For the better part of the 1860s, headlines across the country focused on the manhunt for accused murderer William Wells. Bulletins were distributed to all U.S. law enforcement agencies after Wells escaped custody in a bloody shootout. In a time before instant mass communication, capturing the petty-thief-turned-killer proved difficult.
This is the story of a charitable man, two officers acting on behalf of the state, and a wagon driver transporting a prisoner. One thing they all have in common is dying at the hands of William Wells.
Victim was charitable immigrant
Mathias “Martin” Wetzel, German-born immigrant who migrated to California in 1854, was a well-liked, down-to-earth friendly man. The 49-year-old saloon-keeper often offered encouraging words, a hot meal and a warm bed to those in need. According to friends and family, he didn’t ask anything in return except conversation and maybe a promise the person receiving the help would use the opportunity to better themselves.
In essence, Wetzel can be seen as a pioneer of rehabilitative re-entry programs, giving formerly incarcerated individuals a second chance. He lived in the rear of his business, a saloon and boarding house at 10th and J streets in Sacramento.
He often kept large amounts of cash in the building, most of it belonging to other people. For those who didn’t trust banks, it was his way of keeping it safe, locked away in trunks in his bedroom.
On the evening of July 16, 1860, Wetzel invited some friends to stop by his place for food and drink. The group noticed a stranger at the table who didn’t speak much. While some thought the man was suspicious, they accepted his presence because of Wetzel’s penchant for helping people in need.
After dinner, the guests bid farewell and made their way home. It was the last time they would see their friend alive.
Baker discovers body
The next morning, baker Peter Kieffer arrived at the saloon with his usual delivery of bread. The baker and saloon keeper had been friends for six years. On this morning, something didn’t seem right as Kieffer found the door to the business locked.
He knocked repeatedly, but there was no answer. Becoming worried, he asked around the neighborhood with most saying they didn’t know why the door was locked. Since it was so out of place, many of the neighbors said they also had knocked on the door.
“I inquired of the butcher next door, who gave me a like answer. I then said, ‘I will wake him up.’ I then went round to the back door and there met Mr. Burger, of whom I inquired, ‘What is the matter with Martin and why (won’t) he get up?’ He answered that he did not know but thought it strange,” Kieffer told investigators.
He and the others peered into curtains but saw nothing. Kieffer tried the back door, finding it unlocked.
“(I) stepped inside and looked towards his bed and saw much blood on the (sheets) and (Wetzel) lying on the floor. I then went out and reported to the others what had happened,” he said.
Police investigate murder
Sacramento Police Officer J.W. Taylor and Captain Deal arrived on scene, finding the victim lying face down in a pool of blood next to his bed.
“My opinion is that the deceased had been stabbed while asleep, or while lying on the bed, and had fallen to the floor while struggling. I was present when the coroner turned deceased upon his back. I saw one wound upon the right side of his neck and one on the left, also one cut on the (chest), all of which seems to have been inflicted with a knife,” Officer Taylor reported.
The trunks were open, their locks broken and all the valuables missing. Suspicion fell on the stranger, who had conveniently disappeared.
A stranger at dinner
“(Wetzel) was in the habit of feeding and lodging strangers and others through charity or friendship,” Christian Allenger told investigators.
“I, in the company with my wife, Mr. Seabold and his wife, visited (Wetzel’s) saloon by invitation. We all remained there until half-past 10 o’clock, and while there we ate some cake and drank wine with deceased.
“When I arrived, … there was but one other person (there) and he was a stranger to me. I had noticed (him) on two occasions previously. … This person was invited by (Wetzel) to partake of the wine with us. He did so (but Wetzel) did not introduce the stranger to any of our party. I did not like the appearance of this man; thought him suspicious of character.”
When the group left Wetzel’s home, the stranger remained behind, smoking a cigar with the kindly host.
Stranger aroused suspicion
Another saloon regular was also suspicious of the stranger.
Frank Neberaker told investigators the stranger had been hanging around the saloon for a few days.
“Each time he was drinking at the bar. I did not like the appearance of this man and thought him a bad man,” he told investigators. “I asked him last evening to tell me his name. He said he had three or four names and his last name was Washington. I left the house of (Wetzel) at half-past nine.”
