100 Years Ago, Manhunt for Drifter Galvanized Area

After learning of the assault on 17-year-old Myrtle Huff, local men search for her assailant, and Sheriff Ruddock sends out a posse. Part 3 in a series.

The story so far: On the night of Sunday, Dec. 15, 1912, a stranger attacks two teenage sisters who went outside to check on their pet dog. He ties the younger girl to a fence post, then drags the older one to a haystack behind the barn.

What follows has been drawn from a number of accounts, including a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times two days after the assault, as well as an entire issue of James Sleeper's San Joaquin Gazette dedicated to the infamous attack and subsequent gun battle.

A key to the illustration accompanying this story and the previous installment can be accessed here. 

In the darkness of the December night, 13-year-old Jessie Huff worked desperately to free herself from the rope binding her to a fence post.

None of the accounts mention if Jessie had been gagged. The man had warned both girls not to scream, and he’d fired his gun into the ground to let them know he "meant business." Given the omnipresent yips of the area's not-so-distant coyotes, however, securing the terrified girl some 50 yards from her Uncle William’s home may have seemed sufficient.

Whatever the case, Jessie did manage to work her way loose, then ran shrieking to the home of her uncle and aunt.

Upon learning of Myrtle’s predicament, William Cook headed immediately toward the barn. He was stopped by two bullets coming from the direction of the haystack, as well as rough language telling him to stay away.

At that point, a gun battle might have ensued except for one astonishing fact: Despite living on a remote farm, Cook did not own any firearms. And as was the case with so many farmers and ranchers of that period, he also did not have a telephone.

TO THE RESCUE Accounts differ as to what happened next. The San Joaquin Gazette states that Cook "jumped on a horse and raced to his brother’s place. Here they got the latter’s automobile and drove around to neighbors and told them of the assault." Another report has Cook riding off to an unspecified neighbor’s home and starting a chain of communication that would reach the sheriff’s office in Santa Ana, eight miles away.

Yet another version says Cook set about alerting his own hired help, who by that time would’ve been dozing off or already asleep in the bunkhouse.

This seems a more likely course of action. For one thing, his hired men—among them, 27-year-old Al Prater—did have guns. For another, Cook, Prater, or one of the other men then could have gone for additional help while the others went to rescue Myrtle.  

Whatever steps were taken, and however long the men took, by the time they arrived at the Cook farm, Myrtle was back inside her uncle and aunt’s home, and the assailant had disappeared into the night.

The Gazette cites one newspaper reporting—melodramatically, but with possible veracity—that by the time Cook and his neighbors returned, "the scoundrel had accomplished his criminal designs and was gone."

Later that week Santa Ana's Evening Blade would assure readers that "Dr. Gordon [a prominent local physician] disclosed the fact that the girl was not injured in the slightest by the attempt of the bandit to ravish her."

Given the times, however, it’s possible the good doctor’s statement was influenced by then-current social standards that tended to view rape victims as "damaged goods," irrevocably marked for life. Additionally, Dr. Gordon may have taken into consideration the fact that several newspapers had published Myrtle’s name, thereby making it incumbent on him to quash as much speculation as possible.

But whatever happened or didn't happen, the manhunt was definitely on.

CONFRONTATION AND A THREAT As soon as possible, a call had been placed from Myford (now Old Town Irvine) to Santa Ana Sheriff Charles E. Ruddock. Ruddock quickly dispatched a posse, headed by Undersheriff Robert Squires, to assist the farmers and Myford townspeople already searching the fields, lanterns in hand, for signs of the stranger’s getaway. 

By 2 a.m. unusual hobnailed-boot tracks, identified as having been made by the stranger, were found leading into the foothills. The search was called off until daylight.

But whatever sleep the stranger snatched that night was purposely cut short before sunrise as he made his way down to the lights of the nearest ranch.

That was Ed Chambers’ place, not far from what Sleeper describes as a "brush-choked gulch" known as Tomato Springs. Pulling his gun on Chambers’ startled Japanese cook, the stranger demanded breakfast. Then, after quickly gulping down what was provided, he turned back toward the high ground, but not before issuing the following warning: 

"They will be after me, but I’ll kill all of them ... and then go back and kill the girls' folks."


Next up: The stranger reappears, and the gunfight begins.


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