We’ll never know exactly why Joe Simpson shot Jim Arnold that Easter Sunday, April 19, 1908. It’s hard enough to tell exactly what happened because there are conflicting accounts that have been embellished in numerous retellings.
When it comes to the story of Joe Simpson, most writings published since have focused on his death and the treatment of his remains afterward. After all, he was lynched by vigilantism in Skidoo, California, and the legend of his disinternment and re-hanging for benefit of the press is deeply entrenched. The newspapers of the day focused on Simpson’s murder of Jim Arnold and the subsequent lynching, but are mute regarding his remains afterward. This author wanted to focus on Simpson’s life prior to his appearance on the scene in Skidoo’s history, as well as his murderous actions, death and aftermath. It’s truly wondrous that when the subject of Joe Simpson comes up among historians, what usually follows is spirited dispute.
Most books tend to paint Simpson as a n’er-do-well, a bum, a petty thief, a drunkard, an outcast, a worthless man who never contributed to society. Yet, though brief and succinct, early press on Simpson show a different side of the man that subsequent publications do not.
In the course of research for this publication, the author has not been able to find much information regarding Simpson’s early life. The earliest reference by this author was found in the 1900 Nevada State Census. It gave this information on Joseph L. Simpson, who was living during June 1900 in the 2nd precinct of Reno, Nevada:
- Head of household
- Born September 1874
- 25 years old last birthday
- Born in California
- Both parents born in Ohio
- Occupation -- unreadable (appears to be possibly the words "line" and "cook")
- Can read, write and speak English
- No home listed as rented or owned
Simpson’s occupation was scrawled on the census form, unreadable, but appears to be possibly the words "line cook." This goes along with sources who say that Simpson was employed at or owned a chop house located in a Reno hotel. It is thought that Simpson eventually drifted south to Rhyolite during the wild excitement happening in the central and southern sections of Nevada and the Death Valley country in California.
At what point Simpson came to Death Valley is not clear, but he appeared to have followed the Bullfrog rush south, and then cross into Death Valley. Details gleaned from government records and newspaper items it appears Simpson wanted to be more than a cook and he focused on mining, mine ownership or partnership in mines.
The earliest the author has found him to date in the Death Valley region was December, 1904. Book G, Inyo County Book of Mines, pages 525 and 526 shows Simpson and others forming the Gold Belt Mining District, on December 21, 1904. The Gold Belt district covered much of northern Death Valley and the ranges on both sides, the southern boundary spanning from Towne’s Pass in the Panamint Range to Daylight Pass separating the Funeral Range from the Grapevine Range. On December 22, the organizers of the district held a meeting at a place called "Simpson’s Springs," no doubt associated with Joe Simpson. Meeting attendants besides Joe Simpson were: A.V. Carpenter, W.L. McGregor, George E. Page, G.A. Fattler, Thomas King, Fred Adam, J.L. Starbrough, William Miller.
In January 1905, in Book H of the Inyo County Book of Mines, there is an entry in which Frank "Shorty" Harris and Joe Simpson located a claim in the Chloride Cliff area, across Death Valley in the Funeral Range, near the Keane Wonder mine and mill.
Simpson’s name in the Inyo County press began to show by early summer of 1906. In the June 6, 1906 Inyo Independent (Independence, CA) is found this article pinpointing Simpson at the new camp of Harrisburg:
"A.V. Carpenter and J.L. Simpson, mining men from Harrisburg, arrived in Independence Wednesday morning. They report the southern end of the county as being very lively, and mining property of merit being eagerly sought after."
Harrisburg, and by this time Skidoo, were turning the region’s and the nation’s newspapers attention to the western Death Valley country. Joe Simpson apparently had been in the district long enough that a month prior to this newspaper clipping, Joe Simpson became involved in a mining dispute over several claims in the area that became Skidoo, a dispute that eventually went to trial. He was wrapped up with this trial and subsequent appeals for the rest of his life.
"In the Superior Court of The State of California in and for the County of Inyo Jack Byrne Plff on Tom Knight and Joe Simpson Defts. Complaint Filed May 8th 1906 J.E. Meroney Clerk $5.00 pd Geo. Eagan Jackson Attorney for Plaintiff." — Superior Court of Inyo County (a handwritten note)
Jack Byrne was a Goldfield businessman who had grubstaked Tom Knight to locate ore bearing property in the Panamint Range. Somewhere along the line Knight drafted Joe Simpson to aid in his search. What transpired was that one or both of them located several mines that proved very rich right or very near the point of the expiration of the terms of the grubstake, which made Byrne mad enough to try to grab what he thought was his share.
