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Madera murder was a family affair

Madera County Historical Society

This photograph shows the Madera County Jail-the building on the right-where Mrs. John Garner was held until Judge William Conley released her after she promised to present herself at a court hearing the next day. She never made it.


The two women sat mutely beside each other on July 4, 1901, as the train pulled out of the Fresno station heading north toward Madera. The younger of the two — the daughter of the older one — was lost in reverie. She did not relish this return to Madera, but it had to be done. Her brother was dying, and she wanted to tell him goodbye. She also wanted to see her children and, perhaps, make one more attempt to take custody of them.

Her thoughts drifted back to the early days of her marriage to John Garner when those ominous clouds of disharmony began to gather — clouds that would in time turn into a storm of marital strife. By 1901, she determined to leave him. She would take their two boys and move to Los Angeles where her mother lived. There, she would file for a divorce. She had reckoned, however, without the determination of her desperate husband.

Mrs. Garner remembered quite well his reaction to the news that she was leaving him with his boys. Before she could depart, John Garner took the children to his sister’s, Mrs. William Frindley, whose husband coincidentally was Mrs. Garner’s brother, the one who was now on his death bad. Thus in order to escape her intolerable marital situation, she had to leave Madera alone.

As the train crossed the San Joaquin River, Mrs. Garner glanced at the older woman who sat by her side. When Mrs. O.S. Willingham learned of her daughter’s difficulty, she opened her home to her, as much for protection as comfort. She knew that her son-in-law was given to fits of jealous rage.

Mrs. Garner had been with her mother in Los Angeles for just a short time when John Garner confirmed everyone’s fears. He suddenly showed up in the Southland announcing that he intended to kill his wife. He was immediately arrested and then released to return to Madera. Upon his arrival back home, he continued his bizarre behavior by threatening to throw himself across the Southern Pacific tracks. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when he finally departed Madera for Bakersfield where he found work as a laborer.

The young Garner boys continued to live with the Frindleys in Madera; at the time it looked like the best course. With their mother in Los Angeles and their father in Bakersfield, their parents were not likely to harm each other. Meanwhile they had Mrs. Frindley, their father’s sister and Mr. Frindley, their mother’s brother, to watch over them. That neat arrangement, however, came to an end when William Frindley fell mortally ill during the summer of 1901.

When Mrs. Garner learned of her brother’s imminent demise, she and her mother decided to make the July 4th trip to Madera to bid him farewell. As they stepped off the train at the depot, Mrs. Garner 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 Frindley and informed Mrs. Frindley that she was taking the boys with her. If Mrs. Frindley 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 Mrs. Garner and Mrs. Willingham left her house, Mrs. Frindley 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 Mrs. Garner to take her children out of Madera without a hearing on the matter. Thus, Conley ordered the arrest of Mrs. Garner and scheduled the hearing for ten o’clock the next morning, July 5, 1901.

Having won the first round of the custody battle, Mrs. Frindley 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, July 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.

Mrs. Garner, 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!”

Mrs. Garner 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, Mrs. Garner ran out to the back yard and Mrs. Lewis rushed her own children out of the room. That left just 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 any more,” fell on deaf ears. Garner had blood in his eyes. Mrs. Garner 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 before Judge Conley, 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 Frindley had not been on his deathbed. If only Mrs. Frindley had not sought the writ of habeas corpus. If only Mrs. 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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