Keno Wilson
  • Keno Wilson
  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

As he cradled his brother in his arms, Keno Wilson howled for help in the fog-shrouded darkness. John Murray had ridden up and shot Charley point blank in the chest. Charley wouldn’t stop bleeding.

Two lanterns bobbed in from the night: Lewis Rideout and Robert Porter. Once Keno’s eyes adjusted to the glare, Charley was a black pool.

“It was Murray!”

The men ran to wake up Oceanside. Shouts echoed. Lights flickered like fireflies. Boots thumped the wooden sidewalk and crunched the dirt on Cleveland Street. Dr. Harrison E. Stroud came up and froze. He saw “so much blood pouring out of the windpipe,” there was no question. Charley was dead.

A posse formed. They were after a 23-year-old male, five-foot-eight, brown hair — long on top, close-cropped on the sides — and small, restless eyes. He wore a brown coat, blue overalls, and “number 4’s,” low-heeled cowboy boots. He had a .44 caliber Smith & Wesson. Last seen on a wounded horse hobbling east up Third.

By sunrise, rumor spread that Murray now had a good horse, a Winchester rifle, two revolvers, and ammunition. Someone helped him get away.

Marshal Charles Wilson died shortly after midnight, July 4, 1889. Instead of celebrating Independence Day, Oceanside looked like a war zone. Flags flew at half-mast; armed men, “all fearfully in earnest,” picked up supplies and headed out.

“Long before nine o’clock,” wrote the Los Angeles Times correspondent, “every saddle-horse available was in demand, and almost every man that could do duty was out in search of the murderer.”

Those unable to join the hunt provided guns and mounts. “The whole county is up in arms; every pass over the line is guarded, and if he is hiding in the mountains he must come out for something to eat or ammunition.”

That day, 12 men came from Fallbrook, 5 from Escondido, 4 from Encinitas, 5 from Elsinore. The Los Angeles Police Department sent its famous bloodhounds on a special southbound train. Marshal George T. Insley flagged it down near Santa Ana. He loaded his horse onto an express car and told the engineer to “highball it” to Oceanside.

“I verily believe they will not bring Murray back alive,” wrote the Times correspondent, “such is the indignation of the people.”

By that afternoon, the County Board of Supervisors offered a $500 reward “dead or alive.” By the next morning, other donations bumped it to $1300.

Keno and his brother James led the official manhunt. They went to Ben Hubbard’s ranch in the San Luis Rey Valley. Ben was Murray’s uncle. He hadn’t seen Murray, he said. When the Wilsons returned several hours later, Ben said Murray stopped by, “got his breakfast and was gone again.”

There was no thought of abetting a fugitive: Murray was Ben’s kin, true, but he was also armed and acting antsy. The Wilsons posted guards at Ben’s.

John Henry Myers climbed to an overlook of the San Luis Rey Valley. Through field glasses he saw someone resembling Murray “walking up the hill back of [Ben] Hubbard’s ranch,” to the north, “and carrying something in his hand.”

When news reached the Wilsons, Keno and James tramped down circles of grass on Richard O’Neill’s Santa Margarita Ranch. No trace. Throughout the search, wrote the South Oceanside Diamond, the Wilsons were “on the chase night and day, and have scarcely taken time to eat or sleep.”

On Saturday, county sheriff Sam McDowell rode an express train to Oceanside with 12 men “armed to the teeth” — Springfield rifles, revolvers, shotguns — “and breathing revenge at every step.” Just as a dozen others joined them at the depot, word came that Murray reached the Santa Rosa Mountains way to the east. Telegrams to Poway and Temecula: Comb the Santa Rosas! Get Pala Indian scouts to help!

If Murray got that far, wrote the Times, “his capture would be next to impossible.”

Murray never made it to the Santa Rosas. At 9:00 p.m., July 8, a rider galloped into Oceanside: Murray’s at “Old John” Griffin’s place in the San Luis Rey Valley, seven miles away. Keno organized a posse. As he rode off, people could tell that Murray would not return alive.

Thomas Weller, a deputy constable — and the San Diego City (dog) Poundmaster — was in Oceanside at the time. Fearing vigilante justice, he sent a telegram to police chief Joseph Coyne: Murray sighted. “Terrible excitement. Send men at once. Meet team on Poway Road. Parties leaving to catch and lynch him.”

Coyne assembled a posse and rode north to stop lawmen — official, deputized, and self-appointed — from breaking the law.

After breakfast at his uncle’s on July 4, Murray climbed a hill and ducked under the Santa Margarita Ranch fence. He hid out four days and four nights. He only saw two people the whole time: Keno and his brother, smashing down tall grass. Murray ran out of food and water. The summer sun blazed down. The rumor said he was heavily armed. No. He only had one cartridge left.

At dusk on July 8, he crept to “old man” Griffin’s near Mission San Luis Rey. He hid in a grove of eucalyptus trees, then snuck up the hill to the barn.

Griffin was in the vineyard, finishing his chores. Charley Saylor, one of his hands, ran up: “Murray’s in the stable. Go see!”

Saylor burst into the house, made a frantic search for a weapon: Murray once had threatened his life.

Griffin walked up the hill to the barn. He peered into the darkness. Saw nothing, at first, then a rail-thin, trembling shadow. “Who are you, anyway?” Griffin asked. No answer. He stepped inside.

He recognized Murray. “Hello, John. What’re you doing here? Where you been?”

“Oh, nothing much,” the red-eyed Murray replied, his right hand on his pistol. “I been at O’Neill’s pasture, over by the windmill.”

“Lot of people looking for you.” By then, at least 100, one of the largest manhunts in county history, for one of the biggest rewards. Murray coiled his fingers on the Smith & Wesson.

Young Keno: Part 1 | < href="">Part 3

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Sign in to comment

Join our
newsletter list

Enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe

Each newsletter subscription
means another chance to win!