On February 8, 1886, former King County Commissioner James Manning Colman (1836-1886) is murdered after leaving his Kennydale home by rowboat. Suspicion falls on George Miller, whom Colman had accused of illegal land dealings. Miller is eventually found guilty, but is later set free from prison. Rumors persist on the island for years as to the identity of the true killer.
James Manning Colman, a former Georgia legislator, moved to Kennydale in 1876 with his wife Clara and four children. He was elected county commissioner in 1880 and again in 1882. With a land boom going on, Colman kept a tight watch on property sales and usage even after he left office in 1884.
Colman lived across from the south end of Mercer Island. When George Miller of Beaux Arts attempted to claim some nearby timberland, Colman advised him that the claim was illegal. When Miller tried to acquire the land in his son’s name, Colman charged that the boy was underage.
To settle the matter, both men were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in Seattle on February 8, 1886. That morning, Colman left by rowboat with Wilbur Patten, a visiting friend of his 12-year-old son. Clara watched as they rowed around the tip of the island, the last time she saw her husband alive.
Later that day in Seattle, Miller arrived at the courthouse, but Colman was nowhere to be seen. Miller was excused, and Colman’s absence was given little concern. Seattle was in the midst of anti-Chinese riots, which preoccupied those downtown.
Meanwhile, Patten’s sister contacted John Mathiesen, a neighbor along Lake Washington, inquiring if he had seen her brother. Mathiesen had earlier passed by the Colman residence by boat and was asked by Mrs. Colman if he had seen her husband, last seen with Wilbur Patten. Returning to the island, he met up with Mrs. Colman, who immediately assumed the worst.
A search party was organized, but Colman’s boat wasn’t found until February 12. The boat was beached on the west side of the island, directly opposite the Mathieson home in Seattle. Blood stained the wooden seats.
Mrs. Colman told the search party about Colman’s court date with George Miller, and also told them that Miller had once threatened to kill her husband over the dispute. Sheriff John McGraw and a posse rushed to Miller’s home in Beaux Arts to arrest him, but Miller was in Newcastle looking for a job. Upon learning that he was a wanted man, he turned himself in.
On March 7, the badly decomposed bodies of James Colman and Wilbur Patten were found in 15 feet of water, three miles south of where the boat was found. Colman’s watch was missing but the money he was carrying was found on the body. Both bodies were torn by bullet wounds from a .40-60 Winchester rifle.
Miller owned such a rifle, but when police searched his house, it was missing. McGraw dragged Miller in to show him the bodies, and said “How do you feel in the presence of your hellish crimes?” Miller professed innocence, and was indicted for both murders.
At the trial in Port Townsend, 9-year-old Alla Olds took the stand, but when the prosecuting attorney made her cry, she told her story to the judge instead. She saw a black rowboat on the morning of February 8, near where the bodies were later found. Miller was the only person known on the lake to own a black boat, but Olds saw a woman at the oars. It was assumed that the girl saw Miller’s daughter, Lizzie, instead.
Owing to the preponderance of circumstantial evidence, the jury could not agree on a verdict. A second trial was held in April 1887 in Seattle. This jury also failed to agree, and a third trial was held in Kitsap County. That jury found Miller guilty and sentenced him to hang.
Miller received a stay of execution a few months later and was released. A new trial was set for April, but a judge threw the case out because of lack of ability to present new evidence. Miller returned home, emotionally and financially drained from his court battle. Neighbors hounded him, even to the point of burning down his daughter’s home. Miller died in 1894, and his grave now lies under the highway near Beaux Arts.
For years, theories and rumors abounded across Mercer Island as to the real killer’s identity. Mrs. Colman firmly believed that Miller truly was the culprit and that he confessed to the crime on his deathbed. Some say the murder weapon was later found on his property.
Others thought that Lizzie Miller was the murderer, as she was an expert with a rifle whereas her father was not. Besides, no one had ever asked her where she was that fateful morning.
In the end, the killer was never found. James Manning Colman is buried in Seattle's Lake View Cemetery, his tombstone bearing the inscription “Assassinated at the south end of Mercer Island, Lake Washington, Feb. 8 1886.” For years, many on Mercer Island referred to the island’s southern end as Murder Point. The place where the boat was found became Deadman’s Bay.