History of the Cowlitz County Peace Officer

Cowlitz County has had a colorful history. Through it all, the Peace Officer has always been there. From the first Sheriff who who had to perform a public hanging to the deputies who had to corral a maurading elephant. Join me as I gather the facts and true stories that describe the journey of the law enforcement officer in Cowlitz County from 1854 through today.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Capitol Punishment in Cowlitz County

Death is a part of life but killing is a little more complicated. Coming off the cuff of a Civil War, our young country had faced unimaginable death and the psychological consequences of killing. This is something that must have been playing out on a warm June day in 1892, when Cowlitz County Sheriff Ben Holmes placed a dark hood over Robert Day’s head looking him in the eye one last time. What must have been going through his mind? Was this his friend or did he loathe the man to such a degree that the mere thought of his death brought with it a certain satisfaction of final judgment. With the hood in place, his sweaty hands slipped the noose over Day’s head letting the slipknot rest against the condemned mans heart while it beat furiously in its last few moments. Yes, death is a part of life but, killing is not.

Robert Day’s killing of James Beebe sent him to an inevitable rendezvous with death at the hands of an otherwise good man in Sheriff Ben Holmes. For Ben, killing in self defense would have been one thing. But, killing just because it is “your job” would suddenly make it much more difficult. In Cowlitz County in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s this was something that was dealt with by four particular Sheriff’s. Each of which had to make a decision; to kill in the name of the law, or walk away.

“On Killing”

Our vision of the “Old West” being a lawless land where the Sheriff would gun down a man without hesitation is good for John Wayne in the movies but in reality, probably didn’t happen that often. Hangings, however, did occur. Capitol punishment was alive and well when Washington became a state in 1889. Hangings were conducted at the County Sheriff level until the State of Washington began handling executions in 1904.

With the Sheriff conducting the hangings brings up a difficult dichotomy. That is, a good man having to kill without provocation and the effect of that on him. During the Civil War there was a problem with soldiers not willing to fire even when faced with insurmountable odds. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman writes in his book, “On Killing”, about the difficulty of good people trying to kill, specifically, soldiers killing in combat. According to Lt. Col. Grossman, after the battle of Gettysburg, 27,574 muskets were recovered from the battlefield. Of those, 90 percent were loaded. Some were loaded with multiple rounds. In such a horrific battle, why weren’t these guns empty? Lt. Col. Grossman writes:

“That the average man will not kill even at the risk of all he holds dear has been largely ignored by those who attempt to understand the psychological and sociological pressures of the battlefield. Looking another human being in the eye, making an independent decision to kill him, and watching as he dies due to your action combine to form the single most basic, important, primal, and potentially traumatic occurrence of war. If we understand this, then we understand the magnitude of the horror of killing in combat.”

While law enforcement is not combat in the literal sense of the word, the traumatic aspects of killing remain the same. Lt. Col. Grossman engages the combat mindset in his writings and lectures and speaks to a vast audience from military personal to law enforcement officers. The understanding of the mindset of killing in combat and killing in law enforcement are undistinguishable.

That would have held true in 1892 as well. When Ben Holmes became Sheriff, he didn’t have a police academy or Lt. Col. Dave Grossman to explain to him the mental aspects of killing. Ben had to learn this on his own one day in June of 1892.

One Day In June

As part of his many diverse duties, Sheriff Holmes was tasked with the housing and care of prisoners. Whenever he was away, there would be others that would step in and assist, but the bulk of the work fell on Ben. The Sheriff would provide food, lodging, and more than likely, a good amount of conversation with whoever was lucky enough to spend the night in jail. The Cowlitz County Jail was located in the courthouse in Kalama and was not only used to hold prisoners, but it was also used to store firewood. Assuredly not the most secure facility on the west coast. But without a large tax base, it was probably the best the County could do at the time.

Having been convicted of First Degree Murder in October of 1891, Robert Day was placed in custody in the Cowlitz County Jail. Whether or not Robert Day and Ben Holmes knew each other prior to this is unknown, but in such a small community, they most likely did. They might have been friends but then again, they might have been raging enemies. Regardless of their past affiliation, Robert Day was now living face to face with Sheriff Ben Holmes on a daily basis, like it or not.

