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Was the mineshaft killing really murder?

Madera County Historical Society

The detective work of Sheriff Welton Rhodes, shown here, sent Albert Fuller to the gallows for the 1931 murder of James Kipp.


Clio was the Greek goddess of history. She whispered the secrets of the past into the ears of mortals who then passed them on.

Over the ages, however, Clio has lost her voice. She doesn’t speak as clearly as she once did. Just ask those 8th grade historians in Mrs. Hatfield’s class at Howard School. They are on the horns of a dilemma, and Clio isn’t helping them one bit.

Hatfield’s class is one of those five 8th grade classes engaged in writing a history of Madera County sheriffs and the rogues with whom they had to deal. The students are currently looking at Sheriff W.C. Rhodes’ first term, and they are stuck in 1931. That’s when James W. Kipp was found dead more than 100 feet down a mineshaft near Raymond. Sheriff Rhodes arrested Albert Fuller for his murder, and it looked like Madera County’s top lawman put together an airtight case that moved District Attorney Mason Bailey to prosecute Fuller. During his arraignment, the accused man heard the following tale of woe.

On Oct. 8, 1931, Mason charged, Fuller and Kipp left Fresno in Kipp’s car, heading for a mine they owned about 10 miles from Raymond. Mason explained the two men had owned a shoe store in Tulare County and were at that time also partners in a bootlegging operation. The prosecutor told the court that they stored their illicit booze in their Raymond mine.

However, all was not well between the two partners. First, Fuller’s marriage to Marjorie Fuller was about to crash on the rocks of divorce, and Kipp was the cause by his own wooing of Mrs. Fuller.

In addition, Fuller had somehow managed to become the beneficiary of an insurance policy Kipp had taken out. It was these motives, Mason contended, jealousy and greed, that moved Fuller into talking Kipp into going with him to their mine.

So off they went, stopping off at Raymond for lunch on the way. According to the District Attorney, when they got to the mine, they walked to its mouth. Fuller struck Kipp with a pick and shoved him down the mineshaft.

With his rival eliminated, Fuller turned away, got in Kipp’s car and drove off. Passing through Raymond and Madera, Fuller drove to Fresno and said nothing. Kipp was reported missing, and his body was found. Some sharp detective work by the Sheriff produced clues, which all pointed directly to Fuller.

It all fit nicely and could have been recorded that way in the book the young historians are writing had they not examined the other side of the story. They found out that Fuller was tried, convicted, sentenced to die, and hanged in San Quentin. However, they also found out that Fuller had received seven reprieves before he died on the gallows. This gave them cause to pause. Just how certain was the case against the “mineshaft murderer?” This led the class to turn to the executed man’s attempt to defend himself and save his life.

The record shows that Fuller’s account of that afternoon on Oct. 8, 1931, was quite different from the one the district attorney told. It went like this.

Going to the Raymond mine was Kipp’s idea. He wanted to pick up some moonshine he had stored there. After lunch in Raymond, they headed for the mine, but before they got there, Kipp brought up Fuller’s wife, and the two men began to argue. When they got to the mine, they got out of the car, and Kipp pulled a gun. He told Fuller he wasn’t going to see Marjorie again. Fuller knocked the gun out of Kipp’s hand, and when he reached down to pick up the pistol, Kipp, who had only one leg, drew back his crutch to hit Fuller, who struck him in the nose. With that blow, Kipp stumbled back and fell down the mineshaft. Fuller went to the edge of the shaft and called down but received no response. He then left and returned to Fresno.

So there we have it — the dilemma. How do these young scholars weigh the truth among themselves? Some of them think that Fuller got what he deserved. Others contend that they could defend him, so they have decided to go to court. They are going to hold another trial for Albert Fuller.

There will be a team of prosecutors and a defense team. They will finish their examination of the records; they will make their arguments, and they will have their truth.

Please watch this column for the latest developments as these young people prepare to wrestle with Clio. They are going to go public with the trial, and you are going to be invited.

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