Unlocking History

Rattlesnake Dick’s fate highlighted need for classification system

Black and white list of names of prison inmates, including Richard Barter, also known as Rattlesnake Dick.
Richard Barter's name is listed in the inmate register as number 516.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

(Editor’s Note: There are many differing accounts related to Barter, his life and how he became involved in crime. This research-based article pulls from many sources including California State Archives, Placer County Museums, books, magazines and newspaper articles.)

In the mid-1850s, San Quentin hadn’t enacted a classification system to keep younger first-time offenders away from hardened criminals. Early wardens called for just such a system but the relatively new prison didn’t have the resources or space, according to rebuttals at the time. The fate of one young first-time inmate who served a year in the state prison highlighted the need for a classification system.

Such was the case of Richard Barter, son of a British military officer in Canada, who came to California with the hopes of supporting his sister after their parents died.

While incarcerated in San Quentin, the 20-year-old Barter met outlaw gang leader Tom Bell. After his release, Barter threw his lot in with Bell’s gang. According to prison records housed at California State Archives, Barter was received by San Quentin State Prison on Dec. 20, 1854, to serve a sentence for grand larceny.

There was a William Bell who served during the same time frame but whether this was Tom Bell isn’t clear. Bell’s real name was Thomas Hodges, according to many reports. Inmates often used aliases when being booked into jails and prisons since proving one’s identity was difficult at that time.

One thing is clear, Barter began to harbor resentments against the prison system, the law and people in general.

The need for classifying inmates was emphasized in reports for decades after Barter served his time at San Quentin.

In 1880, the Prison Board of Directors wrote, “It necessarily brings the younger and less criminal class in daily contact and association with the vilest and most degraded elements of criminal life, thereby destroying more effectually any good qualities that may remain, without in the slightest degree redeeming the utterly vicious. … This sort of association is doubtless the cause of hundreds of returns to prison, and, of course, the commission of hundreds of crimes. This vice, for such it is, in our penal system, may doubtless be greatly diminished, if not altogether remedied, by a classification of prisoners.”

The 1903 State Board of Charities and Corrections again reiterated the need to separate hardened criminals from the younger element.

“This matter has been referred to and elaborated upon again and again in the later reports of the Prison Directors as being one of the greatest defects in our prisons. The steady increase in our prison population is constantly aggravating this already bad situation. It is no exaggeration to say that our State prisons in their present condition are simply schools for crime,” they wrote.

Classification of prisoners didn’t become standard practice until San Quentin Warden John Hoyle introduced numerous reforms between 1907 and 1913.

If a classification system had been in place, young Richard Barter may have taken a different path.

Good intentions

In 1850 the California Gold Rush drew Richard Barter, 17, and his brother to seek their fortunes and help financially care for their sister, who stayed behind. With their parents dead, it was up to the two brothers to earn a living.

They settled in Rattlesnake Bar on the North Fork of the American River between Auburn and Folsom. The brothers had a tough time of it in the mining business. With supplies running low, the older brother decided to return to their sister. Barter, despite his youth, was determined to continue working the claim. Aside from his own claim, Barter also worked for other miners so he could earn extra cash.

After a dispute, a neighboring miner claimed Barter stole clothing from him. He was eventually cleared but Barter later said people in the mining camp began to distrust him.

His first brush with the law behind him, he set out to continue mining.

Soon, another neighbor accused Barter of stealing a mule. He said while he didn’t steal it he knew who did but refused to give up a name, according to the Sacramento Daily Union, Sept. 15, 1854. Barter, now 20, was sentenced to San Quentin for two years. After serving a year of his sentence, evidence surfaced that proved his innocence, according to “The History of Placer County,” published in 1882.

He was released from prison, but gave up on his dream of mining at Rattlesnake Bar, instead deciding to head to Shasta County for a fresh start. He began going by the name “Dick Woods.”

He worked for others, and did a little prospecting on his own. He wasn’t striking it rich but was able to make ends meet, according to “Bad Company: The Story of California’s Legendary and Actual Stage-Robbers” by Joseph Henry Jackson.

