William Gibson fatally stabs Thomas Wheeler on San Juan Island on August 6, 1863.

  • By Brennan Angevine, Sehome High School
  • Posted 6/26/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8196
On August 6, 1863, on San Juan Island, a man named William Gibson does one of the most villainous deeds known to man.  He stabs a man named Thomas Wheeler in the side, causing him to die slowly over the next two days. The stabbing takes  place at L. A. Cutler’s house. Gibson is presumably drunk on whiskey he accuses Wheeler of unknowingly providing. (Several witnesses will state that he admitted his drunkenness to Wheeler on the night of the stabbing.) The warrant for Gibson’s arrest will go out on August 12, and the special constable of San Juan, William Casno, will make the arrest that very day. The first court case will take place on San Juan Island on August 19, and will be presided over by Justices Hamblet and Eldridge.  Gibson will be found guilty and will likely be sent to jail (the actual sentence is not in the State Archive records).

Witness to the Fight

While under oath, L. A. Cutler had many things to say as he recalled the situation.  He started out by saying that Wheeler was drunk off of Gibson’s liquor, to which Gibson repeatedly said “that is all right.” Gibson then said, in an odd turn of events, that he heard that Wheeler had called him “a damned son of a bitch” the night before, which Wheeler flatly denied.  Gibson said, “I can prove it by the men, they all heard you.” Wheeler then said “If that is so, I don’t go back on what I have said.”

Cutler then said he heard a “tussle” and looked up and saw the two men fighting.  Cutler then stated that he tried to break up the fight by grabbing Gibson by the back of his shirt, but when the shirt slipped from his hands, Gibson seemed to be pinned against the table by Wheeler.  Gibson then took a swing at Wheeler, which was warded off, and the fight was taken out doors.  However, while Gibson tried to strike Wheeler, Cutler was able to catch sight of the knife Gibson had been hiding in his apron. 

While asked questions by a person who can be assumed to be an attorney or lawyer, Cutler gave a more comprehensive description of the fight.  The assumed lawyer (seen as “Lues” in the documents) asked questions about the specifics.  From the questions, more detailed information could be gathered than from Cutler’s story.  Some of the information that was obtained was that Wheeler was cut on the left arm and side with a carving knife, which was about 12 inches long, and that the wound was a cut from the edge of a knife. 

Wheeler survived for two days and five hours after the wound was inflicted. Wheeler did not strike Gibson, and there was no known prior difficulty between Wheeler and Gibson. 

Present at the court trial were William Parsons, William Brown, James Greeir, and Michael Sullivan, all of whom corroborated the testimony delivered by L. A. Cutler.  In fact, Sullivan claimed to have seen “Gibson roll the carving knife in his apron and lay it on the table.”  Gibson eventually admitted to killing Wheeler, but in what he called self-defense. He was found guilty and likely sent to jail (the actual sentence is not in the State Archive records).

In the recorded history of the Washington Territory, incidents involving liquor were extremely numerous.  There were some 200 cases on file at the Washington State Archives involving everything from selling liquor to Indians, to drunken brawls such as the one exemplified by Wheeler and Gibson.  Whether or not such incidents were necessary for the growth of the Washington Territory cannot be certain, but they were definitely an intricate part of the societal and political development of the region.  

Sources: Case No. 386, Jefferson County Case Files, 3rd Judicial District Territorial Court Records, Northwest Regional Branch, Washington State Archives, Bellingham, Washington.

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