Madera almost had a lynching

October 3, 2020

Madera County Historical Society
Justice came quickly for Walter Yeager after he murdered police officer Clarence Pickett in 1923. Fourteen months later he was hanging at the end of a rope in San Quentin Prison.

Today there are more than 700 men and women on death row in California. The average wait for an execution is well over 20 years. While some oppose capital punishment, many in this state decry the delays in executions brought on by appeals of various sorts.


For those who think the wheels of justice might be grinding too slowly, a look at Madera’s past might send them longing for the “good old days” when justice was meted out at a furious and unforgiving pace.


One has only to look at the 1920s for proof.


On Nov. 10, 1923, Walter Yeager shot and killed Madera motorcycle cop, Clarence Pickett. He was arrested the next day and then arraigned on Nov. 24, 1923. Yeager’s trial began on December 4 and ended on December 13 with a guilty verdict.


On Dec. 17, 1923, Madera County Superior Court Judge Stanley Murray, decreed “It is ordered that you be delivered to the warden at San Quentin Prison within 10 days and that you suffer the penalty of death, and may God have mercy on your soul.” On December 27, Sheriff John Barnett and Undersheriff Clarence Osborn escorted the condemned man to San Quentin where he was hanged on Jan. 9, 1925, just 12 months and 23 days after he had been sentenced.


The time from shooting to hanging was just under 14 months!


The rapid dispensing of justice in the murder of Clarence Pickett can be linked to some extent to the mood of the times. Ninety-seven years ago, society was not as willing to go the extra mile to ensure that no innocent person was executed for a capital crime.


However, the speed with which Yeager met his end can perhaps also be attributed to the thirst for revenge on the part of the law-abiding citizens of Madera and Merced.


On Monday, The Madera Tribune ran a headline which read, “Fear Lynching of Madera Bandits.”
According to the newspaper, Yeager and his younger accomplice, H. B. Terry were almost taken from lawmen by a mob at the Madera County Jail Sunday morning, just three hours after their capture. When word of Pickett’s murder spread through town, “feelings began to run high,” wrote the Tribune reporter, and by 5:30 a mob gathered at Yosemite and F Street. At that point, Sheriff John Barnett decided to transfer the pair to the Merced County Jail for their own safety. As lawmen emerged from the jail with Yeager and Terry, the crowd surged toward them, and the police narrowly escaped with their prisoners.


They were followed to Merced by the mob, which had grown larger by the moment. By daylight Terry and Yeager were behind bars in the Merced County Jail but not for long. Judge Lynch showed up there with blood in his eyes. After a few hours, Merced County officials determined that the prisoners should be moved once more —this time to the San Joaquin County Jail in Stockton. By 7:30 Sunday night they were ensconced  in their third jail in one day.


Terry and Yeager remained in the Stockton lockup for 4 days. In the meantime the authorities in Madera did their best to assure the local folks that justice would move quickly. Madera County District Attorney Mason Bailey announced, “The death of Pickett was brought about by one of the cruelest and most cold-blooded killings in the history of Madera County...and it is my intention that their (Terry and Yeager) trial will be rushed.


With Bailey’s promise of swift action against Terry and Yeager, tempers cooled a bit, so Barnett and Osborn went after the pair. By two o’clock on the morning of November 15, they were once again in the Madera County Jail.


The Fresno Bee reported that a strong guard was being maintained around the jail as a “precaution against any attempt to take the men by mob.”


“Every effort is also being made by Madera County authorities to mete out justice in the case that has so thoroughly aroused the community,” the paper continued. “No attempt at mob violence is anticipated as Madera citizens are convinced that there will be no delay in the trial or no laxity in seeing that summary justice is meted out to the murderers.”


So 97 years ago, justice came quickly in Madera, but not at the hands of a lynch mob. Terry was sentenced to life in prison, and Yeager went to the gallows. They both had their day in court, but there was no dilly-dallying after that.


That’s the way life was back in the “good old days.”

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