The Vignolo Hotel in Berenda, just a few miles north of Madera, was a major stagecoach stop. It was also the scene of a bold robbery in 1901.
Madera County Historical Society - The Vignolo Hotel in Berenda, just a few miles north of Madera, was a major stagecoach stop. It was also the scene of a bold robbery in 1901.

Robbery in Berenda

It was late in February when Leonard Hammond walked into the saloon of the Vignolo Hotel in Berenda. The spacious, two-story building was full and running over. The rooms were all occupied and the bartender was having a time keeping up with the requests for libations. Business in Berenda had been brisk throughout 1901; the town had become the hub of a lively trade that radiated out in all directions from the little railroad town north of Madera.

Hammond walked unnoticed into the saloon, stepped up to the bar, and ordered a drink. As he took the glass with one hand, with the other he slid a pistol from under his belt and held it concealed beneath his overcoat. At just the right moment, Hammond backed away from the bar and proceeded to inform his fellow patrons that he was going to relieve them of their valuables.

The element of surprise was on the side of the young robber. All of the patrons did as they were told and lined up against the wall. Holding the crowd at gunpoint, Hammond collected his contraband of watches, jewelry, and cash. After forcing his victims to lie down on the floor, the thief beat a hasty retreat. One of the patrons was immediately dispatched to Madera to alert Sheriff W.B. Thurman. Thurman, in turn, assigned Constable Herman L. Crow to bring the fugitive to justice.

Crow, believing the robber to be yet on the premises, devised a clever ruse. He organized a posse on the front steps of the hotel and sent them out across the corral in a northerly direction. Sure enough, the robber, thinking he had been missed, came out of hiding and attempted to flee in the opposite direction.

One yell from Crow brought the posse to an about-face, and within minutes, Hammond was in custody. The constable not wishing to risk a nighttime trip to Madera commandeered a hotel room and locked his prisoner up until the next day. After standing guard all night, Crow escorted Hammond to the county jail in Madera.

In 1898, Madera did away with its old, wooden jail and replaced it with a brick and granite building
In 1898, Madera did away with its old, wooden jail and replaced it with a brick and granite building

Deputy Sheriff Erving R. Lewis was on duty at the time and took custody of the prisoner. Forgetting that Hammond was not only crooked but cunning as well, Lewis granted the prisoner’s request to take a bath. It seemed innocuous enough. It just so happened, however, the bath was on the middle floor of the turret of the jail. Hammond was not only given soap and a towel but enough time alone to work one of the bricks in the wall loose.

When Lewis went back upstairs to return the prisoner to his cell, he was hit over the head with the brick, which Hammond had wrapped in the towel. Grabbing the officer’s gun, the prisoner ran downstairs only to find the main door locked. In the meantime, Lewis ran to the ladder and reached the top floor of the turret, closing the door behind him so the prisoner could not gain access to that part of the jail.

The standoff continued until Thurman came riding by the jail on his bicycle. Lewis, who was watching from the window at the top of the turret, yelled out to the sheriff, warning him of the situation. Thurman rushed to the front door of the jail with complete abandon. When he opened it, he was met by a fusillade of shots from the pistol Hammond had taken from Lewis. For several minutes a fierce gun battle raged on the steps of Madera’s new jail. Hammond got lucky and nicked Thurman in the hand, whereupon the sheriff wounded the prisoner twice, once on the stomach and again in the left eye. That final hit ended the duel, and Hammond was once again put in his cell.

Hammond stood trial before Madera County’s first superior court judge, William M. Conley, and was found guilty. On April 1, 1901, the judge sentenced Hammond to serve 90 years in the state prison at Folsom. In the meantime, a frantic search was conducted for the stolen loot. Nearly every square inch of the grounds of the Vignolo Hotel was dug up, and fears were entertained that the building itself might even be threatened. Just in the nick of time, however, the booty was discovered wrapped up in an old shirt and buried in a shallow hole not far from where Hammond was captured.

For Hammond, there was no moral to the story. After he served enough time to be granted parole, he was released. He immediately attempted another robbery, this time on a Sacramento riverboat. He was no more successful on water than he had been on land, for the intended victims didn’t take kindly to being threatened with guns. Hammond was struck in the head with an oar, fell overboard, and drowned.

Maderans, on the other hand, learned a valuable lesson. A new jail was only as effective as the procedures by which it was run. Lawmen in town became just a little less humanitarian when it came to hygiene. From then on, offenders of the law had to suffer the indignity of a little dirt while awaiting their day in court. The Madera County jail was not the Vignolo Hotel.

Originally published in the Madera Tribune

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