A dream, a murder and justice in 1860s Idaho

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MURDER MOST FOUL: In 1863, Lewiston businessman Hill Beachy's dream sent killers to the gallows.

A Lewiston hotelkeeper had a dream about a murder that came true, and sent three men to the gallows. It happened during the lawless days of Idaho Territory while elsewhere in America a Civil War was raging.

The California Gold Rush in 1849 totally transformed the West, bringing in miners, farmers, cattlemen, tradesmen and others seeking a new life. But it also brought the bandits who preyed on them. By 1860, gold fever reached Idaho, and so did the lawless.

Three of them were David (Doc) Howard (a.k.a. David Renton), D. Christopher Lowery and James P. Romaine, all with criminal records. They committed one of the worst crimes in Idaho history.

Lloyd Magruder was a good man, well known in Idaho's mining camps as a trader and pack train operator bringing them supplies. He prospered and people knew it. In August 1863, Magruder left Lewiston for Virginia City, Idaho Territory (now part of Montana) with a loaded pack train of about seventy mules.

Howard, Lowery and Romaine knew it would be slow going for Magruder over the 300-mile wilderness, so they waited another day before following him. They told everyone they were headed for Oregon, but their plan was to rob Magruder after he sold his goods and was returning to Lewiston with his earnings.

A mountain man trapper named William (Billy) Page joined them four or five days after leaving Lewiston but knew nothing about the plot. Before Magruder arrived at Virginia City, the three plotters-accompanied by several other men-caught up with him on the trail. He welcomed them into his camp cordially, not suspecting anything.

On arriving in Virginia City, four of the group left to go mining. Howard, Lowry, Romaine and Page stayed with Magruder, ingratiating themselves by helping him sell his goods.

Flush with $25,000 in gold dust ($463,000 in today's money), Magruder hired the men to accompany him back to Lewiston as guards. He also invited several others to join his wagon train: miners William Philips and Charles Allen, along with brothers Robert and Horace Chalmers from Missouri.

About halfway back, Howard told Page about their plot and asked him to join them and share in the booty. They needed him to help in their escape, because of his knowledge of the mountains. Howard told him if he didn't join, they would kill him too. Fearing for his life, Page agreed.

That night, Lowery butchered Magruder with an ax; then Howard and Romaine killed the other four men. The bodies were wrapped in tent cloth and thrown over a cliff. All the animals except eight horses were driven into a canyon and also killed.

Next, they headed for Puget Sound, planning to board a ship and escape, but they couldn't cross the Clearwater River because of flooding. Changing plans, they went to Lewiston to catch a stagecoach to Walla Walla.

Hilary (Hill) Beachy was a man of "generous heart and noble impulses," wrote the Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman. He owned the Luna House Hotel in Lewiston - which was also the office for the stagecoach line to Walla Walla. He just had a dream about his close friend Lloyd Magruder being robbed and murdered in the mountains.

When the four men arrived in Lewiston, they tried to conceal their identities by covering their faces. They boarded their horses and tack with a rancher "to be kept until called for," then one of them walked into the hotel and asked Beachy to help with their travel arrangements. Beachy became suspicious because of his strange behavior, and eventually recognized him as Lowery.

Because of his dream, he wondered if Lowery and the others had killed his friend Lloyd Magruder, so he decided to investigate.

At the rancher's place, he recognized Magruder's saddle, which the killers had kept. He then obtained an arrest warrant, was appointed deputy marshal and took off with companion Thomas Pike to help catch the men and bring them back to Lewiston for trial.

Beachy was also armed with extradition requests to present to the governors of Washington, Oregon and California.

They tracked the killers to California where they were waiting for the San Francisco Mint to convert the stolen gold dust into coins. By early December 1863, Beachy and Pike had them arrested and back in Lewiston, securely locked up at Luna House awaiting trial after talking local vigilantes out of taking the men.

On Jan. 5, Judge Samuel C. Parks began their trial for murder, but that trial was dismissed because of improper jury selection. Two weeks later, a second trial was underway with a new jury. The prosecution's key witness was mountain man Billy Page. His testimony along with other supporting evidence quickly convicted the three men.

On March 4, 1864, Howard, Lowery and Romaine were hanged in Lewiston near today's 13th and Idaho streets.

Page led authorities to the scene of the crime, where further evidence was found supporting his testimony. He was shot and killed by desperado Albert Igo in 1867.

The stolen gold dust was eventually made into gold coins, and the money given to the Magruder family.

WRITER'S NOTE: There's some controversy about this story. Not all accounts report the dream; some claiming it was added by later chroniclers to make the story more dramatic. When Hill Beachy died in 1875, newspapers in Idaho and California mentioned the dream. So too did James H. Hawley (Idaho's 9th governor) in his History of Idaho book. There are numerous other inconsistencies. History buff Ron Roizen of Wallace is investigating, so there may be more to come.

With three frontier outlaws brought to justice, hanged and buried, there's an interesting history sidebar story about gold: Author Ladd Hamilton writes that the San Francisco Mint paid Magruder's family some $17,000 in gold coins from the stolen money. The rest is unaccounted for.

Paper "Greenbacks" were first issued in 1861 during the Civil War and were already common currency throughout much of America. In the West, paper money was often used at less than face value. Gold and silver coins were the preferred currency.

With no banks in the mining camps, most miners squirreled away their gold dust and nuggets in containers like baking powder cans and buried them. Miners who found gold were always in danger of robbery or murder; so many deposited their gold with saloonkeepers or shop owners.

Crowded saloons that stayed open around the clock were a fairly safe place to keep the gold. But because saloons were places to gamble and drink - a dangerous mixture - they were risky for those who couldn't resist raiding their own savings accounts so conveniently close to the gambling table.

With gold dust and nuggets the main medium of exchange in Idaho's early days, it was a common sight to see someone carefully pouring out raw gold from a buckskin purse onto the scales to "weigh out" what was owed.

The value of gold was not universally the same. In Florence, Idaho, in the 1860s gold was worth $12 an ounce ($222 in today's dollars), whereas 100-plus miles south in Placerville, gold fetched $16 an ounce. But just a mile away on Opher Creek, the value was $19. In Idaho, the average was about $16 (almost $300 today).

Handling gold in frontier days brought with it a measure of chicanery. Near Centerville in Boise County, there was heavy yellow sand that looked like gold that fooled the unwary when mixed in with the real gold dust.

This practice came to an end when assayers came to the mining camps and melted the gold into bars, then stamping them with the weight, money value and the name of the assayer.

When stagecoach lines - like Wells Fargo - started and transported gold and other valuables from mining camps to big city banks or the San Francisco Mint, miners felt somewhat more secure. But even the stagecoaches were in constant danger of attack by heartless outlaws or marauding Indians.

It's all part of how the West was won.

NEXT WEEK: The Vigilantes

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. He is chairman of the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission. Contact him at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

Jennifer Cromer, Lewis-Clark State College Library, assisted in the research for this article.

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