"Notice of Protest — To whom it may concern: I, the undersigned claim an undivided one-half interest in the following described mining location viz: The Last Hike, Venus and Mars, groups of claims located by Tom Knight, and situated in the Wild Rose mining district, Inyo County, California. Jack Byrne." — June 22, 1906 Inyo Independent
"That on or about the third day of January A.D. 1906, at the Town of Harrisburg, County of Inyo, State of California, the said Plaintiff and the said Defendant Tom Knight entered into an agreement and formed a partnership for the purpose of prospecting for, discovering, locating, and developing and thereby possessing, holding and owning veins, lodes, ledges, mines and mining claims upon public mineral lands in the United States of America, and in and about the ‘Wild Rose Mining District’, County of Inyo, State of California." — Sworn statement, Superior Court of Inyo County
Jack Byrne and Tom Knight entered into an agreement effective between January 3 and April 26, 1906 that Byrne would supply Knight all supplies and food needed for a prospecting trip, in return for undivided one-half interest in any claims found. At some point Knight located 48 claims in the Last Hike group, eight claims in the Mars group, eight claims in the Venus group and four Jupiter claims; all located in the vicinity of Skidoo, given directions being 3 miles south of Emigrant Springs and 4 miles north of Harrisburg.
Where Simpson came along is vague, even in the records of Inyo County Superior Court:
"That said Defendant KNIGHT subsequent to the making of the aforesaid location as aforesaid, and while the aforesaid agreement and partnership was in full force and effect, disregarding the terms of the aforesaid agreement, and in violation thereof, and in fraud of Plaintiff’s rights, did file for record and cause to be filed for record, and between the ________ - day of - 1906, and the ________ day of 1906, and the office of the Recorder of the said ‘Wild Rose Mining District’ NOTICE OF LOCATION of all above described mining claims, in the name of himself and said defendant JOE SIMPSON." — Superior Court of Inyo County
Apparently Joe Simpson and Tom Knight were prospecting partners, although newspaper and mining records show he prospected, mined and leased with others.
"And Defendants allege that each and all of said claims and locations were made by and for Defendants Tom Knight and Joe Simpson, for themselves as equal owners and for no other person or persons." — Superior Court of Inyo County
ESSENCE OF WILD ROSE. A big strike is reported on the Last Hike claim, formerly owned by Tom Knight, Simpson and others. On this claim there is a strong, well defined ledge of quartz many feet wide, from which assays running as high as $2,000 has been secured. This property has recently been purchased by A.V. Carpenter. — June 15, 1906 Rhyolite Herald
SALT LAKE MEN BUYING MINES AT SKIDOO. Poulson & Weaver of Salt Lake City, well known mine owners of Tonopah and Goldfield, have just purchased valuable property near Skidoo. A.G. Poulson, representing the above named firm, was in camp yesterday and signed papers for the Gaffer and Boratcho claims, situated about a mile northeast of the town of Skidoo. There is a nine foot ledge on the property and a good showing of gold. In these claims J.C. Miller held on-half interest and Fred Oakes, Joe Simpson, James Otis and Charles Rudolph the other half. The price paid was well up in five figures, one half cash and the balance in ninety days. — December 28, 1906 Skidoo News
LIVE NEWS OF HARRISBURG. Harrisburg is a lively place this week. The time is not far distant from the first of the year, when assessment work must be done and the boys over around the ‘burg are as busy as the proverbial cranberry merchant at Christmas time. ... P.A. Blunk and A. Baxter are working two miles south of here, on claims owned by Geroge Pagot and Joe Simpson. ... W.J. Gibson and Jack Cogswell are working on claims owned by Simpson and Pagot. — December 28, 1906 Skidoo News
NEWS OF SKIDOO FROM THE SKIDOO NEWS [subheading] MORE SALES. Poulson & Weaver of Salt Lake City, well known mine owners of Tonopah and Goldfield, have just purchased valuable property near Skidoo. ... In these claims J.C. Miller held one-half interest and Fred Oakes, Joe Simpson, Red Ottis and Charles Rudolph the other half. The price paid was well up in the five figures, one-half cash and the balance in ninety days. — January 18, 1907 Rhyolite Herald
SKIDOO MINES... The first shipment of ore from the Skidoo camp will be made during the present month, unless present plans fail. ... The development of the American Eagle was started this week by a private leasing company consisting of Fred Oakes, L.E. and C.P. Thompson, Charles Reed, J. L. Simpson, W.C. Fiedler, John O'Harrow, R.H. Austin, J.N. King, and H.L. McNew. The lease runs for one year, during which time steady and extensive development work is to be carried on. — June 28, 1907 Inyo Independent
But where Simpson gained the notoriety we’ve all known about is during his days as part owner of the Gold Seal Saloon in Skidoo.
