Sheriffs in the untamed 1800s had a big job - literally - keeping the peace in a sprawling territory that includes modern day Blaine County. Those self-reliant lawmen kept a vigilant eye on a vast jurisdiction boasting a boom-era population that exceeded our current numbers. And they did it all without radios, motor vehicles, paved roads or computers.
It’s particularly hard to imagine how they were able to carry out the duties of the office (in the early years) when you look at the spirited populace that the mining boom brought to our area. The history of law enforcement in the Wood River Valley began when the area was still a part of Alturas County and John G. Howell, our first Sheriff, was appointed in 1864 by William Daniels, the acting Governor of the Territory of Idaho.
Wood River Valley
The Wood River Valley was one of the most populated areas in the territory in the 1880’s. The towns of Hailey and Bellevue had populations of 10,000 people. In 1884, Sheriff Furey issued Hailey licenses to 18 saloon keepers and 12 gambling establishments. Bellevue had 18 saloons, 2 breweries, 12 grocery stores, several hotels and restaurants, lawyers, doctors and Judges.
The Hailey press described Bellevue as a spirited and sometimes disruptive populace, which required restraint of varying degrees. They made several references to the “Bad Men of Bellevue” and the “Bellevue Gang,” and suggested that in the very origins of settlement, Law and Order were of central value and necessity. So in 1881 the Bellevue Jail was constructed; among the first in the territory. The jail had two dirt floored cells and a front office which measured less than 18 feet by 18 feet. The east cell had a 16 inch square window with 1 inch iron rods mortared into timbers.
In 1884 the jail was fitted into the rock basement of the courthouse with five-ply saw-proof and file-proof cells, at a cost of $6,000 and served as the Alturas and Blaine County Jail until 1973. During this time, Hailey had all the makings of what we now see in many of our larger cities. They had a Chinatown that was located on River Street with a population that grew into the hundreds. On September 8, 1883, Sheriff D. H. Gray and his deputies raided the opium dens in Chinatown, making the first ever drug bust. The Sheriff arrested 8 Chinese and 1 white man, and confiscated $350 in opium, pipes and smoker’s paraphernalia. At the trial, two days later, 2 Chinese were fined $20 and another was fined $5.
The entire section of Hailey’s Chinatown was wiped out by a fire in 1920 when a still, owned by a bootlegger named Monkey Frank, exploded. The fire uncovered many underground tunnels. In the tunnels they found wire, opium bottles, hats and the remains of banks that the Chinese used.
Also located on River Street was Hailey’s “red light district.” One of the well known madams, Dot Allen, was said to have sent all her brothers and sisters to college on her income.
During the 1880’s and 90’s, there were several shootings, murders and executions that took place in Blaine County. In 1882, John Pierson shot and killed John T. Hall, better known as “Jonny behind the rock.” John Hall was on his way to the house of Banjo Nell, when upon arriving within 15 feet of the front door, he was shot and killed by Pierson who was in the house and saw Hall approaching. On October 5, 1882, Pierson was indicted for murder in the first degree and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Pierson was hanged by the Sheriff in the first gulch north of Quigley Canyon in Hailey. The gulch has ever since been known as Hangman’s Gulch.
On June 14, 1884 - Kuck Wah Choi, commonly known as Ah Sam, was indicted for murder. On June 24, 1884, he was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to be hanged by the Sheriff until dead. On September 18, 1885, in accordance with the Judgment, Ah Sam was hanged in Hangman’s Gulch.
On May 21, 1889, Margaret F. Smith was indicted for the murder of her husband L.J.G. Smith. She and her husband were the owners of the Hailey Hot Springs and were very well known around the community, so the trial created great excitement in Hailey. Mrs. Smith was eventually acquitted of the crime. Between the years 1882 and 1889, there were 5 people tried for the crime of murder.
Certainly one of the more intense times for the Sheriff came in February of 1885, when the miners at the Minnie Moore and the Queen of the Hills Mine went on strike. The miners went on strike because both mines reduced their wages from $4 to $3.50 a day. After a three-week strike, some of the mine workers were on their way back to work when they were stopped by an angry crowd at Broadford, which loudly declared that no work would be done until the owners guaranteed $4 a day. To help get these men to work, the Sheriff summoned a posse of 32 men and marched from the Minnie Moore office to Broadford. On arrival, a crowd of 120 men were seen standing on the sidewalk, armed. After seeing the men to work, the Sheriff and his posse returned to Bellevue. Not one insulting word was heard. The Sheriff’s posse had been in Broadford just one hour.
