On May 3, 1862, Abner Dunn shoots Frank Mahoney after an evening of quarrels and scuffles. They are both residents of Sehome, one of the four towns that would consolidate to form modern day Bellingham. Political motivations may be afoot, with the Civil War raging and political changes sweeping the Washington Territory. Mahoney survives the shooting and Dunn is tried in Port Townsend for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, but after the initial court session the case flounders and is closed by the end of October.
On May 2, 1862, Frank Mahoney (1827-1892?), a stock auctioneer, bartender, and known brawler, and Abner Dunn (1824-1871), a local saloon owner, quarreled for unclear reasons. On the afternoon of May 3rd, Frank Mahoney, Wiley Dickerson, John Fravel (1832-1905), Solomon Allen (1827-1895) and Harry Gray were all together in Sehome. At seven in the evening Abner Dunn joined them, and he and Mahoney began to quarrel in front of Allen’s house after about 10 minutes. Dunn calls Mahoney “a damn Black Republican,” a derogatory term derived from the national debate on slavery and the Civil War. Mahoney was heard saying ‘I don’t care’ and throws a rock at Dunn.
The two briefly fought and were parted. Dunn told Mahoney to keep away from him, claiming that Mahoney had been following him and that he does not want Mahoney’s "kind" around. The two fought again, Dunn sticking his thumb into Mahoney’s eye and bringing him to the ground. They were both parted and pulled aside and appeared to cool down, though Dunn said Mahoney had been following him all night and that the onlookers had "done wrong" by parting them. After the incident, Mahoney was seen walking around the other side of Allen’s house and Dunn set off for his own house.
The evening continued in a normal fashion, with constantly changing groups of men assembling in saloons and porches in the area. Between eight and nine o’clock in the evening, a group assembled at Allen’s house for drinks and songs. Around the same time, Frank Mahoney was seen by William McCluskey, who lived on the same plot of land as Mahoney. Mahoney walked through the side door of McCluskly’s house holding two egg-sized rocks, which he clicked together as he talked, saying the fight was not over. Meanwhile at Allen’s house, around nine, David Williams began to leave when Abner Dunn told him to wait up so they could walk together. As they left, Dunn asked whether Williams had seen Mahoney outside while he was waiting. Williams said that he had and Dunn claimed to have seen him earlier when he'd gone to get John Fravel. While they were walking, a rock hit a nearby stump, but they did not look back to see who it was for fear of getting hit.
Williams went into his house and Dunn again returned to Allen’s house, where he told the assembled group that Mahoney had thrown a rock at him on his way home with Williams. Shortly after, Dunn and Harry Gray left the house and walked toward Dunn’s house. Gray saw Mahoney crouching behind a large stump near Dunn’s house, and Dunn told Gray he would go into his house alone and see "what he will do with me." Gray set off for his nearby saloon.
It was by now around 9:30, roughly 15 minutes after Dunn was seen at Allen’s house and just a little more since Williams got home. A shot rang out through the area. McClusky thought the shot sounded like it came from 40 to 50 steps away from his house, and Gray heard the shot just as he reached the stoop of the saloon. Gray talked to Dunn, who was standing on his porch. Dunn told Gray that Mahoney had come at him from behind a stump "with a rock in each hand, waving as hard as he could." Dunn admitted to shooting him as this happened. Mahoney claimed he was walking through the street when someone grabbed him from behind, and that Dunn then shot him.
Mahoney, who was shot above the right nipple, made his way or was transported to Allen’s house, where he repeatedly claimed that Dunn shot him. He also told most of the people there that if he died it would be cold-blooded murder and that if he survived he would take revenge on Dunn. Wiley Dickerson went to Dunn’s house on the pretense of getting candles, where he claimed that he told Dunn that Mahoney was shot. David Williams also saw Dunn after the shooting.
