Solving a 166-Year-Old Crime (revised)

By Eilene Lyon

Introduction

I posted the original version of this story on September 13, 2018. Briefly, it involves the 1851 – 1852 partnership between Elias D. Pierce, William S. Good, and Paris S. Pfouts in Siskiyou County, California. Pierce suggested that William Good took off with the company’s assets worth $40,000. I didn’t believe his story, and sought to show that Good was innocent, and that possibly Pfouts was the guilty party.

Since September, new evidence has come to light. In fact, Paris S. Pfouts has turned up to give his version of the story (really!). In this democracy, a man must be given the opportunity to testify in his defense. While I won’t repeat his entire story, I have read it thoroughly and deem him to be a credible witness.

A Profitable Enterprise
ED_Pierce
Elias D. Pierce, about 1860.

Good, Pfouts, and Pierce were running an extremely profitable enterprise when, in December 1851, Pierce left for Vallejo to take a seat in the State Assembly. They had a retail store in Yreka, run by Pfouts, a half-share in a stock ranch in Scott Valley, and a large string of pack mules to haul goods from Sacramento. Good spent the winter months caring for the company’s livestock on his ranch in the Sacramento Valley. Pfouts stayed in Yreka.

By agreeing to represent the erstwhile citizens of Siskiyou County, E. D. Pierce had to quit his business duties. It might have made sense to simply liquidate or sell out his share to his partners, but the legislative session would last only four months. Pierce understood that his partners agreed to a leave of absence for the term.

With Pierce gone for the first part of 1852, Pfouts was left managing the Yreka store. Good ran the pack train, as soon as conditions allowed, and kept the supply chain moving. Pfouts and Good soon resented Pierce’s absence. Pfouts acknowledged, “Captain Pearce was an industrious, honest man, and labored hard for the interest of the company…” Pierce’s self-discipline clearly held the enterprise together. Pfouts, though, succumbed to the rough habits that were typical in mining towns.

“In keeping a trading post in the mines, it was the universal practice to keep a bar, at which whiskey was sold by the glass.” Pfouts’s establishment was no exception. As was also the norm, he invariably drank along with the customers. In Yreka, he began to drink at all hours of the day and confessed to being inebriated virtually every day.

“I was in a fair way to becoming a confirmed drunkard,” he said.

 

IMG_5676
View of early Yreka. (The Siskiyou Pioneer. 1976. Vol. 4, No. 9. p. 1.)
Dissolving the Partnership

With Good on supply runs and Pierce in Sacramento doing his civic duty, Pfouts neglected the business and the profits began to shrink. Good was soon displeased with the state of affairs and wanted out.

Good proposed dissolving the partnership, taking the horses and mules as his share to be disposed of in the Sacramento Valley. Pfouts was agreeable, but told him he needed Pierce’s approval. “Good at once started for Sacramento City, and soon secured Captain Pearce’s consent to his proposition and the bargain was completed.” Pfouts also gave Good a promissory note for $2,000 for his share of their original investment in the business. William S. Good left Yreka, sold the livestock, and headed back to Indiana to buy quality horses and bring them back to California, with his brother, Samuel, as his new partner. He never knew what transpired in Yreka after his departure. He was also unaware that it would be his mother and siblings, back in Indiana, who would have to collect on Pfouts’ note.

That left Pierce and Pfouts with the Yreka store and the remaining inventory. Pfouts also wished to dissolve his partnership with Pierce. In Pfouts’s opinion, “[Pierce] was an honest man and industrious, but his judgment regarding business matters was nearly always wrong and his speculations nearly always disastrous.” As an example: At one point the company had a surplus of flour that Pierce insisted on selling at a loss; had they waited two months, they could have net a profit in the thousands when flour became scarce and prices rose.

 

Paris Pfouts

A Theft?

Pierce returned to Yreka in May 1852, shocked to find the poor state of affairs. “During my absence there had been quite a change in the business, one of the partners P. S. Foutzs, had bought Wm. Good’s interest. Good had taken all the money that was on hand. He (Good) had gleaned the safe and taken the whole train consisting of 85 animals and rig complete, had sold them, got the money and left for the states, South Bend, Ind.” Pierce seems to suggest that William Good had feloniously made off with the company’s assets, but undoubtedly he just overestimated the value of the business.

“The day previous I considered that I was rich in money and valuable property worth fourty thousand dollars,” he claimed.

Certainly swindles between partners occurred regularly, but someone getting away with a theft of that magnitude at that time and place is unimaginable. Frontier justice and “Lynch law” ensured swift and harsh punishment. If Pierce and Pfouts were truly victims of such a crime, a hue and cry would have ensued; Good would have been pursued and, more than likely, been strung up in the nearest tree, or at the least, flogged and banished.

None of that happened.

They closed the store. Pierce most likely returned to Scott Valley for a time. In July, he headed to Oregon, looking for an Indian trader named Charlie Adams. He returned briefly to Yreka in early August, then left California behind and began working with Adams further north.

Pfouts went to the stock ranch in Scott Valley. Pierce had earlier sold a half share to O. C. Wheelock and the Watson brothers. While it originally net the company $500 a week, it ceased to be profitable after the division. Pfouts sold out the remainder to Wheelock and partners, then bought a small farm and went into business for himself, trading goods with wagon trains along the Humboldt River. In 1854, he returned to Missouri where, with a partner, he purchased the St. Joseph Gazette. Pfouts had a long, storied life and successful career, both in retail and in newspapers, first in Montana and later in Texas, even earning a mention in Mark Twain’s Roughing It.

William S. Good returned to California with his horses and younger brother. Pfouts was a financial partner in the venture, but he never managed to make contact with Good. William Good died on the Carson River in 1853 and Samuel Good took over the enterprise, disregarding any agreement with Pfouts. Pfouts philosophically concluded, “Good was an honest man and had he lived I would have received my full share of all he had. As it was, I lost all.” The only asset in William’s estate that ever made it to his family in South Bend was a $2,000 note due from P. S. Pfouts.

Pfouts paid it.

My Verdict

Pfouts is not entirely blameless, because he ran the store into the ground while Pierce was serving in the legislature. Pierce’s claims about Good’s actions are generally not disputed by Pfouts, however, given the additional evidence Pfouts provided, it’s clear that those actions did not constitute a crime. There was no theft. Case dismissed!

Feature image: Photo by marco forno on Unsplash

Sources:

Good, William S. Probate Records; Author: Indiana. Circuit Court (Saint Joseph County); Indiana. Superior Court (Saint Joseph County); Probate Place: St Joseph, Indiana. Ancestry.com. Indiana, Wills and Probate Records, 1798-1999 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA. p. 2.

Pfouts, Paris Swazy. 1968. Four Firsts for a Modest Hero. The Autobiography of Paris Swazy Pfouts. Written in the Year 1868. Edited by Harold Axford. The Grand Lodge, Ancient Free & Accepted Masons of Montana. pp. 65 – 70.

Pierce, E. D. 1975. The Pierce Chronicle: Personal Reminiscenses [sic] of E. D. Pierce as transcribed by Lou A. Larrick. Edited by J. Gary Williams and Ronald W. Stark. Idaho Research Foundation, Inc. Moscow, ID. pp. 35 – 46.

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