On this date in 1864, Doc Howard, Christopher Lowery and James Romaine hanged at Lewiston for “the strangest and darkest chapter in north Idaho’s criminal annals.”
Idaho and eastern Washington, a correspondent wrote to the Baltimore Sun by way of summing-up the bonanza year of 1863,* “is exceedingly rich in deposits of gold” to the delight of “thousands of sturdy miners from California and Oregon.”
“It is estimated that the mines situated in Washington and Idaho Territories yielded for the year 1863 some $20,000,000, and it is thought that next year this amount will be doubled … coin is almost unknown in the various mining towns, and even the ost trivial transaction of business has to be paid for in gold dust.”
As usual in these cases precious few of the miners hit the mother lode; it was the contractors who supplied them best positioned to make out. In August 1863 Lloyd Magruder, a prosperous and respected pack train operator who had once sat in the California legislature, embarked one of his mule convoys heavy with mining goods from Lewiston, over the imposing Bitterroot Range, and bound for the burgeoning mining colony of Virginia City.**
The Bitterroot Mountains. (cc) image by Eric Gross.
But the hills held other treasures than merely retail markups.
A day after Magruder’s slow pack train set out, three rough frontiersman — our three men, Howard, Low(e)ry and Romaine — left Lewiston, too. Overtaking Magruder on the road, they joined his traveling party on an amiable basis; by the time they reached Virginia City, Magruder trusted them to help sell off his mining supplies. Business complete, Magruder was ready to return to Lewiston, he had $25,000 in gold revenue in his pockets and not an inkling that the boon companions he now hired as his guards meant to take it from him. That’s the gold … that’s what it makes us.
Deep in the mountains one night, the wicked trio — joined by a trapper, Billy Page, who was inducted into the plot (so he said) by means of the sure understanding that to refuse was death — murdered Magruder and four other men traveling in the party.
A night was chosen when they were encamped on a ridge which broke off on one side almost perpendicular for several hundred feet into a canyon or mountain gorge. Near the summit was a spring which furnished men and animals water. From a confession made by Page, the trapper, it appears that on the night selected for the massacre, Page was put on guard and told what was going to happen, and ordered to keep still under penalty of death. Magruder and Lowry were also on guard away from the camp in an opposite direction, while Phillips, Allan and the other men were fast asleep in their blankets near the fire. During the first watch of the night, Lowry, who was on guard with Magruder, approached within striking distance, and dealing him a powerful blow with an axe which he had concealed under his coat, awaiting the fatal moment, knocked him senseless to the ground, where he was speedily dispatched. The killing of the sleeping men in camp was then quickly accomplished. Page, the trapper, who was watching the mules near by, claimed that he saw the murders committed. As soon as daylight arrived, the mules were brought up and five of the best were selected, four for saddle mules for the men to ride and one to pack their plunder. The other animals were then driven into a deep canyon and they, too, were murdered. They tied the murdered men in blankets and dropped them over the bluff near camp, into the bottom of the canyon, several hundred feet below, after which, having secured the gold dust, they made a bonfire and burned all the camp equipage, including the aparejos and other paraphernalia of a pack train. (Early History of Idaho)
The murderers made for the coast, slipping quietly back into Lewiston and grabbing the first stagecoach out in the morning, en route to Portland, Ore. But a friend of Magruder’s, sensing in their furtive and ill-favored manner — buying tickets in disguise; heedlessly abandoning valuable mules and camp supplies — something of their villainous design, set a Javert-like pursuit upon their booted heels.
He would pursue them at his own expense, leaving behind the inn he operated in Lewiston, all the way to San Francisco whence they journeyed to have their gold shavings coined by the mint. Page earned his freedom for giving evidence against the others; the remaining three attained the distinction of suffering the first legal executions in the history of the Idaho Territory.
* Letter dated Jan. 1, 1864; it was published Mar. 24.
** Today a hamlet (Wikipedia pegs its population under 200) in the state of Montana; at the time, a Wild West boom town in the Idaho Territory whose tenuous order was maintained by a vigilance committee.