The two Yoakum brothers featured in the following article were
second cousins, twice removed, of Jesse Ray Yocum, the patriarch of the
Yocum Gang, active in Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas in the first
half of the 19th century.
True West, Gold Rush Correspondent -- By Harold L. Edwards -- November 1992 -- Page #44-47.
Wherever men searched for gold, disputes over conflicting mining claims occurred. Interested parties arbitrated some of them, courts decided others, and gunfire settled some more. The last was the case in Tom Long in 1878 when assailants waiting behind some rocks gunned down Hamilton Tucker and William Johnston on the Long Tom Granite Station road.
Hamilton Tucker was a native of Missouri, but in the late 1860s he migrated to California where he married Harriett Stokes of Visalia. Harriett was the daughter of Yancey Stokes, a prominent and wealthy pioneer of Tulare County. The newlyweds moved to Bakersfield, where, in 1870, they resided next door to Tucker's brother, Ambrose, and his wife and child. Hamilton Tucker's home also included his sister, Sarah, and his mother, Anna. Within a short time, Sarah Tucker married Henry Burdett. The Tucker brothers were both miners, and with Burdett they hoped to do well in the industry.
Hamilton Tucker filed a mining claim near Long Tom. A short time later he and Burdett formed a joint venture and opened the original Long Tom mine on the property. They also expanded their mining interests beyond the Long Tom mine to other properties in the area. The future for Tucker and his family, which now included children Thomas, Frank, and Della, looked secure and prosperous.
In the meantime, William and Thomas Yoakum became interested in the same mining properties as Tucker and Burdett. Their father was Isaac Yoakum of Oakland, California. Years before, Isaac drove a herd of cattle from Knoxville, Missouri, to Alameda County, California. He liked California and elected to stay. In time he became prosperous and influential, and by 1870 he was a leader in the community. Isaac Yoakum financed his sons’ adventures and thus had an interest in their prospecting and mining ventures. Yoakum’s financial power and influence would have a bearing on his sons later.
Soon after the Yoakum brothers arrived in Long Tom they openly clashed with Tucker and Burdett over mining properties that both factions claimed. Both parties initiated lawsuits against the other. Several court battles ensued, with the Yoakum brothers losing most of them. Bitter feelings arose, and the continuing contest became known as the "Long Tom Feud."
Curiously, the first hostile move in the "feud" came during the week of April 15, 1873, in an unrelated case. A George Davis rented a barn in Bakersfield from Sarah Burdett to use as a residence. He lived in the building about six months. While Henry Burdett was out of town, Davis decided to move out of the barn, and in order to leave the building cleaner than when he occupied it, he asked William Yoakum to clean up the property. Yoakum was working on the property when Mrs. Burdett approached him and ordered him off the premises. She said she did not want the building cleaned as she was going to use it as a "hen-house."
Yoakum responded by saying that he wasn’t leaving, and that he had as much right on the property as anyone else because he was given permission to be there by the party who rented the barn. Mrs. Burdett grew more persistent and finally Yoakum lifted her bodily and carried her from the property.
Only Mrs. Burdett’s vanity was injured; however, she initiated a charge against Yoakum for assault with intent to injure. Yoakum was arrested, and his trial was held the last week of April. A jury found Yoakum innocent, and Henry Burdett, who had returned to Bakersfield, said he was satisfied with the results of the trail. However, the incident further aggravated the situation between Tucker and Burdett and the Yoakum brothers.
As bitter feelings grew, someone attempted to shoot Burdett one night as he sat by the window in his home reading a newspaper. Believing he had no defense against such tactics, Burdett left town for a time. His departure didn’t lessen the tension between Tucker and the Yoakum brothers, however, and the men on both sides armed themselves with repeating rifles. The situation became explosive.
Finally, in 1877, William Johnston, a miner whom the Yoakums had hired to help them with their properties, deserted them and joined Hamilton Tucker in what the Yoakum brothers described as "claim-jumping" of Yoakum properties. Johnston’s actions constituted the proverbial last straw as far as the Yoakum brothers were concerned, and the feud came into the open.
On the morning of April 13, 1878, Hamilton Tucker was driving a horse drawn wagon toward Long Tom on the Long Tom-Granite Station road. Harriett sat on the seat beside him, holding a baby in her arms, and his other children stood on the floorboards. William Johnston drove a following wagon, and Sarah Burdett sat on the seat beside him. Both men had been expecting trouble from the Yoakum brothers, and they were armed for defense. However, they did not expect trouble while they had the women and children with them.
