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In April 1891 members of the 4th U.S. Cavalry formed a well-disciplined vigilante force to avenge the killing of a fellow trooper.

Rancor swelled among members of Troop D, 4th U.S. Cavalry, at Fort Walla Walla, Washington, as one of their own, Private Emit L. Miller, lay dying in the post hospital on April 23, 1891. The previous evening, gambler A.J. Hunt had shot Miller at Rose’s saloon in town. Now, Sheriff J.M. McFarland had the suspect at Miller’s bedside. When Miller identified the gambler as his assailant, the contrite Hunt reportedly wept, but Miller’s comrades were in no mood to show mercy. While McFarland, a deputy and a notary public were taking Miller’s statement, an inebriated soldier walked up to the driver of the sheriff’s hack parked at the main gate of the post. The loud-mouthed soldier boasted that 50 cavalrymen were hidden beyond the gate, ready to ambush the party on its return to town. The driver informed McFarland, who wisely asked the post commander, Colonel Charles E. Compton, for an armed escort. Compton ordered the officer of the day and five members of the guard detachment to accompany the sheriff and his prisoner.

Soon after the sheriff’s party passed the gate, shadowy forms emerged from either side of the road. The hack halted, and the officer of the day, Captain Theodore Wint, asked what the men wanted. A spokesman demanded Hunt be turned over to them. Badly outnumbered, Wint told the driver to turn around and dash for the guardhouse. The driver complied, with the mob in close pursuit. Once safely inside, McFarland asked Compton whether the prisoner might be detained at the guardhouse until morning, but the colonel, anxious to avoid a confrontation on the post, offered a 25-man escort to accompany them back to town. Meantime, Compton assembled the garrison under arms, seeking to account for absent troops and their weapons.

The sheriff and larger escort party made it to Walla Walla without further incident, but tensions flared the next morning as word of the failed attempt to snatch the gambler spread throughout town. Many citizens speculated that Miller’s angry soldier friends would again try to get their hands on Hunt. As a precaution, McFarland deputized six additional men, all heavily armed, and posted them at the jail.

Vigilante groups were common enough in the Wild West. Behind a pretense of legality and claims to be acting for the greater good, they frequently banished or lynched (by hanging or shooting) ne’er-do-wells and criminals. Working-class and rural populations particularly advocated such rough justice. These generally upstanding people believed true justice was vested in the citizenry and was to be administered face to face with a commensurate measure of retribution.

Mob action, however, was not commonplace in the Regular Army, which emphasized strict discipline, adherence to the law and avoidance of involvement in civilian matters without specific authorization. What mob action existed among the Regulars can be distinguished from that of civilians by a subtle factor best described as “the honor of the cloth.” The military experience instilled in men a sense of group loyalty, such that an offense perpetrated by civilians against even a single soldier could spark a unified reaction by the troops. For example, at Fort Davis, Texas, in 1860 members of the 8th Infantry hanged a civilian who had murdered one of their comrades during a drunken row. In 1881 10th Cavalrymen at Fort Concho rebelled and shot up a local hotel in nearby San Angelo in reprisal for the senseless murder of a fellow trooper. Now, in typically serene Walla Walla in 1891, 4th Cavalrymen readied themselves for a collective response to a notorious act against a well-liked private.

On Wednesday evening, April 22, the amiable 32-year-old Private Miller and his friend Private Charles Cutter were sharing drinks in Rose’s saloon with Edward McGann, a recently retired soldier. Their conversation turned to the 1st Cavalry, in which Miller had served the first of his three enlistments. Overhearing the trio, Andrew J. Hunt, an elderly, usually soft-spoken gambler and longtime resident of Walla Walla, suddenly snarled, “All the soldiers of the 1st Cavalry were sons of bitches!” Miller quickly responded, “I was a 1st Cavalryman; I am one of them.” Miller then pushed the gambler aside, saying he wanted no trouble with him. “You will push me, you son of a bitch!” Hunt exclaimed, pulling a pistol from beneath his coat and shooting the trooper in the chest. Miller crumpled to the floor.