According to Leland Jackson’s book, “Early Castle Rock and North Cowlitz County, Washington”, shortly after his arrest, an impromptu “necktie” party went after Robert Day at the courthouse in an attempt to exact their own brand of frontier justice. According to Jackson, Sheriff Holmes thwarted the efforts of the disgruntled lynch mob by secreting Day out of the courthouse and hiding him in the attic of a nearby business. Ben Holmes was saving the life of a man that he was one day going to kill.

Obviously sensing the need for a more secure jail, Ben Holmes almost certainly spoke with the County Commissioners in this regard to protect his new inmate. Within a few weeks, a new iron jail cell was purchased from the Pauly Jail Company in St. Louis for $2000 and placed in the courthouse. Robert Day could now peacefully wait out his pending sentence.

Housing prisoners is not an easy job in 1891. It must have been exceptionally difficult with no running water, no bathrooms, to linen service, no kitchen, and no one to clean out the cells. Ben was a jack of all trades and probably a master of none. Waiter, housekeeper, servant, and cheap entertainment were all titles he could have worn with pride. Think of what a day must have been like, “Hey Ben, I’m thirsty.”

“Hey Ben, I need to use the outhouse.”

“Hey Ben, I’m hungry.”

“Ben, what are you doing? What are you doing that for?”

“Hey Ben, I’m cold.”

“Hey Ben, I don’t feel good. Hey Ben… Ben …. Ben ….”

Now Robert Day was in custody from October of 1891 to June of 1892. Ben would probably have had Robert helping around the jail, which wouldn’t have been uncommon in those days. He might have been helping clean or maybe helping haul in lumber or firewood. We don’t really know. But we do know that they were together. We know because of human nature that they talked. Robert and Ben must have had many a conversation in that time. All day everyday they would have been communicating. And in eight months of being together, they must have formed some sort of bond.

By the end of their time together, Ben Holmes either couldn’t wait to kill Robert Day or he may have discovered that Robert Day wasn’t that bad after all. Is it possible for a good man to make a bad decision? Is it possible that Ben Holmes knew all about the shooting of Beebe and the justification for it? If that was the case, then what was Ben Holmes thinking when he got ready on the morning of June 6th, 1892. Was this to be a good day or a day that will haunt him for the rest of his life?

Either way, now Ben Holmes was faced with a simple reality. He had to kill Robert Day as he stood there defenseless. Robert Day was going to look him in the eye and say, “I’m ready.” Ben Holmes was going to pull the hood over his head, slip the rope into position and kill a man that he now knows better than he ever did. This is no longer a stranger. This is a man that he sat with day in and day out for eight months. This is a man he ate many meals with, talked to, shared likes and dislikes with, and possibly came to like. On this day, Ben Holmes was to become a killer. If it wasn’t bad enough that Ben Holmes had to kill Robert Day, he also had to remove the body, haul the body, and dig the grave of Robert Day for which he was paid $6.

Ben Holmes ran again for Sheriff in 1892 but lost the election to A.L. Watson. But did the incoming Sheriff learn anything from his predecessor? Did Ben Holmes tell A.L. Watson how to tie a hangman’s noose and explain what it was like to hang a man?

The Same But Different

If the incoming Sheriff’s learned anything from the hanging of Robert Day, that was the fact that a public hanging is a spectacle that creates a community event. Some speculate that 1500 to 2000 people watched as the body of Robert Day dropped through the scaffolding in the courtyard of the Kalama courthouse. Former County Superior Court Judge J.E. Stone and several of his fellow classmates watched through their classroom windows as Sheriff Holmes prepared Day for his death. According to Judge Stone, though, they were put in their seats by their teacher prior to the actual execution.

When A.L. Watson was elected Sheriff in 1893 taking over for Ben Holmes, he made sure that the courtyard around the hanging scaffold would be enclosed and future hangings would be by invitation only. A fence was subsequently built and Sheriff Watson held true to this fact when he himself had to hang Charles Assimus for the murder of James Greenwood. Little documentation exists about this event but we know that a handful of people watched when on January 31st, 1896, Sheriff Watson pulled the lever sending Assimus to his death.

