t add up from the very beginning of this story. Cap came from a large family, and that family was in the news…often. To put it simply? People knew the Lilly family of Jennings County. Weddings were announced, deaths were reported, and from time to time, bits of family gossip made the society pages.
But Cap’s death, in one of the worst disasters in American history? That warranted not even a mention in hometown papers. Not one single word.
Was the family wrong about the legend?
To learn more, I first reviewed what I knew about cousin Cap. According to military records and news reports, he lived in San Francisco for a short time but left the city long before the earthquake. In 1900, he was working as a prospector in Santa Fe, New Mexico . By 1904, he had moved back to California, where he settled in Fresno County and worked as a laborer .
So far so good, right? Cap was living in the vicinity of San Francisco prior to 1906. I was on the right track but needed to determine where he was living during the earthquake. To do that, I turned to the newspaper again.
It turned out that Cap was indeed living in California around the time of the earthquake. But I didn’t find him in San Francisco, and I didn’t find his name among the death notices, obituaries, or lists of the missing.
On the contrary, I found Cap safe and sound…and on the run.
The Thick-Skulled Survivor
He came to Fresno, registered to vote, found work, and then…he made headlines. On 2 November 1904, Cap was arrested when he attempted to shoot a deputy constable during a financial dispute . Though the constable was uninjured, Cap was shot in the head when he attempted to flee the scene of the crime. He survived (apparently due to a thick skull) and was taken to the Fresno County jail to await trial on a charge of “assault to murder.”
Jury selection began on 12 January 1905, and by five o’clock the next evening, Cap’s fate was in the hands of that jury . Three days later, he was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon; two days after that, he was sentenced to eighteen months in the Fresno County Jail . If he served his full sentence, he would be released in July 1906…three months after the earthquake.
On 18 April 1906, San Francisco was devastated by an earthquake that would later be called one of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history . By the time it was over, 200,000 people would be homeless, almost 500 city blocks would be destroyed, and 3000 lives would be lost.
Cousin Cap was among the missing, to be sure…but it wasn’t because of the earthquake.
A Legend Becomes a Tragedy
Cousin Cap was apparently a model prisoner, and just a few days into his sentence he was “promoted” to jail trustee. Officials probably regretted that decision when their model prisoner escaped on 4 February 1905 while on cleaning duty at the Fresno County Courthouse .
He was bold, this cousin of mine. Officials would later learn that he didn’t bother to change his name or disguise his identity during his time on the lam. Not cousin Cap. Instead, he lived a quiet life in Sonora, California, a town over 130 miles away from where he “died” in 1906.
The law would finally catch up with cousin Cap on 24 April 1906…six days after the San Francisco earthquake .
Acting on a tip, officials moved quickly to apprehend Cap, a man they described as “dangerous” and willing to “…stop at nothing to gain his own ends.” He was returned to the Fresno County Jail on 28 April 1906, and there he would serve the remainder of his sentence – with a bit of extra time tacked on for bad behavior, of course.
But the “bad” man turned over a new leaf during his time on the run. After he completed his sentence (and had that pesky bullet removed from his skull), Cap was a free man again .
His release didn’t make headlines, however. He was simply sent on his way prior to 1910, and by the time of that year’s census, he was working as a servant for the William Lander family in Mariposa County .
He was also using a bit of erroneous information in his vital records. Though Cap was born in 1871, most of his California records contain a birth year of around 1860. I wondered if he used incorrect dates to hide from family members who were searching for him. Was he ashamed of his criminal past? If he was, he may have wanted to spare his family from sharing in that shame.
If Cap wanted to disappear, his plan worked all too well. He apparently never remarried, he had no children, and he stayed out of the news for the rest of his life . Though he lived a nomadic existence, he seemed to be a law-abiding citizen who made an honest living as a laborer and a miner .
