Judge Conley’s Madera County courtroom held a standing-room-only crowd on Nov. 18, 1914. The spectators, who lived in Grub Gulch, were furious at what cattleman John Shay was trying to do to his 78-year-old wife.
It all started when Shay decided that his wife was crazy. He went to Superior Court Judge William Conley and requested an official sanity hearing. Conley consented, and soon Shay had his wife in court.
Ostensibly, the problem lay in the bizarre behavior of Mrs. Shay, but at its core was the fact that she had a collection of jewelry that she kept in a trunk in her Grub Gulch home, and her husband wanted her out of the way so that he could get his hands on the valuables.
When the husband got on the witness stand at the sanity hearing, he told stories that did indeed suggest that his wife was possessed of a “deranged mind.”
Shay charged that for two years, he had been forced to treat his wife as a child. He said he came home a number of times and found her groping about the house in search of something. Shay said that when he asked her what she was looking for, she giggled and said she didn’t know.
Shay cast further doubt on his wife’s sanity by telling the court that he had to occupy her by giving her things to play with. He said he once gave her a spool of silk, which she unwound and threw on the floor, laughing like a youngster.
According to Shay, he couldn’t even keep her in the room he prepared for her. She claimed she didn’t belong there.
At other times, Shay testified, his wife insisted that the only way she could get into her room was to go through the window. Mrs. Shay allegedly insisted that Shay cut the window screen so that she could enter her room from the outside. Once, he said, she attempted to get through the window with a knife and a hatchet.
Apparently Shay was convincing. The examination board declared her to be insane, and she was packed off to the State Asylum in Stockton. Meanwhile, Shay took the next step in his plan. He decided to sell her jewelry.
With his wife safely tucked away in the asylum, Shay asked the court to appoint him guardian over his wife and her property, which consisted of the jewelry and $800 in cash in a safe deposit box in San Francisco.
As for the jewels, Shay would have no problem disposing of them; he had them in his possession at his house. The cash, however, posed a problem. He didn’t have the key to the safe deposit box. His wife had given it to a Mrs. Leonora Johnson, her first husband’s cousin, so Shay went to court seeking an order giving him access to the cash.
Before the judge could rule on that, however, two things happened.
First, a fury seized the entire community of Grub Gulch, and Shay was ostracized. He was roundly condemned by his neighbors as having put his wife away just to get at her money and jewels.
Second, on the eve of the hearing on Shay’s petition, she was released from the Stockton asylum. The doctors there, after observing her for two months, declared that she was not insane and was perfectly able to handle her own affairs.
Thus, when Shay came to Madera to attend court, he got the surprise of his life. There sat his wife!
Judge Conley opened the hearing by asking Mrs. Shay a few questions. “Has Mr. Shay treated you with kindness?” Conley inquired.
“No sir,” she quickly replied, with fire flashing in her eyes.
“Has Mr. Shay cared for you and provided for you as best he could?” the judge asked.
“He never bought me a thing and, for two years, never gave me a cent,” came the reply. At that point, Shay, scanning the hostile audience, told the court that he wished to withdraw his petition, which Conley allowed. The only thing Shay asked was help from the judge to get the people of Grub Gulch off his back.
In this, Conley came to the rescue. He told the packed courtroom that Mr. Shay had been justified in sending his wife to Stockton, medical opinion there notwithstanding. He further suggested he did not believe that Shay had been trying to cheat his wife. He was only trying to gather means to take care of her.
The record doesn’t show whether or not the Grub Gulch people bought Judge Conley’s attempt to defuse a volatile situation, but we do know that Mrs. Shay took her jewels and moved to San Francisco to live with Mrs. Johnson. Presumably, Shay returned to his ranch.
The Shay affair quickly dropped from the public view. The Madera Tribune did not follow up on the story, but it did continue to cover other Grub Gulch news because the little town never did completely shed its frontier character. There was always excitement there as it carved a niche for itself in the history of Madera County.
Originally published in the Madera Tribune