Gossett, Orville Ozmund (1911-1982)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 8/09/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22531
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Orville Ozmund Gossett (1911-1982) was a musically gifted young man from Idaho who as a teenager was taken in and raised by his uncle and aunt, Robert and Florence Warner, in Tekoa (Whitman County). Gossett learned to play several instruments and loved to attend local dances, but at some point, his aunt began restricting his late-night activities, and he would later assert that she had been sexually abusing him for years. On the evening of September 22, 1930, Gossett shot his aunt to death and wounded his uncle. The teenager offered a defense that amounted to a confession, saying that he shot Florence Warner because of her sexual predations while claiming that he in fact was the victim. The scandal became national news. Following his trial, a judge in Colfax sentenced Gossett to 15 years in the state penitentiary in Walla Walla. He spent his incarceration focused on composing songs and leading the prison bands. Released in 1940, Gossett married, formed a dance band – the Melodians — with his bride, raised a family, and ran the Tekoa Variety Store for decades.

A Passion For Music

Orville Ozmund Gossett was born in Twin Falls, Idaho, on April 11, 1911, and his family later moved to the tiny farming town of Tekoa, in Whitman County. In 1924, and for reasons unknown, Gossett, then 13, began staying on occasion with his uncle Robert O. Warner and his new wife Florence Warner at their ranch house just outside of Tekoa.

Tekoa had been the hometown to notable sibling musicians Alton Rinker (1907-1982) and Mildred Rinker (1907-1951), whose father, Charles Rinker, was a local square-dance fiddler and caller. In the 1920s Alton Rinker went on to partner with Spokane’s Bing Crosby (1903-1977) in a vaudeville era song-and-dance duo. Meanwhile, Mildred Rinker moved out to live with her aunt and uncle in Seattle at age 17 and eventually gained fame as the jazz singer Mildred Bailey.

Perhaps inspired by their rise from humble local origins, Gossett took up the piano and guitar, and enjoyed attending local barn dances, where a snort or two of illicit Prohibition-era moonshine was a common attraction. Seeking to better control her nephew, Florence began restricting his activities. She even demanded that he stop going out at night. But if it appeared on the surface that she was taking such steps only to protect the lad, Gossett would have an entirely different story to tell: that for years Florence Warner had been taking an unusually keen sexual interest in him.

A Crime of Passion

On Monday, September 22, 1930, while Florence, 29, stood washing her hair at the kitchen sink, Gossett snuck up and shot her through the window. He fled, but the sound of the gunshot and the shattering glass brought Robert Warner rushing to aid his mortally wounded wife. Gossett turned back and fired again, and although Robert was hit, he was able to call for help and identify his nephew as the culprit. Gossett was quickly tracked down. Meanwhile, the Warners's barn burst into flames. Florence lived long enough to be transported to a hospital in Spokane, where she reportedly said, "Tell Orville I still love him" before dying ("Youth Breaks ..."). This seemingly simple request would take on darker undertones.

Gossett was interrogated at the Whitman County Jail in nearby Colfax on the night of September 23. Deputy Prosecutor Robert Clegg would later inform the media that he’d "admitted to some intimacies with her, and in his confession related that she had great influence over him and 'would always make a fuss' when Gossett wanted to go out in the evenings" ("Youth Breaks ..."). Gossett’s confession to murder was forthright: "'I killed her," the young man explained, 'because we continually quarreled, and she would not let me go anyplace unless she was near ... She asked me to come over for dinner Monday evening. I knew there would be trouble'" ("Youth Breaks ...").

Yet had had decided to go anyway. Upon arrival, Gossett got out his shotgun and two 16-gauge shells from the cellar and then headed out to the barn, where he chain-smoked cigarettes and fortified himself with whisky. Gossett then approached the house and finally pulled the trigger. His confession concluded with the detail that as he fled, "he saw a fire in the barn and believed that one of his cigarettes started it. He threw the gun in the bushes" ("Youth Breaks ..."). A trial was quickly mounted at the courthouse in Colfax.

An Unusual Defense

Gossett's defense took some unusual angles, according to reports in the Spokane Spokesman-Review:

"His plea for leniency, inferred rather than stated, failed to save Orville Gossett, 19-year-old slayer, from a long-term at hard labor in the Walla Walla penitentiary, when he pleaded guilty to second degree murder here today. Judge R. L. McCroskey gave him 15 to 20 years ... 'Have you anything to say before sentence is passed?' inquired Judge McCroskey, after Deputy Prosecuting Attorney S. R. Clegg had read the complaint and the boy had admitted guilt. The youth looked up. 'Do men and women have equal rights in this state?' he asked. Judge McCroskey hesitated. 'Why?' he queried the prisoner. 'Why? Judge,' Gossett spoke up. 'I'd only like to know what you would do in the case of a man 23 years of age who would make a 13-year-old girl his intimate slave and then, at 19, when she realized her situation, killed the man who had ruined her?' ("Love Slavery ...").

