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Lake County feud ended with double murder by masked men

Even today, after 135 years, the lawless era of vigilantes and rustlers and six-gun justice meted out by “Judge Lynch” is evoked by the words on an old Klamath Falls tombstone: “Murdered by Masked Assassins, June 24, 1882.”

The entrance to the Linkville Pioneer Cemetery, a photograph taken for the cemetery’s application to the National Register of Historic Places. (Image: NRHP)

In the old Linkville Cemetery in Klamath Falls, if you should find yourself wandering through reading headstones, you just might stumble across one near the east entrance that features the most startling epitaph you’re ever likely to read:

LEE and JOE, Children of H.C. & M.T. LAWS,” it reads, “murdered by masked assassins. June 24, 1882; Aged 19 Years; Aged 15 Years.”

The gravestone is a relic of a grim and dark time in Oregon, and the Western range country in general — a time of rustlers and vigilantes, of six-gun justice and lynch mobs. It all took place so long ago that documentation is often scant, and what remains is usually slanted in favor of the side of the argument that won (or survived).

This cryptic gravestone is the only physical evidence remaining of a short but hot family feud that left four dead and several more wounded — a sort of condensed frontier Oregon version of the Hatfield-McCoy wars.

It started with a man named Henry C. Laws, who, in the late 1870s, was the leader of an outfit called The Bonanza Regulators — a gang, essentially, dedicated to keeping newcomers and outsiders from grazing their livestock on the federally owned rangeland in western Lake and eastern Klamath counties, which the Regulators wanted to use exclusively for their own herds.

This map accompanies a walking tour of the Linkville Pioneer Cemetery; it includes the location of the Laws gravestone, as well as several others that mark the final resting places of victims of the 1880s range wars. (Image: Klamath County Historical Society) (Click image to see full-size brochure and details on the Oregon Heritage Exchange Website; if the link is dead, click here to access the backup copy.)

But it wasn’t outsiders that Laws was destined to have trouble with; it was other locals — specifically, William Calavan (sometimes spelled Callaghan) and his sons. Calavan, one day, found what he thought were his own cattle in Laws’ herd, and moved to take possession on the spot. Laws reacted by grabbing a club and letting Calavan have it, causing a lasting injury (although of what type I haven’t been able to learn).

After that, tensions between the two families grew steadily until finally, one day in late winter of 1882, Laws, driving a herd of cattle up a path in the snow, met Calavan’s two sons, Frank and Jimmie, on horseback. The two lads refused to move off the path to let the horses through. Words were exchanged, then angry shouts, and, finally, hot lead.

It’s not clear who started the shooting. Both sides, of course, blamed the other. But when the gunsmoke had cleared, Henry Laws had been shot in the calf, Jimmy’s horse had been shot out from under him, and 15-year-old Frank Calavan had taken a bullet somewhere important. He made it home on his horse, where he died shortly after his brother arrived on foot.

Laws was arrested, of course, and taken to Alturas, Calif., for possible prosecution. But from the very start, there was a good deal of confusion as to who had jurisdiction; the crime had happened almost right smack on the state line between Oregon and California, and of course neither state was eager to go to the trouble and expense of doing another state’s legal duty. California, having been handed the opportunity to make the first ruling, predictably decided it had happened in Oregon, and sent the case packing northward.

A month later, in March, a preliminary hearing was scheduled in the town of Linkville — which today is known as Klamath Falls — to sort through this and other questions. Linkville having no dedicated Hall of Justice back in 1882, the hearing was to be held in a hotel — referred to in various sources as the Linkville Hotel, the Greenman Hotel and the Lakeside Inn.

Whatever the hotel’s name was, it soon proved its inadequacy as a holding facility for accused murderers. That night, a gang of about 18 masked men slipped into the lobby with cocked shotguns in their hands.

