On this date in 1879, Sacramento County public administrator Troy Dye was hanged for murder, along with the Swedish goon whom he’d hired to do the dirty work.
A 36-year-old father of three, Dye was a prosperous tavern owner in the California capital who volunteered at the Sunday school. In 1877, voters entrusted him with the necessary public office of managing intestate estates.
In retrospect one can safely say that Dye was not cut out for the public trust.
The position entailed a percentage claim on the estate so handled, which meant in practice that it was a thankless burden for long periods when only paupers died without their wills made out, punctuated by rare jackpots when the occasional wealthy fellow kicked off without heirs.
All Dye did was speed that cycle up a little, by arranging to murder a fifty-five-year-old bachelor in order to lay hands on his 650-acre farm and plunder the “rich old son of a bitch.”
Dye hired a Swedish sausage-maker named Ed Anderson and a young tough named Tom Lawton at three grand apiece to handle the labor.
For six hot summer weeks, Anderson and Lawton built a boat on Dye’s property with the one mission in mind. On July 30, they put it into the Sacramento River and rowed it downstream to the Grand Island orchards of their target, Aaron Moses Tullis. Under the guise of soliciting work, Anderson approached Tullis in his groves, and when the man’s back was turned, clobbered him with a blackjack. In the ensuing melee, Lawton, leaping into the fray from hiding nearby, shot Tullis through the throat, then felled him with a shot in the back, and finished him off with an execution-style coup de grace.
The two killers fled two miles down the river, where they ditched the boat. Their employer, signaling furtively by whistling, picked them up in a buggy and rode them back to Sacramento for celebratory oysters.
They wouldn’t be celebrating for long.
News of the murder puzzled the community as it got out. Tullis was wealthy all right, but his assailants had stolen nothing; he wasn’t known to have any enemies; and nobody had seen the riverborne assassins slip onto the property.
But within a few days, discovery of the abandoned boat led to the lumberyard that stamped its planks, and that led to the fellows who purchased it. Tom Lawton wisely used this tiny interval to leave California; Ed Anderson and Troy Dye stuck around and made national wire copy with their confessions before August was out.
Having spilled all the beans, Dye had only the feeblest of gambits remaining to avoid the noose.
At trial, Dye argued that the whole plan was the idea of the other two men, and he, Dye, was was just too damn weak-minded to say them nay.
At sentencing, Dye whined that the district attorney had induced him to confess by dint of a promise to let him walk.**
And during his appeals and clemency process he inconsistently shammed insanity, fooling nobody.
“A more pitiable object than Troy Dye, the assassin, never marched to the scaffold,” one observer noted of the pallid, stocking-footed figure whom the ticketed observers saw on execution day. (Quoted in this pdf retrospective on “one of the most shocking and melancholy episodes in the history of Sacramento.”)
Against Dye’s wheedling and quailing, Anderson cut a picture of manfulness. Even on the eve of the execution, while Dye was just this side of collapse, Anderson noticed the sheriff toting the hanging ropes and insisted on inspecting them, then shocked the lawman with a cool off-color joke.
But this was calm and not mere bravado. Time that Dye wasted in his simulated spasms was spent by Anderson with his spiritual counselor; his gracious last statement from the gallows confessed his guilt and begged forgiveness. “Troy Dye Dies, Anderson Ascends” ran the headline afterwards.
* A county clerk reached by the Sacramento Record-Union recalled a conversation that clouded suspiciously in retrospect: “he said that unless something turned up, that he would not make enough out of it to pay his expenses … I said to him: ‘You cannot tell when some one will die and leave a good estate.’ … he said he did not know of any one who was likely to die that was worth any amount except Mr. Tullis, down the river. He said he was an old man and drank a great deal, and was likely to die at any time, and that he was rich. If he should drop off and he got the estate, it would help him out.” (Reprinted by the San Francisco Bulletin, Aug. 15, 1878)
** That was indeed the case, as it seems that Dye’s confession revealed himself much more deeply involved than the prosecutor had previously assumed. This is why it’s much better to just shut up already.