We don’t know how the hanging of Charles Assimus affected Sheriff Watson, if it even affected him at all. A similar situation existed in that, Watson and Assimus were together in the Jail for a prolonged period of time but, Watson would have know what to expect more so than Holmes did. There was something very different this time as well, Watson had help. This time, the Sheriff didn’t do it all on his own. Someone else spent the night on death watch with the condemned man, someone else built the scaffold, and someone else dug the grave.

This would have made the chore of executing a man a little easier by putting some distance between the two but they were still connected. Sheriff Watson and Charles Assimus had plenty of time to get to know each other and Sheriff Watson made sure that Asimus’ needs were met on a daily basis. This was evident when Watson brought in C.B. Magill to take care of Assimus’ ailing teeth on November 12th, 1895 for $2.

But, for whatever reason, Sheriff Watson slipped off into history when A.F. Kirby took over as Sheriff in 1897 in the first of his two terms. By that time, there had been two ‘successful’ hangings conducted by the Sheriff. Successful in that the bad guy was dead, but how successful was it in the way it affected the Sheriff’s.

The Final Execution

In 1900, Sheriff Kirby was tasked with investigating the murders of Cornelius Knapp and his wife in their home. Shot dead at their kitchen table on November 28th, 1900, the gunman snuck up on the couple and fired the fatal rounds through the dining room window as they sat eating a nice, quiet breakfast. Later, the murderer made his way to Kelso where he killed William B. Shanklin. Shanklin’s charred body was found inside the burned remains of his Kelso cabin.

The Sheriff’s investigation led him to a man who once lived with the Knapp’s in their Hazed Dell area home, Martin Stickle. Stickle was making his way through life as a fisherman working on the Cowlitz River. Growing up as the son of a former grist mill operator on Arkansas Creek, Stickle was ultimately convicted of murder by Judge A.L. Miller. However, there would be a catch.

Unlike Robert Day and Charles Assimus, Stickle was not sentenced to death and executed right away. For whatever reason, Sheriff A.F. Kirby decided he did not want to do the actual execution of Martin Stickle. Was this a friend of his? Were they related? Or did Kirby see how past executions affected the other Sheriff’s? That, we don’t know.

In an interesting political maneuver, Sheriff Kirby, according to Judge J.E. Stone, was able to convince Judge A.L. Miller to postpone the sentencing of Stickle until a new Sheriff took office. This would relieve him of the burden of killing the condemned man. Judge Miller agreed and the sentencing was postponed.

In January of 1901, Elmer Huntington was sworn in as Sheriff of Cowlitz County inheriting the unenviable job of executing Martin Sickles. Did Elmer Huntington know what he was getting into? Once again, we don’t know. We can only assume that since the murders and trial had already taken place that he did know. There was only one problem though; Elmer Huntington didn’t know how to hang a man.

Elmer Huntington deputized Kalama businessman J.M. “Pony” Bush to assist with the execution of Martin Stickle. Simply because, according to Leland Jackson, “Pony” Bush, had experience in hangings while living in the state of Arkansas. In addition, “Pony” Bush, is the only person around that knows how to tie a hangman’s noose. But with all of his “experience”, things don’t go according to plan. Reportedly there was a miscalculation somewhere in the planning and when Huntington pulled the lever, Stickle was nearly decapitated.

For Sheriff Huntington, there was no connection (that we know of) with Martin Stickle. Like Sheriff Watson, there was distance between him and the man he was tasked to kill making the task that much easier. Unfortunately, the same wouldn’t be true for what Ben Holmes must have faced nearly a decade earlier. By 1895, Ben Holmes had died from an apparent stroke at 54 years old. Undoubtedly Holmes was affected by the hanging of Robert Day but did that outcome play into his own death? Once again, we don’t know.

While at this point in history, we can only speculate as to how each hanging would have affected each Sheriff. After the State of Washington took over capitol punishment from the counties in 1904, two more Cowlitz County citizens were hanged after being convicted of murder sparing the County Sheriffs from having to deal with this perplexing situation. Clearly, based on what we know about the human mind and the difficulty a good person has in killing his fellow man, we know that it couldn’t have been easy for anyone, but obviously we can’t say for sure. Being a combat veteran myself and having been involved in a lethal force situation as a law enforcement officer, I can say that the actual decision to kill a man isn’t nearly as difficult as the aftermath of that decision.


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