LITTLE NEWS NUGGETS. ... A.V. Carpenter’s interest in the Gold Seal saloon has been purchased by Oakes & Simpson and the business will be continued under this management. — December 28, 1906 Skidoo News
SKIDOO SHORT NOTES. Oakes and Simpson have installed a big and attractive sign on their Gold Seal saloon, which is a large frame structure at Skidoo and First Streets. — April 19, 1907 Rhyolite Herald
But though the publications and writers that told the story of Joe Simpson paint him as a down and out, broke and drunken saloon owner, ponder this newspaper announcement:
A NEW ROAD AND TELEPHONE. A wagon road and telephone line from Keeler to Skidoo is positively assured. Nearly the entire amount necessary to carry out the project has been subscribed and the road and telephone should be completed, connecting the two points, inside of two months. ... Among those whose subscriptions manifested greatest interest in the project were A.V. Carpenter, $500; Mrs. A. M. Mates, $500; J.L. Simpson, $500; Silas Reynolds, $500; A.W. & J.E. Eibeshutz, $200; Boland estate, $200; H. Levy, $100; Harry Reynolds, $100; Ben Yandell, $100; Jack Gunn, $100; two county commissioners, $200, and several other subscriptions whose names are not available, bring the total up to over $4,000. — April 26, 1907 Inyo Independent
Of the four named people pledging the highest amount of $500, Joe Simpson was named among them. A sum of $500 was quite a sum in those days, given the fact that the working class man in the mines made only $5.00 per day or less. The fact that Simpson was among those who gave the most is also an indication that seems to contradict accounts of him since his death.
The author George Pipkin, in his book Pete Aguereberry, describes Simpson as on pain killers because he was suffering from syphilis. Simpson also no doubt imbibed in his wares at the Gold Seal. The Gold Seal sponsored a drinking club that encouraged card carrying members to over imbibe of the spirits that haunt such saloons. A membership card on display at Eastern California Museum reads:
"Hootch Fighters’ League No. 4 HEADQUARTERS AT The Gold Seal Saloon - WINES - LIQUORS - CIGARS. OAKES & SIMPSON, Prop’rs. SKIDOO, CALIF. The bearer, Mr. Lester Calloway having displayed all the necessary Hootch Fighting qualifications, is entitled to a free drink at any old time or place in any hootch dump on earth. (Provided, etc.). Signed: Joe Simpson President - Fred Oaks Treasurer."
The back side of the card reads thusly:
Rules Governing Hootch Fighter’s League No. 4
Rule 1 - Any brother refusing a drink shall be expelled from the League.
Rule 2 - Two members constitute a quorum.
Rule 3 - The main object of the League is to procure hootch, whether you beg, borrow or steal it. Get it!
Rule 4 - All initiations shall take place at the Gold Seal Saloon, corner of First and Skidoo Sts. Skidoo, in front of the bar being the proper place.
Rule 5 - No brother shall retire for the night while there is a drink in sight.
Rule 6 - The password of the League shall be "You Bet I Will."
Rule 7 - All hootch dumps shall look alike to members of the League.
Rule 8 - Any brother finding another in distress shall procure, in any way, a sufficient number of drinks to alleviate the suffering of the unfortunate brother.
Heavy drinking during those days was pretty much an acceptable way of life in those lonely camps perched on the edge of nowhere and overindulgence usually didn’t make any press. But as to Simpson’s medical history, newsmen are also generally mute. Simpson did, however, make mention in a couple of newspaper articles during the trial because of undescribed health problems and an undisclosed accident.
A.V. Carpenter arrived at Independence last Tuesday from Los Angeles. He is party to a suit involving the title to certain mining property at Skidoo which was to have been tried last Monday but was continued owing to the illness of Jos. Simpson, one of the principals. — June 7, 1907 Inyo Independent
Joe Simpson, of Skidoo, who was severely injured at Keeler about two weeks ago, is improving rapidly and is in hopes to be able to do without the aid of crutches in a few days. — July 26, 1907 Inyo Independent
The trial of Byrne vs. Knight and Simpson continued through September, 1907 and occasionally made news in the local press.
