THE CALIFORNIA WHITE CAP MURDERS
Synopsis by: Bill Wink
"The California White Cap Murders”
A book by: Helen Rocca Goss
"In the year of 1890, at the roadside saloon known as 'Campers Retreat', that evening, business was anything but brisk due to the social event of the year. Everyone in the neighborhood had gone to Middletown, which left the saloon that was usually noisy and crowded silent and empty. There were only three people in the retreat, the proprietor, J. W. Riche, his wife and their bartender, Fred Bennett. To while away the hours Mrs. Riche and Bennett decided to play a few games of cards, while Mr. Riche settled himself as onlooker. About nine o'clock the front door was flung open and a masked man entered the room."
Attending the political festivities, the “gala candidate’s ball” in Middletown, that particular night were law enforcement officers; Sheriff Gawn Moore, his deputy, Sheriff A. H. Spurr, District Attorney M. S. Sayre, and Constable J. W. Ransdell.
In 1890, Middletown was a stage stop for travelers going on to Lower Lake or northwest to Lakeport as well as to the many hot springs dotted around the area. Middletown was the main center of commerce for the surrounding farms and ranches and it was a mining town. The mines of greatest interest regarding this event were, the Bradford (later the Mirabel), the Bullion and the Great Western (or Western Mine). These mines were all South of Middletown, the Bradford being the farthest south, then the Bullion and closest to Middletown, the Great Western, with only about a mile and a half separating the two farthest apart.
LAKE COUNTY HOUSE CURRENTLY AT THE CORNER OF CALISTOGA ST AND HWY 175
Also south of Middletown, on the Calistoga Middletown road, and about a mile north of the Bradford was the "Camper's Retreat". Why the name, I have no clue, because it was apparently a place for miners to go and blow off steam? A miner could drink grog, play cards and I suppose lose a little money and it must have gotten a little rowdy occasionally as employed as a bouncer bartender at this establishment was the afore mentioned Fred Bennett.
The diabolical plot that night was to wear hoods, flog Bennett with a cat of nine tails, tar and feather him and escort him to the county line and order him to never set foot in the county again. This plan was formulated against Bennett because the men involved disliked Bennett for various reasons including the fact "Bennett had thrashed several of them and they all hated him." C. E. Blackburn, who was accused of forming the original idea, had confronted Bennett previously over a mining boundary claim and had been thrashed by Bennett. W. R. McGuire was mad at the Riches over the Riche's cows wandering into his pasture.
"For a split second Riche thought it was some person taking advantage of everybody being away to the ball to come after the money. But in the next instant at least five or six more masked men jumped in after him, with rifles, shotguns, pistols and so on. Riche thinking he recognized one of the men, then believed the whole thing a joke or a pre-Halloween prank, and he playfully slapped the man on the cheek as he laughingly said "You Can't Scare Me". The bullet that immediately whizzed past his head convinced him that there was no joke about it. Mrs. Riche's reaction had been to rush up to one of the men and pull the mask off his face. Riche grabbed his wife and tried to get in front to protect her, but one of the men pushed her down and there came a volley of shots. Riche made an effort to help his wife, as he did he could see that she had been shot several times, in the chest and side."
Mrs. Riche suffered four days before succumbing to her wounds. Mr. Riche passed a short time later. W.R. McGuire died in the melee at the Retreat. There was great public sympathy for the Riches and deep concern over Mrs. Riche's murder. Her funeral was one of the largest witnessed in Middletown, according to the Calistogian, of Oct. 15, 1890.
THE "CAMPERS' RETREAT," WHERE THE WHITE CAPS SHOT MR. RICHE AND MURDERED HIS WIFE
Lakeport Democrat of Oct. 17, 1890, said the Campers Retreat had a hard name and that Bennett was a bruiser as many could testify. The Democrat had to praise Mrs. Riche, remarking that the woman was brave to the last. She tore the mask from the face of one or two and thus gave a clue to the guilty parties.
It should be noted first that they, the White Caps, were not outlaws or desperados but just plain ordinary people, most of them were well known in Middletown or at the neighboring mines. At the time of the raid most of them were employees of the Bradford Mine, although one Charles Osgood had worked for the Napa Consolidate (or Oat Hill) and Great Western Mines.