The peace of a new identity and a new place didn’t last long. Soon a former Rattlesnake Bar miner made his way through Shasta County, recognized Barter, and informed the residents about the “horse thief” they had in their midst.

“I can stand it no longer. I have been driven to it. Hereafter my hand is against everyone and I suppose everyone’s is against me,” he reportedly told a friend after his hopes for a new life were dashed.

If he couldn’t make an honest living, he decided to live up to his reputation, according to accounts at the time. Barter, inexperienced in such matters, knew where to turn thanks to his time in San Quentin.

Doing time in San Quentin

Jackson’s book claims there are no records to indicate Barter served time in the state prison but the official San Quentin inmate register shows 20-year-old Richard Barter, inmate number 516, was received Dec. 20, 1854. He was discharged Dec. 18, 1855.

According to most accounts, this is where he met 25-year-old outlaw Tom Bell, whose real name was Thomas “Doc” Hodges. Bell had served as a medical assistant during the Mexican American War but was unable to find steady work after the war’s end. When his prospects dried up, and trying to fund a reported penchant for the gambling halls, Bell turned to thievery. Some accounts say Bell was arrested in 1851 and landed in San Quentin. Other accounts put him in the prison in 1855, escaping 10 months later in 1856.

According to all accounts, Bell escaped the state prison. According to some reports, Bell faked an illness, requiring his transfer to the city jail in San Francisco for more advanced medical care. Since he appeared so feeble, few safeguards were taken to ensure his incarceration. While guards were distracted, he was able to slip away. Some reports indicate Bell was in San Quentin, others place him on one of the state prison ships and still others put him at one of the state prison island quarries.

According to Jackson, after Barter’s decision to pursue crime, he wasted no time taking on his new role. He brandished a pistol and held up a traveler.

“He told the victim that if anyone asked who had robbed him, he might say it was a man who called himself Rattlesnake Dick … The Pirate of the Placers,” according to Jackson’s book.

When Bell escaped, Barter began riding with his gang.

The Bell gang’s first stagecoach robbery was Aug. 11, 1856, but well-armed stagecoach guards drove them away. One person, the wife of a popular Marysville barber, was killed during the attempted robbery. A defiant Bell wrote a letter to the newspaper that simply read, “Catch me if you can.” Some historians claim this was the first true stagecoach robbery in the west. Posses were formed and sent after the gang. Realizing they were being pursued, the gang split up.

Bell was eventually tracked down to a secluded camp near the San Joaquin River on Oct. 4, 1856, and hanged by a vigilante group.

Barter assumed control of the outlaw gang after Bell’s death. He started robbing stagecoaches in Shasta County but eventually moved operations to Folsom, basing the gang out of his old mining camp – Rattlesnake Bar.

Holding a grudge against the placer miners, he targeted them as well. For a few years, Barter and his gang terrorized the region.

Placer County Deputy Sheriff John Boggs pursued the gang, and Barter in particular, repeatedly arresting the young gang leader. Barter was never behind bars for long, usually escaping the jail within days.

Family holds out hope until the end

Barter’s luck ran out one night in July 1859 when he and partner David Beaver rode along a main thoroughfare in Auburn. Barter had vowed to kill Boggs as revenge for constantly thwarting his criminal plans.

Someone recognized Barter and ran to warn George M. Martin, who was the tax collector as well as a deputy sheriff. Martin rounded up a posse consisting of deputies William Crutcher and George Johnston. Believing they didn’t have enough time to gather more men, they headed off to capture Barter.

They caught up with the highwaymen near the Auburn railroad station. Johnston, who was familiar with Barter from past run-ins, rode alongside him and told the bandits to surrender. Barter replied by drawing his pistol and opening fire, striking Johnston’s hand, blowing off a finger. But Johnston and Barter had fired simultaneously, according to reports, with Johnston’s bullet passing through Barter’s chest.

Barter and his companion continued firing as they fled. In the light of the moon, they saw one of their pursuers fall to the ground. Martin was dead.

About a mile from the scene of the gunfight, a gravely wounded Barter dismounted his horse and penned a quick note.