Jack Byrne vs. Tom Knight and Joe Simpson — occupied the attention of the Superior Court for a couple of days during the week and was then postponed for further hearing until June 3rd, 1907 owing to the absence of a material witness. — April 5, 1907 Inyo Independent
Quite a number of Skidoovians were in town during the past week as witnesses and principals in the case of Jack Byrne vs. Tom Knight and Joe Simpson, which has been occupying the attention of the Superior Court for the greater portion of the week. — July 19, 1907 Inyo Independent
The trial ended in favor of Knight and Simpson, due to lack of proper documentation on the part of Jack Byrne and Knight allegedly locating the mines contested after time specified for the agreed upon grubstake. But Byrne was a sore looser and appealed.
SUPERIOR COURT NEWS ... On Monday in the case of Jack Byrne, plaintiff vs. Joe Simpson and Tom Knight, defendants, motion for new trial by plaintiff was argued by P.W. Forbes, Esq., and Ben. H. Yandell and F.C. Sherrer, Esq's, for defendants. The motion was submitted and the Court overruled plaintiff's motion. This case is well known as the "Skidoo" Mining Suit and involves the title to very valuable mineral ground near the town of Skidoo. — April 17, 1908 Inyo Independent
You would think that Joe Simpson would be jubilant over the outcome and end of the trial, but it was not to be. Two days after that newspaper hit the stands, Sunday, April 19, 1908, Joe Simpson committed the crime that he forever shall be known for.
MURDER AT SKIDOO. Word came Tuesday that a murder had been committed in Skidoo Sunday, the victim being J.C. Arnold and the slayer Joe Simpson. The particulars as reported to Under sheriff McDonald are that Simpson had been making a disturbance, and had been disarmed by Arnold. Later he walked up to Arnold and asked what he had against him. Arnold said that he had nothing against Simpson. The latter reiterated that he had, and drawing a revolver deliberately shot Arnold through the heart. Officer McDonald and District Attorney Dehy left yesterday for the scene.
A version of the affray reaching this office says that Simpson's nose and upper lip were shot away during a fight in Los Angeles some time ago; that Arnold is supposed to have been the shooter in that case; and that Simpson traveled across the desert to get even. Not verified. — April 23, 1908 Inyo Register [Bishop, CA]
MURDER AT SKIDOO — ONE OF ITS LEADING CITIZENS SHOT DOWN IN COLD BLOOD — MURDERER IN CHARGE OF DEPUTY SHERIFF. From what we can learn from a party who was present in Skidoo at the time of the killing an unprovoked and uncalled for murder was committed by Joe Simpson, a saloon-keeper of that place last Sunday. It seems that Simpson went to Mr. Dobbs, the banker of that place and requested that he be given twenty dollars. Mr. Todd said: "Joe you know your account stands." Simpson replied, "I don't care. I want it anyhow." The money not being handed out to him he became abusive, and Mr. James Arnold, proprietor of the building and store in which the bank is situated, hearing loud words approached Simpson and prevailed on him to leave the building. Simpson was in an ugly mood and went around town seeking trouble. Mr. Arnold seeing how matters stood, and thinking to preserve the peace and quiet of the town, started to find the Justice of the Peace and have Simpson arrested. Learning that that officer was out of town about fifteen miles, sent after him and had him brought back. Between 10:30 and 1:30, the time of the shooting, and before the arrival of the Justice, Simpson learning what he had done, approached Mr. Arnold and said, "Jim, what have you against me?" Arnold replied, "Joe, I have nothing against you, but when under the influence of liquor you are intensely ugly." On hearing Arnold's reply, Simpson pulled his gun and shot him, remarking "By God, your time has come." The bullet penetrated the body in the region of the heart and made its exit in the back just below the kidneys. The unfortunate man lived only a few hours after being shot.
Deceased was one of the prominent citizens of Skidoo and was identified with all its interests. He was highly respected, and in his death Skidoo loses a citizen who had the best interests of the entire community at heart.
Joe Simpson, who did the killing, is well known here as he was one of the interested parties in the Skidoo mining suit which occupied the attention of the Superior Court for several days last summer, and in all of Southern Inyo's mining camps. When drinking Simpson was regarded as anything but agreeable.
Simpson's preliminary examination will take place today, and he will undoubtedly be brought to Independence in a day or so to stand trial before the Superior Court on charge of murder. — April 24, 1908 Inyo Independent
The events that happened are vividly brought out in the Coroner’s Inquest upon Arnold’s murder as published in the May 1, 1908 Inyo Independent
TESTIMONY OF WITNESSES AND VERDICT OF CORONER'S JURY
The following is the testimony of a few of the principal witnesses that were present at the time Joe Simpson killed James Arnold at Skidoo:
The Jury being duly sworn in upon the request of the Coroner, they went into an adjoining room to view the body of James Arnold deceased, and to identify the corpse.
Coroner Thisse addressing the Jurymen: Do you all recognize him?