City police immediately arrived and arrested Hunt. The following day, County Attorney H.S. Blandford swore out a warrant against the gambler, who was subsequently turned over to Sheriff McFarland and transferred to the county jail. At about 7 p.m. Major Egon A. Koerper, the post surgeon, arrived to inform the sheriff that Miller was barely alive, paralyzed from the chest down and failing rapidly. Koerper recommended that if McFarland intended to obtain a deposition from the dying trooper, he should do it without delay. And so the sheriff, accompanied by the prisoner, a deputy and a notary public, headed to the fort hospital. Returning to jail with Hunt proved more difficult, and though the soldiers failed to derail due process that night, it seemed probable they would try again.

On Friday afternoon the 24th, the judge postponed a preliminary hearing after Hunt convinced him the key defense witness had left town for a few days. Surprisingly, townspeople found soldiers on the streets in a jocular mood, though that may have been a ruse to dispel rumors of an imminent attack on the jail. Seeking to reduce tensions, Sheriff McFarland and County Attorney Blandford asked Colonel Compton to restrict the entire garrison to the post that night. The colonel declined, reasoning that such an order would be nearly impossible to enforce.

That cool moonlit night was deceptively peaceful in Walla Walla. The troops had been surreptitiously laying a plan with military precision, and at a given signal they cut the telephone line connecting the fort with the town. Then, as if on the drill field, a column of some 200 soldiers quickly and without spoken orders quick-timed into the town square and cordoned off the courthouse. A second detachment filed inside the picket fence to form a concentric interior barrier. Other soldiers, armed with carbines, took up stations at street intersections on the corners of the square. These guards peremptorily ordered civilian curiosity-seekers to keep their distance. All this activity electrified the townspeople, who poured out of saloons, stores and homes to see what was happening. When one group boldly attempted to cross the street to the courthouse, the sentries brought their carbines to the ready, saying, “You don’t wear the right kind of clothes.” The citizens prudently backed down.

Within minutes the soldiers had secured the courthouse. At about 9 o’clock a separate assault force approached the front door of the jail, on the subfloor beneath the main stairs of the stately brick courthouse. For the five officers inside the jail, the first intimation that anything was amiss was the sound of footsteps on the stone pavement outside, quickly followed by loud beating on the door. A voice commanded the sheriff to open up; they wanted Hunt. When McFarland refused, the soldiers threatened, “We’ll blow it in!”

McFarland was inclined to comply, but Deputy George Thomas suggested the deputies hold off the intruders with their Winchesters while McFarland and Hunt make their escape up an interior stairway to the courthouse. At that juncture, the soldiers tried to force the door, one of them shouting, “We’ll kill every son of a bitch in the building.” The sheriff implored the soldiers to reconsider, protesting that Hunt would get a fair trial. His words had no effect. Just after the guards fell back to the cellblock for desperate defense, the soldiers set off a loud explosion outside and repeated their threat to blow up the courthouse with dynamite.

McFarland’s nerve failed, and he unlocked the heavy door. Fifteen or 20 soldiers, some wearing masks, shoved their way in, sticking revolvers in the faces of the lawmen. The intruders found Deputies N.F. Colt and Thomas Mosgrove in the anteroom, disarmed them and ushered them outside at gunpoint. Several soldiers held McFarland by his arms and pushed him ahead into the cellblock corridor. He pleaded with the other deputies, concealed in an empty cell, “Drop your guns, boys, I’m powerless; you’ll kill me if you shoot.” When the deputies complied, the vigilante leader ordered the sheriff to point out the cell occupied by Hunt.

The soldiers secured the keys, opened the heavy wooden door and dragged the prisoner outside. All the while Hunt remained silent except to mutter, “I guess my time has come.” As the mob emerged from beneath the overarching stairs leading to the main floor of the courthouse, one of the soldiers shoved the gambler into the yard. A gunshot cracked, and Hunt collapsed facedown. Dozens of other soldiers immediately ran up and fired their guns either into his body or into the air for effect. A fusillade of perhaps 100 shots reverberated across the town.

