A true story about a frontier sheriff who pays more than the ultimate price when he is caught between the lawlessness of the Old West and the rise of 20th century justice.
The discovery of gold generated the bulk of lawlessness that made the West wild and the Colt six-shooter often more powerful than any law book stored on a shelf. Between 1850 and 1890, approximately 20,000 men were killed in gunfights, an all-too-frequent method for settling disputes. Sheriffs could at-will declare a renegade desperado as “bearing the wolf’s head,” thereby granting permission to kill on sight as they would a wild animal. Translation: Wanted Dead or Alive, legal rights optional.
Sheriffs were usually elected to office, although occasionally appointed. Previous law enforcement experience was not required, but both job and life depended heavily on being a quick study. Entrusted to tackle vice and all manifestations of disorder, the frontier sheriff relied on personal prowess, gut instinct, steady nerves, and recurrent strokes of ingenuity. He also had to be amply skilled with a sidearm, proficient with horses, and able to round up a posse in swift fashion. Some were certainly more capable than others, and more than a few succumbed to bribery and other corrupt enticements. Still, history attests the majority stood firm and stalwart in their oaths to protect and serve. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, these often forgotten lawmen served at the forefront of converting unruly encampments into civilized municipalities. With constantly evolving duties, they fought and cajoled, jailed and punished, sacrificed and bled for the common good.
And some, like Tom Logan, lost their lives in the line of duty.
Dealing with rowdy miners, drunken gamblers, and even Wild West legends like Wyatt Earp was a routine part of the job for onetime Nye County Sheriff Thomas Logan.
Born on May 29, 1861, in Franktown, NV, Logan was the eldest of seven children. His father built the first hotel on Lake Tahoe in 1863. When that enterprise failed to prosper, he chased fortune from one Nevada boomtown to another until settling in Moapa Valley around 1871. There Tom Logan married Hannah Hamblin in 1883. They would have eight children. During the next 20 years, Logan gained status as a rancher, saloon owner, and peacekeeper.
First elected Nye County, NV sheriff the fall of 1898, Logan found himself caught between the lawlessness of the Old West and the rise of 20th century justice. His story is the subject of a newly released book by Cable Publishing titled: LOGAN: The Honorable Life and Scandalous Death of a Western Lawman. The author, Jackie Boor, first began collecting information about her great-grandfather following a 1985 family reunion in Belmont, NV, where she first heard varying accounts about how he had died.
“Some claimed he had been ambushed escorting a prisoner through the desert,” Boor recalls. “Other thought he was caught in the crossfire between two warring miners. The version closet to the truth described him coming to the aid of a barmaid being manhandled by a gambler who shot him for interfering.”
Based on eye witnessed accounts transcribed in court records, on April 7, 1906, Sheriff Logan did what he had done countless times—eject an unruly patron from a sporting resort. However, on that pre-dawn morning in Manhattan, NV, the hot-tempered gambler turned on the sheriff, who was unarmed and dressed only in a nightshirt. Walter Barieau shot Logan five times before the sheriff wrestled him to the ground where he stopped the piano player from shooting his assailant in the head before he died.
Charged with murdering one of the most popular lawmen of the day, Barieau was later acquitted—an outcome that has perplexed many for more than a century. The lead counsel was a seasoned litigator from Michigan named Stephen Flynn and his co-counsel was young Patrick McCarran. Destined to become one of Nevada’s most prominent U.S. Senators, McCarran frequently referenced what he called the “The McCarran Miracle” as being instrumental in his rise to political power. Flynn committed suicide less than three years after the trial.
Many other notable figures who played a role in shaping early Nevada history add to the intrigue of the Sherriff Logan story, such as Jim Butler, Jack Longstreet, Tasker Oddie, John Sparks, Judge Peter Breen, “Diamondfield Jack” Davis, the Pittman brothers, and George Wingfield—the man McCarran’s daughter told the author she believed had Logan killed.
