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Hung by the neck until dead

Madera County Historical Society

Sheriff John Barnett is shown here, second from the right. This photo was taken just a year after he witnessed the hanging of Walter P. Yeager.


Last week, we told the story of Clarence Pickett and the irony of his being shot twice in the line of duty. The first time came in 1920 when he was shot by a fellow officer while taking target practice. The second time came in 1923, on what is now Highway 99.

He was shot and killed by a drunk fugitive from justice, Walter P. Yeager, who had just robbed a Merced grocery store.

Yeager was captured, and after barely escaping a lynch mob, he stood trial. Judge Stanley Murray sentenced him to death by hanging in San Quentin Prison.

One year later, his time had arrived. There was a crowd of officers from the Valley surrounding the gallows, including Madera County Sheriff John Barnett.

All through the trial, the accused had offered no defense whatsoever. The taciturn prisoner was so tight-lipped that even his own attorney commented about the lack of cooperation. Day after day, Barnett attended court and watched for some sign of remorse from Yeager. When the jury brought back a guilty verdict, Barnett had eyed the defendant intently — still there was no sign of emotion. When Superior Court Judge Stanley Murray sentenced Yeager to die on the gallows in San Quentin, Barnett was once more dismayed. It seemed that the prisoner had ice water flowing through his veins.

He just didn’t seem to care.

Now a full year had passed since the unrepentant Yeager took the news of his impending punishment without flinching. Barnett was sure that now the murderer would signal society some measure of regret. After all, the man was going to hang by the neck until dead!

Upon arriving at San Quentin, Barnett was informed that Yeager had spent a very quiet night in his cell. In fact, his sleep was hardly interrupted. After a good night’s rest, Yeager had eaten a hearty breakfast and then told the authorities that he was ready to go.

While Barnett and others gathered near the scaffold, Yeager was brought out to the yard. The sheriff noticed that everything was going strictly according to schedule. Whereas James Johnston, the former warden had often delayed executions by as much as 20 minutes, Frank Smith, his replacement, had made it known that there would be no delays, once the prescribed day had arrived.

Smith was as good as his word. At five minutes to 10, the condemned man mounted the scaffold. If, however, Barnett expected to see a contrite Yeager, he was woefully disappointed. After an undisturbed sleep and a huge breakfast, the prisoner spurned all attempts by the authorities to mitigate his leap into eternity.

For starters, Yeager rebuffed the prison chaplain’s overtures. Normally, the clergyman accompanied the condemned on the march to the gallows, providing last minute religious counsel. Yeager, however, blithely dismissed the chaplain as unnecessary. He considered himself quite capable of climbing the steps by himself. Barnett felt a surge of resentment.

As Yeager was positioned over the trap, he was given the opportunity to make a final statement. If ever Barnett was going to get satisfaction, it would be now. But once more the Madera lawman was cheated. Yeager informed the assembled group that he absolutely had nothing to say and urged the execution to proceed. Barnett could not believe his ears.

Yeager was hooded, and the noose was placed around his neck. It was 10 a.m., the assigned time. The prisoner stood ramrod straight; the trap was sprung, and at 10:01 a.m., Walter P. Yeager came to the end of his rope. Barnett and others watched the twitching body for another 12 minutes, and finally the prison physician pronounced the killer dead.

Thus the final chapter in the murder of Clarence Pickett came to a close. Barnett returned to Madera to report on the execution. It had been an eye for an eye. Pickett was avenged. Justice had prevailed. The man who had spilled innocent blood on the road between Madera and Chowchilla had paid for his crime, and John Barnett, who had brought Yeager to the bar of justice, was there to see the end.

Yet something was wrong; there was something missing. The long sought-for sign of contrition never came — not at the arrest, not in the jail, not during the trial, and certainly not at the hanging. The family and friends of Clarence Pickett would have to be content with the knowledge that Yeager had paid for his wanton act with his own life, even if it had little apparent value for him.

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