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Thurman left office shooting

Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

Madera County’s first sheriff, W.H. Thurman, shown here, left some big shoes for his son to fill. The younger Thurman served as the county’s 3rd sheriff and spent his last night in office in a shootout at his home on North C Street.


Evening had come, supper was done, and it was time to turn in. W.B. Thurman and his wife, Georgia went upstairs to their bedroom in their house on North C Street. As he had done for years, Thurman slipped his pistol under his pillow never dreaming that before morning, he would use it to defend himself against a would-be killer right in his own house.

W.B. Thurman always slept with a pistol under his pillow. We don’t know when he began that practice, but it certainly came in handy on his last night as sheriff of Madera County.

Thurman was born in a rip-roaring Nevada mining town in 1868. His father, William H. Thurman was the sheriff of Washoe County. Perhaps that’s where W.B. learned to sleep with a gun under his pillow.

By the time he was a teenager, his family had moved to Snelling, which was no more civilized than Washoe County. Maybe that’s where he learned to sleep with a pistol.

In 1876, his father founded and named the town of Madera. Later the elder Thurman became the first sheriff of Madera County. Perhaps that’s where the son began the practice of resting his head on a revolver.

By 1900, W.B. Thurman followed in his father’s footsteps, and at the age of 31 was elected sheriff of Madera County. By then he had definitely adopted the practice of sleeping with a gun, and in the early hours of December 31, 1902, his last day in office, it paid off.

Thurman had decided not to run for reelection that year, and John M. Jones had been chosen by the people to replace him. When W.B. and his wife, Georgia, retired for the night they did so with the knowledge that within hours their lives would change. Little did they know just how much.

Sheriff Thurman was not sleeping well that night. He tossed and turned until about 2 o’clock a.m., when he heard a noise downstairs. The lawman sat up in bed and cocked his head to listen. There it was again. Someone was moving downstairs in the kitchen.

W.B. reached under his pillow for his pistol, slipped out of bed and paused at the bedroom door. Meanwhile, Georgia awoke to inquire what was the matter. When her husband told her he was hearing noises downstairs, she tried to reassure him that it was just a cat that she had let in to catch mice. Thurman, only half believing her, lit the lamp and with pistol in hand began his descent to the kitchen, softly calling, “Kitty, Kitty, here Kitty.”

When Thurman reached the kitchen door, he slowly pushed it open. The moment he did so, a figure rushed out of the pantry on the left and ran towards the kitchen door that opened to the outside of the house. Thurman yelled at him to stop, whereupon the intruder crouched down and dove behind the stove firing one shot at the sheriff. That one missed.

Thurman, still holding the lighted lantern, fired three shots in succession. None of them hit their mark. The burglar then fired a second shot that came so close that it put out the sheriff’s lamp. Now he stood in the dark facing his nemesis who remained crouched behind the range.

Although it was dark, W.B. could discern the outline of the man rising up from behind the stove. Thurman shot again, but once more he missed. The intruder had more luck. His third shot struck the sheriff on the inner side of the left leg, near the groin, and traveled around to the back of the leg where it lodged. Bleeding profusely, Thurman emptied his gun with two more shots, neither of which hit his assailant.

With an empty pistol and not knowing how many shots the burglar had left, Thurman retreated to the dining room to await the next act in the nighttime drama. He heard noises and thought at first that the intruder was coming after him. In a moment, however, he determined that the would-be killer was making a hurried exit out the kitchen window.

Thurman made a beeline for the front door while at the same time yelling up to his wife that he had been shot. He hoped to catch the shooter but hardly reached the grass before he grew weak from the loss of blood. He was forced to give up the chase and tend to his wound.

Still dressed in his nightshirt, Thurman tore it off and tried to staunch the blood flow by stuffing the garment into his wound. In a moment, his wife was beside him as was his neighbor, W.W.W. Hunter, Madera’s pharmacist. With “Doc” Hunter tending the wounded sheriff, Mrs. Thurman ran inside to call a physician. In a few moments more, Doctors W.C. Reid and J.L. Butin arrived and took over.

Having administered all the first aid that was possible, they carried the wounded sheriff back into the house and up to his bed, from whence the whole episode had begun. Although in a great deal of pain, W.B. Thurman’s life was not in danger. He would survive to finish out his term as sheriff — one day, Dec. 31, 1902.

The next day, Jan. 1, 1903, the new sheriff, John M. Jones, took over. His first order of business was to try to catch the man who almost finished W.B. Thurman the night before. Jones didn’t catch the fugitive, but that mattered little to Thurman. At least he remained on the right side of the grass, and Madera County did not have to bury a sheriff who had been killed in the line of duty. In the end, everyone breathed a sigh of relief — the Thurmans, the town, and no doubt the nighttime intruder.



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