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Lawman shot Bakersfield bad boy.

Saloon tough Percy Douglas was acting tougher and tougher in January 1897. He was regularly making the rounds of Bakersfield drinking establishments, with a chip or 20 on his shoulders. Local lawmen knew that sooner or later it would come down to kill or be killed. It was sooner. On the 29th of that month, the California hard case got into an argument with Deputy Constable Edwin Willow and pulled out a six-shooter. Willow didn’t run and he didn’t weep. He fired first, filling his target with buckshot. “I’m sorry I had to kill Douglas,” Willow said in a newspaper interview afterward, “but the unpleasant task fell to me.”

Douglas had sunk a long way since his birth to well-to-do parents in Sutherland, England, in 1861. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1870 and settled in San Francisco for a time before moving to Kern County and investing in agricultural properties near Bakersfield. His family was prosperous and reputable, so Percy’s future seemed bright. But that was before the young man began hanging out in dimlit saloons, where he drank and gambled to excess and enjoyed a good brawl now and then.

The young denizen of Bakersfield’s tenderloin district was labeled a “bad character” by one Bakersfield newspaper. Taking offense at the label, Douglas threatened the editor with bodily harm and the destruction of his print shop. The editor stood by his words, and Douglas never followed through with his threats.

Douglas’ collisions with the law were minor until April 1886. Trouble had been brewing for a couple of weeks between him and another Bakersfield citizen, Natubo Quieras. It began one night at about 10 o’clock when a lady in distress ran up to Douglas and asked him for protection from the fellow chasing her. The fellow was Quieras, and when he caught up and tried to strike her, Douglas knocked him down with a hard punch. A rousing fistfight followed. Bystanders broke it up, but Quieras walked away, vowing vengeance.

Several days later, Quieras, with six-shooter in hand, approached Douglas, who was talking to acquaintances on a street corner. One version of the encounter had Douglas beating Quieras to the draw and both men firing several shots without effect. Another version had Douglas merely dodging bullets, with Quieras firing several poor shots at Douglas and one of Douglas’ acquaintances. Law officers arrested Quieras later that day, but the statements of witnesses were so conflicting and confusing that a magistrate dismissed all charges.

Quieras continued to boast that he would kill Douglas on sight. But on April 26, Douglas saw Quieras first and stepped from the doorway of a saloon to fire two shots at his opponent. The first shot struck Quieras in the forehead, killing him instantly; the second shot missed. One witness said that Quieras had time to draw his gun but that it got caught in a tear in his shirt. At Douglas’ murder trial, the jury deadlocked (11 members for acquittal and one for conviction). At a second trial, the jury convicted Douglas of manslaughter, and the judge sentenced him to two years in San Quentin.

Douglas, who entered the prison on August 26, 1886, was described as 25 years old, 5 feet 11 inches tall, with a light complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. He said he was a “laborer” and, for some reason, claimed he was born in Missouri. Released on April 21, 1888, Douglas began drifting—riding the rails about California, working odd jobs and making trouble. In the early hours of April 20, 1889, a brakeman tried to eject Douglas and a traveling companion, Robert Maxwell, from a train approaching Madera. Douglas quickly put a bullet in the brakeman’s neck, wounding him severely. Maxwell was later arrested and released since Douglas had been the shooter. A dragnet finally caught up with Douglas on September 10. Lodged in the Fresno County jail, Douglas claimed he was “William Sheldon,” but his true identity was soon confirmed.

Charged with assault with a deadly weapon with the intent to commit murder, Douglas had a strong defense team hired by his family—attorneys Patrick Reddy of San Francisco and John Ahern of Kern County. The case wound its way into the Fresno County Superior Court, where a trial began on January 13, 1890. The trial was hardfought, literally. During one session, Reddy and a witness named Welsh began exchanging punches, which prompted the defendant to show his stuff. Douglas dashed across the courtroom and knocked Welsh unconscious with one blow to the jaw. That incident didn’t help Douglas’ case, and the Bakersfield bad boy was found guilty on the 16th. The judge sentenced him to eight years in Folsom Prison, and all appeals were for naught.

Douglas entered Folsom on February 2, 1891, and almost immediately his family began working for early release. On November 7, 1893, California’s governor cut the sentence to four years, and on February 2 of the next year, Douglas was a free man once again. He returned to Bakersfield, where he committed minor offenses and became a thorn in the sides of local officers. He threatened to kill several of them, including Edwin Willow, who apparently had helped arrest him on one occasion. Not taking any chances, Willow began toting a shotgun.

On January 29, 1897, an intoxicated Douglas went to see a lady friend, Jessie Woods, at a Bakersfield rooming house. Jessie wasn’t home, and her roommate Annie Hicks didn’t want to let Douglas inside. Douglas was insistent, so Hicks asked a neighbor, W.H. Murphy, to come over and sit with her. Douglas didn’t like the arrangement and left, but he said he would be back. Hicks believed him and went to Deputy Constable Willow for protection. Willow waited at the rooming house for some time, but when Douglas didn’t show, he went out at the woman’s request to get her some candy. While the deputy was away, Douglas returned to the rooming house and again made Annie Hicks feel uncomfortable.

To get Douglas out of her apartment, Hicks went with him for a drink at a local saloon. As soon as her unwanted companion began chatting with friends, Hicks slipped out the back door and returned to her apartment. In the meantime, Willow consulted with Constable George Tibbet about Douglas, and they—along with several other deputies—went to the boarding house. Hicks told them she was still afraid, and that Douglas had also threatened “to do business with Willow.” The officers decided to post a guard in the room. Willow got the assignment, but first he had a meal and went to his hotel room to fetch his shotgun and his dog.

That night, the persistent Douglas returned to the boarding house and hammered on the door of his lady friend. Jessie Woods was still away, and Annie Hicks screamed: “My God! Here comes Percy!” Her trusty guard, Willow, picked up his shotgun and opened the door. The lawman told Douglas not to enter, but Douglas put a foot in the door before stepping back and reaching for his six-shooter. “Don’t draw your gun on me!” Willow told him, before firing his shotgun into Douglas’ chest, killing the former jailbird instantly. Hicks became hysterical, and Willow escorted her to a nearby saloon for a drink and some comforting.

A coroner’s jury found that Percy Douglas had died from gunshot wounds inflicted by a party or parties unknown. Later that night, though, Willow was arrested. He was not jailed. The sheriff allowed him to spend the night with a fellow deputy. In the morning, Willow pleaded not guilty and was released on $7,500 bond. At a hearing on February 13, 1897, Annie Hicks, her neighbor Murphy and others testified on behalf of Willow. At one point, the prosecution asked him, “You don’t suppose Percy Douglas wanted to shoot you?” Willow replied, “I certainly did.” All charges against the lawman were dismissed.

There was little that the Douglas family could do for the wayward son now except hold a funeral and bury him in the family plot in Bakersfield’s Union Cemetery. Willow and his fellow lawmen might not have gone to a local saloon to celebrate, but they were undoubtedly pleased that Percy Douglas was out of their hair once and for all.


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here