Lawman McCluskey remembered again
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
When Bernard (Barney) McCluskey was shot in 1919, he became the first Madera police officer to lose his life in the line of duty. Ironically, his son, Ernest McCluskey, shown here on the left, became a Madera motorcycle cop. On the right is Officer Clarence Pickett, the second Madera policeman to lose his life in the performance of his duty.
Throughout the history of Madera County, local law enforcement officers have put their lives on the line to protect the community, and from time to time some of them have made the supreme sacrifice. Therefore, it is only fitting that our fallen peace officers be remembered. That is why they built a memorial to them on the east side of the Courthouse Museum and honored them. It is an appropriate tribute for those to whom we owe so much.
In the meantime, we would like to do our part by remembering, once again, the sacrifice of Bernard (Barney) McCluskey, the first Madera officer to die in the line of duty.
Officer McCluskey’s ordeal began on the evening of Aug. 30, 1919, when Sheriff John Barnett received notice from Fresno that one Ben Obersheim, a 17-year-old youth, had stolen a car and was headed north toward Madera. Barnett alerted McCluskey to be on the lookout for the thief.
About 1 in the morning, as McCluskey was making his rounds, he stopped in at the New York Restaurant on South D Street. It was there that he spotted and recognized young Obersheim. Barney arrested the car thief, but he didn’t search or handcuff him. The officer simply grabbed him by the arm and led him away.
When the pair got to within a few feet of the jail, Obersheim twisted loose from Barney and pulled out a Colt revolver. Pressing it to McCluskey’s stomach, he pulled the trigger. Barney fell, mortally wounded, and the young criminal ran away.
Deputy Sheriff George Van Curren was on duty at the jail, and when he heard the shot, he ran out, picked Barney up, and carried him inside. After calling for the doctors, he immediately notified Sheriff Barnett, who hastened to the jail and sent for his deputies. For the first time in Madera County’s history, an officer had fallen in the line of duty.
It less time than it took to tell it, Barnett had all of Obersheim’s escape routes covered. He sent Jack Aiken to cover Lane’s Bridge. Constable Russell and Deputy Sheriff Rhodes headed for the Santa Fe Bridge while the Sheriff and City Marshal Rae took Scaggs Bridge. The Fresno Police covered the Herndon Bridge, and officers from Modesto and Merced stood guard over the northern routes.
With the police posse in place, they waited for the fugitive to make his move, and Obersheim obliged them. He ran south on G Street, turned west on 7th and worked his way south of the Hughes Addition where he stole Jim Haynes’ horse and continued south on Madera Avenue. After a while, he cut east again and headed toward the Santa Fe tracks. With the moon out that night, Obersheim then decided to abandon the horse and set out on foot.
Meanwhile Rhodes and Russell, having worked their way up the Santa Fe tracks from the San Joaquin River, decided to go back for their car. Rhodes returned for the vehicle while Russell kept up the search on the tracks. He soon saw a man slipping along the road in such a way that he knew he had the culprit.
Russell dropped to the ground, and when the lad was less than 100 yards away, he jumped up with his weapon drawn. Obersheim, however, was still not ready to go to jail. He pulled out his revolver and jumped behind a telephone post. Unfortunately for the criminal, Rhodes suddenly drove up with the car and sized up the situation immediately. Caught between Russell and Rhodes, Obersheim threw down his gun.
Once more, McCluskey’s assailant was taken to jail, but this time he was securely handcuffed. After his incarceration, Obersheim made a complete confession to Sheriff Barnett and District Attorney Stanley Murray. With the young criminal in jail, all eyes turned toward McCluskey.
Madera’s Nightwatchman lay near death for 24 hours. The bullet had entered the abdomen just below the ribs and punctured the large intestine in four places. Dr. Rinker and Dr. Dearborn had performed an operation on the officer earlier in the day, and while the physicians were able to suture the wounds, they couldn’t find the bullet, which raised serious concerns over the threat of infection.
McCluskey struggled valiantly for his life; however, on Sept. 1, 1919, the old lawman gave up the ghost. He could fight no longer, and Madera County registered its first police officer killed in the line of duty.
The entire town mourned Barney McCluskey, and it is only right that he be remembered today. He was one of Madera’s most respected pioneers from its early days when it was part of Fresno County. He had been one of the town’s first constables and had only been on the job as a nightwatchman for the city for two months when, at the age of 70, he forfeited his life for the people. Obviously courage is not limited to the young.