GUNPLAY at CONVICT LAKE

The lake was named after an incident in 1871, where a group of convicts escaped from prison in Carson City. A posse, led by Sheriff George Hightower, encountered the convicts near the head of what is now Convict Creek. Posse member, Benton Hot Springs Merchant and Wells Fargo Agent Robert Morrison was killed in the encounter, and Mount Morrison was named after him.

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BY RICHARD DELANEY

CHAPTER ONE - DESPERATE MEN MAKE A DESPERATE PLAN

    The Nevada State Prison in Carson City was the residence of a cadre of unsavory characters in 1871. Nearly 70 men were serving sentences ranging from murder to train robbery to arson, rape, assault and burglary. These were not nice men. To no one’s surprise, they didn’t want to be there. The talk of escape was constantly on their lips. On September 3, several of the more desperate figured it was time for a break. All they needed was a plan.

    Leandor Morton and Frank Clifford were selected to plan the escape. Morton was in jail for train robbery back in December. He was suspected in the deaths of two U.S. Cavalry soldiers, whose bodies were never found. When arrested Lea was wearing the gloves of one of those men. He was lucky not to have been charged with murder as well. Morton asked that Frank Clifford work with him. Early on Clifford had chosen a life of crime. He frequently ended up in jail. But, he never stayed long. He was considered to be one of the best escape artists on the west coast. Lea thought him a natural to help plan the escape. The reason Clifford was in prison this time was for stage robbery.

    The basis of their plan was gaining access to the prison roof. To reach the roof, they would cut a hole in the ceiling above their jail cells. This had to be done so no trace of the work would be noticed by the guards during periodic checks. Once in the ceiling, part of the wall would also be dug out to get access to the roof. From there, they would break through to the second floor of the prison which housed the Warden’s family, the Assistant Warden, an office and the armory. After dropping into the room below, they would break open the armory. With weapons in hand, they would fight their way downstairs, out into the yard and through the main gate. At that point, they would simply overpower any remaining guards and head for the Carson River.

    Work began a week later. By Sunday the 17, preparations were complete. That morning, as usual, the nearly 70 prisoners were taken to the dining hall for their breakfast. They knew the routine. They will stay all day. Some will play cards or checkers. Others will talk about old and better times. Word was spread amongst select prisoners that 6 pm was the time for action. A signal was to be given by Pat Hurley. He was to rattle his leg chains and drop his iron ball to the floor. Those that knew what was coming tried to remain as calm as possible. They tried to nonchalantly eat their evening meal, but the adrenaline was flowing. Two hundred miles to the south, just outside Benton Hot Springs in Mono County, California, Robert Morrison and his fiancé, Sarah Devine shared a kiss. The late fall afternoon was quickly cooling off. The two lovers snuggled close together. Morrison was the successful proprietor of the Benton General Store. She was a Pennsylvania native.

