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One murder suspect is lynched at Whitman County Jail, but another fakes death and avoids the noose on January 7, 1898.

HistoryLink.org Essay 7893 : Printer-Friendly Format

On January 7, 1898, a mob of 20 to 30 men storms the Whitman County Jail in Colfax with the intent of lynching two murder suspects. One suspect is lynched but the other successfully fakes his own death and escapes with little injury.

In the autumn of 1897, two men robbed two passersby near the town of Farmington, located in northeastern Whitman County. After robbing their victims and forcing them to lie in a fence corner, the robbers waited for additional targets of opportunity. Soon two more men came along. One of them was Orville Hayden.

The robbers drew their weapons and ordered the two men to raise their hands. Hayden either did not move fast enough or made a move that alarmed his attackers, and one of the robbers shot him. Hayden died soon afterward.

In November 1897, F. F. Morse was charged with the crime. Though there was some talk and threat of a lynching, it didn't happen -- and Morse was later fully exonerated.

Later in 1897, two more suspects were arrested and placed in the county jail in the courthouse in Colfax. Charles Marshall, known as "Blackey," was charged with stealing a roll of blankets, though the authorities suspected he was responsible for Hayden's murder. It is less clear whether authorities initially suspected the second suspect, Robert McDonald, known as "Dakota Slim," of being Marshall's accomplice in the Hayden murder.

In a classic ruse, Whitman County authorities hired a Spokane detective and put him in jail with Marshall to try to trick Marshall into admitting guilt. The detective was "charged" as an accomplice to an unrelated murder. The ruse worked -- the detective later reported that "Blackey" (Marshall) told him that he had murdered Hayden. Marshall also told the detective that "Dakota Slim" (McDonald) was his partner in crime.

The Whitman County Courthouse had once before seen a double lynching. In June 1894 a mob gained access to the jail, removed two prisoners, tied nooses around their necks and unceremoniously tossed them out of a second floor window. When the detective's story about Marshall's admission became known in Colfax, it looked like history was about to repeat itself.

Between 1 and 2 a.m. on January 7, 1898, a mob of 20 to 30 men, masked and well-armed, stormed the courthouse. The mob picked a good night for their raid: Only one deputy sheriff and a night watchman were at the jail. Through either trick or by force, the mob gained access to the jail. But once they reached Marshall's cell, they were surprised to find him asleep. "Even these masked and determined men, bent on bloodshed, stood aghast for a moment at the thought of the terrible awakening awaiting the unconscious sleeper" (Lever).

Marshall was awakened and immediately realized his fate. He begged for mercy, but one of the men struck him on the head with a revolver butt and knocked him unconscious. "In a moment [Marshall] was dangling at the end of the rope from one of the courthouse windows" (Lever).

McDonald, however, had anticipated the mob and had prepared for them with considerable savvy. He had improvised a spear from a sharp knife which he tied to a mop handle with his leather shoestring. He had also plugged the keyhole to his jail cell with rags. As a result, the mob could not get close to McDonald without getting speared and could not unlock the door to get into his cell. But there was nothing to stop someone in the mob from shooting at McDonald, and someone did.

The bullet glanced off one of the cell bars and splintered the bar. One of the iron splinters struck McDonald, but did not seriously injure him. But he once again rose to the occasion. "He sank to the floor, exclaiming "Oh God, I'm killed!" So skillfully was death simulated that the mob, thinking the ghoulish undertaking successfully accomplished, retired from the building, and 'Dakota Slim' was safe" (Lever).

Imagine the shock authorities felt when they later went into McDonald's cell expecting to find a dead man but instead found one alive and well. And McDonald's good fortune continued -- he was tried for Hayden's murder, and acquitted.

W. H. Lever, An Illustrated History of Whitman County, State of Washington (San Francisco: W. H. Lever, 1901), 123-124, 127-128.

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Whitman County Courthouse, Colfax, 1910s

Colfax, 1900s

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