It was New Year’s Eve 1904, when 84-year-old miner, George Dunn was found dead in his isolated cabin near Patrick Creek, along the Smith River. Doctors who examined his body said the crime was committed earlier in the week.
Dunn, a well known miner was reputed to be quite wealthy. Described as a genial Irishman and who for years kept a store along the lonely Crescent City-Grants Pass stage road had been beaten to death.
Within 48-hours, two men were arrested in connection with Dunn’s murder. The prisoners were in the vicinity of Dunn’s cabin about the time he came to his death and were without funds. However, when arrested they all had money and moreover had spent a lot at a roadhouse.
Initially, a third man was arrested with Brown and Kelley but was released after it was learned he was not associated with the pair. A fourth person was sought as well, but it was later found out that this person didn’t exist.
Harry Brown and Thomas Kelly went before Del Norte County Justice Barry January 5, 1905, but on motion of the Prosecuting Attorney their examination was postponed, owing to the absence of a witness. Sheriff George Crawford feared a lynch mob was preparing to descend upon the jail according to the San Francisco Call, because “feelings were running high” as Dunn was well liked by his neighbors.
Three days later Brown and Kelley confessed that on the night of December 29 they took the life of George Dunn. The confession was first wrung from Brown by Sheriff Crawford, who, by cleverly playing upon his fears that his partner in crime was about to turn state’s evidence, induced the youthful but hardened murderer to tell the story of the awful crime.
Only once did Brown falter in his bloody tale, and then his hesitation was not due to any feeling for Dunn, whose life he had helped to take. He faltered because he did not know for a certain whether his confession would earn him’ the reward of the cowardly informer, usually immunity from the death penalty.’
He hesitated long enough to ask if he or his partner in crime was to be benefited by the confession. When assured by Crawford that he would “get all that was coming to him” he breathed a sigh of relief and went on with his tale of cowardly, treacherous murder.
Armed with the ‘facts’ from Brown, part of whose conversation had been overheard by Kelley, purposely placed in an adjoining cell, Crawford paid a visit to the latter. He found Kelley pacing his cell in a frenzy, fearful of the consequences following Brown’s confession.
“What’s the matter with that fellow?” Kelley cried before Crawford could enter his cell, adding, “Is he getting cold feet? Is he turning state’s evidence?”
Cursing and swearing, Kelley paced his cell, occasionally stopping to shake his fist in the direction of Brown. Eventually, the strain became too great, and finally he called out, “Bring me an attorney and I will tell the whole story.”
Quickly Crawford summoned District Attorney F. W. Taft, and within a short time Kelley gave to the two the story of the brutal murder of Dunn at the hands of himself and Brown. His story was even more complete than that told by Brown.
Kelley said Dunn’s murder was planned in Waldo, Oregon, two days before it was committed. The pair was forced to leave Waldo by police, so they decided to head for northern California.
Their aim was Dunn’s cabin and store. Brown first suggested visiting Dunn, who he had ‘heard rumors that the old fellow had gold galore hidden in the store.’
Apparently, Kelley was as anxious as Brown. The two young men stopped at the Monumental mine, where they picked up the club with which Dunn was eventually beaten.
The two knew Dunn would fight if provoked, so they decided Kelley would insult him, while Brown waited for a chance to strike. But their plans were nearly thrown off course.
At Dunn’s they met two men in search of work. The strangers delayed their plan, but they were able to get rid of them by sending them to the Monumental mine claiming work could be found there.
Once the strangers were gone, Kelley rapped at Dunn’s door, whereupon the storekeeper told him to enter. Once inside Kelley, grew scared by ‘the stalwart figure of the Irishman,’ but a gesture from Brown stirred him to action, and he raised his hand, shoving Dunn against the counter.
“That’s your game, is it?” Dunn reportedly shouted.
As Dunn regained his balance, and facing his assailant, he rushed Kelley, who jumped to one side. Brown took a step forward and brought the club down on Dunn’s head, driving the old man to the floor.
Dunn struggled to get up, but another blow soon stretched him out on the floor. Again and again the club fell, and soon Dunn’s head was crushed and bleeding.
“Get an ax,” cried Brown to Kelley.
Kelley did as he was told, and when he returned, Brown ordered him to use it on the helpless and dying form.
“I didn’t hit him hard,” Kelley whined during his confession.
Then Brown took the ax from Kelley and with a single blow nearly severed Dunn’s head from his body. Kelley and Brown then searched the store, where they found a watch and an unknown amount of money.
A month later, because of a warning given by the fellow prisoners a jailer was able to frustrate Brown’s plans to escape. Brown intended to make a break, for freedom after braining the turnkey with a stick of wood he had secreted in his cell.
Brown claimed to have a home and relatives in Humboldt County, while Kelley said his parents lived Chehalis, Washington. He also claimed to have an uncle named Felgate, who is employed at the San Francisco Mint.
Both Brown and Kelly caused a sensation in court January 17th when they entered pleas of not guilty and demanded separate trials. Kelley’s trial was set for February 5th, with Brown to be tried at Kelley trial was finished.
The following month, Dunn’s mining claim was appropriated by L. W. Higgins, a Crescent City miner, said he had a right to the property on technical grounds. Higgins claimed that while Dunn “had mined the claim for the last thirty years he did not fulfill all the requirements prescribed by law.”
Whether Higgins succeeded in taking ownership of Dunn’s mine, remains unknown. “The many friends of Dunn are indignant over the affair and declare that as a matter of justice,” reports the San Francisco Call, “they will see that Higgins is removed from the claim he has jumped on Patrick Creek.”
In a short trial, Kelley was found guilty and sentenced to San Quentin for life. A few weeks later, Brown was convicted and ordered to hang.
But while also at San Quentin, Brown would not go quietly.
On April 28th, three guards had to be fired by Warden Tompkins. Their dismissal gave rise to the rumors that they were terminated because of their refusal to enter the prison walls without arms. Rumors also surfaced that they were discharged for smuggling opium into the prison.
The Warden refused to divulge the identity of the three men he fired, stating however, that “they were discharged for insubordination.” State records show that the men in question were Benjamin Merritt, D. E. Wiley and Frederick Hall.
Wiley and Hall were ordered by the Warden to subject John Bush, a second-termer from San Francisco, to punishment in the straitjacket for attempting to escape from one of the ‘incorrigible cells.’ The guards refused ‘because the work was distasteful to them, and for their refusal to do it they were discharged.’
According to records, Merritt had been on watch over the ‘incorrigibles.’ The Warden felt that guards detailed on that watch should sleep in quarters near the incorrigible cells, where they could be within call in the event of an outbreak.
Merritt had slept at his home, located jus’ outside the walls and refused to take his quarters in the prison. The Warden then offered him another post, but Merritt refused to accept the new position and left the prison’s employ.
The ‘incorrigibles’ were particularly unruly during this time period and included “Jack” Ortega, John Bush, Harry Hammill, George Hyde, Arthur Odell, Robert Garner, Bert Short and Brown. The men shrieked, howled, cursed and kicked the doors of their cells.
Threats had no effect on them, until the Warden had them transported to the stone front cells in the yard and threatened to blast the big prison horn into their new cells, if they didn’t behave. This had the desired effect.
Following the Supreme Court upholding his death sentence, on the morning of September 7th, 1906, Brown ascended the scaffold at 10:30. The murderer of George Dunn was dead within twelve minutes from the time the trap was sprung, going to his death without a word.