Rumors of the gang’s plans had preceded them, and the sheriff had put out the call for locals to defend Laws from the lynchers; the hotel was full of armed defenders. When the masked men stepped into the lobby with drawn guns, they got the drop on everyone in the room; but the presence of so many men with guns in the lobby seems to have unnerved the lynching party considerably.

“Where is Laws? Someone show us Laws,” barked the leader of the gang, according to the recollections of Linkville resident Rufus Moore, one of the defenders, 40 years later. Turning to a young boy, he repeated his demand: “Take this candle and show us to Laws.” But the boy stood petrified with fear, apparently unable to move.

So the leader took the candle in one hand and his gun in the other and started up the stairs. And that’s when someone opened fire on him from the top of the stairs, obviously aiming at the candle.

“The leader backed away from the doorway and said, ‘Stand your ground, boys,’” Moore recalled. “But his men all stampeded and several shots rang out in the room. The concussion extinguished all the lights. I heard a man cry, ‘Oh!’ followed by a sound like running water. It was blood, we later learned.”

It was indeed blood. The gunshots had been accidental discharges; when the panicked lynch-mob members had broken and run, many of them had forgotten the cocked heaters dangling from their trigger fingers. Several of them actually dropped their weapons in their panic, and the impact when it hit the floor set off at least one shotgun — it was found on the floor with one barrel fired and the other at full cock. And apparently its full load of shot had, by sheer bad luck, hit Deputy Sheriff J.F. Lewis in the leg. The close-range blast had torn away Lewis’s femoral artery. In seconds his body had drained itself of blood and left him dead on the floor.

Now in full panic-stricken retreat, the would-be lynch mob members were racing for their horses, their shotguns lying forgotten on the floor of the hotel behind them or dangling forgotten (but still cocked) from their hands. Several more accidental discharges resulted, including one that removed a hat and a shock of red hair from one of the mob members and another that slightly wounded the local justice of the peace, William A. Wright. But no one ever figured out who any of the masked men were.

The next day the hearing was held, as scheduled. But because young Frank Calavan had been shot in a gunfight, it wasn’t high on the court’s priority list; in that violent age, getting shot in a gun duel barely even counted as a killing, and it was only because of the victim’s young age that it was being investigated at all. Predictibly, it was decided that the case was really California’s after all, and California having already decided that it was Oregon’s, that was effectively an end to the case.

Only, of course, it wasn’t really the end.

The real end would come three months later. Henry Laws’ two sons were out in a pasture near their cabin, butchering a steer. They had a quarter of beef hanging on a tree near a wagon to haul it, and both of them were standing in the wagon cutting up the meat when the rimrock above and behind them started crackling with rifle fire.

Lee Laws went down like a stone, shot through the heart. Joe Laws, the younger brother, took cover behind the wagon; atop the rimrock he could see the horsemen, masks over their faces, Winchesters at their shoulders. “You would shoot a boy, you cowards!” he screamed at them.

Bullets were flying all around him, breaking spokes off the wagon wheels and kicking up puffs of dirt by his feet. Then one of them shattered his leg.

After that, the masked riders rode away. A third boy, also named Henry Laws (probably a third brother, although that isn’t clear) hurried out of the cabin and brought the badly crippled Joe in to do what he could.

Joe, as you will have guessed from the message on the tombstone, subsequently died of his injuries. Their father, Henry C. Laws, heard about the murders during a trip to Ashland for supplies, when he stopped at a settlement along the way. He sent word for his family to join him there, and they shook the dust of their old homestead from their feet — never returning again.

As for the Calavans, they apparently left the area as well; nothing further is heard about them.

But someone must have remained behind who cared about the Laws boys enough to carve that dramatic epitaph on their shared headstone.

(Sources: Klamath Falls Evening Herald, 7-06-1923 and 1-11-1941; National Register of Historic Places application for Linkview Pioneer Cemetery; Klamath Falls Herald and News, 5-19-2012; conversation with author/historian Kerby Jackson)