Coroner: Who is it?
Jurymen: James Arnold.
Coroner: Ralph E. Dobbs will please take the witness chair.
Ralph E. Dobbs wan [sic] then duly sworn.
Coroner: Will you please tell the Jury what you saw and heard in connection with the shooting of James Arnold on the 19th of April in the Skidoo Trading Company's store.
Dobbs: To the best of my remembrance, I was working in th [sic] bank, when Joe Simpson came walking in after dinner. As far as I could tell, he was feeling good so paid no attention to him. He walked toward the back of the store and I knew nothing further until I heard a pistol shot, and saw James Arnold fall and as near as I can remember I heard Mr. Arnold say, "Don't shoot again. You've got me now." As I jumped to the side of my door I saw Joe Simpson turn around and cover me with his gun. Walking toward me, we conversed for a few moments and then he turned around and walked out of the store. I looked over to where Mr. Arnold had fallen and it seemed to me he had tried to crawl under the counter, but I found he had crawled down into the basement.
Coroner: Did you see Simpson with the gun in his hand?
Dobbs: I did.
Coroner: You are sure that Joe Simpson fired the shot at James Arnold?
Dobbs: I am.
Coroner: Mr. Dobbs, you are excused.
Coroner: E.H. Tracy you will please take the witness chair.
E.H. Tracy was then duly sworn.
Coroner: Mr. Tracy, you please tell the Jury what you know about the shooting of James Arnold.
Tracy: I was standing at the Bank counter taking down one of tne [sic] signs, when I saw Joe Simpson coming into the store. I paid no attention to him. He said, "Hello Tray, what are you doing here?" I said, "Holding up the Bank." Then he addressed James Arnold and said, "Jim, what have you got against me?" Arnold replied, "Joe, I have nothing against you." Joe then said, "You have. Your time has come. You've got to die." With that, I turned around and noticed as James Arnold took two steps backward, Joe came forward, raised his gun and fired. I thought he was shot through the heart, for Arnold fell and lay there. Arnold then spoke and said, "For Christ's sake don't shoot me again." I went out, not knowing how.
Coroner: You saw Simpson fire the shot?
Tracy: I did.
Coroner: Do any of the Jurymen wish to ask the witness any questions?
Follansbee: After Joe shot Arnold, did he leave him?
Tracy: No; he stood over him until Dobbs drew his attention.
Coroner: Any further questions.
Coroner: That is all Mr. Tracy.
Coroner: Ben Epstein, will you please relate to the Jury what you know about the killing of James Arnold.
Epstein: About two o'clock yesterday afternoon, I was sitting in front of Fluger's saloon with Mr. Fluger and Dr. Macdonald, when I saw Joe Simpson cross the street and go into the store. Fluger made the remark, "There goes Joe into the store with a gun in his pocket." Pretty soon, I heard Simpson say, "Jim, what have you got against me?" Arnold replied, "Nothing." I did not hear what else was said, but when I heard a shot, I ran over to the door and saw James Arnold's body lying on the floor and Joe Simpson standing with a gun over him. I heard Arnold say, "For God's sake, don't shoot again." I then ran over to Fluger's saloon to get a gun and not finding one there I ran down to the Doctor's office. When I came back, Joe was coming out of the store. Gordon McBain came along and then I saw the Constable right behind them and the three passed into the restaurant. When I got into the restaurant the three of them were in a corner. The Constable had hold of Joe Simpson's wrist, but the three shots fired by Joe in trying to free himself went into the floor. I took the gun away from Joe and later gave it to the Constable.
Coroner: You had the gun in your hand?
Coroner: Is that the gun (showing gun marked Exhibit A)
Epstein: Yes, sir.
Coroner: Any of the Jurymen wish to ask any questions?
Gavelstad: How many shots were fired in the restaurant?
Epstein: Three, I believe.
Coroner: Any further questions?
Coroner: That will be all, Mr. Epstein.
Coroner: Constable Henry Sellers, where you when this shooting occurred?
Sellers: I was sitting reading a paper in Jack Shehey's saloon when I heard a pistol shot. I got up immediately and ran over toward the store and just as I was stepping in the door I saw the deceased laying on the floor and Simpson put the gun on me, saying, "Do you want anything?" I then ran back to Shehey's saloon and tried to get a shot gun. I could not get the shells into the barrel of Shehey's shot gun, but I got a six shooter from under the bar. When I got on the outside of the saloon, Gordon McBain was with Joe Simpson and they passed on into the restaurant. I went after them and the three of us struggled. I held Joe's gun hand by the wrist and told Gordon several times to get away. Gordon kept on interfering to get between Joe and I, so I took my gun and placing it against his face told him if he did not get away I would kill him. Epstein then took the gun away from Joe and I threw him on the floor and told Epstein to get the hand-cuffs on him.