"By inference Gossett had stated his own case, based upon his signed confession. He implied that in his case it was a woman who had tyrannized a 13-year-old boy and that, at last, he had killed her when he realized what she had done to him. Judge McCroskey declined to answer to the inquiry. Continuing, Gossett said he realized that before God he was not justified in killing Mrs. Warner, but he asked for an opportunity to cultivate his musical ability, to obtain an education to make his life useful and for 'one more chance to develop what was in him.' 'The courts find it very difficult to excuse the taking of human life, except in self-defense,' said Judge McCroskey, before fixing Gossett’s penalty. 'Such was not the case in this instance. Further, a second shot was fired, which seriously injured the husband of the murdered woman. He had been wronged, yet had not wronged the slayer of his wife. The second shot indicates, to me, a bad heart and I cannot justify your crime by any possible means.' Gossett, who said he did not believe it necessary for him to have an attorney, was accompanied by his mother, Mrs. Lillian Gossett, and her friend R. E. Bruce, both of Tekoa, and sheriff's officers" ("Love Slavery ...").

Hard Time at Walla Walla

The Department of Corrections prisoner No. 13340 began serving his sentence at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary in late 1930. Gossett’s incarceration coincided with some more rough news: On May 1, 1931, his 18-year-old brother, Bob Gossett, "fell beneath a freight train he tried to board about 1:30 a.m. and the wheels passed over his legs. Unable to drag himself from the rails, he lay suffering until he was run over by a second train shortly after 4 o'clock. At 5:30 a.m. his groans were heard and help was summoned. Gossett regained consciousness and was able to tell of his night of horror. He was taken to a hospital." ("Two Trains ..."). There Bob Gossett suffered in pain until his death on May 26.

At Walla Walla, Gossett seemed intent on contributing to society -- for now, the prison-bound society of some fellow musicians. He volunteered to begin leading the prison band and orchestra, and even began providing them with original compositions to perform. He was prolific: In 1933 The Associated Press interviewed him and reported that he’d already written 1,500 songs. "The warden thinks his work is good, but Gossett said today he never tried to sell, as fees for copyrights and lack of knowledge of the channels of publication have handicapped him ... The prison band has in its repertoire fifty selections by Gossett, and 'old timers' in the penitentiary say he has brought it to the highest standard they can remember. He plays the piano, trumpet and guitar. He hopes that when the twelve years he still has to serve have passed, he will be able to start life anew with his music" ("Tekoa Slayer ...").

Gossett did seek to profit from at least one song. On December 9, 1936, he and Loren T. Coulter filed for a copyright for a song they co-wrote titled "She’ll Always Be In My Heart." 

A Life Anew With Music

Gossett’s 15-year sentence was reduced, probably due to good behavior, and he was released early in 1940. That same year his draft registration card would list another aunt, Mrs. Kirk H. Summer, as the "Name Of Person Who Will Always Know Your Address." The registration card, dated October 16, 1940, also noted that he had no employer, a common situation for a freshly released ex-con.

In 1941 Gossett met a young woman from Tekoa named Ina Marian Riggs (1918-2015), who worked at the local J. C. Penney shop, and on May 11, 1941, they married. The young couple formed their own band -- Orville Gossett and His Melodians -- and gigged around the area for a good number of years. Marian was "active in community events, including Slippery Gulch Days, which she took part in for 13 years, singing and dancing in the variety show" (obituary). In addition, they acquired and ran the Tekoa Variety Store, the soda fountain, and the local liquor store. Gossett had successfully integrated himself back into the community, and as late as 1965 the Colfax Gazette noted local performances by Marian and other singers "accompanied by the small combo group of Orville Gossett, Paula and Dan Folkins" ("Good Old Days").

The Gossetts had two children: daughter Peggy Gossett, and son Steve Gossett. Orville Gossett died on March 13, 1982, in Tekoa, and was buried at the town’s Goldenrod Cemetery, right near the gravesites of his brother Robert and mother Lillian (1889-1933) -- and those of his uncle Robert Warner (1894-1944) and aunt Florence Warner (1901-1930). Marian Gossett worked at their store until retiring in 1996. She died in 2015, leaving Steve to carry on running the Gossett Liquor & Specialty Beers shop (at 135 N Crosby Street) well into the new millennium.


"Youth Breaks Down, Admits Slaying Aunt," San Bernardino Sun, September 25, 1930, p. 3; "Two Trains Run Over Tekoa Man," Spokane Chronicle, May 1, 1930, p. 1; "Love Slavery Plea Is Futile," Spokesman-Review, October 2, 1930 p. 9; "To Pay Penalty," Healdsburg Tribune, October 10, 1930, p. 4; "He May Pay," Ventura Star, October 13, 1930, p. 6; "Tekoa Slayer Writes 1,500 Pieces of Music in Prison," The Seattle Times, July 20, 1933, Second Section, p. 1; "Good Old Days," Whitman County Gazette website accessed April 1, 2021 (https://www.wcgazette.com/story/2015/06/17/people/good-old-days/17684.html); National Archives at St. Louis; St. Louis, Missouri; WWII Draft Registration Cards for Washington, 10/16/1940-03/31/1947; Record Group: Records of the Selective Service System, 147; Box: 6; "Marian Gossett," obituary, Spokesman-Review, April 5, 2015, p. B-4; Peter Blecha mails with Leslie Meyer, MLIS (genealogy research consultant), July 6, 2022, notes in possession of Peter Blecha.

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