Al Livington got a nasty surprise when he stopped by a saloon in Jacks Valley the morning of August 9, 1880: he discovered the proprietor face down on the floor, with a gunshot wound through the chest.
Popularly known as “Old Hans,” the saloon owner’s true name was Christopher Johannes Hull. Robbery seemed to be the motive; a search disclosed Hans’s large silver pocket watch and about $100 were both missing.
It was a “murder most foul,” the Genoa Weekly Courier pronounced. Old Hans was a “pleasant, harmless old man,” as the Reno newspaper reported. About sixty years old and nearly crippled from years of hard labor, he was “inoffensive, generous, good-natured, and the friend of everyone,” as the Courier added.
Hans had been a miner in the early 1870s and, more recently, had worked at several stables in California and Nevada. Saving his earnings, he had purchased a saloon at the north end of Jacks Valley and, just three months before his death, sold that and moved to the little house where he was killed.
In addition to the gunshot wound to his chest, Old Hans had been hit by a hard object at the base of his skull. Powder burns on his shirt showed the bullet had been fired at close range. The coroner’s jury ruled it a “death by gun shot and other wounds,” committed by person or persons unknown.
Hans’ house stood in a “lonesome part of the valley,” and no one had seen anything — or anyone — suspicious in previous days. But the community was incensed. Ormsby County posted a $500 reward to try to flush out the murderer.
Suspicions focused first on a local miscreant with the colorful nickname of “Buckskin Bob.” According to rumor, Buckskin Bob even confessed his involvement in Hans’s murder to a pal. Bob proved to have a solid alibi, however, and the “pal” was unable to be found.
By mid-October, however, Sheriff Williams and his tenacious investigators managed to track down Old Hans’s silver watch. The watch had been sold near Sacramento by another local ne’er-do-well named Harry Fowles (sometimes spelled Fowler).
Fowles, just 26 years old, had already spent a two-year stint in prison at Carson for burglary. And unlike Buckskin Bob, Fowles’ account of his whereabouts of August 8 did not “hang together,” as the Genoa paper smugly put it. Fowles was arrested at Rocklin, east of Sacramento, and hauled back to Genoa to face the music.
After cooling his heels in the Genoa jail for several weeks awaiting trial, Fowles outsmarted his captors: on the afternoon of November 9, 1880, he escaped. The Genoa Weekly Courier described how Fowles managed to pull off his escape from a brick jail cell: “He made a hole in the wall between the Jailroom and a small bedroom adjoining the Sheriff’s office, crawled through and made his way out an unbarred window on the South side of the Court House.”
Just what the jailer was doing that same afternoon went unreported.
Curious Genoa citizens turned out in force to inspect Fowles’ route of escape. “Everybody who could get away from business immediately went to the jail,” the newspaper noted. “They looked in through the hole in the wall, and then they went in the jail and looked out through the hole, and went up town and knew all about it.”
Sightings of the escaped prisoner soon trickled in from far and wide. Four days after the daring afternoon escape, the Genoa paper reported: “So far, he has been seen at Walley’s Springs, Cradlebaugh’s Bridge, Jacks Valley, Silver Lake, Twelve Mile House, Holbrook’s, Desert Station, Woodford’s, Glenbrook, Small’s, Silver Mountain, Carson, Virginia, and in Roop County . . .”
Despite all these “sightings,” the paper had to admit that “no definite trace” of Fowles had yet been found. It nevertheless confidently predicted that the escapee’s recapture was “only a matter of time.”
Recapture, however, was not meant to be. Harry Fowles had slipped out of sight for good, and his crime (if indeed he shot Old Hans) was properly punished only when he went to meet his Maker.
As for Old Hans, his body was “properly prepared” by kindly local citizens for burial in Genoa, where he was laid to rest on Tuesday, August 10, 1880. No headstone currently exists for this well-loved local gentleman. It’s likely Old Hans was given a pauper’s burial, with perhaps just a simple wooden cross to mark the location of his now-forgotten grave.
We hope this story will at least help keep his memory alive.
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