    She had come to Benton to be near her brother, Henry. Henry came west to seek his fortune as a miner, but had since gone to work as a clerk in Morrison’s store. They both realized it was time to head to town following what had become a regular Sunday afternoon affair. Bob enjoyed sharing his knowledge of this high desert region with Sarah. Usually they settled back in one of the hot springs for which the area was known. But this Sunday, he took her to the Crags, a series of interesting geological rock formations not too far from Benton. Nineteen year old Sarah was still a bit of a tom-boy. With 125 pounds spread over her 5’6” frame, she posed a striking figure. Her long Irish reddish brown hair, freckles and sparkling green eyes accentuated her beautiful face. Her skin was smooth and radiant. But Bob was really impressed that her beauty was not just skin deep. She had a good heart and a deep passion. “Hey,” he chuckled to himself, “she was a great cook too.” Bob noted he gained a few pounds since they began hanging out together. Today they shared a wonderful picnic. As the wagon wound its way down the steep incline, they looked forward to the evening ahead. Henry Devine, Sarah’s brother, was having a dinner party in their honor to announce their upcoming wedding. In the bustling mining town of Aurora about 15 miles from Bodie, the Poor family was feeling anything but that. Today they had been enjoying a long awaited reunion with their son William. His dad was the proprietor of a local hotel in Aurora and his mom kept busy raising his brothers and sisters. Billy, as his friends called him, had been living in California. He was thrilled when he received a recent letter from his dad telling about him a job that was opening up with family friend. Billy Wilson operated both stage and mail routes in western Nevada and was looking for a rider that he could rely on to cover an important mail route. Young Billy was an excellent horseman. He was ready to try something else. He’d move on to a new life of excitement in the “wild west.” Billy was excited. He really looked forward to his first trip for Wilson on Tuesday. Meanwhile back at the prison, the Captain of the Guard Volney Rollins, called to the prisoners to get ready to return to their cells. As Rollins turned the key in the lock, many prisoners, waited, as if spring loaded, for the signal that was to given. It did not come. Rollins started to swing the heavy iron door open. He stepped back. There was a momentary pause. Some of them thought “What now”? Never at a loss for action, Morton decided to take the lead and got the game underway by yelling: “Now, let’s go now. Let’s get the hell out of here!” Suddenly all hell broke loose. John Squires forcefully opened the iron door. He seized Rollins and threw him to the sawdust covered floor. Others flowed through the open door like water escaping through a hole in a dam. Seeing Squires with Rollins, fellow prisoner William Russell pulled Rollins’ head by the hair. Squires grabbed a bottle and swung it at the Captain’s head. He broke the bottle over his head. Blood rushed from the three and a half inch gash left by the blow. Rollins’ misfortunes were just beginning. Almost simultaneously, he was struck just over the left eye with a slung-shot, cutting his face to the bone. Now bleeding profusely, the man, wounded badly, but not mortally, sunk to the floor. Other convicts saw Rollins covered with blood and sawdust, lying helplessly and still on the floor. As they rushed in for the kill, convict Pat Hurley dragged Rollins into a cell, locked the door and threw in the key. This move more than likely saved his life. Hearing the commotion below, the prisoners atop the roof went through the hole they had cut. They jumped down, ending up in Assistant Warden Zimmerman’s room. Clad in his sleeping garments, the man awoke to a frightful scene. Dressed in his bed clothes and completely defenseless, Zimmerman could not believe his good fortune that no one noticed him.

    He fled down the staircase and into the courtyard.

    Still upstairs, Morton, Jones, Clifford and Thomas Ryan led others to the armory. They broke in. For their efforts they were rewarded with two Henry rifles, two boxes of rifle cartridges, four double barreled shotguns and several six-shooters. Jones and Morton each took a Henry and a box of cartridges. For good measure they also tucked a pistol in their pants. Thomas Flynn grabbed a revolver and some bullets. The shotguns and other pistols were grabbed up. Now armed with Henry rifles, Morton and Jones were very dangerous. They went downstairs to the prison’s main door. It was open. They saw someone running toward the Warm Springs Hotel. Some convicts were making a run for the sagebrush. It was dusk and the blowing wind had cut the visibility noticeably. They decided to wait a few minutes before venturing out. Knowing a third Henry rifle was missing, Ryan figured it was in the Warden’s quarters. Leading a group of convicts, Ryan set out to get the weapon from Denver. He had no idea that it was out of service and in the warder’s office, waiting for repairs. Ryan stopped when he saw Denver and Dedman at the top of the stairs. Clifford was right behind him. With only his Derringer to defend himself, Denver pointed it at the convicts menacingly. The surge towards him didn’t stop. He fired and hit Clifford point blank. The others fell back. Clifford clutched his stomach. Seeing Clifford go down, Ryan yelled for more men to assist them in getting the weapon from the warden. He urged them to rush the warden and Dedman. He wanted that extra Henry rifle. For some reason several fellow convicts blindly followed his orders with disastrous results. Denver had retreated to his bedroom where he grabbed a loaded revolver. Returning to the main room he saw Dedman has his hands full. The orderly had broken an oak chair into kindling and was using the largest piece to strike anyone that tried to come through the door. Seeing that no progress was being made, Ryan was furious. He wanted control of that third Henry rifle. He was adamant in his resolve. He figured the convicts needed it to secure their freedom once they finally left the prison.