The White Cap’s ring leaders were W. R. McGuire and C. E. Blackburn. McGuire was shot and killed in the confusion on the fateful night and Blackburn was sentenced to twenty five years in San Quentin for his part. Three others found guilty were B. F. Staley (20 years), Charles Osgood (12 years) and Robert Cradwick (20 years). Four other members of the “White Caps” had charges dismissed for turning states evidence. Those recipients were Charles Evans, A.E. Bichard, J. Archer and Henry Arkarro. Charges were dropped against defendants Martin and Lund.
So why the title?
“About the year of 1885, groups of lawless bands which had as their purpose the regulation of the manners and morals of the residents of the area, sprang up in the southern part of the state of Indiana. During the next ten to fifteen years, these white cap bands as they were called, spread thru out the rest of Indiana and eventually spread to neighboring states as well. The relation between the California incident and the organized white cap bands of the Middle West is one of spirit and by example only. There is no evidence that any member of the South Lake County band had ever belonged to the white cap organization elsewhere. But there is little doubt that the raid on the Campers Retreat near Middletown was inspired by news accounts of the white cap raids in other states. The group never gave themselves the name 'White Cap', of themselves or their organization. It was others who gave them that name.”
The murders achieved national prominence because of the issue of their hoods and then current events.
Turns out Riche was not the name of our victims but rather it was Thompson and they were debtors from England and during this time, debtors went to prison in England.
The author of the book, "The California White Cap Murders", Helen Rocca Goss was the youngest daughter of Andrew and Mary Rocca whose final resting place is the Middletown Cemetery
At the time of the murders, Andrew Rocca, Mrs. Goss's father, was the Superintendent of the Western Mine and was a very influential man in Middletown as well as around Lake County and appears to have been known and respected around the State.
THE GREAT WESTERN MINE
Do to his influence and familiarity with the circumstances Mr. Rocca was appointed as an Assistant District Attorney and helped with the prosecution of those charged with the Riche's murder.
Mr. Rocca was also appointed executor of the Thompson's estate and began trying to settle their debts.
This is the envelope and a letter sent to Mrs. Sherrington, London England, regarding the indebtedness of the Thompson's estate.
(Because of new information I have realized the intended recipient of this letter was Helen’s mother but she probably never saw it as she died around this date.)
Bill Wink © February 12, 2016
This was the end of the story, however, it no longer is.
Thanks to the gift of a new book titled; Sheringtons A History © 2014 by: Geoffrey Edgar Sherington and Bruce Banfield Sherington both of Australia, which I received from one generous Mark Shephard (who is a relative of the authors) of England we now know more about the victims of the California White Cap Murders.
THEY CAME FOR GOLD AND GOT LEAD
We know the couple who died, as a result of the attack on the Camper’s Retreat by the White Caps, last name didn’t represent who they really were. It was divulged by Ms. Goss in her book they were not J. W. and Mrs. Riche as most thought but their last name was Thompson and they were from England.
Well now we have learned his name was Steve Thompson and she was Helen Thompson, born Sherington, and was fondly called “Nellie” by the family. She was born around 1853 and had two brothers and two sisters. Nellie was the 2nd youngest and the younger was a brother.
Her mother and father were Charles and Mary Sherington and her siblings were; William Charles, (Mary) Jane, Anne (Annie) and the youngest Charles.
Steve and Helen left England for North America suddenly in late 1882 or early 1883. Sister Annie heard from Helen in late 1883 and learned where she was and in a letter dated 1884 they were in Kansas City, Missouri.
Accompanying Steve and Helen in the U.S. was Helen’s younger brother Charlie (Charles) Sherington.
By 1887 Steve and Helen could be found in Lake County, California running the Camper’s Retreat.
Charlie stayed in the Midwest but by 1888, Helen’s oldest brother, William Charles Sherington, joined her and Steve in Middletown.
William Charles sought and found work in the quicksilver mines and personally referenced the Bullion Mine. Because of his work William Charles was familiar with some of those accused of murdering his sister. It was written that he was with those he knew just prior to the incident and in a letter to his brother in-law had said he had told Steve and Helen to get rid of Bennett dozens of times. (Hindsight says it was unfortunate Steve didn’t listen.)
William Charles wrote of his sister Helen and her husband Steve, “they came for gold and got lead.”
William Charles died in San Francisco in 1897 apparently a broke and broken man.
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© 2017 Bill Wink, Mark Shephard, Geoffrey Edgar Sherington & Bruce Banfield Sherington
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