Former Idaho lawmaker finds new evidence in a 1896 murder case

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comJuly 27, 2013 

This .44-caliber Colt pistol found in the southern Idaho desert near Rogerson turned up during former Rep. Max Black's four-year search into the story of "Diamondfield" Jack Davis, the 1896 sheep-cattle war and Davis' colorful life in Nevada after his pardon. The amateur historian has published a book based on his research.

DARIN OSWALD — doswald@idahostatesman.com

  • DIAMONDFIELD JACK AND THE SHEEP-CATTLE WAR

    Max Black’s book, “Diamondfield: Finding the Real Jack Davis,” is available online from Ridenbaugh Press for $19.54, including shipping. The list price is $15.95.

    Davis, an employee of a ranch that once ran 175,000 cattle in southern Idaho and northern Nevada, became a national figure after his conviction for murdering two sheepmen as part of a running dispute between sheep and cattle owners over access to open federal range.

    John Wilson was shot in the chin and found lying across the bunk in his canvas-topped sheep wagon. David Cummins, shot in the abdomen, was at the foot of the bunk. Two emaciated dogs were still tied to a wagon wheel when the bodies were found almost two weeks after the shooting.

    Sentenced to die in 1897, Davis divided public opinion throughout Idaho. The night before the sheepmen were killed, Davis shot into a different sheep camp — without casualty — and he boasted about giving those boys a good scare. That loose talk immediately made him the prime suspect. A wanted man, Davis fled days after the February 1896 shooting. He was chased down by prosecutor and later U.S. Sen. William Borah at a territorial prison in Yuma, Ariz., where Davis was serving a one-year sentence for shooting a dog and assaulting a policeman.

    James Hawley, later elected Idaho governor, spent five years tenaciously defending Davis. Hawley’s prudent dispatch of two horsemen with word of a stay of execution spared Davis the noose in Albion, one of seven times his execution was delayed.

    His co-defendant, Fred Gleason, was acquitted.

    The “Diamondfield” name came from his boasting about prospecting for the rare gems. Now, a restaurant, campground and snowmobile recreation site in the Twin Falls area are named for him.

In a single year, Max Black read 38 volumes of Civil War history. But even at 77, he isn’t content to settle in his armchair.

“My search in history is to find places,” said Black, a Republican who represented Boise in the Idaho Legislature for 20 years before retiring last year.

He’s made a dozen trips to battlefield sites. Among his highlights: standing on the porch of a Virginia farmhouse where Gen. J.E.B. Stuart lost his famously flamboyant hat in 1862; opening the window Gen. John Mosby exited to hide from New York cavalry by dangling from the limb of an oak in 1863; and ferreting out the left flank of the 20th Maine at Gettysburg, Pa.

Now, Black has written his own book that tackles a celebrated moment in Idaho history: the 1896 killing of two sheepherders in the South Hills about 30 miles from Twin Falls. “Diamondfield” Jack Davis, a loud-mouth paid by the massive Sparks-Harrell Cattle Co. to harass sheepmen, was convicted for the crime in 1897.

Seven times his date with the hangman was suspended, reprieved or stayed.

In 1902, after five years of battles between famed lawyers William Borah and James Hawley, Davis was pardoned and freed. Two other Sparks-Harrell employees had confessed the killings.

Davis first captured Black’s imagination in 1968, when he stopped to read an interpretive sign while in Albion for an insurance inspection. Black was in business for about 30 years before selling his Boise agency in 1991. His calm temperament and business sense made him a popular chairman of the House Business Committee for a dozen years.

Sniffing Davis’ trail in his spare time, Black aimed to reprise his Pennsylvania and Virginia wanderings on home turf. He wanted to plant his feet in the camp near Deep Creek in eastern Twin Falls County where David Cummins, 22, and John Wilson, 25, were shot to death.

“But nobody could get me within a square mile of it,” Black said.

TRANSCRIPTS, GPS AND A BULLET

Refusing to give up, Black examined Hawley’s papers at the Idaho State Archive. After hundreds of hours reading trial transcripts, he figured he could find the site and, with luck, a missing bullet fired in the melee.

As Davis’ lawyer, Hawley had engaged a surveyor to measure the distance between four ranches and the killing site to prove his theory that Davis couldn’t have ridden fast enough to do the evil deed.

Black enlisted a good friend and engineer, David Curtis, to help find the scene of the crime. Curtis triangulated the distances and found what he believed was the spot. The result was verified by a 1938 newspaper article putting the camp about 1,000 feet west of Magic Hot Springs Road; the GPS unit measured the distance at 1,038 feet.

Later, Black returned with rancher and fellow history nut Alex Kunkel. Armed with metal detectors, they hoped to unearth what a transcript said was an unrecovered bullet that pierced a saddle resting on a sagebrush.

Picking out a likely bush, Black soon was shouting, “Bingo! Come and look at this!”

