Westfall: A sheriff of second chances
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
Sheriff Sampson W. Westfall bit off more than he could chew when he tried to give one ne’er-do-well a second chance.
When Samson Westfall ran against John Jones in 1910, and jerked the sheriff’s badge away from the two-term lawman, he thought the job would be a breeze. After all, he had served once before as sheriff of Madera County, from 1895 to 1899, and things had gone along smoothly then. He had reckoned, however, without Thomas Cook, who had been a thorn in the side of Westfall’s predecessor for months. According to police records, Cook was considered to have had “very desperate and dangerous characteristics,” and there was good reason for that assessment.
On Sept. 1, 1911, Cook ran afoul of Sheriff Westfall — or Westfall ran afoul of Cook. The latter had just been released from the County Jail the day before after serving three months in the local hoosegow. His incarceration had been the result of being convicted of being drunk in public and for committing petty larceny. Together the two offenses brought a 90-day stretch in the new county jail, 45 days each.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anybody that Thomas Cook would head for one of the many watering holes on Yosemite Avenue when he felt the fresh air of freedom. The only time he was not drinking was when he was in jail or he was sleeping off a hangover. Town Marshal Ray Northern had suggested to Sheriff Westfall that it might be a good idea to take preemptive action and put Cook back in jail again, if he started drinking. The Sheriff turned a deaf ear to Northern’s proposal however; he said he believed in giving people a second chance. He would have occasion to regret that decision.
On the morning that Cook was released from jail, he made a beeline for the Mint Saloon. Entering the establishment, he found his way to the bar and ordered a drink, and then another, and then another, and then… By the afternoon, he had trouble pronouncing his own name.
At about four o’clock he stumbled out of the place and waddled next door to Kirby’s cigar store where he engaged one of his customers in an argument.
Now it just so happened that Northern had been patrolling main street at the time. When he heard that Cook had been released, he stationed himself between C and D Street to keep an eye on the ne’er-do-well. When he saw him come out of the saloon, Northern moved in his direction, and when Cook started the trouble with Kirby’s customer, the Marshal went into action. He grabbed Cook and hustled him across Yosemite Avenue toward the jail. When they reached the courthouse park, they were met by Sheriff Westfall. At that point, the Sheriff took over.
Westfall decided to implement his “second chance” policy. He asked Cook why he didn’t just leave town. Cook replied that he was out of money, so Westfall gave him a dollar and told him to take the train out of Madera. He didn’t care where he went; he just wanted Cook out of town. Truth be known, he didn’t want to have to put up with him another three months or perhaps even longer in the county jail.
Cook agreed to this, so Westfall took him by the arm and headed toward the depot, but when they got there, Cook said he wanted to walk to Berenda and started up the track. Westfall decided to let him keep the dollar and go — anything to get him out of Madera.
Cook hadn’t gone far when Westfall saw him stop and turn around. He was heading back to town! Westfall headed him off and told him again to leave town. Once again Cook agreed to follow through with his promise, but went instead to a Japanese house on F Street (present day Gateway Drive). Westfall followed him and got there just in time to put an end to the trouble that was brewing between the drunk and the Japanese resident.
Westfall now saw the error of his ways. He should have taken Northern’s advice and put Cook in jail when he began his binge.
The Sheriff arrested Cook and was taking him to the lock-up, when without warning the drunk struck the lawman a heavy blow. A severe struggle followed. Time after time Westfall took Cook to the ground, and on each occasion he let him up, only to have the fight continue afresh.
Finally, a group of Italian’s who had been watching the somewhat comical fracas, came to the sheriff’s assistance. With Cook pinned to the ground, Westfall sent for Under-sheriff Tom Cosgrave, who responded with handcuffs and led Cook back to jail.
The next morning, Cook was standing before Justice Montague. He pleaded guilty to a charge of battery, and was given six months in the county jail.
Now the Sheriff would have to put up with him twice as long as before. Westfall had learned his lesson, however. There are some people to whom you just can’t give a second chance.