William Sterling was a freight driver from Walla Walla who had been working in a logging camp near Ellensburg. In late September 1886, Sterling left Ellensburg to drive his team and wagon home to Walla Walla. Jochin Henry Timmerman, who sometimes used the name Ed Beamer or Beemer and who had also been working at the logging camp, left Ellensburg with Sterling, driving his own team and wagon. Numerous witnesses later testified to having seen the two men traveling together, with the final reported sighting occurring on October 3, 1886.
William Sterling's wife, Susan Sterling, meanwhile, had reported him missing to Sheriff A. S. Bowles in Walla Walla County. Susan Sterling had expected her husband home by October 3 or 4 and when he had not arrived some 10 days later she became concerned. Sheriff Bowles passed the word to Yakima County Sheriff D. E. Lesh, Kittitas County Sheriff Col. Eugene B. Wise, and Sheriff Jim Blakely of Gillam County, Oregon.
On October 20, 1886, George B. Kintzley and a man named Forwood were in the Horse Heaven Hills looking for stolen horses. They saw the tracks of two wagons that veered off the road and then back again about 150 yards farther down. Curious, they followed the tracks. About 60 yards off the road they came upon a man's body, fully clothed except that he wore no shoes or boots. Wild animals, probably coyotes, had clearly disturbed the body, which was also lacerated and somewhat decayed. Kintzley and Forwood later testified that they had examined it and discovered two bullet wounds (some sources say four wounds) in the chest and head.
Sheriff Lesh summoned Susan Sterling to North Yakima hoping she would be able to identify the body. At first she could not decide if the body was that of her husband, but eventually she said that it was he.
A Wanted Man
On November 10, 1886, the Justice of the Peace in Goldendale issued a "John Doe" murder warrant for the arrest of the then-unknown killer of the person now supposed to have been William Sterling. Based on interviews with people who had seen Sterling in the company of the man believed to have killed him, the suspect was described as being tall, well built, and about 35 years old.
Sheriffs Wise, guessing that the wanted man would have tried to cross the Columbia River into Oregon, traveled quickly to the ferry crossing between present-day Roosevelt and Alkali (now Arlington), Oregon) to question the ferrymen. They confirmed that someone matching the wanted man's description had crossed alone in early October, driving a wagon pulled by four horses and towing an extra wagon. The men told Wise that they had noticed that the second wagon's bed and canvas sides were soaked with blood.
Sheriff Wise crossed the river and in Oregon met up with Sheriff Blakely. Acting on a tip, the two men gathered a posse and rushed to the frontier trading post of Pilot Rock in Umatilla County, Oregon, about 50 miles inland from the Columbia. Upon arrival they learned that the man they were tracking had been drinking in a saloon but, becoming suspicious, had jumped up and run to the livery stable where he mounted one of his horses and rode bareback toward the town of Heppner in Morrow County, Oregon. The posse took a shortcut and cut their quarry off. Henry Timmerman, armed with two pistols, surrendered without protest.
The Long Trail to Trial
Timmerman was arrested and jailed in Alkali, Oregon. He revealed that he had a family and homestead claim nearby. Timmerman claimed innocence and resisted removal to Washington Territory for trial. His resistance was futile, however, and on November 22, 1886, he was given a preliminary hearing before Goldendale Justice of the Peace John Keats.
Timmerman was moved from Goldendale's tiny one-room jail to a larger facility in North Yakima to await trial. He was reportedly a model prisoner and his removal from Klickitat County, where public sentiment against him ran high, to North Yakima may have saved him from lynching. Nearly a year later, on October 25, 1887, Timmerman's case went to trial in Goldendale. Klickitat County attorney Hiram Dustin was the prosecuting attorney. Ralph Oregon Dunbar (1845-1912), later one of the framers of the Washington state constitution and a 20-year member of the Washington State Supreme Court, assisted Dustin. D. P. Ballard of Vancouver served as Timmerman's defense attorney. The Hon. George Turner presided.
Wallace Hughes was the first witness for the prosecution. Hughes described Sterling as a tall man with a dark complexion who wore a dark felt hat. He testified that he had been with Sterling and Timmerman, whom he mentioned wore a white hat decorated with metal tobacco tags, from Ellensburg to North Yakima (now Yakima), arriving September 30, 1886.