Suddenly, about a half-mile from Long Tom, three shots came from behind some nearby boulders. One shot toppled Johnston from his wagon seat on the road. He struggled to his feet muttering, "I am shot!" Johnston walked to the rear of his wagon, dropped to the road, and died. Shot through his head, Tucker was knocked from his wagon-seat and died instantly. The assassins were excellent shots as the women and children were untouched during the shooting.
Stunned by the events, Sarah Burdett jumped from her wagon to calm the frightened horses, and didn’t see who shot at them. Harriett Tucker, perhaps exhibiting more courage than sense, laid her baby down and ran to the rocks to see who was shooting at them. Rounding the boulders she observed two men with weapons walking rapidly toward a nearby cabin from the direction of the rocks. She recognized the men as William and Thomas Yoakum, and she knew they had fired the fatal shots at Johnston and her husband.
James Bernard, James Webb, and an F. Langford, working nearby, heard the shots and the women’s screams and rushed to the murder scene. They found Tucker and Johnston in the roadway where they had fallen. They helped transport the murdered men, the women, and the children into Long Tom and made arrangements to notify Coroner A.A. Mix and Sheriff William Bower in Bakersfield of the killings.
Mix and Bower arrived in Long Tom the following day, and a coroner’s inquest was held over the bodies. Harriett Tucker testified that she saw the Yoakum brothers walking away from the murder scene with weapons in their hands, and she identified them even to the clothing they were wearing. The other parties testified as to what they saw and heard, and coroner’s jury found that Tucker and Johnston died by gunshot wounds inflicted by William and Thomas Yoakum. Coroner Mix ordered that the Yoakum brothers be arrested for murder.
The following day the Yoakum brothers were arrested. Community feelings ran high against them, and lynching was a real threat. The arresting officers, aware of the danger, made all haste in transporting the prisoners to the jail in Bakersfield.
Two murder charges were pressed against William, and one charge of aiding and abetting a murder was lodged against Thomas. Both men were arraigned and ordered held without bail. The prisoners denied the charges and said that they could prove they were not in the Long Tom area the day of the shootings. Nevertheless, their preliminary hearings found sufficient evidence for felony trials. Bail was denied, and both men were held in jail pending trail.
Almost immediately after the Yoakum brothers were arrested, their family in Alameda County retained the legal services of prominent San Francisco criminal attorney Alexander Campbell,, Sr.; E.E. Calhoun of Bakersfield also helped with the defense. Attorney George Otis aided Kern County District Attorney James W. Freeman in the prosecution. After the preliminary hearing on April 18, the Yoakum family hired one of California’s most colorful and noted attorneys to head the defense team. He was David S. Terry of Stockton.
Terry was a former California supreme court justice, but he was known for more than his prowess as a lawyer. Years before, he had shot and killed Senator David Broderick in a duel, which ended his career as a public official. Later, Terry would himself be shot and killed by Deputy United States Marshal David Neagle during an altercation at Lathrop Station near Stockton. Terry arrived in Bakersfield with fanfare and took charge of the Yoakum cases.
Bakersfield judge and attorney P.T. Colby joined Terry’s team. That move aggravated public hostility towards the Yoakum brothers. Many believed it was a conflict of interest for Colby to be on the defense team as he was sitting judge and had represented the Yoakum brothers in their legal bouts with Tucker. Nevertheless, Colby remained on the team.
Terry moved for a change of venue, stating that public feeling against the Yoakums made it impossible to secure a fair trial in Kern County. The motion was denied and William Yoakum stood trail for the murder of Hamilton Tucker. After a spirited contest, a jury found Yoakum not guilty. The public did not welcome the verdict, and lynching became the topic of the day.
By July 1878 William Yoakum was still in jail pending trail for Johnston’s murder, and Thomas Yoakum was still in jail awaiting his trail. On July 4, Sheriff Bower received a quite word from an informer that soon a mob would break into the jail and lynch the prisoners. At first Bower gave little credence to the warning; however, as the day wore on he observed knots of quiet men standing on the streets, and the lawman realized he was in serious trouble. Within sight of spectators, Sheriff Bower brought in four deputies armed with shotguns. He also passed word along the streets that he and his men would defend the prisoners to the end.