Neberaker positively identified the suspect based on an “ambrotype or likeness in the hands of the Chief of Police, which is a facsimile of the person spoken of as the stranger.” The picture held by the police was of petty thief William Wells.
Next-door neighbor J.A. Griesel said Wetzel was holding $800 in cash for him. His name and the amount contained within were written on an empty bag found at the murder scene.
“Mathias was easy to get acquainted with and when one had obtained his confidence, it was easy to get his secrets,” Griesel said.
Jacob Hoehn confirmed his cousin, Wetzel, protected the cash of others.
“(He) was in the habit of taking money of other parties for safe keeping. His character for peacefulness and honesty is good (and) do not think he had an enemy. Do not know of his having had any difficulty with anyone lately,” Hoehn said.
Turkey thief gets hard labor
William Wells had minor run-ins with the law prior to 1860. In the 1850s, he was arrested on charges of swiping some turkeys and selling them to an unsuspecting party. Police were able to identify the turkey bandit as Wells, thanks to the ill-gotten poultry purchaser’s testimony.
He was sentenced to several months of hard labor on a county chain gang. For Wells, this was the beginning of a brief but bloody criminal career. While he had multiple petty larceny arrests on his record, nothing compared with murdering Wetzel and absconding with roughly $2,000.
Tracking down a killer
Virginia City in Nevada Territory was a booming town ripe for the picking in 1860. Much like California’s gold rush a decade earlier, Nevada was experiencing a silver rush, with miners and merchants flooding the territory. The mountain town was filled with gambling halls, saloons and a chance for Wells to blend into the crowd.
Despite his efforts to elude law enforcement, it didn’t take long for police to catch up to Wells. Within days of Wetzel’s murder, he was arrested in Virginia City on July 23. Wells was found to be in possession of many items directly linked to Wetzel.
Nevada was a territory at the time, so law enforcement tended to be less organized. Often, other states or the military employed local mountaineers as guides, deputies or soldiers. Such was the case of Sutter County Deputy Sheriff Timothy Wharton, 35, who arrived in Virginia City to bring back Wells to face trial. He hired a stagecoach driver and a third man to act as a guard, Virginia City mountaineer George “Henry” Armstrong.
Acting on behalf of Sacramento County as well as the state of California, this group was a sort of early CDCR Transportation Unit, cooperating across state lines.
Mob seeks vigilante justice
When they reached the small town of Nicolaus, near Sacramento, Wharton overheard another stage driver mention an angry mob was waiting for stages at a nearby bridge. The group asked after a man named Wells and they appeared ready to deliver vigilante justice at the end of a rope.
Deputy Sheriff Wharton was determined to get his prisoner to the appropriate authorities. He sent their stage ahead, without its passengers. He asked the stage driver to have the police respond with a posse.
Change in plans
Before help could arrive, something happened to change Wharton’s mind about waiting in the small town. Perhaps the vigilantes caught wind that Wells was in Nicolaus. Whatever the reason, the deputy hired another driver using a less-than-ideal mode of transportation to get them out of town and closer to Sacramento.
Wharton employed William C. Stoddard, a 32-year-old teamster who drove an open wagon. To avoid the angry mob and any other crowds, he instructed Stoddard to stick to the river road. Wharton and Stoddard were no strangers to the back roads as the longtime friends both called Nicolaus home.
This new third person to join their party was not just a rancher or wagon driver. He’d served as a sheriff, district attorney and wagon train guide.
“Stoddard had practiced law as a young man at Yreka, Siskiyou County. He later served as district attorney in that county and also in Sutter County. Still later he returned to Ogle County, Illinois, where he was made sheriff. At the expiration of his term in that office he returned to his ranch five miles below Nicolaus, crossing the plains as captain of a wagon train,” according to “History of Yuba and Sutter Counties,” published in 1924.
Early morning escape
The bouncing wagon didn’t bother Armstrong, who was stretched out on the floor in deep sleep. Murder suspect Wells sat on a box at the rear, sharing a blanket with the mountaineer. At 1:30 a.m., July 26, Stoddard told the lawman they were approaching Sacramento so it would probably be a good idea to rouse Armstrong.
As Wharton turned to wake the slumbering mountaineer, there was a blast from a pistol. The bullet struck Wharton’s side, knocking him from the front seat and onto the horses. Another shot blasted in the darkness, instantly killing Stoddard, the force of the impact throwing his body to the ground. The noise woke Armstrong, who was getting to his feet when he too was struck by a bullet. Wounded, he fell from the wagon.
