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Man lost his head in mountains

Madera County Historical Society

In 1916, Madera County’s District Attorney, Stanley Murray (Later, Superior Court Judge), had the responsibility of investigating the death of John Kerr whose body was left in the Sierra Nevada Mountains after he was killed in a February snowstorm that year.


They should not have gone. They knew the Minarets Country would be dangerous that time of year. There had been storm after storm, and the depth of the snow could hardly be measured. Still, they decided to go; they would take the risks to find those tungsten deposits. They never dreamed that one of them would lose his head, literally.

On Feb. 14, 1916, James T. Hogue, a long-time Madera County rancher, left North Fork with L. V. Stevens, a mining engineer from Oakland, and John Kerr, a Madera resident who owned some mining property in the mountains. Stevens was interested in looking at Kerr’s property because of its tungsten deposits, and Hogue was their guide.

The trio had made a trip into the back country a few weeks earlier and got as far as Hogue’s ranch, but were forced to turn back because of the weather. Hogue, not to be denied, returned a few days later along the same route setting up caches of supplies for another try in February. The folks at North Fork tried to dissuade them from making that fateful trip, but they were determined; Hogue assured them they could make it.

They left North Fork on Valentine’s Day with two dogs and two pack horses. They had figured their trip would take a couple of weeks and were making good progress until they were hit by a fierce blizzard on February 28. Six feet of snow fell within a few hours. They proceeded as far as they could in the rugged country then it got so bad they turned the horses loose and tried to set up camp.

To keep from freezing, the men first buried their dogs in the snow, leaving their heads sticking out, and then covered themselves. They stayed that way until late in the night. During a lull in the storm, Kerr struggled out of his snow cave and went looking for firewood. As he was chopping at the base of a tree, the top, giving way to the pressure of the snow, came thundering down on Kerr crushing him with the heavy load.

Stevens and Hogue tried to give first aid, but it was no use. By dawn, Kerr, frozen and mangled, begged to be shot. He was dead within an hour. They buried his body in the snow and then marked a tree so that his remains could be retrieved later.

Out of food, without matches to start a fire, and almost too weak to travel, Stevens and Hogue decided to try to go back to North Fork. One of their dogs died that morning and since Kerr’s dog could not be coaxed away from his master it was left to slowly starve to death. They left the dog and Kerr’s body near a spot in the Minarets known as Logan in the vicinity of Mt. Whittier and began their torturous return to North Fork. With hands and feet partly frozen, the two men and the dog began their battle for life against the snow and cold.

After struggling for three days, Hogue and Stevens, gradually losing strength, discarded their snow shoes, and emptied their pockets. Hogue shot a wildcat, which they skinned and carried with them, eating it raw while they plodded toward North Fork. On March 17, they made it. They next day they were brought to Madera.

By March 30, a recovery party, led by W.J. Tostevin, a special representative of Madera County District Attorney Stanley Murray, was organized to retrieve Kerr’s remains. By April 14, guided by Hogue, they found his body buried in the snow where he had been left. It was not a pretty sight. His body and the carcass of his dog, which was found just a few feet from Kerr, had been torn to pieces by wild animals. Kerr’s head, shoulders, arms, and one leg were missing.

After Tostevin took photographs of the scene, they dug a new grave in the snow for Kerr and marked it by carving two crosses in the nearby tree that had marked his place the first time. Then they returned to Madera to report their findings to Murray. It was determined to leave Kerr in the mountains until the snow began to melt, making it possible to bring his remains to Madera.

We don’t know whether John Kerr’s body was ever brought out of the mountains or not. Murray’s office made a valiant effort to find his next of kin, but was unsuccessful. As the summer of 1916 rolled on, folks just forgot about the winter tragedy that took Kerr’s life.

So somewhere up in the mountains, there might still be a tree with two large crosses carved into it. That might be the only reminder that John Kerr ever lived on this earth. Unless, of course, those photographs that Tostevin brought back still exist. Could they be stashed away in the District Attorney’s archives? Now wouldn’t that be something?

Note: Milo Broom-Scott edited this article.

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