For the first time since the old Merced County Courthouse transformed from a place of law and order into a history museum in 1983 — that’s 36 years ago — a public exhibit will cover the development of this region’s legal system, including standout criminals and legendary trials.
“Shaping Justice: A Century of Great Crimes in Merced County” will open on Thursday, June 27, at 5 p.m, inside the museum located at 21st and N streets in downtown Merced.
Spanning the first 100 years of the county since its formation in 1855, this exhibit examines 30 crimes and cases — from the Snelling Wild West shootout in 1857 to finally putting the elusive “vice king” Rusty Doan behind bars in 1952.
It also explains the progress made in women’s rights, and African American rights, and their eventual participation in jury service, as well as the emergence of legal giants in the community, including attorney C. Ray Robinson and Superior Court Judge James D. Garibaldi.
Museum Director Sarah Lim said the idea for the exhibit was inspired by the election of prominent local attorney Neil Morse as president of the Merced County Historical Society.
And it’s only fitting that Morse will give a PowerPoint presentation during Thursday’s opening, at 6 p.m., entitled “Scoundrels, Crooks, Thieves & Politicians.” The talk will cover the Prohibition era in Merced starting in the 1920s, and years of illicit happenings downtown, along with political corruption. The infamous Rusty Doan, who owned a house of prostitution, a gambling den, and liquor stores, was active during this time, from the ’20s through the 1950s.
Most of the research for the exhibit, developed over the past six months, came from a team of volunteers, including Rocco Bowman, Jeff Chiesa, Emily Rosas, Serg George, Lauren Brinkop, Dan Nelson, Randy Williamson and Neil Morse.
However, a lot of the heavy lifting of information came from Tom Gaffery, a 65-year-old retired County Public Works supervisor who has been a museum docent, along with his wife, for the past 19 years.
Gaffery, a third-generation county resident, has always been “super interested” by local history and old newspapers that reveal an abundance of long-forgotten tid-bits of information that lead to endless discoveries back in time.
“I always thought I was somewhat knowledgeable about Merced history, but I came to find out that I didn’t know anything,” he said with a laugh.
He started serious research into the museum’s newspaper archives in 2018 and has logged close to 400 hours by now. That means putting on gloves and scouring through early papers such as the Weekly Merced Herald of the mid-1860s, the Merced Star of the early 1880s, the Merced Morning Star of the early 1920s, and the Merced Star-Star of the early 1950s.
For many of the crime stories, Gaffery and others poured through the official Merced Funeral Book dating back to 1877, and 19 volumes of the Jail Register that dates back to 1913. They gathered hints of big or striking crimes, along with specific dates, from these logs, and then searched for the related stories in the newspaper archive.
Along the way, Gaffery said he was also finding a variety of information that “filled in the blanks” that he didn’t already know about, including material for future exhibits, and topics such as irrigation and water rights, immigration and early settlements.
Gaffery also pointed out that the history of crimes and the legal system, like much of the county’s history, follows how the population centers developed — first along the rivers, such as the Merced River near Snelling, and then into growing railroad towns such as the eventual county seat of Merced. As the population centers shifted, so did the types of crime and law enforcement.
Overall, the new Courthouse exhibit presents fascinating stories about what crimes took place, where they were reported and tried, and how some of these decisions made lasting changes in the American judicial system.
One of the more famous and publicized crimes in the exhibit, involved two leading rival newspapers in Merced. The publisher of the Merced Tribune was Edward Madden, and the publisher of the San Joaquin Valley Argus was Robert J. Steele. Madden suggested in an editorial column that Steele’s wife, Rowena Granice Steele, had been a prostitute. Rowena’s son, Harry Granice, sought a retraction from Madden, but Madden’s only response was to brandish a gun a Granice. Two days later Granice returned and fatally shot Madden.
Robert McFarlane of Merced had quite the criminal life, as explained in the exhibit. He assaulted a Merced Falls rancher in 1883, and shot and killed a Portuguese man in 1884, but he was acquitted of charges on self-defense. In addition, McFarlane killed a Mexican man in New Mexico, and was sentenced to hang, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment; however, due to his failing health, he was pardoned, returning to Merced where he later killed another man during a fight over the well-being of a madame linked to a brothel in Merced.
In 1919, Tom Bellon was the first county convict to be sent to execution. He had killed his wife and mother-in-law by cutting their throats while they slept.
Duck market hunters in search of lucrative profits was another criminal issue on the West Side during the early 1900s and the Depression era, highlighted by the first game warden killed (1914), and a hunter named Howard “Bluejay” Blewett of Los Banos.
Blewett employed a customized shotgun with a “Long Tom” attachment, which handled more shells, and a suppressor that could silently kill 100-200 ducks in one barrage. He was arrested with other hunters and the ensuing court case ended up having national significance for the protection of waterfowl. Ironically, Blewett cleaned up his act and ended up serving as a judge in Calaveras County for 19 years.
And then there was Merced waitress, Gladys Escola, who waged a legal battle against the Coca-Cola Bottling Company after a bottle broke apart in her hand causing a severe cut in 1941.
There were several witnesses to the accident inside Tiny’s Waffle Shop in downtown Merced.
Merced attorneys C. Ray Robinson (a regular at Tiny’s), Willard Treadwell, Dean Lesher, Loraine Rogers, and Melvin Belli of San Francisco took up the case in Merced County Superior Court presided by Judge James Garibaldi. They won. The jury found the company negligent, and Escola was awarded $2,900. At the time, it was enough money to buy the restaurant where she worked!
More importantly, the legal battle in Merced was important in the development of the common law of product liability in the entire United States.
Contact the Courthouse Museum at 723-2401. Admission is FREE.