Idaho History

Idaho History: The Magruder Affair leads to first legal executions

"Murder is becoming a mere pastime in Idaho territory, and it is about time something was done toward putting a stop to it," observed the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman in June 1870.

Judge Milton Kelly wrote: "We have consulted reliable authorities and find that since the organization of the territory upwards of one hundred persons have been killed by the hands of others; and during the same period a larger number of shooting and stabbing affrays have taken place. Of this number, so far as we can learn, only five legal executions have taken place."

The first of these "legal executions" followed an epic chase and capture. On March 4, 1864, James Romaine, Daniel Howard, and Christopher Lowery were hanged at Lewiston for the brutal murder of well-known pack train operator Lloyd Magruder and four of his men.

The murderers had ingratiated themselves with the Magruder party while on the way to Virginia City, then in Idaho but now in Montana. After waiting for Magruder to sell his cargo of supplies, and in order to steal the gold dust he received in exchange, Lowery, Romaine and Howard offered to accompany the packers back to Lewiston, saying they would help guard the gold against robbers.

Lowery killed Magruder with an ax while he slept and then helped his accomplices kill the other four. The bodies were dumped over a cliff, and all but a few of the pack animals were killed as well.

Hill Beachey, proprietor of Lewiston's pioneer Luna House hotel, was a good friend of Lloyd Magruder. He had a dream in which he saw Magruder murdered in the mountains, and when the suspicious-acting murderers arrive in Lewiston, Beachey set out on his own to investigate. When he retraced the Lowery party's trail, he found Magruder's saddle and other evidence confirming his suspicions that his friend had met with foul play.

Although the murderers succeeded in taking the stolen gold dust to Portland, and then boarded a ship to San Francisco, they could not escape the relentless Beachey, determined to avenge his friend. He had himself sworn in as a deputy sheriff, secured a warrant for the arrest of the fugitives, and tracked them to San Francisco, where they were waiting for the stolen gold dust to be coined at the United States Mint.

Beachey made the arrest and brought Howard, Lowery and Romaine back to Lewiston in December, 1863. Also arrested was William Page who had only accompanied the murderers under duress. Page testified at the first term of the district court, convened in Lewiston January 5, 1864, to all he had witnessed, clinching the case for the prosecution.

Eight weeks later, Idaho's first legal executions took place. Beachey went on to become the operator of a pioneer stage coach line that ran between Idaho and California. He was a hero to early Idahoans.