Dead or alive – When a local war hero died mysteriously, vigilante justice was swift
One of the most storied cases of violent death in Nevada County history began with the murder of a war hero, followed by intense hysteria and culminating in the vigilante shooting death of a local eccentric.
There are still those living who remember the murder case and have strong opinions both for and against those involved. After 60 years, the debate still rages with no clear answers.
Scores of magazine articles – most with a sensational bent – have appeared through the years on the topic. At least two dramatizations have been written based on what has become known as the Wild Bill Ebaugh murder case. The latest, “Long Shadow,” begins today in Nevada City, where it is staged by the Foothill Theatre Company.
The facts of the case are clearly recorded and speak for themselves. Let’s take a look – you decide.
Dating from the great California Gold Rush of 1849, right up to the present day, the wild and rugged history of the Sierra Nevada gold country is liberally sprinkled with noteworthy cases of human slaughter.
From Mariposa County at the southern end of the gold country, to Sierra County on the north, stories of lynchings, saloon shootings and stabbings, murders by highwaymen and miscellaneous killings of all types and methods are faithfully recounted in volumes of gold era history.
Nevada County has recorded its share of tragic killings. But far and away, the most controversial case of double murder – and I choose to call it that – occurred Oct. 15 and Nov. 17, 1944.
First, Francis Henry Lewis, a 24-year-old decorated war veteran, was shot in the back by parties unknown while on a deer hunt near his father’s farm in the Willow Valley area of Nevada City.
Lewis, known to his friends as Henry, had been recently discharged after a tour of duty in the Pacific where he was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and the Presidential Unit Citation for bravery under fire – only to be slain by a single rifle shot.
For many years prior to Lewis’ death, William Ebaugh, a local eccentric and “a giant of a man” – he stood taller than 6 feet and weighed close to 300 pounds – was accused but never convicted of myriad crimes ranging from cattle rustling to rape.
The late Bob Paine described him as “Nevada County’s first hippie … He wore long flowing hair and a fierce beard … he was content to lead a hermit’s life.
“I knew Bill Ebaugh, but not well. He was called ‘the phantom of the foothills.'”
Ebaugh, 37, immediately became a suspect in Lewis’ murder.
He lived in the Willow Valley area where he spent much of his time. After Lewis’ murder, searchers found what has been described as “Ebaugh’s tunnel hideaway,” an abandoned mine tunnel concealed from view on a brushy slope of Deer Creek some 15 feet from the murder scene.
Inside they found articles of clothing, a huge stash of food, cooking utensils and other items indicating it was fitted out for long occupancy.
In 1928, a young Ebaugh was committed to Napa State Hospital as insane but later discharged after being pronounced cured. Some residents believed that his father had him declared insane because of his eccentricity, but this was never proven.
The Oct. 19, 1944, edition of The Morning Union reported the following:
-MANHUNT FOR SUSPECT IN LEWIS SLAYING FRUITLESS-
“Somewhere in the semi-wilds of the Willow Valley section presumably, the wanton slayer of Henry Lewis remained in hiding last night following a day of search and sifting of abundant clues.
“In the opinion of Sheriff C.J. Tobiassen, the finger of suspicion points directly at the dangerous recluse, William Ebaugh, who nearly a year ago fled from arrest on a cattle stealing charge. Previously, he had been at outs with the law. He is known as a crafty ad resourceful fugitive.”
The same day the above appeared, a military funeral was held in Nevada City for Francis Henry Lewis with Army Chaplain E.A. Powell officiating. Burial was in Pine Grove Cemetery at the top of Boulder Street. A salute of rifle fire rang out, after which a military bugler played “Taps” as Lewis’ coffin was lowered into the ground.
An inquest into Lewis’ death was held in Grass Valley on the day before the funeral with the verdict that: “Henry Lewis … came to his death … by means of a gun-shot wound inflicted upon him by criminal means, by a person or persons unknown.”
The coroner’s jury added, “In addition to the above we recommend that William Ebaugh be brought before the proper authority for questioning.” Ebaugh was never given that chance.
The presumption of Ebaugh’s guilt was so overwhelming in the minds of most in western Nevada County that a “bounty” was put on him. A committee of some two dozen citizens, headed by Nevada City resident Gove Celio, posted a reward of $300 for Ebaugh “dead or alive.” The advertisement appeared in this newspaper.
The hunt for Wild Bill Ebaugh, called the hermit of the hills, accused murderer of Francis Henry Lewis, ended abruptly on the front porch of his mountain cabin near White Cloud with a rifle shot:
Nov. 11, 1944, The Morning Union:
“William Ebaugh, wanted for the killing of Henry Lewis, 24 year old discharged war veteran on October 15 (1944), was killed in his mountain hideaway by Irvin Woodrow Davis yesterday morning. Davis fired at Ebaugh after making sure of his identity and killed him instantly.”
Vigilante justice or justifiable homicide? Davis claimed he shouted to Ebaugh and warned him that he was covered. The Morning Union reported that “Ebaugh whirled to gain the security of indoors and in so doing was facing into the gun. Davis fired, the bullet entering the breast just below the heart and going completely through the body. Ebaugh’s death was instantaneous.”
On Nov. 18, a coroner’s jury found that: “William Ebaugh … died as the result of a gunshot wound inflicted … by one Irvin W. Davis, in attempting by lawful ways and means to apprehend Ebaugh.”
The jury described the death as “justifiable and excusable.”
The controversy generated by this decision enraged some locals, who petitioned for a grand jury probe and asked the state attorney general to investigate. Attorney General Robert W. Kenny sent a deputy to look into all the facts surrounding the shooting of Ebaugh. After much additional wrangling, it was decided to let the coroner’s jury verdict stand.
Ebaugh was buried in the same Pine Grove Cemetery near the graves of his relatives. The Rev. Cedric Porter, rector of Trinity Episcopal church in Nevada City, conducted the services. A large gathering of women and a few men from the twin cities attended.
Bob Paine, a native and former Nevada City mayor who was stationed in Italy with the army at the time of both killings, occasionally talked about the Ebaugh case and one evening at a small dinner party, he posed: “Why was Hank Lewis murdered? I don’t know. Who shot Lewis in the back? I don’t know. I can’t be convinced in spite of all presumptions that Bill Ebaugh was the murderer.”
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