It was a quiet morning when the scream shattered the calm in Madera. People at first thought that the yell had come from the courthouse construction that was going on in June 1901. When a search of the half finished building turned up nothing, everyone rushed to the jail, which had only one occupant, William McNaughton.
Sheriff Jones ran to his cell and found the prisoner sitting calmly on his bunk with a sly grin covering his face. One look told the lawman that he had been bamboozled by the most notorious trouble maker ever to come out of the Madera County hill country. The jailbird wanted people to think he was crazy.
McNaughton’s trouble with the law began when he pulled poor, old Charlie Wear’s whiskers a couple of months earlier in O’Neals. Charlie reported the assault to Constable Harmon Bigelow, and he deputized a Mr. Patterson to go with him to get McNaughton. That turned out to be a job easier said than done.
The lawmen rode their horses down to Hildreth and knocked on McNaughton’s door. Mrs. McNaughton answered and said that her husband wasn’t home. Not being convinced, Bigelow and Patterson went inside for a look under the bed. What they found was McNaughton who quickly crawled out holding a pistol and ordered Bigelow out of the bedroom. The Constable did as he was told.
With the bedroom door closed, Bigelow tried to persuade Mrs. McNaughton to convince her husband to give himself up. Her response was to grab a shotgun and run the Constable off the place.
Bigelow then went back to O’neals to get more help. He returned the next morning to McNaughton’s with half a dozen men, including Charles O’Neal. The fugitive wasn’t there but his wife was. When Bigelow placed her under arrest, she said that she would show the posse where her husband was hiding. She took them to the Magnet Mine nearby.
While Mrs. McNaughton stood there, Bigelow and the others slipped up on the mine shaft, and while they were looking in, William jumped out of the bushes holding a revolver.
Mrs. McNaughton saved the day by appealing to her husband not to shoot. She convinced William to go with the Constable, but he refused to give them his gun, which he put in his waistband.
As they continued their walk, O’Neal decided to make his move. He grabbed McNaughton around the waist and shouted for Bigelow to grab his gun. In the next instance, everyone was rolling around on the ground. As fate would have it, Charles came up with the gun and gave McNaughton such a blow on the head that it rendered him almost unconscious.
Both of the McNaughtons were taken to the Madera County Jail, and the next day stood before Superior Court Judge William Conley. The judge fixed Mr. McNaughton’s bond at $1,000 and his wife’s bond at $250. She was released from jail, and they put McNaughton in a cell.
To add insult to injury, McNaughton was charged a few days later with stealing hogs from William Keller. He was served the warrant in his jail cell. At his preliminary hearing, the charge of assault with a deadly weapon was dismissed but the charge of resisting arrest remained as did the $1,000 bond. The hog stealing charge was dropped later.
William McNaughton’s trial for resisting arrest began on June 26, and three days later, the jury entered a verdict. After being deadlocked for hours at 8 to 4 for conviction, a unanimous guilty verdict was rendered. Judge Conley sentenced the convicted man to a fine of $300 or 150 days in jail. McNaughton took the jail time.
Over the next few weeks Mrs. McNaughton circulated a petition asking for a pardon for her husband on account of poor health. That request even made it to the Governor’s office and prompted an inquiry from Sacramento.
Governor Henry Gage sent a telephone dispatch to District Attorney R.R Fowler asking the extent to which McNaughton was ill. Fowler asked Dr. Reid and Dr. Byars to examine the prisoner, and they concluded that they could find no reason why he should not have to serve out his sentence. Fowler responded to the Governor, “I do not regard him to be in a serious condition, and I believe he simulates his sickness in great measure.”
So William McNaughton stayed in jail until Nov. 5, 1901. He had tried every trick in the book to evade jail—hiding under the bed, hiding in the bushes, pretending to be sick, appealing to the Governor, and even pretending insanity by screaming.
One has to wonder if he ever thought about what got him into trouble in the first place.
Originally published in the Madera Tribune