In the meantime, one of the deputies suggested that they get the prisoners out of the jail by the back way and to a safe place before the mob became organized. However, Bower knew it was too late for such action; he and his officers would have to sit and wait. The prisoners were also scared, and they asked the sheriff to arm them for their own protection. However, the sheriff’s threats to prospective mob members apparently succeeded as the night passed without incident.
William Yoakum’s second trail started on January 13, 1879. After ten days of testimony a jury found the prisoner guilty of murder on the first ballot. A curious incident occurred while the jury deliberated. Defense attorney Colby walked into the jury room without warning. He did not remain in the room when he saw the jurymen, but turned about immediately and left the chamber. If his tactic was to secure a mistrial, Colby failed. Instead, when the jurymen reported his intrusion to the court the judge ordered the process to continue and a charge of jury tampering lodged against Colby. In the end, Colby convinced the judge that he was looking for someone else and accidentally entered the jury room as he did not know the jury was there. The charge against him was dismissed. William Yoakum was subsequently sentenced to execution by hanging.
Terry immediately appealed the sentence to the California supreme court with a motion that a new trail be conducted in another county. The supreme court granted Terry’s motion, and Fresno County, about one hundred miles north of Bakersfield, was selected as the site for the new trail. The supreme court’s decision was not popular in Kern County.
On February 27, 1879, the editor of the Bakersfield Courier-Californian complimented the citizens of Bakersfield for allowing the law to take its course. The comment, of course, referred to continued hostility against the Yoakum brothers and frustration over the court process. However, the editor spoke too soon.
On Wednesday, May 28, 1879, after midnight, jailer George Reed heard persistent knocking on the courthouse front door. He left the jail area and went to the door. Without opening it, he asked who was there and what was wanted. A speaker responded that he wanted to see a man named Ownsby. Reed replied that Ownsby was not in the building. The speaker asked Reed to open the door so they could talk, but Reed refused. At that point a number of men battered the door open and confronted Reed with drawn guns before he could retreat.
Masked mob members marched Reed back into the jail, and quickly searched the building. They located Deputy Sheriff William H. Coons sleeping in another part of the building and took him to the jail. While the mob held Reed and Coons prisoners, they asked Reed which cells the Yoakums were in. Reed told them and begged the mob not to harm the other prisoners. Mob members advised Reed that they were interested only in the Yoakum brothers. Curiously, Reed later refused to the vigilantes where he had hidden the keys to the Yoakums’ cell. However, a quick search of the office revealed the keys, and while Reed and Coons were held in the jail office the mob went into the jail’s holding area.
In the meantime, Sheriff Bower and J.A. Jastro, a prominent Bakersfield citizen, drove by the jail on their way to their homes after a meeting. They had no intention of stopping at the jail, but as they drove, masked men approached them from the dark, leveled guns on them, and held them prisoner.
The Vigilantes, carrying ropes, entered the prisoner’ cells. As leg chains secured the prisoners to the cell floors, the mob did not escort them from the jail to the nearest tree. Instead, they tied one end of the ropes to the window bars above the top cross-brace, looped the other end around the prisoners’ necks, and let their victims drop. The prisoners strangled to death. Before the mob left, members fired several shots from pistols and shotguns into the suspended bodies. The shots alone would have been fatal. After the shooting, the mob released their prisoners, Brower, Jastro, Coons, and Reed, and disappeared into the night. The bodies of William and Thomas Yoakum were left hanging in their cells.
Bower and his deputies took down the Yoakums’ bodies and transported them to a mortuary. From there they were released to the Yoakum family, taken to Alameda County, and buried in the Oakland Cemetery. A coroner’s jury found that both men died of strangulation by hanging by parties unknown to the jury. The vigilantes’ identities were never determined. Rumors held that several women were in the mob and that two of them were Harriett Tucker and Sarah Burdett, but such was not the case. Jailer Reed thought they were some seventy-five men in the lynch mob; however, Coons thought the number to be considerably less.
In any event, the lynching went off without a hitch. The Yoakum brothers had the best court defense money could buy, but in the end the citizens of Kern County superceded the courts and saw to it that William and Thomas Yoakum paid the supreme price for the ambush at Long Tom.
True West, Gold Rush Correspondent -- By Harold L. Edwards -- November 1992 -- Page #44-47.