Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society
Ben Ducker, left, poses with his son William in 1900, as he holds the shotgun that he used in the Battle of the Balcony in Raymond, two years after this picture was taken.
On the morning of Oct. 15, 1902, Maj. Oliver Hein and Capt. Daniel Tate led their 68 troopers out of Yosemite National Park where they had been standing guard duty since June 26. Prior to that they had been in the middle of the rugged guerrilla warfare in the Philippines. Now on this particular morning, Company E was headed back to its permanent headquarters at the Presidio in San Francisco.
Their duty in Yosemite that summer had not been easy. These battle hardened troopers did not find duty in the park particularly pleasant. There was too much free time. During September and October, two had deserted, six had been courtmartialed, and one had gone insane.
Company E rode all day on the 15th and camped that night somewhere between Yosemite and the town of Raymond. By noon on Thursday, Oct. 16, the troopers were camped just outside the little Madera County foothill village.
In the late afternoon, Capt. Tate sent a dozen troopers into Raymond to purchase supplies, and after several months without spirited libations, they wandered into the saloon in Ben Ducker’s California Hotel.
For awhile things were normal, then as night came on, the mood of the soldiers, in their inebriation, became ugly. They began to quarrel with James Dunaway, the bartender. Ducker, hearing the commotion, came downstairs to find one of the troopers behind his bar and the others harassing Dunaway.
Ducker remonstrated with the soldiers, but to no avail. The one behind the bar pulled out a pistol, put the barrel to Ducker’s head, and demanded that he serve the next round of drinks. Ducker stood firm and ordered his bartender to go upstairs and fetch his shotgun. This the bartender refused to do. When another of the drunks threw a lighted lantern through the mirror behind the bar, that was more than Ducker could take. He went for the shotgun himself.
In the meantime, Mrs. Ducker and Dunaway managed to calm the soldiers down a bit and got them out the door. When the last one stumbled down the steps, the hotel entrance was locked.
If the soldiers had just gone back to camp at that point, Ben Ducker might have lived a full life. As it was, the troopers began to throw rocks at Ducker’s upstairs window. When he appeared on the balcony, shotgun in hand, the soldiers taunted him with threats to burn his hotel down. That brought on the first shots.
The clock had just struck 9:30 p.m. when Ducker raised his gun to fire into the pitch-black dark. There was a total eclipse of the moon that night, so he couldn’t see a target even if he had wanted to. At any rate, his purpose had been just to scare the soldiers away — to put an end to the harassment. Instead a volley of pistol shots came his way.
Standing there on the balcony of the California Hotel, with the lantern blazing behind him, Ducker was a perfect silhouette. One of the bullets pierced his abdomen and struck his liver. Within minutes he was a dead man. The sheriff and constable were called, and Ben Ducker’s body was wrapped and put to bed.
The next day, Friday, the soldiers moved on to Madera where they camped just west of town. On Saturday, Constable Tom Leonard visited the army camp in Madera with Mike Hand, one of the eyewitnesses to the shooting. Captain Tate lined his men up and invited Leonard and Hand to point out the shooter. He wasn’t in the line up, so Leonard went back to Raymond to get more witnesses.
Meanwhile some of the soldiers hit the saloons of Madera, and once more three of them started a fight, but this time they got more than they bargained for. They picked a quarrel with big Jack Augustine. The huge local blacksmith thrashed two of the trio and sent the third one packing.
On Sunday, Oct. 19, Ben Ducker was laid to rest in Raymond’s Boothill, and Troop E packed up and moved to the Columbia Ranch at Firebaugh.
The next day, Oct. 20, Constable Leonard brought James Dennis and a Mr. Skelton with him to Firebaugh, in a second attempt to apprehend the killer. This time, the shooter was positively identified, but once again Capt. Tate refused to give up the alleged shooter.
That afternoon, Maj. Hein appeared and conferred with Capt. Tate. The army once again refused to turn over the shooter, so Constable Leonard returned to Raymond empty handed. Company E continued its march toward San Francisco.
In time the murder of Ben Ducker faded from memory. Mrs. Ducker sold the hotel, and her two grown sons, who had come to Madera County to help bring their father’s killer to justice, went back to Nevada, leaving Ben Ducker unavenged.
And that is where it stands today, 114 years later. Ben Ducker is still up there in Raymond’s boot hill. His tombstone is still in place with his name and dates engraved. Nowhere, however, does it indicate that he had fallen victim to the excesses of the inebriated troopers of the U.S. Army.