Murder & Suicide 1888

“Murder and Suicide,” the 1888 headline blared! The Reno Gazette-Journal made no bones about its feelings toward a “long and rather unfavorably known” Carson Valley ranch hand named Zack Field.

Community distaste had begun several years earlier with Zack’s poorly-received romance with 17-year-old Mary Gray, pretty daughter of Genoa blacksmith W.D. Gray. Courting a teenager wasn’t all that unusual at the time, but Zack’s age certainly was: he was sixty years old when he induced Mary to run off with him to Carson to be married in 1882.

Note the skull-and-crossbones — strychnine was serious stuff!

Then came the awful rumors about strychnine. In February, 1888, Zack’s father-in-law had noticed an odd taste in his water cup. Suspicious crystals found in the bottom of his glass were tested by two local doctors, who both “pronounced it strychnine.”

Zack’s name, of course, immediately sprang to mind; he had “been acting strangely for some time,”  the newspaper hinted. (The fact that Mary’s parents recently had tried to induce her to leave her “wretched” husband also raised suspicions.)

It wasn’t the first time Zack had been suspected of foul play involving strychnine. Zack and Mary had moved in with the Hawkins family shortly after their marriage — and shortly after that, the entire household came down with strychnine poisoning. Fingers also had been pointed in Zack’s direction when rancher John Cronkite was found dead in with a “big wound in his head” — and “cattle money” missing from his pocket.

After the tainted water-glass episode, Zack and Mary high-tailed it out of Carson Valley, taking up a residence (aka hiding out) in Scott’s Valley, California. But only a few months later, things came to an unhappy head yet again.

Zack’s rifle might have looked something like one of these.

On August 13, 1888, in what the newspaper poetically called a “case of marital infelicity and pistol practice,” Zack shot poor Mary square in the chest with a Winchester rifle.

Thoughtfully saving the justice system the bother of a trial, Zack then used the remaining charge to “blow the top of his [own] head off.”

No words of sympathy were wasted by the newspaper on Zack. But despite the awful headline deeming it “murder,” readers making it to the last sentence of the column would discover that Mary actually had not actually died yet.

Although her life was “despaired of” initially, she did eventually recover. And in one of those weird twists of fate, Mary went on to marry another man named Field — thankfully no relation to the “long and unfavorably known” Zack.

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