Wharton managed to get out from the tangle of the horses. He spotted Wells jumping out of the wagon, making a run for the darkness. The lawman fired but the prisoner returned fire, striking Wharton a second time.
The accepted theory is while Armstrong slept, Wells swiped his pistol and keys to the chains.
Deputy Wharton was gravely wounded.
“I felt faint and fell to the ground,” he later said in a sworn statement. “When I revived, .. I started to walk into the city and when I reached the toll-house at Swift’s bridge, I fell against the door, and asked for a drink of water. The toll-keeper refused to open the door, and replied that he did not know me, and that I had better go into the city. I then passed over the bridge to the gas works, where I gave the alarm.”
According to Deputy Wharton, Wells fired six times before making his getaway, with four shots finding their marks.
Immediate emergency response
Posses were quickly formed and fanned out across the area. When they arrived at the site of the murder, they found Stoddard lying face down in the dirt road. He was dead. Another man, Armstrong, was propped up against a tree. He weakly called for help when he spotted the posse.
They loaded him in the wagon and took him to the station, where he died 30 minutes after arriving. The loot from the Wetzel murder, having been carried by Armstrong, was gone. After fleeing, Wells apparently returned to the scene and rifled through the near-dead Armstrong’s coat to retrieve the items.
Deputy at death’s door
Wharton was taken to a hotel and provided immediate medical care. The physician removed a ball from his leg but informed his patient the wound to his chest was probably fatal.
“At about three o’clock on the morning of the 26th instant, I was called to visit Timothy Wharton at the United States Hotel, on Front Street. I found him suffering from the effects of two gunshot wounds, one in the left thigh and the other in the right chest,” reported Dr. G.L. Simmons. “I informed him I considered the wound in the chest a very serious wound and that the chances of death were imminent. He then requested that some of his Nicolaus friends might be sent for and at 9 a.m. (he) made a statement before Judge Coggins in regard to the circumstances (of the Wells escape).”
Three other doctors saw the deputy but about 24 hours later, at 3 a.m. July 27, he succumbed to his injuries.
The ball had entered below his right armpit, “ranged downwards and inwards to the lung cavity, passed through the diaphragm, through the right lobe of his liver, grazed the upper part of his right kidney and buried itself in his spine,” the autopsy concluded.
Wells, the one-time petty thief, had now claimed the lives of four people.
Manhunt for a killer
By the light of day, authorities tracked Wells to the river’s edge, close to the scene of the murders. They found a row-boat was missing.
On July 28, 1860, Gov. John Downey offered a $500 reward “for the arrest and delivery to the Sheriff of Sacramento County of … William Wells.” Years passed before there was any movement in the case.
In 1866, a man going by Donald McDonald was arrested in Idaho. He denied being William Wells but law enforcement officers brought him to California to stand trial.
Jim Coes, alias Limber Jim, was previously arrested in connection with the Wetzel murder but had been released. He claimed he served time on the Sacramento prison brig, where he met Wells, now using the name McDonald.
Coes claimed McDonald had a scar on his knee, received when one of Wharton’s bullets struck him in 1860. McDonald claimed the scar on his knee was from a pickax. George Phifer, who originally identified Wells during his 1860 Virginia City arrest, claimed the man he saw while working in the Idaho mines was Wells, not McDonald. He wrote letters to California authorities requesting they arrest the man he suspected was Wells.
Eventually, there was enough doubt about his identity that the suspect was released. The state paid him a few hundred dollars for the inconvenience.
The ongoing hunt
In 1868, Santa Barbara police arrested a man they suspected of being William Wells. He gave the name J.C. Wagoner and after some investigation, the suspect was able to prove his identity.
“Men went out in all directions to look for the … murderer, and many times it was reported that citizens were on his track, but Wells was never caught. That was 30 years ago, and in these years, scores of men have been arrested in various parts of the Union on suspicion of being Wells, the murderer, but the right man was never caught,” reported The Record-Union, July 20, 1890. “If Wells did escape the bullets of Wharton’s pistol, he has doubtless long since died on the gallows or in some prison, as he was a creature who could not long keep from the commission of crime.”
The man responsible for four deaths was never caught.
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor