Madera County Historical Society
Sheriff John Barnett, second from the right, was a fearless lawman, but he almost met his match when he tangled with a legless man on Yosemite Avenue.
John Barnett was one of Madera’s most colorful lawmen. During the decade and a half that he served the people, first as town marshal and then as sheriff, he faced murderers, holdup men, conmen, bootleggers and a host of other threats to the tranquility of our town.
None of these, however, came close to shaking his confidence in himself. He was always in command of every situation — except for that time in the summer of 1918, when a double amputee came to Madera and almost drove him to his wits end.
Walter Toney was the name of the legless man, and he drifted into town on July 29, 1918. When the train pulled up to the depot, Toney was assisted to the platform and then left to make it on his own. In those days, there was no public assistance for the handicapped. They were left to their own devices. That’s why Toney dragged himself up Yosemite Avenue. He positioned himself in front of one of the saloons on the boulevard and proceeded to ask for handouts.
Throughout the day, Toney sat on the sidewalk requesting alms of the passers-by. No one on his side of the street went by Walter without being solicited, and therein lay the rub. For some reason, Maderans were not sympathetic enough to suit Toney. His collection of the coin of the realm wasn’t growing fast enough to suit him, so he decided to see if his luck would be any better inside the saloon.
Propelling himself with his hands and what was left of his legs, Toney scooted across the floor of the saloon and up to the foot rail where he sought financial assistance from those assembled at the bar. Within a short time he perceived that the pickings were not going to be any better inside the bar than on the sidewalk, so Walter decided to use what little money he had to drown his sorrows. In a short time the liquor took over, and the legless man felt like he was 10 feet tall. That’s when he decided to teach the folks of Madera to have some respect.
Having consumed an entire bottle of “enthusiasm,” Toney dragged himself back outside and took up a position once more on the sidewalk. In a moment a pedestrian attempted to pass him by without so much as a “by your leave,” much less a donation. Walter Toney, however, had other ideas. He grabbed the unsympathetic man by the legs and pulled him down to the ground. Then he went to work on the man with his fists.
Unwilling to engage in fisticuffs with a legless man on the main street of Madera, the pedestrian simply tried to ward off the blows and escape from Toney’s grasp, but the handicapped man apparently had had some experience in “street fighting.” He held fast to his prey. That’s when John Barnett came along.
The marshal could hardly believe his eyes when he saw a man with no legs getting the best of a Madera citizen in a street fight. The lawman ran over and separated the pair, after which the pedestrian explained his plight and was allowed to continue on his way. A short conversation with the instigator of the fracas convinced Barnett that the double amputee had to be incarcerated, so he arrested the legless man, summoned a wagon, and gave him a ride to jail.
When Marshal Barnett finally secured the man in his cell, he thought that would be the end of trouble from the stranger. Little did he know!
Toney had been in jail for just a few minutes when he turned his frustration on himself and his surroundings. First he managed to climb up on the washstand, which was almost three feet above the concrete floor. Once he had perched himself on the basin, Walter did a swan dive and landed on his head on the floor! Perhaps because he was feeling no pain due to his inebriated condition, Toney survived the dive and proceeded to attempt a repeat performance, but Barnett intervened to stop him.
He then put Toney in a straight jacket and left him alone, thinking that now at last the legless man would cause no more trouble. Once more the marshal was fooled.
Somehow Walter was able to wiggle out of his constraints and set his bed on fire. This of course brought Barnett running back to the cell. After extinguishing the flames, he handcuffed his troublesome prisoner’s hands behind his back.
However, Toney had not yet had enough. As soon as Barnett left, the prisoner began to bang his head against the steel door, and that did the trick. It put him to sleep for the night.
The next morning Toney was taken before Judge Raburn, who sentenced him to five days in jail, much to Marshal Barnett’s chagrin. After a short conference with the judge, Walter’s sentence was altered a bit. It would not take effect for 6 hours. That would give Madera’s handicapped guest enough time to leave town.
Walter Toney dragged himself out of the courtroom that day, and he was never seen in Madera again. “Out of sight, out of mind,” however, did not obtain in this case. John Barnett never forgot his encounter with the legless miscreant who in 24 hours caused him more trouble than a saloon full of drunks could bring on him in a year.