Even 100 years ago, the local newspaper editorials were controversial, but the local citizens did not always fight back by writing letters to the editor. In 1886 the editor of the Wood River Times, Colonel D.C. Russell, almost lost his life for something that he wrote about C.H. Moore. Colonel Russell wrote in the Times, “The reason C.H. Moore was kicked out of the Alturas Hotel was that he did not pay his debts.”
On the evening that the article appeared in the Times, Colonel Russel walked up to the Alturas Hotel - the event is described in the Times- “as he was about to step on the porch, Moore came quickly, gun in hand, and fired one shot at Colonel Russell. It was so close that the Colonel’s face was considerably powder-burned. The concussion of the 45 caliber shot carried Moore off the sidewalk and into the street - Moore, however, resumed shooting as he recovered himself, and discharged five shots. The first ball entered the front part of the neck and came out behind the shirt collar button. Another shot entered the groin on the left side, glanced around the top of the hip bone, came out at the side about eight inches from where it went in.” The loss of several fingers of the right hand handicapped Mr. Moore and probably accounts for his poor marksmanship - only two of the five shots took effect. On the next day, Sheriff C.H. Furey pronounced the charge against Moore, “assault with a deadly weapon.”
On November 7, 1886, the case came to trial. The Jury returned the following verdict: “We the Jury, in the above-entitled case, find the defendant Guilty of an assault as charged in the indictment, asking the mercy of the Court to be extreme in the limit of the law.” The Court sentenced the defendant to pay a fine of $100. Two men went around town, collected the $100 and paid the fine.
It seems as far back as you want to go in history, Sheriffs have always had problems housing prisoners. On September 7, 1895, a bold jail break occurred in Hailey by a convicted murderer. At 10 p.m., Sheriff Tom Fenton started for the jail (in the basement of the courthouse) to lock Paul Lawson in the steel cage for the night. Just as he was unlocking the outside door, two men appeared, one thrusting a six shooter in his face and ordering him to throw up his hands, while the other one tied a handkerchief over his eyes, completely blindfolding the Sheriff. They took the keys and Lawson threw the Sheriff inside his jail and left. In the alley behind the courthouse, the three men joined a fourth, who had four horses ready to ride. They were last seen riding at full speed down Broadford Road towards Bellevue.
Then & Now
Sheriffs have served the people of the Wood River Valley since 1864. Their courage and dedicated service certainly played a vital role in our history, maintaining a safe community in those early years.
- Ketchum Library, History Department History of Alturas and Blaine Counties, Idaho
- Third Edition, Geo. A. Mcleod, Author
|John G. Howell||1864 to 1865|
|Travis M. Johnson||1865 to 1868|
|James McClaren||1868 to 1868|
|Hiram Hunter||1868 to 1868|
|N. L. Clark||1869 to 1874|
|Thomas L. Johnson||1874 to 1874|
|Samuel W. Bane||1874 to 1876|
|E. Mel Campbell||1876 to 1880|
|D. H. Gray||1880 to 1883|
|C. H. Furey||1883 to 1903|
|Fred C. Davis||1903 to 1907|
|H. F. Ensign||1907 to 1909|
|G. P. Taylor||1909 to 1912|
|John Hart||1912 to 1917|
|Aaron Clements||1917 to 1925|
|George Campbell||1925 to 1927|
|Leslie E. Outz||1927 to 1929|
|George Campbell||1929 to 1937|
|David J. Howes||1937 to 1941|
|Ward L. Beck||1941 to 1943|
|Leslie E. Outz||1943 to 1961|
|Lawrence P. Hall||1961 to 1961|
|Frank L. Hewitt||1961 to 1965|
|Orvill E. Drexler||1965 to 1981|
|Dennis L. Haynes||1981 to 1987|
|Jerry E. "Walt" Femling||1987 to 2011|
|Gene D. Ramsey||2011 to 2017|
|Steve M. Harkins||2017 to present|