“Rattlesnake Dick dies but never surrenders, as all true Britons do,” Barter wrote. “If J. Boggs is dead, I am satisfied.”

In the confusion and darkness, Barter mistakenly believed Martin to be Boggs.

Some reports claim Barter asked Beaver to do him in and finish the job. The official report is he was found with a self-inflicted bullet wound through the head, one hand clutching his gun while the other clutched the note. His body was found the following morning alongside the road, covered with a horse blanket. A few days later, Barter’s horse was found wandering near Grass Valley. The horse appeared to have a gunshot wound near its neck.

The outlaw also possessed another letter, tucked in his pocket.

“My dear, dear brother: … Oh how our hearts have ached for a word from your own pen. Years have passed away since your last letter reached us. … I have grieved but never despaired for I have prayed the Father that he would restore you to the paths of rectitude. … (God) knows there is a secret wish (within you) to be a better man,” wrote Harriet Barter, dated March 14, 1859. “Look deep down into your heart and see if there is not a wish to remember your sister. … Please do write, dear brother, and I will then tell you so many things that will interest you.”

Notoriety for others

Long after Barter’s death, many continued to be associated with the notorious bandit.

His partner on that fateful night, David Beaver, aka David Weaver, fled but was arrested after an 1860 altercation with a man in San Luis Obispo. Beaver was going by the name Alex Wright and was sent to San Quentin for 10 years. When he was released after serving nine years, authorities were waiting for him, charging him with Barter’s murder. According to authorities, Rattlesnake Dick didn’t shoot himself in the head, but instead Beaver had done the deed.

“Yesterday afternoon Sheriff Neff of Placer County, lodged in the station house David Weaver, aka Alex Wright. This man is to be taken to Auburn, Placer County, and tried on an indictment found March 5, 1869, by the Grand Jury of that county, charging him with the murder of a man known as Rattlesnake Dick in 1859,” reported the Daily Alta California, May 27, 1869. According to authorities, Weaver had pulled the trigger that ended Barter’s life.

“When two miles away from the place of encounter (in 1859), Rattlesnake Dick, who was somewhat injured and fatigued, was unable to go any further; was then shot and killed by Wright,” the newspaper reported regarding the allegations.

Weaver professed his innocence and claimed he’d never visited Placer County and didn’t know Barter. Weaver’s case appears to have been dropped at a later date.

William Crutcher passed away in 1896. “W.M. Crutcher, Internal Revenue Officer and Collector, died at his home in (Auburn on March 6) from a paralytic stroke received two weeks ago,” reported the Grass Valley Morning Union, March 17, 1896. “He was thrice Under Sheriff of Placer County and while holding the office distinguished himself as one of those who captured and overthrew the famous Rattlesnake Dick gang of outlaws. Mr. Crutcher represented his county in the legislature and also served as sergeant-at-arms of the lower branch of that body. … Deceased was a native of Kentucky, aged 67 years.”

George Johnston enjoyed a long career in mining. “Johnston, who is engaged in the mining department of the Risdon Iron Works and is one of the oldest mining men in the country, today celebrates his 80th birthday,” reported the San Francisco Call, Jan. 31, 1905. “In spite of his years, Mr. Johnston puts in a full day at (work) six times a week and is younger in energy than many men of half his years. … From 1855 to 1861 he was Under Sheriff of Placer County and killed the notorious outlaw Rattlesnake Dick in Auburn.”

Antique photo of man with white beard wearing a bow tie.
Sheriff Boggs.

John Craig Boggs was 53 when he was elected Sheriff in 1879. He eventually retired to a ranch in Newcastle, a few miles west of Auburn, where he was involved with the fruit growers association. He passed away in 1909 at 83 years old. He was preceded in death in 1891 by his 32-year-old daughter, Isabel. His wife, Louisa, died in 1898 at 68 years old. His son, John G. Boggs, also died in 1909 at 48 years old. The senior Boggs remarried in 1899 to Alice, who passed away in 1912. They are all buried in the Newcastle Cemetery in Placer County.