    He swore to those around him that Denver had it with him in his quarters. “Throw down that Henry rifle warden,” yelled Ryan up to Denver. “Quit being stupid and throw it down. When you do, we’ll leave. No harm will come to you.” Denver heard this request. He knew the rifle wasn’t with him. He last saw it in the office. He couldn’t meet Ryan’s request even if he wanted to. But he figured if he could stall the prisoners, help will soon come from outside the prison. “No,” the warden replied. “Shoot him, shoot the warden,” Ryan screamed. “Shoot him and we can walk up and get the Henry.” Denver got hit in the hip and thrown back. Though wounded and in immense pain, he somehow got up. He planted himself just inside the door and stared right at Ryan, revolver in hand.

    “If you want the damn rifle, why don’t you just come on up and get it,” chided the warden. Ryan and the others left. In addition to his bullet wound, Denver suffered wounds caused by two slung-shot blows to the head. These scalp bleed wounds profusely. He most likely would have been killed if not for the assistance Dedman gave him. Dedman was covered with cuts, bruises and abrasions. He sat down on the floor physically drained.

    In Benton Hot Springs, Henry Devine toasted the upcoming wedding of his sister Sarah to Bob Morrison. The three were among several friends gathered together for the formal announcement of the wedding plans. George Hightower, his wife Martha, along with James McLaughlin and his wife Mary, were among the prominent citizens of Benton Hot Springs in attendance.

    Morrison, a native of New York, came to nearby Owensville around 1863. He partnered with some other men in a couple of early mining adventures. He had since expanded his holdings and now owned the Benton General Store. The 34 year-old was assigned the responsibility of regional Wells Fargo agent this past year. Sarah kept house for her brother, a task she would soon be doing for Robert or Bob as most folks called him.

    Her first glimpse of Bob took place several months ago soon after she arrived in Benton. She saw a fine figure of a man at a distance on the steps in front of the General Store. She met him later in the week. Henry gave her a list and asked her to run to the store for him. As Sarah entered the store suddenly there he was. He was writing down an order for an older woman at the counter. The lady had chosen a selection of mail order household goods offered by FA Walker and Co. This tall, handsome man was soft spoken and appeared gentle. She liked that he appeared taller than she, about 5’11” and 160 pounds, she guessed. Bob was well put together. Sarah decided to look through some of the order books on hand while she waited her turn. She saw stoves offered by Rathbone and Kennedy as well as Potter and Co. The Singer Sewing Machine catalogue interested her too. She was looking through the Christmas presents offered in the James P. Walke book.

    Suddenly she realized his attention shifted to her, she nearly melted when she looked into his deep blue eyes. “Good morning young lady. May I help you?” She barely heard him say to her. Sarah looked down and stumbled for words. She blushed a bright pink. Bob was equally taken with her. “I need to buy a few things,” she blurted. “Well you came to the right place,” he said teasing her, “we actually sell a few things.” They both laughed and exchanged introductions. Their bond grew steadily every day. She was so proud of the man that would soon be her husband. They planned to have a big family. She loved children. She already had names picked out, Robert, of course, for the first boy. She was currently looking forward to her upcoming trip to Los Angeles to visit her relatives from Pennsylvania this next week. She was excited about her planned marriage to Bob, which would take place shortly after she returned near the end of the month. There was so much to do.

CHAPTER TWO - ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE

    Guard Ed Langlois was relaxing on his day off when he heard screams coming from the prison yard. Muffled sounds of pop, pop, pop came to him as well. He stepped into his quarters where he grabbed his rifle and six shooter. He filled his pockets with cartridges. He stepped out of his quarters and ran into the yard. He was known as a brave man and his actions over the next 15 minutes would attest to that reputation. Another off duty guard, F.M. Isaacs saw Langlois in the fight. Not having his own weapon and knowing it would be very dangerous to try and get it, he, ran up behind him and took Ed’s rifle so he could join the fight. He backed off about 30 paces from the guard room window. Inside he saw several prisoners trying to break out. He did not recognize any of them. He saw two standing on the front porch of the prison shooting at anything that did not look like a convict. He could not tell who it was because it was nearly dark. He fought bravely this hour. His shots were very effective. Close by, Langlois, after reloading and firing several times, ran out of bullets. For some reason he grabbed a club and ran into the midst of the fleeing convicts. Nearby, Matt Pixley and his wife were finishing their supper at the Warm Springs Hotel. Although adjacent to the Nevada State Prison, the hotel was in a very peaceful setting. So they were naturally astounded to hear a tremendous commotion in the courtyard, along with terrible, frightening screams. Pixley told his wife to lock herself in their bedroom. He’d go see what was happening. He quickly peered through the window and was amazed to see convicts scurrying about the courtyard with the Warden’s daughter, Jennie, in the middle of it all. He immediately realized an escape attempt was underway. Running across his living room, he grabbed two pistols from the bureau drawer. “Damn,” he thought, “why don’t I keep these loaded.”

    He emptied a box of cartridges on the table and quickly loaded each one. He headed towards the front door knowing he had to rescue Jennie. He was a very brave man. His timing could not have been worse. He exited the door and stood on the porch trying to determine his next move. Still inside the prison, Charles Jones shattered a window with his rifle barrel. In the fading light he saw a man with two pistols in his hand on the Warm Springs Hotel porch. “That just won’t do,” Charlie thought. He raised his weapon and sighted on Pixley. Thomas Flynn had already exited the prison and likewise saw someone on the hotel porch with pistols in hand. He also realized this threat to himself and the others. He made sure a cartridge was in the chamber and sighted in on Pixely as well. Two shots rang out. A bullet caught Pixley just below the left eye, knocking him back into the hotel wall killing him instantly. No one ever knew for sure whether Jones or Flynn fired the fatal shot. It really didn’t matter; a brave young man lay dead on the hotel steps. It was reported that the grief displayed by his young wife at seeing his lifeless body was “heart rending.” Jones chambered another round. Flynn reloaded. The peaceful early evening surrounding the prison had been entirely disrupted. Off duty guards dropped what they were doing and came to join the fight. The Warm Springs Hotel bartender, Burgesser, heard the gunshots. He headed to the window to see what was going on. He was sickened by the sight of Pixley dead on the porch. He grabbed the double barrel shotgun along with a box of shells from beneath the bar and entered the fight. Matt had been his friend. He was immediately grazed in each ear by two errant shots. He fought on. A third shot tore into the crotch of his pantaloons, ripping away the whole seat of his pants as well as his drawers. Drafty, but undaunted, he continued to battle back. Convict Ed Goyette didn’t know what to do. Did he take advantage of this turmoil and slip out? Or did he lay low and stay here? In the midst of this thought he saw the Warden’s daughter Jennie. The little girl was holding her hands over her face as if to shelter her from all that was happening. Bullets were flying everywhere. Fate took over. Goyette ran to the child and swept her up in his arms and carried her to a safe place. Gunfire in the yard was brutal. Burgesser saw Isaacs go down. He knew the man would not survive in the open. He rushed over to the fallen guard to render assistance. Goyette also saw Isaacs’ situation was extremely dangerous. He worked his way over to help the bartender drag the wounded man to cover.

