Unlocking History

Horses, Rustlers and Bandits

Horse and cart with man standing beside them in 1890.
Horses were used regularly for everyday travel and commerce such as AC Kerr, a baker, in 1890. Like cars of today, horses were vulnerable to theft. (CSU-Chico Meriam Library)

While horses were used to build the first California prisons, they were also the reason rustlers and bandits ended up in those prisons. Due to their penchant for purloining horses, San Quentin and Folsom prisons saw rapid expansion.

Horse-and-buggy thief gets five years at Folsom

When a circus set up in Woodland to entertain residents in 1904, one young man saw an opportunity for a different kind of fun.

Swiping a horse and buggy from the parking lot, 19-year-old Albert Bliss took off in a cloud of dust. Following with shouts of “thief,” others took chase.

After hours of hard riding, Bliss was finally caught at Dunnigan in Yolo County. In court, he pleaded guilty to grand larceny, earning a sentence of five years at Folsom State Prison.

Bliss was a third-termer, having already served two sentences in San Francisco County Jail. He was received May 29, 1904, and given the number 15607. Officials also discovered he was using an alias. His real name was Adolph Bruhn.

He was discharged Dec. 29, 1907, but this wasn’t the end of the trail for Bliss. He continued committing crimes, going in and out of prison. Also, he continued using different names such as Albert Barton, 33465; Albert Boltman, 10115 and 11148; E.J. Smith, and Albert Martin.

He served from 1916-19 at Folsom and again from 1920-22 at San Quentin and Folsom. The man of many names also served sentences at Salem, Oregon; and Idaho State Penitentiary.

When he was received at San Quentin in 1924 on a burglary conviction, he was a six-termer.

Horse thief doesn’t learn lesson

E.J. Nunley, described as a “hard-working” San Joaquin County resident, wasn’t a suspect when many horses went missing in 1903. Unfortunately for Nunley, one victim followed the horse’s tracks, leading him to a clue he turned over to authorities. Sheriff Sibley was tenacious, eventually tracking down a buyer in Colusa. Through his investigation, Nunley became the prime suspect.

Nunley was arrested and found guilty of grand larceny. Earning him an eight-year sentence at Folsom Prison, the sheriff and assistant district attorney believed there were more victims. With so many missing horses, Nunley may have had a hand in more thefts. Following up on additional clues, including riding during a rainstorm to interview witnesses, they brought more charges against Nunley. Again, he was found guilty.

In 1904, the state Supreme Court refused appeals for a new trial, so Nunley finished his sentence. He was discharged in 1909 but continued on a criminal path.

In 1912, using the alias Henry Anderson, he swiped a horse from Charlie Myers’ ranch near Arbuckle. Riding to Point Arena, he then sold it to Peter Christenson for $125. Apparently, he wasn’t done with swindling and returned later the same night, stealing a different horse from Christenson.

Having learned from his earlier mistakes, this time Nunley opted to travel only at night to avoid being seen. Meanwhile, Myers and the sheriff were hot on his trail. The small posse tracked him down through Colusa, Lake and Mendocino counties, finally catching up to him in Point Arena.

He was arrested, pleaded guilty to horse thieving, then sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin.

Four years later, after earning a trustee post, Nunley escaped during a storm on Jan. 2, 1916. Despite a law enforcement hunt, he was never seen again.

Booze-fueled bronco joyride

Sam Carson, a colorful character in Lancaster known for heavy drinking, took his love of libations too far one afternoon in July 1910. Drunk and rowdy, he spotted a bronco tied to a post in town and decided to liberate the horse. Carson then lit off at a high speed.

Hearing commotion, Ben McMurry exited the post office to find his steed missing. He hollered for help and, after borrowing another horse, he joined another to pursue the thief.

According to the Fresno Morning Republican newspaper, “after an exciting dash of 10 miles, they overtook Carson, who made no resistance when looking into revolver muzzles.”

McMurry and his friend took the man to the local authorities, even though they wanted to dispense some frontier justice.

“My first instinct was to look for a tree,” McMurry testified in court. “But there was only sagebrush in sight so we took the rustler to jail. We didn’t want to strangle him.”

Carson admitted fault and asked to be sentenced to state prison “to escape liquor.”

The judge obliged, sentencing 34-year-old Carson to two years at San Quentin. He was received July 20, 1910, and given the number 24433. He was discharged March 20, 1912.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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