Woman died fighting for her kids


For The Madera Tribune

Eva Fridley Garner.

Eva Fridley and John Garner were married in Modesto and moved to Madera in 1890. She was 16, and he was 21.

In 1892, they had two children, and by 1900, ominous clouds of disharmony began to gather — clouds that would in time turn a storm into murder.


In 1901, Eva determined to leave John. She would take their two boys and move to Los Angeles where her mother lived. There, she would file for a divorce. Before she could depart, however, John took the children to Mary and William Fridley’s home. Mary was his sister, and William was Eva’s brother.


Eva went ahead and left, but in a few months she was on a train returning to Madera with her mother. Her brother, William Fridley, was dying. She wanted to tell him goodbye and, perhaps, make another attempt to get the boys. As they stepped off the train at the Madera depot, Eva began to play her hand.


She had made arrangements to stay with Mrs. Annie Lewis, but before she went there, she and her mother visited the dying William Fridley and informed Mary that she was taking the boys with her. If Mary had remained out of the family feud, things might have turned out all right, but she didn’t. As a result, two people died.


As soon as Eva and Mrs. Willingham left her house, Mary called attorney F.A. Fee and engaged him to fight for the custody of her two nephews. Fee petitioned Judge William Conley for a writ of habeas corpus, which was quickly granted. The court did not want Eva to take her children out of Madera without a hearing on the matter. Thus, Conley ordered Eva’s arrest and scheduled a hearing for ten o’clock the next morning, July 5, 1901.


Having won the first round of the custody battle, Mary made another move that pushed the drama closer to disaster. Knowing that her brother would want to be at the hearing, she asked the court to postpone the procedure until the next day, June 6, 1901. This would give her time to notify John Garner so that he could attend court.


Garner took the early train to Madera, and when he arrived, he made a beeline for Annie Lewis’ house. When he got there, he found his estranged wife, his mother-in-law, Annie Lewis, and his children eating breakfast. Eva, obviously shaken at the sight of her husband, jumped up from the table as Garner entered the house shouting, “You have come to take my children!”


Eva didn’t have time to answer before her husband pulled a pistol and sent a bullet in her direction. It missed. At that point, Mrs. Willingham jumped up and moved toward her son-in-law. Garner fired a shot at her, which also missed.


In the meantime, Eva ran out to the back yard and Mrs. Lewis rushed her own children out of the room. That left just Mrs. Willingham, John Garner, and his two little boys in the house. Their pleas to their father went unheeded. As he ran out the door after his wife, the cries, “Please, don’t shoot Mamma anymore,” fell on deaf ears. Garner had blood in his eyes. Eva never had a chance. Her husband fired once and brought her down.


Then as Mrs. Willingham came rushing outside, he fired at her again. This time he didn’t miss. The bullet struck her in the leg, and she was barely able to get back to the house. Now, just he and his wife were in the back yard. Garner walked up to her and coldly put two more shots into her head at point blank range.


Leaving his wife’s body, he walked to the woodshed, reloaded his now empty revolver and returned to the house.


Walking right past his terrified boys and their grandmother, John Garner went out on the front porch, sat down and put an end to the tragedy. He had never intended to make that court appearance, nor did he intend to allow his wife to appear. Approximately three hours before he and his wife were to meet in Judge Conley’s Court, Garner killed her and shot her mother. Now he sat on the porch, without showing any concern for his sons, and put the gun to his head. In a split second, he made his children orphans.


If only William Fridley had not been on his deathbed. If only Mary Fridley had not sought the writ of habeas corpus. If only Eva Garner had not been released from custody in Madera. If only Judge Conley had not postponed the hearing. If only.... If only.... If only....

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