    Johnny Newhouse, another guard, heard all the noise and was happy to join in the gun battle with no regard for his own safety. With a pistol in each hand, he was really having a great time. He took a bead on a striped figure trying to escape across the yard. Newhouse rose up to fire again and was hit both in the upper back and the back of the head. The force of the slugs knocked him off his feet. On the ground and losing consciousness, he was no longer a threat to the escapees. Hanging around outside the prison, Joseph Parasich, another guard, could not help but hear the gun fire erupting and the screaming coming from inside. Joe ran across to the Warm Springs Hotel. He searched around for a weapon. He located a revolver and a box of cartridges. He quickly loaded it. He stuck more bullets in his pockets. He ducked out the hotel and entered the yard with his gun blazing. He could see the results of his fire taking place. Suddenly he was sickened by the sound of a ball hitting him in the groin. The bullet traveled some distance in fleshy tissue and lodged between the femur bone and nearby artery. Luckily it didn’t severe the artery. His wound was very bad. He writhed in agony near the prison door. Langlois, the brave Frenchman, along with Burgesser were the only deterrents remaining. Neither had any ammunition left. Langlois had been grazed by so many balls that his clothing had been cut to shreds. Realizing their fight was futile, they entered the prison to see what assistant they could render there. Jones, the barrel of his Henry rifle hot to the touch, rested the gun on his shoulder. Behind him, Morton and Black noticed the absence of gunfire. It was apparent to these murderous men that there was no one left to stop them from simply walking out. Many of the other prisoners had no stomach for the killing and fighting that had been taking place. They had kept safe in the cover of the prison until seeing it was prudent to leave. They now realized that there was no one left to stop them from walking right out and into the darkness. Jones managed to remove his irons. As he shuffled along outside the prison, he casually glanced down at Pixley. He smiled for a moment. “Better him than me!” Charlie saw Newhouse and Isaacs badly wounded. He didn’t like seeing these men in their present condition. Another prisoner, Pruitt, watching from across the yard, saw Jones walking over to Newhouse. He couldn’t believe it when Jones pointed the muzzle of the rifle at the wounded man’s head. With his finger on the hammer, he moved it back so it was ready to fire. Pruitt wanted to yell or something, he was simply in shock that a man would do such a thing. Jones was about to put Newhouse out of his misery. To Pruitt’s relief, another convict grabbed the barrel and moved it away from the man’s head. “That man fought bravely. If his wounds kill him, that’s one thing, but to shoot him like a dog is wrong. Besides, you might need the ammunition later today or tomorrow.” Prone on the ground Newhouse barely understands what had just transpired. Fate has stepped in and neither he nor Isaacs would be assassinated tonight. Pruitt shook his head. Nearly twenty-five men smiled wearily as they trudged away from that horrible place. Soon several men in small groups or by themselves split off from the main party. They would find their own way. The main body of men turned to the right so they would reach the Carson River. When the party reached the water, it had thinned considerably. At Clifford’s suggestion the group rose up and headed south up the river. It was around 9:30 pm when they approached the cabin at what was called the Mexican Dam. It was quiet, but the escapes were very weary.

    Clifford and Jones huddled together for a moment. Then Clifford stood up. “I need three men to go up and see who’s at the cabin.” “I’m game,” said Burke “Me too,” Flynn said. “I’m with ya,” said Squires. “Give me a whistle when the coast is clear.” The three men went ahead to make sure it was safe for the rest of them. Seeing a light in the cabin, these scouts quietly crept toward the cabin. Suddenly a dog barked a warning. The men froze. The cabin door swung open and a tall man peered outside. The hound continued his barking. “Quit that barkin dog,” yelled the figure in the doorway. The big hound, his tail waggin away, stopped as commanded to do so by his master. The man walked outside. The scouts saw he was unarmed. “Anyone out here,” inquired the man? “Good evening there partner, no need to be concerned, we don’t mean you any harm,” Burke called to the man. A shrill whistle brought the other men to the cabin. It was home to a blacksmith that made his living tending to the needs of the local ranchers and teamsters in the region. Six of the convicts had not yet been able to get out of their chains. “Obviously, we’re in a lot of trouble,” said Clifford. “Some of these men need to get their irons off. I need you to get that done.”

    I reckon I can get that done,” said the big man. “Follow me on down to the shop.” The blacksmith was followed to his shop by the six men still shackled. Some of the others sat and rested. A couple entered the cabin to see what they might be able to use. At the shop the big fella gathered up his chisel and a small sledge hammer. He pointed to his anvil. “Here,” he said to young Roberts, the first man in line, “put you wrist up there.” The boy nervously followed his instruction. The blacksmith turned a chain link to the position he wanted. His huge muscles bulged and a single swing of the hammer split the chain link. The boy pulled his arm free and rubbed his sore wrist. He was pleased. “Thanks mister,” said Roberts. “No problem son. All right, who’s next?” In less than 20, the men were free.

    It was around midnight when the men rose up as a unit and slowly disappeared into the night. When the main body of men left the Mexican Dam, they all traveled down stream.

