Convict Lake: A murderous tale |

Convict Lake: A murderous tale

Photo by Mark McLaughlin

Convict Lake is a picturesque spot located near the Mammoth Lakes region in eastern California, only a few miles off Highway 395. First called Mt. Diablo Lake, Convict Lake earned its current moniker after a violent prison escape by nearly 30 convicts being held at the Nevada State Penitentiary at Carson City.

On Sept. 17, 1871, 29 hardened criminals overpowered their guards and escaped into the rugged country of eastern California. It was a warm, quiet Sunday when guard Volney Rollins was attacked by prisoners wielding improvised weapons. The inmates then broke into the prison storeroom, grabbed guns and ammunition, and then overwhelmed the other personnel on duty at the time.

The prison warden was Lieutenant Governor John Franklin Denver, whose brother was the namesake of the Colorado city. Denver confronted the men with his derringer and got off one shot before the desperate convicts rushed him. When he fell to the floor convict Leander Morton grabbed the wardenand#8217;s pistol and shot him with it. Fortunately, Denver survived his injuries.

Among the participants in this bold escape were Tilton Cockerell, John Chapman, E.B. Parsons and John Squires, all members of the gang that had committed the first train robbery on the Central Pacific line in November 1870. Known as the and#8220;Great Verdi Train Robberyand#8221; for the location of the holdup in the Truckee River Canyon, the bandits nabbed more than $41,000 in the heist.

In their raid on the prison armory, the convicts seized three rifles, four double-barreled shot guns, several handguns and nearly 3,000 rounds of ammunition. By now, the alarm of a massive prison break drew more guards to the scene. After an intense gunfight, in which nearly a dozen convicts and several prison staff were shot and wounded, the prisoners fled into the desert, taking their injured. To avoid capture, the escapees split up into separate groups and took off in different directions. Six of the men eventually headed into Mono and Inyo counties, more than 200 miles to the south. Led by Charlie Jones, a convicted murderer who was familiar with the rugged topography, they figured it was the perfect location to hide out from the lawmen who were sure to follow. The six convicts were Jones, John Burke, Tilton Cockerell, J. Bedford Roberts, Moses Black and Leander Morton.

As they headed south, the prisoners stole four horses and provisions along the way. Near the Walker River, the convicts ambushed an 18-year-old Pony Express rider named Billy Poor. The young man was on his first mail ride when he ran into the escaped criminals who wanted to steal his horse. Instead of letting the teenager go, however, Jones shot and killed him. That cold-blooded murder of a local boy incensed the citizens of Mono County and a posse was sent in hot pursuit. When the posse caught up with the escaped prisoners at Convict Lake, a firefight ensued and one of the deputies, Robert Morrison, was shot at point blank range. Another man in the posse, Mono Jim, a local Indian, was also shot and killed. A new posse was formed and eventually all but one of the convicts (Charlie Jones) on the loose in Mono and Inyo counties were captured.

By Oct. 1, several of the men captured near Convict Lake were back in custody in Bishop, California. Armed guards covered the group, but showed no resistance when a large group of armed vigilantes approached. The three convicts were taken to a vacant cabin and after a two-hour interrogation, the vigilantes lynched two of them. By the middle of November, 18 of the 29 escaped convicts had been captured; two had been hung and nine were still at large.

and#8212; Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and photographer. His award-winning books are available at local bookstores or at

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