The Mendocino Outlaws are forever etched into the mystique of our region. For a brief period in 1879 to 1880, news readers the world over eagerly anticipated updates on the hunt for four men who murdered two fled across Northern California, and finally brought down by a lawman dead set on justice.
In October 1879, a posse set out to catch a group of what authorities thought were simple cattle thieves. Little did they know these men were career criminals practiced in stagecoach robberies, outlaw living, and gunplay. The missing cow was merely an accessory to the bigger scheme cooked up by a con-man then living in the coastal town of Mendocino. The plan was to rob the Mendocino County Sheriff of the tax payments he personally carried and continue to Ukiah literally pilfering the cash from the county coffers. These plans were cut short after the four crooks stole a cow to make jerky and the owner brought in law enforcement to take the rustlers into custody.
A posse was dispatched to bring in the cattle thieves. The posse was ambushed by the four heavily armed career criminals who fired dozens of rounds. Two members of the posse were dead and outlaws did what outlaws do by fleeing into California’s northern wilds. Mendocino Sheriff Jeremiah ‘Doc’ Standley would lead the manhunt spanning ten California counties showing in the fall of 1879
The story’s ingredients are now archetypes of the Western genre: a criminal mastermind, a brazen plan to rob the sheriff, a deadly ambush, an endless pursuit through the backcountry, and a lawman bent on justice.
When you’re in the news business, one snag when writing about history is the limited selection of photographs from the era you’re writing about. Modern readers are visual to a fault so publishers generally find themselves recycling the same photographs because that is all they got.
When it comes to the Mendocino Outlaws, the most common photograph used by publishers is an old black and white portrait of Jeremiah ‘Doc’ Standley, the mustachioed lawman hell-bent on apprehending the band of outlaws.
Well, we believe our work diving into some digital archives might have brought a forgotten illustration of the Mendocino Outlaws’ exploits published in the May 15, 1989 edition of the San Francisco Call newspaper.
Now, when we say “forgotten”, let us clarify that we do not mean an archeological expedition was undertaken to find this image. In fact, it took merely some lucky search term variations on Google to track it down.
When we found the illustration we reached out to locals with a deep knowledge of the Mendocino Outlaws to see if they had ever laid eyes on the artistic rendering. Bruce Anderson of the Anderson Valley Advertiser has decades of writing about Mendo’s outlaw past had never seen it before. The staff at Mendocino’s Kelley House Museum maintains a safe of documents dedicated to the outlaws. The illustration was brand new to them as well.
We combed dozens of online articles, writings, and websites for the illustration thinking that we could not be the first to stumble upon it in an online newspaper archive. It was nowhere to be found.
The illustration is part of the San Francisco Caller‘s in-depth retrospective on the Mendocino Outlaws entitled “Rounding Up One of the Worst Bands of Outlaws in California”. The article has a broad vantage point taking the reader from San Quentin where the plans were hatched to the courtrooms where justice was dealt.” The artist used black ink likely transferred onto the newspaper using a wood engraving technology used through the 19th century. There is an artist’s signature in the bottom right of the illustration that could be “DKM”.
The illustration depicts a particularly slapstick moment in the journey of the Mendocino Outlaws. The four fugitives were camped by Humboldt County’s Rattle Snake Creek and a posse of lawmen had them in their sights. Right before capture was assured, the cops lost their cover and the outlaws beat feet with one naked having to take flight mid-bath.
Here is one more layer on this Mendocino History cake: anyone and everyone can use the image. American copywriting law states that any newspaper published before 1923 is out of copyright and can be freely reproduced. This could be a new era for Mendocino Outlaw retrospectives outfitted with an illustration befitting of the history and lore it depicts.
For those interested in reading more about the Mendocino Outlaws, we would suggest Malcolm McDonald’s retellings, District Attorney David Eyster’s write-up on the case, or the chapter dedicated to it in the 1880 book entitled The History of Mendocino County, California: comprising its geography, geology, topography, climatography, springs and timber.