Coroner: You say Gordon McBain interfered when you tried to arrest Simpson?
Sellers: Yes, I would have had to kill both of them if that gun had not been held by me.
Swinnerton (Juryman): Henry, do you think Gordon tried to help you to arrest Simpson?
Sellers: I don't know.
Swinnerton: Did Gordon have a hold of Joe?
?: We all struggled together. [Note: no name given before comment in paper]
Swinnerton: Did he (Gordon) hinder you in making the arrest?
Sellers: Yes, he was in the way and would not get away when I told him to. I had to threaten to kill him.
Swinnerton: Did Gordon lay his hands on you or Simpson?
Sellers: I could not say.
Swinnerton: Did he get between you and Joe?
Swinnerton: You could have arrested him yourself if he (Gordon) had not been there?
Coroner: Joe did some shooting in the restaurant while you were there trying to place him under arrest?
Sellers: He shot his gun off three times and the bullets went into the floor.
Coroner: Was Simpson's other hand free?
Coroner: Did he aim at any one?
Sellers: He tried to shoot me. While holding his wrist, I tried to keep him from shooting me in the stomach. I did not want to get hurt.
Swinnerton: Did Gordon protect him while crossing the street?
Sellers: It looked that way to me.
Swinnerton: And while you were trying to place Joe under arrest, did it look like he (Gordon) was trying to protect him?
Sellers: Yes. He was in the way.
Swinnerton: He obeyed you when you threatened to shoot him?
Sellers: Yes. Only when I put the gun in his face and he kept interfering with the prisoner after he was under arrest.
Swinnerton: In what way did he interfere?
Sellers: He (Gordon) came around and wanted to buy drinks for him. He hallooed when I took Joe to the guard house and came around this morning and tried to see him.
Shackett (Juryman): Did Joe admit to you that he did the killing?
Sellers: He admitted to his partner that he did the killing.
Shackett: Did you hear Joe make this remark about killing him?
Sellers: Yes; I heard him tell his partner that Jim had kicked him and that he could not stand for that.
Swinnerton: Did you hear him say that he was a Bohemian; a hero, and a true blue?
Sellers: Yes. He was trying to be a hero.
Swinnerton: Did you hear him make the remark that he had a lot of fun doing it?
Sellers: No; I did not hear that. I heard Fred Oaks telling Joe what a terrible thing he had done and that if Arnold had a gun he would not have cared.
Coroner: Who was present in the saloon when this conversation took place?
Sellers: Tracy, Jack Shehey and a fellow named Sharp.
Coroner: Any further questions to be asked the witness?
Coroner: That is all Mr. Sellers.
Coroner: Jack Shehey will please take the witness chair.
Jack Shehey was then duly sworn.
Coroner: Tell the Jury what you heard and saw.
Shehey: Fred Oaks came into my place and told Joe what an awful thing he had done, Joe replied, "Yes Fred, and I had a lot of fun doing it. Just look at the fun I had doing it." and [sic] then he would laugh. Oaks said, "Joe, the man can't get well." Joe replied, "I am glad of it." He said that at least half a dozen times.
Coroner: Who else was there at the time of this conversation?
Shehey: Henry Sellers and Sharp.
Coroner: Any further questions?
Coroner: That will be all.
Jim Arnold was dead. But so was Joe Simpson. The same issue of the Inyo Independent that brought the news of Arnold’s murder, it also carried a seemingly minor little blurb, a telegraph, easily overlooked, buried among the remainder of the newsprint of the page:
SIMPSON IS DEAD
Last evening about 8 o'clock the following dispatch was received by Mr. J.W. Seller, a prominent mining man of Skidoo, who is at Independence on business.
Skidoo, Cal. April 23rd, 1908.
Simpson died last night.
J.J. Sheahy. - 1908, April 24 Inyo Independent
The following week, details of the lynching are given as follows:
LYNCHING AT SKIDOO. Joe Simpson, who deliberately murdered James Arnold at Skidoo Sunday of last week, was taken from the guard on Wednesday night and hanged to a pole. There was a strong sentiment in favor of lynching Simpson the night of the murder, but the plotters were dissuaded from the plan. Arnold was a prominent and respected citizen of the camp, and his killing was an unprovoked and cold-blooded affair. Simpson wsa [sic] a gambler, hailing from Reno, but a resident of the desert camp for some time. He seems to have been a bad character, a number of offenses being charged against him. Once, some time ago, while he was in Independence as a witness on a case in the Superior Court, he fired a pistol through Gunn's saloon door, for which he paid a fine of $150. The opinion of the Skidoo people appears to be that the lynchers did a justifiable piece of business. — April 30, 1908 Inyo Register
In the case of murder or death, there are the legalities to take care of.