Matt Perry, owner of Boise’s Buckhorn Gun Shop, later examined the bullet. He told Black it was from the era and of the same caliber fired by James Bower, one of the two Sparks-Harrell employees who confessed to killing the sheepmen. Bower testified during his trial in 1898 that he shot during a scramble with the sheepmen; his partner, Jeff Gray, owned up to firing the fatal shots. Black writes that it’s a “high probability” the bullet belonged to Bower’s .44, but concedes “we will never know for certain.”

A RARE PISTOL

Black’s talk about writing a book sometimes met with skepticism, including, at first, from his wife, Clydene. “But living with him for 52 years, I knew he was going to complete it,” she said. “Diamondfield Jack: Finding the Real Jack Davis” was published just in time for last month’s Wild West History Association Roundup in Garden City and Idaho City.

“I’m really impressed with researchers who do both field work and the work in the library,” said archivist Steve Barrett, who added that Black never used his official position as a legislator to advantage. “He’s very down to earth and didn’t throw his weight around at all. He’d come in so fired up about with what he found it was infectious.”

Black mentioned finding the bullet to his friend Dan Buchwitz, a Boise machinist, explaining the circumstances.

This is where the tale of Black, his research and his mettle veers into “The Twilight Zone,” linking the bullet with the gun that might have fired it.

“Max,” Buchwitz told Black, “I think I have that gun!”

Buchwitz had received a Colt .44 as a gift from a family of collectors who unearthed it on their travels near the shooting site in the 1960s or 1970s.

Bower, the cattleman, had testified that he’d lost his sidearm. Buchwitz doubted that story, thinking it likely Bower had ditched the gun after the shooting.

Buchwitz thought it telling that the rusted relic was found unloaded and that gunmen like Bower didn’t “lose” unloaded guns. A gun found unloaded was more likely to have been tossed as incriminating evidence, the unused bullets removed.

“I immediately had a deep gut feeling,” recalled Buchwitz. “You know how you get kind of flushed and your hair stands up on the back of your neck?”

The pistol is a Colt Frontiersman, a .44-caliber manufactured between 1880 and 1905. Just 2,100 of the short-barreled under-the-shoulder-holster variety were sold in the U.S., said John Taffin of Boise, who writes for American Handgunner and Guns magazines. Taffin figures there’s a better than even chance it belonged to Bower, “but nobody’s there with a piece of paper to tell.”

Jamie Larsen of Burley is a descendant of the slain sheepman Cummins. Working on a book about her family, she joined Black at the shooting site.

“That bullet leaves me no doubt that he found the actual site,” Larsen said. As for the gun being the real deal, “I do believe there’s a high possibility that really could be the case.”

But Larsen and Black differ on a fundamental question that divided Idaho 115 years ago: Who killed Cummins and Wilson?

Black says it was Jeff Gray, who, along with Bower, was acquitted of murder on grounds of self-defense. Says Larsen: “My family still strongly believes that Diamondfield did it.”

ON TO THE SILVER STATE

On Dec. 17, 1902, Davis was pardoned on a 2-1 vote, with Gov. Frank Hunt and Secretary of State Charles Bassett voting to free him and Attorney General Frank Martin opposed.

“By Jove, that’s good,” said Davis upon hearing the news. “I am mighty glad of it.”

Black writes that Davis immediately left Idaho, settling in Nevada, where his reputation as a rascal who carried four guns and didn’t hesitate to draw kept him in newspapers across the country. He made and lost millions in Nevada mines, was falsely reported killed in the Mexican Revolution and earned the ire of unions across the West.

In 1913, he survived a shot in the mouth in a fight with three union men in Butte, Mont. Armed only with a knife, Davis got the better of the trio, and said, “If I had my six-shoot, those three fellows would have been occupying slabs in an undertaking shop.”

Davis became a leading light of Goldfield, Nev., and bestowed his flashy nickname on a nearby town. Black pored over materials in Nevada and devotes the last third of the 216-page book to Davis’ time there, from 1902 until 1949, when he died in Las Vegas after being struck by a taxi.

Former Rep. Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, joined Black on one Nevada road trip. “Max is an exciting person to travel with,” Stevenson said. “He can see a barn on the highway and tell you what kind it is, who built it and why.”

NEXT STOP, DAVIS’ BIRTHPLACE

Black grew up in Delta, Utah, graduating from the University of Utah with a business degree in 1962. But the teacher he remembers most is Mrs. Stephenson, who let him off the hook for skipping school in seventh grade when he’d thrown himself into a careful reading of “Gone With the Wind.”

“Everybody was just scared to death of her,” Black said. “She just looked mean and was a strict teacher. But I just loved her because she inspired me.”

Pulling a western novel from the shelf of his home library, Black pointed to a passage in Cathy Cash Spellman’s “Paint the Wind” that helps explain his obsession with Davis.

“The Native Americans say that a story stalks a writer and if it finds you worthy comes to live in your heart,” writes Spellman. “The author’s responsibility is to give that story voice.”

Black said he’s not done with the man he’s spent much of the last four years with. “I’m on the track of something that will be sensational: I’m going to find his ancestors and where he was born.”

Diamondfield gave four accounts of his home place and two of his birthday, 1863 and 1871.

“He told a lot of different versions and someplace in picking through all of that the truth will come out,” Black said.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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