Cousin Cap passed away on 11 November 1955, almost fifty years after he “died” in the San Francisco earthquake . In death, as in life, he would remain virtually invisible. His mother’s middle name, Delaney (also spelled Delana), was erroneously listed as her maiden name on Cap’s death record. Additionally, his birth year was recorded as 1858 instead of 1871. Sadly, if relatives searched for Cap using his correct information, they probably found no trace of him.
Thus, the legend of cousin Cap continued – unchallenged – for almost 114 years.
I’m a bit sad to say that Cap’s legend ended this week. He didn’t die in the San Francisco earthquake. He actually wasn’t anywhere near it, and he would live to the ripe old age of 84 (or 97…or 95, depending on which record was correct).
The legend of cousin Cap turned out to be just that: a legend. But that didn’t make his death any less tragic. Cap died alone, with no relatives nearby to hold his hand, to comfort him, or to mourn him. His grave has not been found, and today, Casper Celestine Lilly remains alone, and he remains unknown.
Rest in peace, cousin Cap. I’ll keep looking for your grave, and I know I’ll find it.
- Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 07 March 2020), memorial page for Casper “Cap” Lilly (1871–1906), Find A Grave Memorial no. 114573707; Maintained by Roger Spurgeon (contributor 47999668). Body lost or destroyed, who reports a Presumed lost in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
- Fisher, Scott, host. “Records That Survived The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.” Extreme Genes, 10 Nov 2019, https://extremegenes.com/2019/11/10/episode-305-records-that-survived-the-1906-san-francisco-earthquake-downsizing-decluttering-what-to-keep-ask-us-anything-the-best-way-to-digitize-a-ton-of-pictures/.
- 1880 United States Federal Census, Sand Creek, Jennings, Indiana; Roll: 288; Page: 422A; Digital image 1 of 27 (line 45), entry for Lilly, Casper, Enumeration District: 143. Original data: Tenth Census of the United States, 1880. (NARA microfilm publication T9, 1,454 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- Jasper County, Indiana; Index to Marriage Record 1865 – 1920 Inclusive Let, W. P. A. Original Record Located: County Clerk’s O; Book: 3; Page: 223. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. Indiana, Marriage Index, 1800-1941 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005. (See also: Behunin, Penny, ed. Jasper County, Indiana Marriages, 1850-1920 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 1999.).
- Ancestry.com. U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007. Original data: Register of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M233, 81 rolls, image 28 of 592); Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s-1917, Record Group 94; National Archives, Washington, D.C. (See also: “Interests the People of the Pacific Coast,” The San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, 17 Jun 1899, p. 2, col. 5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.)
- “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MMLQ-CQ4 : accessed 7 March 2020), Gasper Lilli, Precincts 7, 19 Cerrillos, Madrid Cerillos town, Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 121, sheet 12A, family 274, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1972.); FHL microfilm 1,241,002.
- “California Great Registers, 1866-1910,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VTXR-H83 : 25 July 2019), Casper Lestine Lilly, 1904; citing Voter Registration, Jameson, Fresno, California, United States, digital image 294 of 921, county clerk offices, California; FHL microfilm 1,955,196. (Note: Cap’s middle name was recorded as “Lestine” in this record. That error may explain why his middle initial was reported as L instead of C in various records. It is worth noting that Celestine was a common name in the Lilly family, though it was often misspelled by others.)
- “Thickness of His Skull Saves Him From Death,” San Francisco Call, 3 Nov 1904, p. 5, col. 6. Retrieved from California Digital Newspaper Collection, UCR Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SFC19041103.2.65&srpos=1&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN-%22Caspar+Lilly%22——-1.
- “The Superior Court,” The Fresno Morning Republican, Fresno, California, 13 Jan 1905, p. 6, col. 1. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: “Jury is Out,” The Fresno Morning Republican, 14 Jan 1905, p. 3, col. 4 & 5; and “Convicted and Confessed,” The Fresno morning Republican, 15 Jan 1905, p. 15, col. 6. Both articles retrieved from newspapers.com.)
- “Lilly Goes to Jail,” The Fresno Morning Republican, 17 Jan 1905, p. 7, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “San Francisco Earthquake.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 16 Nov. 2009, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/san-francisco-earthquake. Accessed 7 Mar 2020.
- “Fresno Jail Trusty Escapes,” The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, California, 16 Feb 1905, p. 3, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: “Condensed News of the Pacific Coast,” Oakdale Leader, Oakdale, California, 24 Feb 1905, p. 3, col. 1. Retrieved from newspapers.com.)
- Ex-Ocean Shore Railroad 2-6-0 No. 26 at Sonora, California, By Unknown author – Unknown source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38182963.
- “Fresno Escape Caught at Sonora,” The Evening Mail, Stockton, California, 30 Apr 1906, p. 2, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: “This One Will Return Tonight,” The Fresno Morning Republican, 28 Apr 1906, p. 2, col. 3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.)
- “Local Brevities,” The Fresno Morning Republican, 11 Dec 1906, p. 5, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “United States Census, 1910,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9RVG-YH9?cc=1727033&wc=QZZ4-MK1%3A133639101%2C139947101%2C133672601%2C1589089080 : 23 June 2017), California > Mariposa > White Rock > ED 97 > image 1 of 8; citing NARA microfilm publication T624 (Washington, D.C.: NARA, n.d.).
- 1920 United States Federal Census, San Jose, Santa Clara, California; Roll: T625_147; Page: 5A; Digital image 9 of 27 (line 44), entry for Lilly, Casper, Enumeration District: 158. Original data: Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. (NARA microfilm publication T625, 2,076 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from ancestry.com. (See also: “United States Census, 1930,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XCJM-DLL : accessed 8 March 2020), C S Lilly, Greenview, Siskiyou, California, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 8, sheet 3B, line 87, family 78, NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: NARA, 2002), roll 220; FHL microfilm 2,339,955; and 1940 United States Federal Census, Mariposa, California; Roll: m-t0627-00262; Page: 3B; Digital image 7 of 26 (line 63), entry for Lilly, Casper S., Enumeration District: 22-3. Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. Washington, D.C.: NARA, 1940. T627, 4,643 rolls.. Retrieved from ancestry.com)
- Ancestry.com. California, Voter Registrations, 1900-1968 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2017. Original data: California State Library; Sacramento, California; Great Register of Voters, 1900-1968, voter registration for Casper S Lilly, image 1374 of 1626.
- “California Death Index, 1940-1997,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VPZ9-4ZX : 26 November 2014), Casper Lillie, 12 Nov 1955; Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento.
Wonderful story and what a fine job you did tracking down cousin Cap! And he’s no longer unknown.
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Great sleuthing and storytelling as always. I did notice you said he escaped in Feb 1905, but from the rest of the info, I think you meant 1906.
Hope you are doing okay in these hard times. Sorry I missed this post earlier. I look forward to more of your excellent tales.
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I hope you are doing okay as well! Writing has been difficult lately…I’m sure I’m not alone in that feeling.
I double-checked those dates for Cap’s time on the run, and he did escape very early in his sentence, in early 1905. Why would officials make someone a trustee so quickly? I had to wonder about the wisdom of that! It also didn’t appear that officials were really looking for him, since he remained on the run for most of his original sentence.
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I actually met Mr. Casper Lilly in the mid 1950’s in Coulterville, CA (Mariposa County). He assisted my family in locating a goldmine that had been an inheritance. Though I was a child, he made quite an impression on me and I never forgot him. He was bigger than life and had quite an authority about him. He wore his all white bushy hair and beard long and full. His clothing was worn and looked exactly like you would imagine a miner would wear. But he seemed to be right where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do. He was strong and active in his elder years, as from what I have learned he was not long for the world at the time that I met him. I am happy to know the end of his fascinating story! Thank you!
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This made my day! I can picture what Cap looked like based on your description, and it sounds like he lived life on his own terms (but legally!) after his incarceration. I need to do a bit more digging to see what else I can discover about him!