In the matter of the inquisition upon the body of Joseph L. Simpson, deceased.
Before Frank G. Thisse, Coroner.
We, the undersigned, Jurors summoned to appear before Frank G. Thisse, Coroner of the County of Inyo, at Skidoo, on the 23rd day of April, A.D. 1908, to inquire into the cause of death of Joseph L. Simpson, having been sworn according to law, and having made such inquisition, after inspecting the body, and hearing the testimony addressed, upon our oaths, each and all do say, that we find the deceased was named Joseph L. Simpson, was a citizen of Skidoo, aged 34 years, that he came to his death on the 23rd day of April, A.D. 1908, in this county, by strangulation at the hands of unknown parties.
All of which we certify by this inquisition, in writing, by us signed, this 23rd day of April, A.D. 1908.
Foreman: A.T. HALL,
MARTIN B. GAVELSTAD,
SAM L. CLINE,
JOHN H. WILSON,
Wm. G. FOLLANSBEE.
— May 1, 1908 Inyo Independent
It may be possible that some of the towns’ leading citizens were involved in the lynching. Witness the Coroner’s Jury report, in which seems almost to be comical and tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps if we were able to witness this jury impaneled, we might see smug denial in each of the testimonies or possibly see smiles or knowing winks of those queried those in the audience in this reading:
VERDICT OF CORONER'S JURY — ON THE REMAINS OF JOE SIMPSON. The following is the complete testimony of the witnesses called before the Coroner's Jury, on holding an inquest on the body of Joe Simpson, found suspended to a telephone pole, a few nights after he had murdered James Arnold.
Testimony in the matter of the inquisition upon the body of Joseph Simpson.
The Jury duly sworn visited the spot where the body lay and it was recognized by all as being that of Josaph [sic] L. Simpson of Skidoo.
Arthur Swenerton, duly sworn says:
As I was going to my work at the store this morning I saw something hanging to a telephone post, which looked to me like the body of a man. Going to the spot I fell in with Mason and Ben Eppstein. Found it to be the body of Joe Simpson. It had a rope around its neck by which it was suspended from the arm of the post. I do not know who put the body there.
John D. Mason, duly sworn says:
I was coming down the street this morning, met Ben Eppstein, he attracted my attention to something hanging to the telephone post. I asked Swennerton, who came at that time what it was. He said it looked like crow's meat. On arriving at the spot found it to be Joe Simpson. I knew him at once. Had a rope around his neck, the other end went over the arm of the pole and was made fast to the pole.
Dr. McDonald, duly sworn says:
I made an examination and find that death was caused by strangulation. Yes, I am fully satisfied that strangulation was the cause of death.
Henry Sellers, duly sworn says:
I am a deputy sheriff of Inyo County, California. Joe Simpson was a prisoner in my hands. Last night I was overpowered by a crowd by force and with guns. They took Simpson from me by force.
H. J. SELLERS — May 1, 1908 Inyo Independent
The newspapers had little to say about the aftermath of Joe Simpson’s death.
Sheriff Naylor returned from Skidoo last Saturday evening. Mr. Naylor will report to the Grand Jury all the facts he was able to obtain of the lynching of Joe Simpson at that place. — May 8, 1908 Inyo Independent
REPORT OF GRAND JURY. To the Honorable Walter A. Lamar, Judge of the Superior Court of the County of Inyo, State of California.
We, the Grand Jury, impaneled in the Superior Court of said County of Inyo on the 2nd day of June, A. D. 1908, respectfully report as follows: ... We find the evidence in the matter of the death of J.L. Simpson, and in other criminal matters brought to our attention insufficient to warrant us in taking further action in said matters at this time.
All of which is respectfully submitted.
Foreman of said Grand Jury.
— June 5, 1908 Inyo Independent
SUPERVISORS' PROCEEDINGS. Monday, July 13th, 1908, 9 o'clock a.m. The Board of Supervisors of the County of Inyo, State of California, met at the above stated time pursuant to adjournment, with all members present. The following General Expense bills were allowed: ... R.E. Macdonald, autopsy, Simpson and Arnold, $75 allowed - 50.00 ... T.G. Thisse, inquest on Simpson and Arnold - 31.50 — July 24, 1908 Inyo Independent
Simpson’s official Inyo County death certificate has its own little details of the lynching. Joe Simpson had lived in Skidoo and California for two years. He was a white male, no date of birth recorded, but estimated to be 38 years old. The names and birthplaces of his mother and father are marked as unknown. He is listed as being married. His occupation was listed as a cook. April 22, 1908 is the date given for his death, that by strangulation. The contributing factor in his death was a "rope with a slipknot on it," for "ten minutes." Joe was buried April 23, 1908 and Fred Oakes served as his undertaker.