Wallace Hughes's brother S. V. Hughes, with whom Sterling, Timmerman, and Hughes had spent the night of September 30, 1886, testified that Sterling and Timmerman had left his home together the following morning. Another witness, W. B. Crow of Milton, Oregon, camped with Sterling and Timmerman and saw them take the road out of Wallula toward the Horse Heaven Hills, again stressing that Timmerman wore a white hat and Sterling a black one. H. F. Williams and A. C. Ketcham testified that they saw the pair for what appears to have been the final time on October 3.
A sheep herder named Martin Peck then testified that he had been in the Horse Heaven Hills, heard two shots fired (some sources say four shots), and soon after seen one man driving two teams and pulling an extra wagon. (Early Klickitat Valley Days states that Peck also found the body and omits mention of Kintzley and Forwood.)
Sarah Sterling, William Sterling's wife, testified that the items found in the wagon belonged to her husband. Among these items were a black hat and a pair of boots.
In His Own Defense
Timmerman then took the stand in his own defense. He testified that armed robbers had fired upon Sterling and him. Timmerman said that he had killed one of these robbers in self-defense and that it was the body of this thief that Kintzley and Forwood had discovered. He later identified the supposed robber as George Lester. Sterling, he said, had run away upon discovering that the robber was dead. Timmerman had no explanation for why the body had no boots or hat, or how the extra wagon Timmerman had been pulling contained William Sterling's hat and boots.
Timmerman showed little emotion during his trial. When offered a cigar by Goldendale sheriff William VanVactor he took but saved it, saying he planned to smoke it with a noose around his neck.
Timmerman was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of William Sterling and sentenced to hang on December 15, 1887. The case was appealed, but on January 28, 1888, the state Supreme Court of the Territory of Washington upheld the conviction.
Sentenced To Die
Robert Ballou's Early Klickitat Valley Days, published in 1938, states:
"Manacled, chained, under heavy guard, the convicted man was immediately taken on a 300 mile trip to Spokane, to be re-sentenced. The journey was made by stage coach, river steamboat, and railroad train. Judge George Turner fixed the date of the execution for April 6, 1888" (p.75).Timmerman was returned to the little Goldendale jail to await execution.
Because Timmerman steadfastly maintained his innocence, the execution was scheduled to take place after the arrival of the April 6 daily overland mail stage. This was in case Territorial Governor Eugene Semple (1840-1908) sent a stay of execution. Early Klickitat Valley Days states "Friends of Timmerman had a skilled long distance rider with a swift saddled horse waiting at a railroad telegraph station (in) Grant, Oregon, 15 miles from Goldendale, across the Columbia River. A steam ferry tug waited on the Oregon shore, so the rider would not be delayed, if a coveted life saving yellow envelope was placed in his hands" (p. 78). Governor Semple sent no telegram, and the mail stage arrived without a letter of reprieve.
Timmerman. meanwhile, was given a quart of whiskey upon awakening and allowed to consume it all in preparation for his ordeal. The execution took place in Goldendale under Sheriff VanVector's direction on a gibbet erected directly across from the town cemetery. The event drew a large crowd. Cora E. Van Hoy Ballou, who watched the execution as a young child, later remembered her mother calling to her and her sister on the morning of April 6, "Wake up children, pappy has gone to the barn to get the team. We're going to town to see the hanging" (Early Klickitat Valley Days, p. 78). The Van Hoy family was not alone: The Washington Standard reported that more than 3,000 people witnessed Timmerman's execution.
Don't Let Them Take You Alive
Timmerman rode to his execution in a wagon sitting up in his own coffin, reportedly smoking the cigar. He mounted the scaffold unassisted and tossed the cigar butt into the crowd, who fell upon it and fought for bits as souvenirs. Local tradition later told that just before his hanging Timmerman prophesied that Goldendale would soon be destroyed by fire, and indeed, on May 13, 1888, a little more than a month after Timmerman's execution, seven blocks of Goldendale's business district did burn down.
Timmerman went to his death maintaining his innocence. His last words are reported to have been this advice: "All I can say is that if you ever get caught in a scrape like this, don't let them take you alive" (Early Klickitat Valley Days, p. 78).
Timmerman was buried in the cemetery across from where his hanging had taken place. In 1890 his grave was dug open, and his bones were dumped into the Little Klickitat River. They were later discovered washed up on the riverbank. The coroner ordered that the skeleton be reburied in Timmerman's grave. The grave robber's identity was not discovered.
As of 2006, William Timmerman remains the only person to have been formally executed in Klickitat County.