The incident lasted only a few minutes. As quickly and as silently as they had assembled, the soldiers vanished into the darkness. A few citizens warily approached the body lying on the courthouse lawn. Bending closer, someone struck a match, revealing Hunt’s bullet-riddled corpse. There was no need to summon a doctor.

Meanwhile, aware of the commotion in town, Colonel Compton considered sounding “assembly” to conduct a roll call of the garrison, but strangely enough, the trumpeters had all vanished. By tattoo, the mandatory bedtime roll call, all of the men were back on post. Two reporters from the Walla Walla Daily Union arrived shortly thereafter but were unable to locate any enlisted men, all said to be “in bed and not get-at-able.”

As Saturday the 25th dawned, men, women and children congregated on the courthouse lawn to hear the latest versions of the previous night’s events. The central attraction was the macabre bloodstain on the grass. Noticeably absent were uniformed soldiers, though on the streets later that day townspeople recognized perhaps 100 troopers, dressed in civilian clothing. Residents concluded they were out to gauge public reaction to the killing.

Meanwhile, the coroner held an inquest on Hunt’s body. The doctor in charge, W.E. Russell, determined the gambler’s death had resulted from no less than 16 bullet wounds, eight or nine of which were in the head. At that, some wounds were so close together that Russell could not ascertain exactly how many bullets had actually struck Hunt. Moreover, someone had crushed the skull at the left temple, presumably with the butt of a carbine. The inquest confirmed the obvious; Hunt had died of “gunshot wounds by the hands of a mob, supposed to be soldiers, as they were dressed in Army uniform, but to us unknown.” The mortician placed Hunt’s grisly remains on public display through Monday afternoon and then had the body buried in the city cemetery. Members of Walla Walla’s gambling establishment took up a collection to cover the expenses.

Post surgeon Koerper last spoke with Private Miller at about 10 o’clock on Monday morning the 27th; soon thereafter the soldier drifted into unconsciousness and died. His funeral, with full military honors, took place the following afternoon. The 4th Cavalry band, playing a dirge, led the procession to the post cemetery, followed by an escort of eight privates from Miller’s troop, the chaplain and the surgeon. Behind the hearse were six pallbearers from Troop D and another member leading Miller’s horse, bedecked with full equipment and boots reversed in the stirrups. The rest of Miller’s troop followed, and behind them came the other three companies that rounded out the Walla Walla garrison. Bringing up the rear was a large contingent of townspeople who came to pay their respects. After a brief service, Miller’s remains were consigned to the grave, over which the escort fired the traditional volleys.

Reaction to the lynching was immediate. In a newspaper article published the day after Hunt’s execution, County Attorney Blandford openly accused Colonel Compton of criminal negligence for not restricting his men to the garrison. Public sentiment initially supported Blandford’s charge and then turned in favor of the troops. “There is unanimity of feeling among the citizens,” stated The Spokane Review, “that the soldiers did a good thing…but [they] ought not to have done it. Private Miller’s murder was cowardly and sneaking, and the soldiers are proverbial for the defense of their comrades. A resort to methods of violence in any community is proof patent of the distrust of the regular machinery provided by the state for the punishment of criminals.” The editor opined that Blandford’s censure of Compton was ill timed and hoped the affair would be allowed to simply die out.

But it was too late for that. Blandford had already gone through his political connections to notify President Benjamin Harrison, who happened to be on the West Coast. Harrison fired off a telegram to Secretary of War Redfield Proctor, directing him to order a court of inquiry into the matter. That responsibility ultimately fell to Brig. Gen. Thomas H. Ruger, newly installed commander of the Division of the Pacific, headquartered at San Francisco. Ruger dispatched his inspector general, Lt. Col. Samuel S. Sumner, to Fort Walla Walla, where he arrived on April 26.