Legend and later publications tell a different story. The legend says that Simpson’s body was buried out of town outside of the town cemetery. The press from Los Angeles, due to transportation what it was in those days, arrived too late to get the scoop and photos. So the town obligingly dug Simpson’s body up and re-hung it for the benefit of the press.
But other sources say that Dr. Reginald MacDonald dug up Simpson’s body for his personal inquest upon Simpson’s remains, what effects that syphilis inflicts upon the human brain. They state that Dr. MacDonald hung Simpon’s body in his tent, possibly to show the manner in which he died. Look closely at the photo of Simpson hung — the tent material and beams show plainly. Then he opened the skull and proceeded to probe.
After MacDonald satisfied his curiosity, he then took Simpson’s head from off the corpse and dumped the remainder. He boiled the skull, then set it upon an ant hole. Afterward he kept the skull for a momento. After Skidoo was abandoned, MacDonald left for more promising prospects in Los Angeles. In the 1930s two men who lived in Trona ran into MacDonald in a L.A. bar and told them that the company doctor of the American Potash Company had a fondness for desert relics. MacDonald told the men of Simpson’s skull and where he stashed it in his cabin at Skidoo. The men later retrieved the skull and it later became the unofficial "mascot" of the company doctor’s office at Trona, leering down and greeting all comers. The skull has passed from hand to hand, and is still in a private collection today — "convertible top" (from Dr. MacDonald’s handiwork) and all.
After Simpson died, there was no further mention of the lynching and little about Simpson himself. However, there does come to light a little glimpse of Simpson’s wife. Simpson’s death certificate gives the first clue that Simpson was married. Did his wife live in Skidoo with him? Or was Simpson a rogue, living the life of a fun loving bachelor, possibly the cause of his case of syphilis? The June 11, 1908 Inyo Register sheds some light. And it also downplays later legend that Simpson was a penniless drunk:
It is said that Joe Simpson, who was lynched at Skidoo, left a considerable fortune and that if his wife, whereabouts unknown, will communicate with A.V. Carpenter or John W. Seller, Skidoo, Inyo County, California, she may learn something to her advantage.
In August, 1908, the Owens Valley newspapers give the name of Simpson’s wife, her place of residence and their relationship.
WANTS HUSBAND'S ESTATE. Mrs. Nellie Freeman Simpson, widow of Joe Simpson, who was lynched at Skidoo last April for the wanton murder of James Arnold, is about to begin action to recover at least a share of her husband's estate. He left a will giving all his property to his partner, Fred Oakes. — August 6, 1908 Inyo Register
Mrs. Nellie Freeman Simpson, wife of the late Joe Simpson who passed away suddenly at Skidoo in April last, has been at Independence for the past two weeks searching records and obtaining information in regard to the Simpson estate. She left yesterday morning for her home in Portland, Oregon, where she has resided since her separation from Simpson some years ago. —August 7, 1908 Inyo Independent
The newspapers are mute regarding the outcome of Nellie Simpson’s action. With these articles, Joe Simpson’s memory faded from Inyo County. For a while.
Interestingly enough, C.B. Glasscock and C.E. Kunze, the dynamic duo who had published the eccentric newspaper / magazine, the Death Valley Chuck-Walla at Greenwater, and were currently publishing the Inyo Magazine at Bishop, published a two part article in the October 15, 1908 and November 1, 1908 issues of the magazine under the title Murder In Camp: A True Story of a Mining Camp." Reading the articles, it greatly appears that the author based a fictional story on the Simpson-Arnold affair at Skidoo. The names of the characters were changed as well as the name of the town. However, events, circumstances and dialogue in the magazine article was much the same as published accounts in the Inyo County newspapers:
"‘Have you have anything against me, John?’ ‘No, Jim, I have nothing against you,’ answered Turner. ‘You lie! You have!’ snarled Brayton. ‘Your end has come! Prepare to Die!’ And with a word he jerked from his pocket a heavy revolver."
Other than Simpson’s name showing up in the newspaper in June, 1909 on the Delinquent Tax List, the life of Simpson was snuffed out on this earth and silenced in the published record until later authors began to recount the legends.