    About a half mile below the dam, they crossed the river. They moved away from the water and up a hill in an easterly direction. After awhile one man suggested splitting into smaller parties so it would be harder for a posse to track them. It was agreed that this was a good idea. After awhile only 10 remained. This group was composed of Clifford, Parsons, Roth, Chapman, Burke, Jones, Morton, Black, Cockerell and Roberts. No one moved. “All right,” said Jones, assuming command, “let’s get out of here.” A few miles into the Pine Nut range, Morton stopped the party. He turned to Jones and loudly demanded to know when they would turn and head straight toward Bishop Creek. Jones had told him they would be able to get help from his friends there. Back in prison Charlie had shared letters with Lea from a Mrs. Hutchinson, who lived in Bishop Creek. Jones said that this lady and other friends he had there would help him once he got there.

    Jones looked around the group of men in the party. He did not like the way Morton brought up the current topic of discussion. The last thing he wanted was for these men to know anything about what he had in mind. Realizing he has to answer Morton’s question, Jones purposely said he was pretty sure they were close to the turn off point.

    The “pretty sure” comment got the response he wanted from many of the men in the group. “Hell”, Parsons said, “Bishop Creek’s a long ways off!” “If you’re not sure, I’m not going that way,” added Roth. Several others uttered an agreement. “I don’t care who comes with me,” Jones sneered. “If most of you were dead or dying back there it wouldn’t bother me.” Parsons and Roth looked at each other in utter amazement. Chapman mumbled something to Clifford. “Lighten up Charlie,” said Lea. “We’re in this together.” “I wasn’t talking about you Lea,” replied Jones. “I know I can count on you. You were blazing away back there. Others were too. But I don’t recall seeing any of them over there until the gun fire stopped.”

    Parsons and Clifford took great offense at this comment. Roth was standing apart with Roberts. Clifford turned towards Charlie and said: “Sorry ya feel that way Charlie. I got myself shot and Parsons was wounded too. I’m not sure you know what you’re talking about. But hey, no hard feelings. I wish you luck.” With that said he turned and addressed the others. “A friend of mine has a ranch, not too far away from here. We can be there in a couple days. It’s a hell of lot closer than Bishop Creek. Anyone that wants to come with me is welcome.”

    “I’m with you Frank,” mumbled Roth. “Me too,” said Parsons. “Count me in,” Chapman said. No one else said a word. With that Clifford started off into the darkness. Chapman, Parsons, Roberts and Roth turned and followed him. The “Jones Gang” at this point included Morton, Cockerell, Black and Burke. After Roberts moved away with Clifford’s bunch, Cockerell yelled after him. “Hey, Bedford, don’t go along with them. Charlie’s got a great plan. Get back here!” Roberts heard him. Tilden Cockerell was a very good friend of Roberts’ dad Chat. Chat had a stage station in Long Valley near Susanville, California.

    He knew the boy looked forward to robbing stages. When just 17, he and Charles Beaver, who was even younger, stopped a coach. After demanding the driver throw down his shotgun, Beaver kept a shaky six shooter on the coach. Roberts dismounted to take whatever he could get from the passengers. As the heist was unfolding, the driver correctly read the characters behind the masks as completely inexperienced highway men. While the outlaws were busy with their quarry, the driver slowly and carefully reached for the concealed Derringer located in his breast pocket. Fingering the tiny weapon, in one quick motion he drew, cocked and fired the weapon. The shot hit young Charles, knocking him off his mount. The gunfire spooked both horses. They ran off into the darkness. While the driver reloaded, Roberts fled the scene. His gravely wounded accomplice was left to die in the sagebrush or be captured. The horses had not run far.

    Roberts retrieved his mount about 50 yards from the coach. It was then he realized he had dropped the stolen loot. Stepping aboard his horse, he gathered up the reigns of his companion’s mount and went home. Beaver survived and turned in Roberts. He mulled over what Tilden had been saying. ‘Why not tie in with guys that seemed to have a plan.” He turned around and walked with his mentor back to join the Jones’ gang.

From “Gunplay at Convict Lake" by Richard Delaney(Copyright © 2010, Talahi Media Arts)

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