A suspicious March 14, 1871, fire in the basement of Piper’s Opera House proved the undoing of an arson ring led by Virginia City n’er-do-well Arthur Perkins. (Michael Defreitas North America)
For the masked vigilantes of Virginia City, Nevada, the wheels of justice ground too slowly.
Shortly after midnight on March 14, 1871, Hugh Kelly and Charley Fletcher were strolling down B Street when they spied something ominous—reflected orange light flickering off the houses opposite Piper’s Opera House. Springing into action, the pair filled buckets with water from a nearby trough, forced their way into the opera house and doused the fire before it could spread.
George Downey (University of Nevada)
Police Chief George Downey moved just as swiftly. Within a half hour, on the corner of C and Union streets, Downey arrested William Willis for arson. His grounds for suspicion were strong. Hours earlier Willis—ironically, a volunteer firefighter of Washoe Engine Co. No. 4—had bulled his way into the opera house to watch that evening’s play. After proprietor John Piper ordered him out, Willis had sworn he’d “get even.” Later that night Officers George Potter and William Stout spotted Willis lurking about the opera house and went to investigate but soon lost sight of him. On hearing about the fire, the officers reported to Downey, who soon located Willis. Coal oil on the latter’s hands and coat sleeves was evidence enough to warrant his arrest.
Willis was in bigger trouble than that, for the opera house fire was only the latest of several blazes that had ravaged the Nevada boomtown that year. The other fires had killed four people and reduced dozens of homes and businesses to ashes, damages running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Arson” was on everyone’s lips, and on February 18 the Nevada State Journal had fanned the flames. “It seems to be well established that there is an organized gang of incendiaries in Virginia City,” the paper surmised, “and that the numerous fires in that city were kindled by the gang. What object these miscreants expect to accomplish by destroying the city is not clear; but there is a determination on the part of the respectable citizens to wreak summary vengeance upon anyone caught at the nefarious work.”
With Willis in custody, townsfolk wondered what other fires he might have set and whether he’d acted alone. If he were tried and convicted, they reasoned, he could potentially be induced to name his fellow arsonists on a promise of reduced jail time. But for Virginia City’s vigilance committee—that wasn’t good enough by half.
Willis had been behind bars for less than 24 hours when a knock came at the jailhouse door. From inside Jailer Benjamin L. Higbee called out, “Who is it?” “A friend,” came the reply. Pushing back the bolt, Higbee cautiously opened the door. All at once a masked man burst through the gap, seized the jailer by the throat and pushed him inside. On the intruder’s heels followed a dozen others armed with shotguns and pistols, their faces disguised by masks fashioned from red or white cloth cut with crude eyeholes. Retrieving the jailer’s keys, they opened the cell holding Willis and spirited him out of jail.
The vigilantes marched Willis to the scene of the crime—the basement of Piper’s Opera House. Tossing one end of their rope over a charred beam, they fixed the noose around their quarry’s neck and gave it a tug. With his life on the line, Willis confessed to having set the fire. He also implicated three fellow incendiaries. Helping him set the opera house fire was Charley McWilliams, whom Willis claimed had also burned down a cabin near the old provost station in the lower part of town. Tom Laswell, Willis said, had set ablaze a boardwalk outside the Collins House hotel. The lead firebug, however, was 24-year-old hothead Arthur Perkins. According to Willis, Perkins had helped Laswell commit arson, incinerated Athletic Hall, set the fire next to the confectionary store on C Street and destroyed the Invincible Hose Co. engine house. Plunder, Willis claimed, had been the object of Perkins’ devilish design.
Having forfeited any bargaining power, Willis was perhaps surprised when the vigilantes removed the noose and returned him to jail. On the strength of his confession authorities soon arrested McWilliams and Laswell. Perkins, however, was already in jail on a charge of murder.
Murder was one thing. Arson and murder was quite another. The vigilantes decided on a more permanent solution for Perkins.
Although the number of deaths from gunfire was less than some other old west towns, this scene did play out from time to time
Peter Larkin's Last Appeal "A Hanging On B Street"
Article courtesy of Janice Oberding
This hanging is reflected on the "Hanging Chart" below, in
"The Use Of The Noose"
Virginia City was founded in 1859, it was known then as Virginia, Nevada Territory and by 1861, Sam Brown was the worst reprobate the town had ever seen. A large man by any means, standing 6 foot tall, and weighing some 200 lbs. he had long red hair and whiskers & steel blue eyes. Always armed, he wore a very sharp Bowie knife on one hip and a pistol on the other. By his teenage years, he was already incarcerated in San Quentin Penitentiary in San Francisco. Around the age of 30, he drifted into Virginia, Nevada Territory. Apparently one evening after losing at a game of Faro in a Virginia (city) saloon, he pulled out his Bowie knife, carved out the dealers heart, threw it to the floor and with his arms all bloodied and his clothes saturated...he climbed up on the gambling table to sleep off his drunken stupor.... When Sam Brown was sober he was dangerous, when he was drunk, he was deadly. He was killed not soon after.
1860-1912, the law prescribed hanging as the means of carrying out the death sentence in the territory / state of Nevada, however, upon revision of the statutes in 1911, the condemned were allowed a choice between the gallows and the firing squad.
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