Despite the initial number of encounters with Dunn, he quickly disappeared. In Whatcom, William Kelly (1846-?), apparently a local law enforcement officer, was woken and informed that Dunn had shot Mahoney. Kelly went to and searched Dunn’s house, and one of the men there told him that Dunn had gone to Whatcom. The next morning, Kelly and Wiley Dickerson followed a coal boat that they suspected Dunn was on. It stopped at Pt. Francis on Portage Island, across Bellingham Bay from Whatcom. Kelly searched the boat, and Dickerson told him that he saw Dunn 15 minutes after the search.
The next day, May 4, a group of Lummi Indians said they saw but did not talk to Dunn the night before. That same day, Mahoney was transported to San Juan Island for medical care, the doctor there being the closest doctor to Bellingham. On May 6th, Dickerson found Dunn walking along the beach. Saying he was deputized to arrest him, Dickerson arrested Dunn, who claimed he was going to visit someone and had not had a chance to return. When Dickerson handed Dunn over to Kelly at Sehome, Dunn said, "I was a fool for leaving."
On May 17, Justice of the Peace Paul Hubbs Jr. wrote an affidavit naming the witnesses of the crime, and placing Abner Dunn under 500 dollars bail. Hubbs stated the trial would begin when news of Mahoney’s fate was known. This affidavit differs from other trial documents in that it describes the incident as occurring on May 2nd, not May 3rd like all other documents, and is the only place where the words "Black Republican" are spelled out.
On May 22, the case of Territory of Washington v. Abner Dunn opened in Port Townsend with Dunn pleading not guilty to assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. This indicates that Mahoney survived the shooting. A nine-day continuance was requested and granted for Dunn to prepare, at which point Bellingham-area Justice of the Peace Nelson Young, who had taken a brief statement of Mahoney’s after the shooting, resigned and was replaced by local pioneer Edward Eldrige (1828-1892). The trial commenced in Port Townsend and testimony was heard from Allen, Kelly, McClusky, Dickerson, Williams, and Gray.
The proceedings at Port Townsend ended with an announcement by court officials that the next session would not be held in Port Townsend, and that the next location had not yet been determined. It was likely to be Olympia, and Dunn was released on bail paid by Eldridge on the condition that Dunn appear wherever necessary. Eldridge attached a letter to this effect with the testimony and sends it to Olympia, adding that most of the original witnesses were unavailable, though Harry Gray was the only important witness and could be brought forward if necessary. The case was filed on October 22, 1862, by a court clerk, and three days later a grand jury ruled that it was not under their jurisdiction. This essentially closed the case and no further action was taken.
Research conducted by Bellingham historian Howard E. Buswell in 1947 indicates that Mahoney remained on San Juan for several months. Buswell believes that the Frank Mahoney of the Dunn shooting is the same as the Frank Mahoney who died in 1892 in Alaska, though no conclusively concrete evidence is found.
Missing from the purely circumstantial testimony about the case is any examination of motive. Given the time period and context, the "Black Republican" comment may have been very important, even the source of the disagreement. In 1862, the Civil War gripped the country, even in far away Washington Territory. More importantly Lincoln’s election brought major political changes. The patronage system was still used, in which swaths of political and civil government positions were “appointed” by the president and followed purely political lines. Before 1860, settlers in Washington and the Whatcom area were heavily Democratic.
The end of a Democratic administration caused significant consternation among the now weakened members of the Washington Territory power structure. Meanwhile, the Republicans capitalized on the changes to effect a quick rise to power in the Territory, significantly chipping away at the Democratic majority. A sizeable minority of the majority Democrats in the Territorial legislature were sympathetic to the Southern cause but couldn’t muster enough support among colleagues who remained loyal to the Union to send a strong message. In Whatcom, Edward Eldridge led a growing group of Republicans in an area that had been a solid mass of loyal Democrats just years before. Power struggles and simple resentment over a job lost would have touched everyone in the still small territory, even two men’s disagreement that ended in a shooting.
Whatever the motive, the case of Abner Dunn and Frank Mahoney provides a snapshot of early Bellingham and Sehome, a small community of frontiersmen sitting in the isolated fourth corner. Whether shifting personal loyalties and emotions or shifting politics, it was a time of great change for these men and the place they lived.