One Bad Man & Two Tough Ladies: The Saga of Sam Brown

Everyone in Carson Valley knew “Bad Man” Sam Brown back in 1861. He was, after all, a pretty hard guy to miss.

Heavy-set and quarrelsome, Sam walked with a swagger. Besides his handy pistol, he kept a nasty-looking Bowie knife strapped to his belt. Sam didn’t hesitate to use that knife, either. He reportedly “carved a man to pieces” with it in 1860. Before another year passed, Sam had killed half-a-dozen men. No one – including local peace officers – was terribly eager to try to stop him.

Unfortunately for the sake of local peace and quiet, Sam was prone to drinking. And when he drank he’d get meaner than ever. Sam’s ugly ways weren’t confined to folks his own size or gender, either. His wife back in California, one Clementine Parsons, reportedly won a divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty.

But July 6, 1861 was Sam’s birthday. And luckily for Carson Valley, that birthday would be Sam’s last.

Henry Van Sickle kept a popular way-station just south of Genoa. Here’s old Henry, a few years after his run-in with Sam.

You’ve probably already heard the story how Sam showed up at Henry Van Sickle’s station for a drink, pulled a gun, and started shooting. Tired of the chaos, Van Sickle grabbed his own gun, ran out the back, and chased after Brown on horseback.

A galloping gun battle ensued. When the pair reached the settlement we now know as Mottsville, Sam was in the lead. He leaped off his horse and forced his way in the home of Israel and Eliza Mott. From just inside the doorway, he squeezed off a few more shots at his pursuer.

By now dusk was beginning to fall, and Van Sickle was fresh out of ammunition. He gave up for the moment, heading back to Genoa for bullets and reinforcements.

Israel Mott wasn’t home when Sam Brown barged in the door. But his sister, Louisa Mott Keyser, was, and some of his children. According to Louisa’s later recollections, the family had just finished eating their supper when Sam put in his unwelcome appearance, and Louisa was clearing away the supper dishes. Even though she recognized Sam, Louisa stood her ground.

Four generations of Mott women: Eliza Mott (seated), the wife of Israel Mott, about 1895. At left (standing) is daughter Louisa Beatrice (niece of Louisa Mott Keyser) with daughter, Clara, and granddaughter Lillian. (Photo courtesy of Billie Rightmire).

Luckily, Sam realized Van Sickle would soon return, so he’d better skeedaddle while the skeedaddling was good. He was about to mount his horse and ride off when he spied a man’s hat hanging on the wall. Sam had lost his own hat during the galloping pursuit, so he reached out to grab this handy replacement.

But Louisa wasn’t putting up with any funny business. That was her husband’s best hat, she protested! Sam tried to strike a bargain, offering a gold pocket watch in exchange. But Louisa was adamant. She wasn’t about to make a deal with this devil. Finally, Sam finally pulled a gold ring off his finger and threw that on the table as payment before making off with the hat.

Louisa may not have saved her husband’s hat. But she’d stood up to the bad man. Even more important, she’d delayed him a few minutes. And those few minutes just might have tilted the odds against Sam.

You already know how Sam’s birthday ended, right? Van Sickle had figured out where Sam Brown would go next, and managed to arrive there before him. When he heard Sam’s spurs a-jingling, Van Sickle stepped out from behind the barn door near Lute Olds’ hotel. “I’ve got you this time,” Van Sickle declared.

Both barrels of his double-barreled shotgun went off. And that was the end of Sam Brown’s last and most unlucky birthday.

This historical marker is close to the spot where “Bad Man Sam Brown” breathed his last — and Van Sickle finally breathed easy again.

Two days later, a coroner’s jury refused to call the shooting murder. Brown’s death, they concluded, was “a just dispensation of an all-wise Providence.” Henry Van Sickle was required to pay for Brown’s burial, including a new suit of clothes for the body and a marker for his grave at the early cemetery at the top of Nixon Street. Although we have no eye-witness reports about Brown’s funeral, it can safely be said that he was buried without a great deal of mourning.

Over the next thirty-odd years, many of the burials in that original old cemetery were exhumed and moved to the newer cemetery north of Genoa. But not Sam Brown’s. At least two old-timers reported that his body was deliberately left behind to languish in obscurity. And the grave marker that Van Sickle had to pay for — which by my guess would’ve been the cheapest wooden plank Van Sickle could find — has long since turned to dust.

As for the second feisty female in Sam Brown’s life, his ex-wife Clementine: she was so happy to hear of Sam’s demise that she tried to buy the shotgun that’d been used to dispatch him. Van Sickle, gentleman that he was, insisted on making a gift of it to her instead.

And Clementine, they say, kept that gun hanging prominently in her home for years to come.

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* * * Many thanks to local historian Cindy Southerland for the suggestion to write this fun story! And thanks also to the W.D. Keyser family for preserving Louisa Mott Keyser’s amazing family history and recollections. This story has been passed down in the Keyser family for over 100 years. Based on near-contemporary sources, it seems clear that Sam Brown did indeed barge into the home of Israel and Eliza Mott during his flight. Other sources suggest, however, that the feisty woman who confronted Sam might actually have been Eliza Mott, Israel’s wife and Louisa’s sister-in-law.