One lonely tombstone at Gardnerville’s Garden Cemetery begs silently for justice. “Murdered” it proclaims, as if visitors might help solve the terrible mystery.
The victim, William Moore, met his awful fate sometime between the 9th and 14th of December, 1900. But the story behind Moore’s demise is a tangled one indeed. Did he even really die?
Moore, 67, was evidently something of a hermit. A poor man and in poor health, he’d lived alone for twenty years in a small cabin on his ranch near the east fork of the Carson River above Horseshoe Bend. Here he raised horses, ran a few head of cattle, and perhaps panned for flour gold in the nearby river.
A few days before Christmas, 1900, local Indians alerted authorities that Moore’s tiny cabin had burned to the ground. Sheriff Brockliss and Judge Dake promptly rode out to investigate. Not finding Moore, they searched the remnants of the charred cabin, but didn’t locate any trace of a body. A day or so later other local citizens, too, showed up to paw through the debris, and they, too, came up empty-handed. Possibly complicating matters was the fact that a rainstorm had gone through sometime after the fire.
Christmas came and went, and a few determined searchers decided to try again. On December 26 they returned, “sifted the ashes” — and came up with a few small pieces of charred something that might have been bone. These were carted off to Dr. Gerdes of Gardnerville, who pronounced them shards of a human skull. And when he examined one fragment more closely, “three small shot” were found embedded in the bone.
The local newspaper promptly dubbed this as “almost positive evidence that William Moore was murdered, and his cabin burned over his body.” Dr. Gerdes opined that the position of the bone might explain why the fragment was charred but the shot hadn’t melted. A Coroner’s Jury was convened, which agreeably confirmed the general belief that Moore had beens murdered. Community suspicion instantly focused on “a certain Indian” named Mike Holbrook, a “half-breed Washoe” said to have threatened Moore in the past.
In January, the Board of Commissioners for Douglas County put out a $250 reward “for the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who murdered William Moore.” That was more than enough encouragement for three enthusiastic Genoa citizens. Having heard further rumors, young William Gray, accompanied by his brother-in-law Frank Walker and their friend Edgar Seamon drove a wagon out to Mountain House in March, where they made a citizens’ arrest of “Indian Mike.” The local paper assured readers that this private party arrest was a “perfectly proper and legitimate proceeding,” adding uncharitably that if the prisoner should later establish his innocence “he will have no one to blame but himself.”
By now a new sheriff had been sworn into office and was eager to show the public his chops. The local paper expressed confidence that now-Sheriff McCormack would not only do his best to suppress crime, but “criminals have good cause to fear him.”
The murder case against Indian Mike was now the talk of the town. The Genoa courthouse was “packed” during the two-day preliminary hearing, and “nothing was talked of on the streets but the Moore tragedy.”
Several other Indians now came forward, claiming that Mike Holbrook had an alibi: he had been with them on a rabbit drive when the killing occurred. The evidence against Mike Holbrook appeared decidedly thin — except for one thing. Charlie George, also an Indian, swore he had personally witnessed Holbrook shooting Moore.
Charlie’s credibility as a witness left something to be desired, however. Among other things, Charlie had been arrested the same evening as Mike on an outstanding warrant for larceny. Charlie and Mike also were said to be enemies; as the newspaper put it, “it is stated that Mike is very friendly with George’s mahala.”
Nevertheless, Mike was bound over for trial. The case languished for another month until April, when a new Grand Jury could be convened to issue the indictment. Friends urged Mike to take a plea bargain and admit to manslaughter in order to “save his neck.” He refused.
On April 24, 1901, a jury pool of 40 local citizens was pulled, and by 3 p.m. the jury was in place. Trial began the following day, and the evidence was over by 5 p.m.. Charlie George “proved a strong witness,” the paper pronounced. Other “sensational” details of the case now came to light, including a “wild story” that Moore had always kept a skull in his cabin, “the victim of his rifle in former years.” The newspaper hinted darkly that Brockliss, the former sheriff, had done a lousy job of investigation, sniffing that “no steps officially were taken to investigate the matter until McCormack, the present Sheriff, took office.”
About dinnertime the jurors retired to deliberate, and by midnight they had their verdict: Not guilty. “And so another chapter is added to the criminal records of this county, which is not without blemish now,” the newspaper concluded.
As for the County Commissioners, they rescinded their earlier offer of a $250 reward for Mike’s capture. Opined the local paper: “they have learned that a mercenary incentive for the capture of criminals does not work satisfactorily in this county.”