Sumner tried to determine the facts of the incident, meeting that day with Compton, Blandford, McFarland and Superior Court Judge William H. Upton. He spent Monday the 27th interviewing citizens who had witnessed various aspects of the event, branding it a “heinous crime.” Sumner concluded that a court of inquiry was warranted and should be convened quickly. State newspapers had already picked up the story. The Spokane Register for example, opined, “It [is] a serious state of affairs when citizens living under the shadow of the guns of the United States army are in more danger from enlisted men than from criminal classes.”

Although most of the town’s populace may have agreed with the principle of that assessment, there was, surprisingly, growing sentiment favoring the soldiers. Petitions circulated requesting the mayor and city council clean up Walla Walla by closing the gambling dens and enforcing an existing ordinance that required saloons to close on Sundays. A newspaper announced, “The citizens seem to blame the cause of the recent unlawful acts to…these dens of infamy.”

On Wednesday, Upton, confident that some members of the garrison would turn state’s evidence in return for immunity from prosecution, ordered the county’s first grand jury to convene. Charging the jury to determine whether or not a murder had been committed and, if so, by whom, Upton concluded by imposing on members the responsibility for telling the world whether “Walla Walla is a place where the law is impartially enforced or a community where lawlessness and mob violence are supreme.”

That same day the sheriff made his first arrest in the case— Private Bernhard Mueller, a 26-year-old German immigrant who was nearing the end of his enlistment. Over the 10 days the grand jury remained in session, it subpoenaed the testimony of 17 citizens and more than 50 soldiers. Although the jury had difficulty obtaining useful evidence from the enlisted men, it eventually handed up an indictment against six other troopers. Arrested and confined in the county jail were Privates Charles A. Cutter, who had accompanied Miller to the saloon; Patrick McMenamin; Thomas Clinton; James Evans; and brothers Charles and Joseph Trumpower.

Compton, meanwhile, had been working on his own to ferret out the perpetrators. Under the increased pressure, six 4th Cavalrymen deserted in mid-May, another on June 6. Fourteen more would go over the hill in July. Of the 64 soldiers who deserted the regiment in 1891, 45 belonged to the four troops stationed at Fort Walla Walla. How many of those desertions were directly attributable to the lynching incident has never been determined but probably totaled no fewer than 15.

The trial opened on June 18, with local attorneys George F. Thompson and Thomas H. Brents representing the accused soldiers. Counsel attempted to have the case dismissed, as the men technically were not residents of Walla Walla County but rather resided on a U.S. reservation outside of county jurisdiction. Judge Upton peremptorily overruled the motion. Private McMenamin subsequently requested and was granted a separate trial, probably because witnesses could place him elsewhere on the night of the 24th.

Indicative of local partisanship was the necessity for three venires to finally impanel a jury. Most prospective jurors either admitted to bias in the case or claimed opposition to capital punishment. Thompson’s defense strategy in the charge of murder against the defendants was simply that “the state could not prove that the men charged with the crime were guilty.”

The case for the prosecution began to unravel the following day with the testimony of principal witness Sheriff McFarland. After stating that all six soldiers (excluding McMenamin) were present the night of Hunt’s murder, the sheriff admitted under cross-examination by Thompson that the first time he had actually recognized them was when he served subpoenas; he had afterward speculated to the county attorney that those served were probably among the mob. The sheriff further admitted that, contrary to statements on the documents, he had not personally served the subpoenas but had presented them to Colonel Compton. Therefore, he had not even seen the accused men at that time, and he had taken no steps before serving subpoenas to ascertain who did the shooting. Those subpoenas, certified by the sheriff as correct, were the undoing of the state’s case. Although the prosecution now objected to their introduction, Upton again overruled. Some 90 witnesses then swore the accused men were elsewhere on the night of the crime. One even testified that McFarland had admitted on April 27 his inability to identify any of the soldiers involved because they all looked alike in uniform.

