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Outlaws and Lawmen: A tale to be told

Madera County Historical Society

Madera Sheriff Ed Bates.


On Monday, Oct. 14, Arbor Vitae Cemetery is going to be the scene of one of the most unusual gatherings in Madera’s History. One hundred fifty 8th graders from five different Madera schools are going to meet at the grave of William H. Thurman, the first sheriff of Madera County, to publicly launch their “Outlaws and Lawmen” project.

The students have been investigating the careers of Madera County’s sheriffs by digging into the crimes they had to solve. It’s a year-long project, and when they are done, their book will provide an advenurous look at the history of Madera County’s sheriffs.

We’ve had 13 sheriffs; one of them, Sam Westfall, served two separated terms. As we said, William H. Thurman came first (1893-1895). He was followed by Westfall (1895-1899), then came his son William B. Thurman (1899-1903). John Jones served from 1903-1911, and Sam Westfall came back to serve another term from 1911-1915. J.F. Lewis came next (1915-1919), and then came the larger-than-life sheriff John Barnett (1919-1927).

One by one they came on the scene and then left: Welton Rhodes, W.O. Justice, Marlin Young, Ed Bates, Ovonual Berkeley, Glen Seymour, and John Anderson. Now the people have given the badge to Sheriff Jay Varney.

The student historians are finding out that every one of these men faced, not only the routine criminal activity that every lawman faces, but they all dealt with some blockbuster crimes that left the county stunned, and the kids are wrestling with them too with questions of their own.

For instance, why did the United States Cavalry hide Ben Ducker’s killer? The sheriff tried to arrest the Raymond Hotel owner’s murderer, but the Army wouldn’t give him up.

Or how about the hooded vigilantes and Madera County’s Whipping Tree? Who were these masked night riders who dragged William Sellers and his two sons out of bed and whipped them within an inch of their lives?

What about the mountain massacre of Jim Bethel in North Fork? Everybody thought it was an Indian who shot him and bashed his head in, but the sheriff thought differently, and tried hard to prove it.

Who knocked on Mr. Silveria’s front door and blew him away with a shotgun? Was it really a neighbor, or did his two-timing wife have something to do with it?

Everybody was stunned when the sheriff had to lock a Catholic Priest up for assaulting a 15-year-old girl. Some brilliant detective work by the sheriff, however, set the priest free when he proved the girl was lying.

No one ever expected the bullets to fly at Lucca’s hotel and bar, but they did, and the sheriff had to find out which group of Italians started the worst gunfight Madera has ever seen.

One after another, Madera County’s sheriffs were faced with mysterious crimes to solve — who killed the one-legged man and threw him down a mine shaft near Raymond? How did the Sheriff save Officer Pickett’s killers from the lynch mob that wanted to hang them? Why did the North Fork Indian spend eight years on San Quentin’s death row and then go home, only to have to go back to die in prison? Why did the parents of a 4-year-old little girl think she was so full of the devil that they beat her to death? And finally why did those three guys kidnap 26 Chowchilla kids, and how did Sheriff Bates handle the crime of the century?

The students are fascinated by these mysteries, and they have been investigating these crimes. They think they tell a lot about the history of the Sheriffs of Madera County, so they are writing that book. They are calling it “Outlaws and Lawmen: Crimes of the Century and The Madera County Sheriffs Who Solved Them.”

At the end of the year, the book will be more than just tales about criminals and outlaws. It will be about the courage, compassion, and conviction of the sheriffs of Madera County and the legacy they each have left.

If you want to hear a neat piece of Madera County history, come on out to Arbor Vitae Cemetery this Monday at 12:30 p.m. and join Sheriff Varney to see these kids in action.

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