Saturday, January 22, 2022

A Brutal and Cowardly Murder.

The Nicholsons of San Francisco owned some farmland near Watsonville in Monterey County, California. In 1873, Mrs. Sarah Nicholson spent all of her time there, working the farm while her husband traveled back and forth from San Francisco, where he had a carriage business.

Two years earlier, they bought the land from Matt Tarpey, a wealthy landowner and a big man in Monterey County politics. Tarpey was a well-known bully and desperado—“a brawling, profane, cowardly ruffian, with but few redeeming traits,”  said the San Francisco Chronicle. He was caught trying to rig an election by forging nationalization papers of immigrants. Twice Tarpey was accused of murder. In one case, he used his political influence to have the charges dropped; in the other, he was acquitted after allegedly bribing jurors.

Tarpey claimed the Nicholsons were behind in their payments for the land, and he wanted it back. In March 1873, Tarpey moved an old frame house from an adjacent property he owned onto the Nicholsons’ land and situated it about a quarter-mile from their farmhouse. He built a fence around the house and rented it to a man named Peterson.

Her husband was away when Mrs. Nicholson learned of the new house on her property, so she rode into town to consult with her lawyer. He told her that since she held the deed, she could not be driven out without legal process. If Tarpey moved a house onto her land, she had a right to take possession of it. The next day, she went to the house, accompanied by a young man named O’Neill and a boy who worked on the farm. 

When Peterson came by, he was surprised to find the house occupied. He demanded that they leave, but Mrs. Nicholson told him she was in possession of the house. If he had any grievance, he should talk to Tarpey.

That evening Tarpey buckled on a six-shooter, grabbed his Henry rifle, and started for the house. On the way, he stopped and borrowed a double-barreled shotgun. Behind a big oak tree on his property, he dug a hole where he could observe the house without being seen. After midnight that night, Tarpey fired six or seven shots in quick succession into the house. The occupants of the house were unarmed and, in a terrible fright, ran back to the Nicholson farmhouse. 

The next morning they went back to see what damage had been done. As they approached the house, Tarpey stepped into the roadway holding the shotgun. Mrs. Nicholson was startled but recovered herself and said, “Good morning, Mr. Tarpey.”

“Now, you d----d w----, I’ve got you.” Said Tarpey as he raised the shotgun and pulled the trigger. The gun clicked but did not go off.

“For God’s sake, Mr. Tarpey, take the whole thing, but do not murder me.” Said Mrs. Nicholson. 

Tarpey aimed the gun, and it clicked again. Terrified, she seized hold of O’Neill and said, “Come let us run; he’ll kill us both.”

As she turned to run, Tarpey fired again and this time the gun went off. Nine shots penetrated her back, and one went straight through her heart. Sarah Nicholson uttered a piercing scream and fell dead. O’Neill went to pick her up when the boy shouted, “Look out! He is going to shoot you.”

O’Neill ran; Tarpey fired again but missed. Tarpey turned to the boy and said, “Look out, I’m going to shoot you, too.”

The boy ran, and Tarpey did not fire.

As Tarpey walked toward Watsonville, he reflected on what he had done. He decided the best thing to do was turn himself in and claim the shot had been an accident. Constable Schade received Tarpey’s surrender but did not disarm him. Tarpey promised he would leave his weapons at his home in Watsonville, so they went there. When they got there, Tarpey changed his clothes and had breakfast, then buckling on his revolver, he went into the street, swaggering about and explaining the matter to friends he met. He stopped at the barbershop and had a shave, then told Schade he was ready to be taken to Salinas City.

As news of the shooting spread around the community, Schade was worried they might encounter some trouble on the road. They took a wagon back to Tarpey’s house to get his rifle before proceeding.

Someone telegraphed the news to Sheriff Wasson in Salinas, and he met the wagon a few miles outside of town. The sheriff took custody of Tarpey and disarmed him. He decided that the Salinas jail was not strong enough to prevent a mob from breaking in, so he planned to take the prisoner to Monterey.

As Schade had done, Sheriff Wasson first allowed Tarpey to march around town into barrooms telling his story. He even made a public speech describing the deed, trying to convince the crowd that the shooting had been accidental. 

When Tarpey was safely in jail in Monterey, an inquest was held on the murder. Two witnesses, O’Neill and the boy told what had happened that morning. That night the whole population of Watsonville turned out for a public meeting to express sorrow for the victim and denounce the murderer. They decided that they could not trust the legal system and decided to seek justice themselves. One old gray-haired gentleman named Slankard, who had known Mrs. Nicholson for many years, got up and said, “Gentlemen, if you permit this murderer to go unhanged twenty-four hours longer, you are all cowards.”

The people agreed, and in small groups, set off for Monterey. The crowds increased, coming from two counties, and by the time they reached Monterey jail, they were four hundred strong. A dozen or so men apologized to the sheriff then bound him hand and foot. With sledgehammers, they broke into Tarpey’s cell. They carried him to a wagon that contained a pine box and a long hemp rope. 

They took him about three miles outside of town and told him he had half an hour to arrange his worldly affairs and prepare himself for death. He dictated a brief will to a lawyer in the crowd then, on his knees, begged for his life. When the leader told him his time had come, Tarpey said, “Well, I’m ready, but you are committing murder.”

They threw the rope over the limb of a tree and tied a noose around Tarpey’s neck. They had him stand on his coffin as they drove the wagon forward. Tarpey fell, but the fall did not break his neck. The new rope stretched so much that his toes were touching the ground. Men from the mob grabbed the rope and pulled him up by force. Tarpey swung another ten minutes. Reportedly, some of the men shot at Tarpey as he slowly strangled to death.

In the days that followed, the authorities vowed to arrest those responsible for the lynching. Newspapers printed editorials half-heartedly denouncing vigilante justice, but the people of Monterey County were satisfied that Sarah Nicholson’s murder had been justly avenged. 

“Brutal and Cowardly Murder,” Gold Hill daily news, March 17, 1873.
“By State Telegraph,” Sacramento Daily Union, March 18, 1873.
“Cowardly Murder,” San Francisco Bulletin, March 14, 1873.
“The Hanging of the Murderer Tarpey,” Illustrated Police News, April 3, 1873.
“The Lane with a Turn in It,” San Francisco Bulletin, March 17, 1873.
“News Article,” Carson daily appeal, March 20, 1873.
“News of the Morning,” Sacramento Daily Union, March 17, 1873.
“The Tarpey Brothers in the Field,” Sacramento Daily Union, March 26, 1873.
“Tarpey Hanged,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 18, 1873.
“Telegraphic Dispatches,” Ely record, March 15, 1873.
“The Watsonville Tragedy,” San Francisco Bulletin, March 15, 1873.
“The Woman-Murderer,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 17, 1873.


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