With nearly 100 photos and maps, and more than a dozen period poems, “LOGAN is Nevada history at its best,” says Nevada historian Guy Rocha, “(Boor’s) rigorous research and engaging writing underscore her personal odyssey to find the truth for generations of her family confused and haunted by Logan’s controversial and untimely demise.”
“I’m frequently asked,” says Boor, who has a book signing on September 20 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washingto, DC, “if this was a quest to get justice for my great-grandfather. Honestly, it never felt that way. I wanted to do justice to his story, which meant exposing the flaws along with the accolades.”
LOGAN is dedicated to the families and descendants of fallen peace officers. On May 28, 2011, more than a century after Logan was killed in the line of duty, Nye County Sheriff Tony DeMeo posthumously awarded him the Medal of Valor and Purple Heart.
INTRODUCTION to LOGAN
My grandmother, Hazel Margaret Logan Barton, rarely mentioned her father other than to say he had been a sheriff in Nevada and was shot to death in 1906. The fourth of Sheriff Thomas Logan’s eight children, she was 14 at the time. When Hazel married a miner from Maine in 1914, they boarded a train for Oregon that very day. She never returned to Nevada except to attend her mother’s funeral in 1942. My grandmother died in 1974. We’ll never know how much she knew about her father’s death, his killer, or the controversial murder trial that set him free.
One of Hazel’s daughters, Bethany, was my mother and the seventh of eleven siblings who grew to adulthood conveying a variety of scenarios under which they thought their grandfather had been killed: He was ambushed escorting a prisoner to jail; he was struck by an errant bullet when a gunfight broke out between warring miners; he was shot in the back by a highwayman who had wrestled away his gun; or he had been summoned to the aid of a woman fending off a disorderly gambler with a short fuse and a fully-loaded pistol.
Raised in northern California, I was unfamiliar with any of these narratives until 1985 when, at the age of 33, I attended my first Logan Family reunion in Central Nevada. What I knew then about our history wouldn’t fill the back of a postcard, and I was anxious to learn more. About 30 aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom were meeting for the first time, set up camp within the gritty folds of the high desert ghost town of Belmont, about 50 miles northeast of Tonopah, the Nye County seat. Some were in motorhomes, others in travel trailers, and a few, like me, my mother, and two-year-old son, roughed it in tents. An uncle constructed a makeshift outhouse and gravity shower. The weather was scorching hot but breezy, meals were potluck classics, the music country, the yarns enthralling, and the favorite watering hole, Dirty Dick’s Saloon, stayed open late. Also invited to the reunion was the nephew of my great-grandfather’s killer, who added his version of what happened that blood-soaked morning at the Jewel—making it impossible for me to know what to believe.
One afternoon, I wandered a short distance from camp into the undulating expanse of parched and twisted sagebrush. A furnace-born wind rushed up from the valley, sweeping away the sounds and trappings of modern days, coaxing into view hazy images of long ago—when the same moaning gusts and incessant whipping currents tormented those seeking fortune from the land or, even more promising, from another man’s pocket.
What secrets had time packed into the dusty crevices of the past about Sheriff Thomas Walter Logan—husband, father, cowboy, rancher, businessman, and public servant? Was my great-grandfather to blame for his demise, or was there something more sinister lurking in the shadows? If so, should I search for answers or leave this recalcitrant mystery undisturbed? Even his long-suffering wife Hannah had made known to inquisitive family members that it was best to “let the dead stay dead.”
But what about his voice?
What might Tom Logan have to say about his final hours? What would he want his family to know? What unfinished business might he have left behind? As his beating heart slowly surrendered to eternal silence and his fondest hopes and dreams drained away with his blood, the excruciating pain he suffered was likely due as much to burning regret as it was to the bullet holes in his flesh.
Should I retreat or move closer?
To be sure, in that summer of 1985 at the Logan family reunion, there floated in that warm, beseeching wind an undeniable, distant whisper nudging me to “keep looking.” Beyond mortal curiosity, I was driven by an indescribable longing to know more about my roots and the context of the lives that contributed to my being. Never did I imagine all I would find and the profound impact of those discoveries on me, other Logan descendants, and Nevada history.