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The strange demise of Taylor Teaford

Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society
Otis Teaford, left, is shown here with his son Clifford and a mountain lion they killed. In 1918, Otis was unjustly accused of shooting his brother, Taylor Teaford.


On Monday, Oct. 14, 1918, two young men burst into Wawona yelling that there was a dead man in an auto on the road about half a mile away. Michael Phelps, the  owner of an auto stage at Wawona, hopped in his vehicle and set out to learn what had happened.


When he got to the Ford automobile on the side of the road, Phelps saw the driver slumped over the steering wheel but still alive. As he pulled the man from the car, he recognized him immediately. The victim was Taylor Teaford, the son of George Teaford, former member of the Madera County Board of Supervisors.


As Phelps eased Teaford out of the car, the wounded man grabbed his arm and tried to talk. Alas, he couldn’t get the words out. He had been shot through the heart by someone sitting behind him in the back seat of his car. The bullet had traveled through him and out the front window of the auto.


Phelps took him back to Wawona, where he died within 30 minutes. Using the primitive telephone, Phelps called a number in the lumber town of Sugar Pine. Taylor Teaford had been shot and killed. The tragic news then was relayed to Madera.


At that point an absurd thing happened. No one knows how, but somebody pointed the finger of guilt at Taylor’s brother, Otis Teaford. Somehow the story got around that it was Otis who shot Taylor.


R.S. Jay, the undertaker from Madera, came to Wawona and took the body to North Fork for burial. Taylor’s father, George Teaford, rode with him to transport his son’s remains back home. When the elder Teaford heard the story that his other son, Otis, had been accused of the crime, he came unhinged and contacted the man who had just been elected Madera County’s new sheriff, Marshal John Barnett.


Barnett shared George Teaford’s incredulity; Otis Teaford was a rugged mountain man but he wasn’t a killer, and he certainly had no reason to murder his own brother.


Barnett contacted District Attorney Stanley Murray, and the two headed out for Wawona. They wanted to talk to the two men who had first reported the killing.


The two lawmen found the pair in Mariposa in the custody of U.S. Marshal Sidney Shannon. It had been discovered that they were deserters from the U.S. Army. When Barnett and Murray arrived, they took over the investigation, and it didn’t take them long to get the full story from the pair, who were now the prime suspects.


One of the men, Catheauas D. Runyon, was 20 years old. The other, Edward W. Dingess, was 21. They had joined the army together in Muncie, Indiana, three years earlier. They were sent first to Nogales, Arizona, where they spent some time guarding the Mexican border.


From Arizona, they were sent to the Presidio and from there to Camp Fremont. While at this last station, they were granted a leave of absence and went to  Santa Cruz.


It was at this seaside resort that their downfall began. They met a couple of girls and stayed in Santa Cruz a day longer than they were allowed. Upon their return to Camp Fremont, they were thrown into the guardhouse and ridiculed. Upon their release for drill, they decided to desert, and left again for Santa Cruz.


Upon meeting the two girls, they learned they were going to the Yosemite Valley, so the pair of deserters decided to follow them. They made it as far as the bawdy house at Tipperary and learned that Taylor Teaford was headed to Wawona and would give them a ride.


Dingess got in the front seat with Teaford and Runyon got in the back where he saw a rifle on the seat. Picking it up, he asked Teaford if it was loaded. Teaford replied, “No.” At that point, Runyon worked the lever and the gun suddenly went off.


“What did you shoot me for?” was all Teaford said after the bullet had passed through his body and out the front window. The car rolled to a stop and the two strangers ran to Wawona for help.


Runyon and Dingess were interrogated by Barnett and Murray nonstop for six hours. By the end of that time, the lawmen were convinced that the shooting was accidental. The two deserters were taken back to Camp Fremont to face charges of desertion.


As for Taylor Teaford, his interment was in the North Fork cemetery not far from his home. A huge crowd attended the ceremony including a large number of Indians, for Taylor was part Native American.


Everyone went home that day, but the real mystery continued. Who had laid the blame on Otis Teaford and why?


Otis never did accept the verdict that the shooting was accidental. He maintained for the rest of his life that his brother had been murdered by the two deserters.


Taylor Teaford left a wife, Pearl Teaford, and 5-year-old son. Ironically, just weeks before her husband’s killing, Mrs. Teaford took out a $500 insurance policy on her husband’s life. She was the beneficiary.