Vigilantes and vice: Local editors dealt with more than words
The Sierra Sun is celebrating its 135th anniversary this month, and the many editors and publishers of the various eras of the paper’s past played their part in Truckee history. Two of the noted ones paid with their lives as part of their newspaper careers. David Belden Frink was a crusader against crime at the time of his death in 1874. William H. M. Smith was killed after a crusade against Truckee’s saloons in 1912.Frink’s fateTruckee in 1874 was a town that had more than its share of crime and criminals. Upstanding citizens looked to their town’s newspaper editor, David Frink, to boost the battle against the “roughs” of Back, or Jibboom, Street. The “601”Vigilante Committee was formed to deal with troublemakers that Constable Jake Cross and his deputies couldn’t control.Frink wrote an editorial several months before his death that urged the Nevada County Board of Supervisors to construct a jail for the confinement of petty criminals. At the time Truckee furnished more county jail prisoners than any other part of the county. A serious drain on the county was incurred by having to transport suspects to Nevada City from Truckee for trial.Frink continued to push for a new branch jail in Truckee until his death. In 1875, the board of supervisors authorized the construction of the jail. It is now the Truckee Donner Historical Society Old Jail Museum.But in November of 1874, the problem with roughs came to a head when newspaper articles gave details of the men who contributed to most of the trouble. A campaign against Seth McGowan, Harry Howard, George Brown, Jack Potter, and Jibboom Street prostitute Carrie Pryor stirred local businessmen to act.The secret vigilante committee was moved to post red ribbons around town, letting all criminals know that they should leave town immediately.Most left quickly, but not all. A man named Hayward decided that he would stay. The “601” responded, and on Nov. 23, 1874, the members met and donned their disguises. They went to an unsavory Jibboom Street dive and pointed 20 guns at Hayward. After taking Hayward into a back room the vigilantes saw a man silhouetted by an outside light holding gun. Suspecting that it was a confederate of Hayward’s, one of the vigilantes shot the darkened figured.The man in the shadows was David Frink. He cried out “Oh oh oh!” His fellow vigilantes carried him out through he alley, all still masked. No one could or would identify the shooter. The crowd of men dispersed. Only a handful of the “601” knew right away that one of their own had been shot. Rumor had it later that it was one of Frink’s close friends.Dr. George Curless was called to examine the body and determined that death was almost instantaneous. To hide his identity as the newspaper’s editor, Frink was one of the most disguised amongst all the men. While his death saddened the town, it also emboldened the criminal element, which took advantage of the 601’s lack of force soon after Frink’s death. The shooting of William Smith Moving ahead to 1911, the Truckee Republican still was taking a stand against crime in Truckee. For several months the newspaper ran editorials against the fact that there were 26 saloons in business and more were looking to open. Smith was also running the Whitney House (now Truckee Hotel) hotel and was promoting the Winter Carnival attractions. Smith believed in the future of Truckee as a tourist destination, and was trying to scale back its image as a wild west rowdy town.Smith railed continually against the issuance of liquor licenses, the unlimited hours of operation, and the gambling in the saloons. He wrote about the quality of the area’s recreation opportunities – the fishing, the camping, and the skiing. The saloon owners organized the Truckee Liquor Dealers Association to protect their business interests. One of the most outspoken members of that group was Paul Doyle. Doyle owned the Truckee River Electric Company, a dry goods store and was invested in several saloons. He was the ad-hoc banker in Truckee and felt that the economy was threatened by Smith’s proposal.The saloon owners encouraged a new newspaper, the Truckee Independent, to start publishing in late 1911. The publisher, R.E. McMurray, only got a half-dozen issues out before failing financially. Most of the advertising was for the saloon owners. Smith publicly stated that he did not need the advertising revenue or printing business of the saloon owners, but the Truckee Republican suffered greatly financially from the battle.As his own revenues dwindled, Smith became more cantankerous and agitated. Doyle became more stubborn and even filed suit against Smith for an unpaid debt of a small amount. On the street, many former friends were divided by the issue and the whole town was on edge.On the fateful morning of Feb. 5, 1912, Smith stopped by the post office to check his mail. No one else but Doyle was there. Words were apparently exchanged. Smith may have hit Doyle, and then two shots rang out. In the back, Assistant District Attorney and former Truckee Republican editor Frank Rutherford heard the shots and came running. A crowd then gathered as Rutherford sent for doctors and constables.Smith was taken to Drs. J.H. Bernard and Gordon Mackay. He had been shot in the jaw and the left lung and spine. Despite surgery, Smith died the next morning. Coroner William Bottcher held a formal hearing a few days later. The jury found there was not enough evidence to indict Doyle for murder, but found that it was self defense. Nevada County District Attorney F.L. Arbogast decided to go ahead with murder charges. But Truckee Justice of the Peace J. Adolph refused to hold the preliminary hearing.The case was sent to Nevada City where the trial was held with only Western Nevada County jurors on the panel. Charles F. McGlashan, another former Republican editor-publisher, helped represent Doyle. On Saturday April 6, the jury came back with a not-guilty verdict. The case was one of the most watched trials in Nevada County history.Since then, no other editors or publishers have been shot. The Truckee Republican, and later Sierra Sun, editors continued their quest for a more law-abiding community. The results were slowly achieved, as decades later the last of the back street vice houses were closed down.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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