By J. L. Starkey
White ones and red ones
And some you can’t disguise
Twisted truth and half the news
Can’t hide it in your eyes
– Joseph Martin Leeway, Alannah Joy Currie, Tom Bailey –
“You sure about this Fraser character?” he looked away, hoping beyond hope that the job was real.
“Ayup,” the man answered. “Fella in Sonora says he’s the one’s doin’ the hiring for them lumber jobs. Says they’s work t’be had on account of the quake, but we best get there quick.”
His mind started racing. He could use the work, definitely. But…move away and mingle with people? He never was the mingling type. Especially on account of…well, things.
There were a few things, to be sure.
Still, if his buddy said Fraser was handing out work, that had to be true.
His mind made up, he packed his meager belongings, took a last look around, and said, “Welp…let’s get to it.”
Moments later, Frank Smith was headed to Sonora.
That evening, he was arrested, but it was Casper Lilly who was taken to jail.
Social media meets 1906
The law caught up with Casper Lilly on April 24, 1906, less than one week after the San Francisco Earthquake. The arrest of a smalltown escapee was page-two fodder for most newspapers, and reporting about the incident was inaccurate at best . What the narratives lacked in facts, however, they more than made up for in gossip and innuendo .
The Fresno Democrat reported that Cap escaped in 1904 – one year before he was sent to jail. Not to be outdone, The Fresno Morning Republican said he absconded after stabbing (not shooting at) a deputy constable, and that he’d been on the run for just two months. According to that story, he was captured “due to the perfidity [sic] of a supposed friend.”
Inaccuracies aside, I cited both reports in The Legend of Cousin Cap, since I also included records from his trial and subsequent jailbreak. Still, the conflicting stories rankled, and three years later, while writing Truth Be Told, I wondered if a more accurate account existed. Perhaps I would discover something by searching closer to the scene of the crime (or the capture, as it were).
Thanks to Google News Archive, I was able to do just that.
The game is afoot!
Although earthquake coverage dominated The Union Democrat’s April 28, 1906, edition, the story placed front and center that day had nothing to do with the San Francisco tragedy. Instead, Casper Lilly was the talk of Tuolumne County.
Sheriff William Sweeney received a BOLO about Cousin Cap in November 1905, and it’s safe to assume that he displayed the Wanted poster in his office. It’s also safe to assume that he glanced at that very poster as he left the office on the evening of April 24, 1906. Sonora had a rough reputation, and Bill Sweeney liked to keep an eye out for the criminal element.
Sweeney recognized the escapee immediately, and he approached the man to make an arrest.
But Frank Smith had no intention of giving up that easily.
First, he had to play three lies and a truth.
“It wasn’t me!”
This was all a big mistake, thought Frank. It wasn’t like he was the man they were looking for. No siree. The sheriff had the wrong guy!
This Casper Lilly – whoever he was – sounded like a bad guy, and Frank Smith was not a bad guy. He was a hard-working man just looking to make an honest living. How could anyone fault a person for that?
Frank knew if he just told Sheriff Sweeney that he wasn’t the wanted man, that would be the end of it. He could be on his way to find Fraser and get that job.
Easy enough in theory, but did Frank’s lie work?
In a word? No.
Sheriff Sweeney was a fair and reasonable man, but he wasn’t born yesterday. Plus, Cousin Cap was pretty easy to identify, due in part to his height. At over six feet tall, he did tend to stand out in a crowd.
Sensing failure but unwilling to give up, Frank Smith did some quick talking.
It was time to lean in to lie number two.
“I wasn’t there!”
OK, fine! Maybe he did look like this Casper fella, but Fresno? Frank Smith had never been to Fresno in his whole entire life, and that there was the honest truth!
“Sheriff, I’m offended by what you’re accusin’ me of. I’m a Coulterville man…lived in the area for years, and anyone will vouch for me. Go ahead and ask the mayor or anyone else in charge! Now I’ll just be on my way, if you please.“
But Bill Sweeney was not swayed by Frank Smith’s “story of injured innocence,” and he continued walking with the suspect, reassuring the man that this would all be straightened out when an officer from Fresno arrived to make a positive ID.
A positive ID? As in positively going back to jail?
That may have been the way things were headed, but Frank Smith had to try just one more lie.
“It’s all her fault!”
“Welp, ya got me, Sheriff,” said Frank, “but ya see, it wasn’t like they was sayin’.”
“Oh? Why don’t you tell me how it was like, then,” Sweeney replied.
“See, that’s what I was gettin’ to. Oh, I’ll admit it happened…the shootin’, that is,” Frank explained. “And I’m truly sorry I didn’t tell you that from the start, but…here’s the true story.
“It was that woman’s fault, ya see. I didn’t know she’d taken up with another man, and he got worked up when I didn’t know nothin’ about no one. It was self defense, is all it was!”
“Well, I’d say you got yourself in a situation there,” Sweeney said. “But I got a job to do, and if you’re the man what’s escaped from jail? Then I gotta make sure justice prevails. You get where I’m comin’ from?”
He knew this day was coming. He’d known it the minute he’d walked away from that prison job.
It was over, and that was a true fact. Cap knew it, and Sheriff Sweeney knew it.
Heck, even Frank Smith knew it.
Cap took a deep breath, looked Sheriff Sweeney in the eye, and uttered two words.
Finally, the whole story came out. Yes, Casper had been involved in a “shooting scrape” in Fresno, and yes, he’d been sentenced to 18 months in jail. Yes, he’d escaped in less than a month and had been living in Coulterville under the alias Frank Smith ever since. Yes, he’d arrived in Sonora that very evening, and only because he was looking for work.
An astute reporter wrote a gripping account of the capture of Cousin Cap, and just ten days after the San Francisco Earthquake, that story was placed front and center – and above the fold – on the front page of a city paper just 130 miles from the quake’s epicenter.
It’s easy to see why that editorial decision was made. The reporter truly made the story come alive, and I could picture Cousin Cap trying – again and again – to lie his way out of things.
Why did he stop lying? I like to think he realized that the truth would set him free….after a year or so, anyway.
The discovery of that report gave a sense of closure to Cousin Cap’s story. After he was apprehended, he went back to jail, served his time, and then returned to the Coulterville area to live a quiet (and mostly anonymous) life. He died in November 1955, almost 50 years after he supposedly perished in the San Francisco Earthquake.
His story has finally been told, but I still wonder about the ending. Does Cousin Cap have a few more secrets to tell?
Truth be told, perhaps he does.
- “He Can’t Resist Temptation To Lift,” The Fresno Morning Republican, 29 Apr 1906, p. 8, col. 5. Retrieved 24 Jan 2023 from newspapers.com.
- Lee, Karen. “Social Media for the 19th Century Dummy.” Newspapers.com, 7 June 2018, https://blog.newspapers.com/social-media-for-the-19th-century-dummy/. Accessed 3 Feb 2023.
- “Muscle-Bound Movie Monikers,” Tulsa World, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 30 Aug 1987, p. 89, col. 3-6. Retrieved 1 Feb 2023 from newspapers.com.
- “Fresno Escape Caught at Sonora,” The Evening Mail, Stockton, California, 30 Apr 1906, p. 2, col. 4. Retrieved 8 Mar 2020 from newspapers.com.
- “This One Will Return Tonight,” The Fresno Morning Republican, Fresno, California, 28 Apr 1906, p. 2, col. 3. Retrieved 8 Mar 2020 from newspapers.com.
- “Wanted,” Public domain image and text, Madera County Sheriff’s Album, early 1900’s, digital image 88 of 512. Retrieved 20 Jan 2023 from Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/cma_000015/page/n87/mode/2up?view=theater.
- Washington Street and Victoria Hotel, Sonora California. N.p., 1917. Print. E. F. Mueller Postcard Collection. Retrieved 28 Jan 2023 from California State Library @ https://csl.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/view/delivery/01CSL_INST/12136020270005115.
- Coulterville Cal. in 1908. Pearl City, Ill: Gem Photo Co., 1908. Print. Retrieved 28 Jan 2023 from California State Library @ https://csl.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01CSL_INST/kjolsn/alma990014114200205115.
- Tuolumne County Courthouse, Clerk’s Office, Sonora [Graphic], ca. 1904. Retrieved 28 Jan 2023 from California State Library, Sacramento, California (https://csl.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01CSL_INST/hbrh2d/alma990014311610205115).
- “Sheriff Sweeney Arrests Escape,” The Union Democrat, Sonora, California, 28 Apr 1906, p. 1, col. 4. Retrieved 24 Jan 2023 from Google News Archive.
This was a great read. Also it is good to know that I am not the only one with an escape convict in the family. You have to love family history.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I love to research and write about outlaw ancestors!