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Pinkerton Operative John Fraser Served Half a Century

By Corey Recko
5/15/2018 • Wild West Magazine

He worked on the Fountain murder case.

Historian C.L. Sonnichsen introduced Pinkerton operative J.C. Fraser to his readers during his coverage of the disappearance of Colonel Albert J. Fountain in Tularosa: Last of the Frontier West, first published in 1960. Sonnichsen gave no information on Fraser other then his involvement in the Fountain case, and neither have subsequent authors. What has not been told is the story of one of the Pinkerton’s most successful operatives.

John Conklin Fraser was born on March 31, 1860, to Scottish parents in Chicago. Fraser was employed variously as a plumber, printer and a telegraph clerk before taking the job that would change his life. In 1880 he was hired as an operative with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, headquarterd in Chicago.

Fraser made the most of his new job and advanced in the agency. Before the end of the 1880s, Fraser was transferred to the Denver branch office, where he became assistant superintendent. It was there in 1896 that the detective was assigned to the case for which he’s most remembered: to investigate the disappearance of Albert and Henry Fountain.

Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain was a prominent New Mexico Territory lawyer. Toward the end of January 1896, Fountain was in the town of Lincoln, serving as assistant prosecutor against cattle thieves. He left Lincoln on January 30 with his 8-yearold son Henry. On the third day of their journey home, father and son disappeared near the White Sands, a 275- square-mile area of gypsum on the road to Las Cruces.

New Mexico Territory citizens were outraged. To further complicate matters, the crime occurred in the jurisdiction of Doña Ana County Sheriff Guadalupe Ascarate. His right to the office was being contested in the courts because of allegations of fraud in the previous election. Ascarate was also said to be a puppet of Fountain’s powerful political rival, Albert B. Fall, and Ascarate’s deputies included Oliver Lee, William McNew, James Gililland, Joe Morgan and Jack Tucker, all suspects in the Fountains’ disappearance.

Governor William T. Thornton decided to bring in outside help, first in the form of Pat Garrett, a one-time Lincoln County sheriff best known for having killed Billy the Kid in Lincoln back in 1881. Next, Thornton, wanting a professional investigator, called on the Pinkertons, and Fraser was sent by the Denver office to southern New Mexico Territory in early March 1896.

On March 5, Fraser arrived in Las Cruces, where he conducted the bulk of his investigation. The atmosphere was tense, with residents afraid to talk too much about the Fountain case. “I find everybody very timid about here and for this reason my work is going to be very slow,” Fraser noted. “No one wishes to be connected with me or the case openly, so you can see from this how the feeling stands.”

The Pinkerton man kept at it, though, and wrote diarylike reports of his investigation. He took statements from people who implicated Lee, McNew, Gililland, Morgan and Tucker in the Fountains’ disappearance, though he found no direct evidence against them. The testimony seemed to indicate that two men shadowed the Fountains from Lincoln to Tularosa. From there, three different men picked up the trail and followed the Fountains to their death.

Fraser’s job was challenging enough, but it was made more so by the often difficult Pat Garrett. It was clear that Garrett, who would become sheriff, did not believe he needed the Pinkerton operative’s help. While the two didn’t openly fight, Garrett’s tendency to withhold information and lie hindered Fraser’s efforts.

Fraser stayed on the case for a month as planned. He wrote the governor, “You will see from my reports that it has been utterly impossible for me to complete this investigation in anything like a satisfactory manner, owing to the limited time.” A new operative was brought in to continue the investigation, but limited time was not the only problem, and the case progressed slowly.

Not until 1899 were Oliver Lee and James Gililland brought to trial for the murder of Henry Fountain (the Albert Fountain charges being saved for later). John Fraser was on the witness list for the prosecution but was unable to attend because he was on another case. On June 13, 1899, Lee and Gililland were found not guilty of the murder of young Henry. They were never tried for Albert Fountain’s murder and the Fountains’ bodies were never found.

A couple of years after his work on the Fountain case, Fraser, now superintendent of the Denver office, took a case that would again put him in the public eye. In November 1898, Samuel M. Findley, the tax collector for San Luis Obispo County, Calif., skipped town with about $12,000 of the county’s money. The Fidelity and Trust Company of Maryland, which insured the county, hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to find Findley. Fraser was the man in charge.

An important clue came in the first week of December 1898 when a package arrived from Mexico City containing the keys to the tax collector’s office and safe. Fraser now had a starting point. The operative left Denver on December 19 and went to Mexico City. From there, he followed the path of Findley south to Lima, Peru. Fraser arrested him on May 7, 1899, and the arrest made national news. Fraser became the darling of the San Luis Obispo papers after the arrest and during the trial.

When Findley was brought to trial, he pled not guilty by reason of insanity. To show that Findley was insane at the time of his flight, the defense called witnesses who testified to his strange behavior and excessive use of alcohol. Witnesses also testified to his being worried about overdrawing his account as tax collector. Testimony indicated that Findley took money from his account that he could not pay back and feared going to jail.

All the time, testimony and money spent on the trial of the tax collector went for naught. It produced a hung jury and would have to be done all over again the next year.

Testimony in the second Findley trial began on the second day of March 1900. This time the defense called more witnesses to prove Findley’s insanity. The additional witnesses did no good. Samuel Findley was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in San Quentin Penitentiary.

At some point in the coming decade, Fraser, who was married in 1890, split from his wife, Laura. John later remarried.

In 1906 Fraser was transferred to San Francisco and promoted to manager of the Pinkerton’s new Pacific Coast Division. He relocated to Los Angeles in 1916, where life appears to have been good for the detective. Along with their Los Angeles home, Fraser and his wife, Adeline, had a San Francisco home and a private chauffeur. He retired in 1933.

During his 53 years with the Pinkerton Agency, Fraser developed a reputation as a first-class detective. Though not much is left to document his personal life, his professional record details an impressive career. John C. Fraser was 78 when he died on July 25, 1938, five years after his retirement from the Pinkertons.

 

Corey Recko is the author of Murder on the White Sands: The Disappearance of Albert and Henry Fountain. He is interviewed on P. 12 of this issue. Also see www.coreyrecko.com.

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here

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