The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff
The Redemption of Herbert Niccolls Jr.
Publication Year: 2013
Published by: University of Washington Press
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Title Page, Copyright
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The long, low beams of late afternoon sun poured through the windows as trapped flies tapped at the glass. A strip of flypaper hung above the stairs to the basement where the black coffin rested on sawhorses. The keeper of the mortuary-turned-museum handed me the keys and told me to drop...
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Moonlight spilled over the banks of Asotin Creek, where frogs chorused in deep pools. It was after midnight when he awoke cold and damp, unsure of his surroundings. This was not his grandmother’s house—his grandmother with the big stick and the Bible. He had escaped. He was free and curled...
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John Wormell had been dead less than eight hours, his body still lying at the Merchant Funeral Parlor when farmers, merchants, and reporters from Lewiston, Spokane, Reno, and Boise began to fill the courthouse. They gathered in amazement around the door and gazed at the boy, curled across two...
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The Garfield County Courthouse was impressive with its venerable white brick, stately cupola, long windows, and golden statue of justice with the scales in her hand on the rooftop. On the front lawn was a bronze statue of Sam Cosgrove, a Pomeroy native who had been governor for...
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A meteor passed over the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley on August 7, 1931, apparently burying itself in the Blue Mountains near the B. H. Brown home, the harvest crew reported. “It appeared to be traveling about 200 miles-an-hour as it flashed low across the mountains and dipped into the...
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The trousers were long and the bow tie a sporty bright red. Deputy Gilliam tied it for him and helped him into a jacket. The boy beamed when Gilliam told him he looked quite the dandy in the new suit. He couldn’t believe his luck. A wealthy Pomeroy wheat farmer, J. B. Tucker, had come in with a tailor the other...
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The second day of the trial came, and the boy once again wore his sporty new suit. This time Hostetler tied Herbert’s bow tie. Hostetler had spent the night with him inside the small jail. Bezona had thought that not only might the boy need the added security but he might also be afraid of being alone...
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Closing arguments in the trial heightened the public frenzy. Gone would be the tedious bickering between attorneys over legal points, and each side would simply sum up the testimony. Then the case would be in the hands of the jury. Would John Wormell’s death be avenged? Would a...
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What Herbert Niccolls Jr. had that most other juvenile offenders of any era did not was a powerful advocate with a national platform, who unequivocally believed in the boy’s potential for good despite the crime he’d committed. Although Father E. J. Flanagan never met Niccolls, he was convinced...
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Beyond the window pane in Governor Roland Hartley’s office maples shimmered in their November gold and a flock of ducks flew across the gray sky in a perfect V. It was three o’clock and already the edges of night had slipped across the capitol campus in Olympia. A few blocks away in the redbrick mansion...
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The sound of happy children always made Father Flanagan smile. But as much as he loved them and delighted in seeing them clatter down the hall like colts galloping, it also pained him with worry. The farm’s finances were grim but somehow the farm must survive. Lack of money would never cause him...
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On Herbert Junior’s first day in prison, Hans Damm took him aside for a stern talk. Damm later reported that the boy broke into tears and said he was sorry for killing the sheriff, that he didn’t intend for it to happen and from then on he promised to do the right thing. When asked what made him finally...
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Governor Hartley was having his breakfast when the telephone rang. The newspaper was spread across the table and without answering the phone he knew what his day would bring. It was the Associated Press. Hartley snatched the phone from the small table in the hall. What was his reaction to Father Flanagan’s statement? Did he...
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It was ten minutes before noon and Broderick was wishing that the interview with the last woman inmate would go quickly so he, Hartley, and the rest of the prison control board could go to the warden’s home for lunch. But somewhere in the midst of the woman’s frank discussion of her husband’s employment difficulties...
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With the execution over, it was gratifying to receive a letter applauding his decision to not stop the hanging. Hartley was smugly satisfied. If his constituents knew how he suffered from his treatment by the press. “The responsibility in such cases . . . is grave and exacts a service which...
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In the snowy days when the sighs of men were muffled in the white shawl of winter, the boy at his desk and the man by the window spoke of Shakespeare and Descartes, of sonnets and cycloids, transcendental numbers and transcendental verse. It would be in those days that the boy would begin to say...
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It was one p.m. and the back-to-work call from the chief turnkey’s office rang through Cellblock 1. Levers clanged. Cell doors flew open and the steel runways echoed with dozens of marching feet. Two-by-two the inmates returned to the prison industries. Assistant Chief Turnkey Williams watched them...
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The Great Northern trundled through the Cascade Mountains and across the Eastern Washington prairies for eight hours before it came screeching and hissing to a halt at a crossing a quarter mile from the prison. Passengers opened windows and looked back, questioning the delay. While in the prison...
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Men were dying in record numbers across the nation as trapdoors of numerous gallows slammed open, marksmen in firing squads took aim, and prisoners were electrocuted and gassed. In 1935, 199 people, more than any at any other time in the nation’s history, would be put to death...
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Father Flanagan was sitting on the porch wrapped in a blanket when two young boys came bearing a bouquet of spring flowers. He had been ill again. Seriously so. The children were allowed to visit him only in shifts, two or three here and there, each whispering to him that they were praying for him. He leaned forward...
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It was New Year’s Eve, 1937, and for weeks the prisoners had secretly gathered pots and pans from the kitchen and anything that could be used for making noise, hiding them in their cells. Early in the evening, the warden broadcast his usual New Year’s greetings, urging the inmates to make the next year better than...
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Whether because of McCauley’s illness or Martin’s increased interest in Herbert Niccolls, gradually Clarence Martin assumed more of the task of planning for Herbert’s future. But what that future would be was the subject of a vigorous debate. Martin was impressed by Herbert but wasn’t going to stake...
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He arrived in Seattle on a dreary January day with a few dollars in his pocket. He checked into the redbrick YMCA on Fourth Avenue and was assigned a room at four dollars a day. Even though he had been to Spokane, it didn’t prepare him for Seattle. Here, the buildings were taller and the streets rambled...
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The air held the barely perceptible nip of late winter. Dry leaves flew past him like pages from the script of his life. How amazed he was when he arrived in the city in 1945. It was a place like no other, a fantasy world of palm trees, nearby white-sand beaches, beautiful bronze-shouldered women in the thinnest...
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Many years after Herbert Niccolls’s death, his wife and son were still living in the same Hollywood apartment, where thorny red roses spilled over a cyclone fence. I pushed the button on the security gate and waited. At last I heard a crackling sound and the voice of an elderly woman. It was Patricia. Jonathan Niccolls, a young man with...
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Note on Sources
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History is more than bare facts and figures. The real story, the human story beneath the surface, is often missing from the basic accounts as first recorded. To bring this slice of history to life, I visited the places familiar to Herbert Niccolls—the prison; Star, Idaho; Hollywood; and rural Asotin. While these...
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Page Count: 302
Publication Year: 2013