The trial was to reconvene at 9:30 on the morning of June 20, but the courtroom was packed to capacity an hour earlier. Thompson and Brent spent an hour eloquently presenting their closing arguments, followed by Blandford for the prosecution. Upton then delivered careful instructions to the jury for another hour before excusing it for deliberation. The jury returned just 10 minutes later and rendered a verdict of not guilty for all six men. When Upton released the men, according to one account, “the large audience assembled began loud applause…stamping feet and throwing hats up to the ceiling.” After the judge restored order and joined in the congratulations, Blandford moved to dismiss the charges against McMenamin, prompting another joyous outburst from the crowd. The defendants remained in the courtroom an hour afterward, “shaking hands and receiving hearty congratulations from their many friends.”

The ordeal did not end on that celebratory note, however. The Army had not yet completed its investigation. As soon as the citizens went off to celebrate at the saloons, the six soldiers were again arrested, this time by the provost guard, and whisked off in an ambulance to the post guardhouse, where they would await trial by court-martial. The accused were transported to Fort Sherman, Idaho, probably to remove the proceedings from the charged atmosphere at Fort Walla Walla. At the conclusion of the trial in September, two of the accused, James Evans and Charles Trumpower, were found guilty of infractions of military law. Also convicted was Corporal Clarence Arnold, who had not been named in the civil indictment. All three men were dishonorably discharged from the service. Private Cutter was also dishonorably discharged, and more than a year later, apparently on an unrelated charge, Bernhard Mueller was discharged “without character” (less than honorable). McMenamin, who apparently had his fill of Army life, took advantage of an 1890 act permitting soldiers to apply for early discharge after having served for less than three years. Private Thomas Clinton, an old soldier, apparently emerged with no stain on his record and retired in 1896, during his seventh enlistment.

Concurrent with the trial of the enlisted men was a courtmartial for Colonel Compton, who was placed under house arrest on July 15. Proceedings began the next day, the charge being neglect of duty for not preventing the men under his command from committing a mutinous and seditious act. The indictment further specified that Compton failed to take reasonable precautions to control his subordinates or sufficient measures to apprehend the perpetrators. Eight days later, the court found Compton guilty and sentenced him to suspension of rank and command on half pay for two years. When the sentence became effective on January 1, 1892, the colonel journeyed to Chicago to sit out the embarrassment. However, a year later Compton’s three decades of faithful service and two brevets for distinguished actions in combat influenced the new secretary of war, Stephen B. Elkins, to remit the remainder of his sentence and restore him to command of the 4th U.S. Cavalry.

By any measure, the Walla Walla lynching was a black eye for the U.S. Army, in particular the 4th Cavalry, a regiment that had built an enviable reputation during the Indian campaigns. The townspeople may have chosen to turn a blind eye to Hunt’s murder as a message to the gambling element, as well as to preserve good relations with their primary economic benefactor, the military garrison. The Army’s high command, however, was not so forgiving. Especially culpable were the traditionally faithful noncommissioned officers, who almost certainly knew about the plot to execute Hunt, yet did nothing to prevent it. Some noncoms even went so far as to cover for the perpetrators. Brigadier General August V. Kautz, in whose department the crime had occurred, branded it “an unparalleled event in our military service, for which there can be no palliation.…An act so manifestly unlawful has never been seen in our military service.” As reprehensible a the Walla Walla lynching was, the enlisted men of the garrison demonstrated solidarity by never divulging the identities of those involved. Soldier justice and soldier loyalty to each other, for better or worse, had prevailed.


Doug McChristian is a retired research historian who served 35 years with the National Park Service, including stints at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (Montana), Fort Davis National Historic Site (Texas) and Fort Laramie National Historic Site (Wyoming). He is the author of a half dozen books about the Army in the West, the latest being Fort Laramie: Military Bastion of the High Plains (The Arthur H. Clark Company, an imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2009). Suggested for further reading: Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874–1947, by Michael J. Pfeifer. The author thanks Herrick Heitman (Washington State Library, Olympia) and William Huntington (Penrose Library, Whitman College, Walla Walla) for their assistance with preparing this article.

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here