Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society
This was the scene in 1906 when Madera County Treasurer William Amer was accused of embezzlement and incarcerated in the county jail. In the daytime, he was escorted from the jail to the courthouse (both shown here) to sign paperwork. Amer finally went to San Quentin but was pardoned by Governor Hiram Johnson.
It was Saturday night in Madera, and the whole town was buzzing. A rumor was flying around town like a choice piece of gossip at a sewing circle. It spread from street corner to street corner like a wildfire. Folks talked about nothing else. Could it be true? What was one to believe? Was the treasurer of Madera County really a thief?
William M. Amer had been elected treasurer of Madera County when the county was created in 1893. For 13 years he had served faithfully in that office, or so everyone thought. He and his wife, Catherine, were pillars of Madera society and highly respected by all.
No one knows how the rumor started, but by Sunday morning it had traveled to Fresno. A reporter for the Republican had telephoned Amer to inquire about the report that anywhere from $10,000 to $16,000 was missing from the county coffer. The treasurer refused to discuss the matter with the newsman, and on the next day the story made page one in his paper.
By Monday morning, the Madera Mercury was hot on the trail of the story and paid a visit to Amer in his office in the courthouse. Instead of the treasurer, however, he found County Supervisor Sledge, Auditor Honeycutt, and District Attorney Fowler in command of the vault and counting money like there was no tomorrow. Amer stood by quietly, and when questioned, he assured the reporter, “When the books are straightened out, everything will be found to be all right.”
If William Amer really thought on Monday that everything would “be found to be all right,” he was to be shocked to his toes. On Tuesday evening, he was taken to jail. Although not charged with any crime, he spent the night in custody. By noon, officials had discovered that $32,521.39 was missing from the county treasury. Amer remained unperturbed, confident, and steadfastly maintained his innocence as he went back to jail to spend a second night with Sheriff John S. Jones.
On Thursday, Jan. 25, 1906, William M. Amer was charged with embezzlement of the missing funds, and the court fixed his bail at $25,000. In the meantime, he was still the county treasurer and when warrants had to be issued, he was brought over from the jail to the courthouse to affix his official signature on the documents, after which he was taken back to his cell.
On Friday, Jan. 26, 1906, all of that changed. Amer was served with an official request from S. Sledge, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, asking for his resignation. The treasurer complied, and on the following Tuesday, the board appointed E.M. McCardle to finish Amer’s term.
The arraignment of William M. Amer on the charge of embezzlement was held on Monday, Feb. 12, 1906, in Judge William Conley’s court. Attorneys Lewis Smith of Fresno and R.E. Rhodes of Madera represented the ex-treasurer, who entered a plea of “not guilty.” District Attorney Fowler prosecuted the case.
A jury of his peers tried William M. Amer, and on Friday, March 23, 1906, they began their deliberations, having heard all of the arguments. At 5:30 p.m., the jurors filed back into the courtroom to return their verdict. By a unanimous vote, Amer was found guilty and was taken back to the jail, where for the first time, he broke down under the strain. A physician came and attended to him most of the night, and by morning he had regained his composure. Within a few weeks Madera County’s first treasurer was on a train bound for San Quentin Prison.
William Amer never admitted to helping himself to the public’s money. He always staunchly maintained his innocence and indicated to family members that he had a very good idea who was responsible, but he declined to make his suspicions public. Amer instead chose to do his stretch of hard time.
The United States Census of 1910, shows 57 year-old William on the roster of San Quentin Prison, and his wife, 59 year-old Catherine, living at home in Madera with three of their children: Elbert, age 32; Elmer, age 24; and Katie, age 20. The three Amer children were all gainfully employed, but Catherine shows no occupation, and there is a very good reason for that.
William Amer did not stand alone through this ordeal. He had no more ardent supporter than his wife. While William was locked up in San Quentin, Catherine went from house to house, visiting every domicile in Madera with a petition. She asked the town to rally behind her husband by demanding that he be given a complete pardon.
By 1911, the people of California elected the Progressive Hiram Johnson as Governor, and when presented with the petition that Catherine had hand-carried all over Madera, he gave William M. Amer a pardon — not a parole, but a pardon! The ex-treasurer got to come back home with all of his rights fully restored. It was as if he had never been convicted. What a homecoming that must have been!
William lived to the ripe old age of 91, surviving Catherine by a good many years. Throughout his adversity, a wife who always believed in him and never gave up had sustained him. One can hardly imagine how the Amer story would have ended without the indomitable courage of one woman who refused to turn her back on her husband when everyone else had lost hope.