By JUDY DEPUY | Moonshine Ink
Much like they did in the legendary old-west towns of Tombstone, Arizona and Virginia City, Nevada, hoodlums, vandals, pimps, gamblers, and con men drifted through Truckee looking for a safe haven and a place to make their next buck. Over a 20-year period from 1867 to 1887, the town was beset by an ill-defined, ever-changing group of ruffians.
By that time, 25 of Truckee’s 173 buildings were saloons. There was a clear need for law and order.
A group of Truckee citizens decided to regain control of their town, using aggressive vigilantism to deal with gunplay and uncontrolled recklessness. The main vigilante group went by the name of the 601s, whose primary goal was to run out of town anyone they deemed to be “undesirable.” The Caucasian League, another set of vigilantes, was a secret anti-Chinese group who sought to rid the town of lower-paid Chinese workers, many of whom had decided to make Truckee their home after working to build the First Transcontinental Railroad (see last month’s In the Past). These groups took the law into their own hands and used their own methods of dealing with the various people they did not want in town.
Over the years, 601 vigilantes broke into the Truckee Jail, seizing prisoners for tar-and-feather parties at Hooligan Rock, located in the present-day Gateway Shopping Center, in front of what is now Rite Aid on Donner Pass Road. Following the public display, the vigilantes would put the prisoners on the train to San Francisco, telling them to “never come back.”
In early 1868, Jacob Teeter took the position of constable to help maintain law and order over the vast eastern end of Nevada County. He had a strong sense of obeying the law and was against anyone taking the law into their own hands. Teeter is famously known for preferring a pick handle over a gun that was “not apt to misfire and quicker to reload.” He also boasted that no one took anyone from his jail.
Early Truckee Criminals
Teeter’s reputation was solidified by many prominent arrests. In December 1868, he arrested a man named Breading in the nearby settlement of Boca. Breading had murdered Luther Leachman over a $25 carpentry work dispute, stabbing him in the chest. In 1874, Teeter solved Truckee’s first murder, that of a man named Charles Hamilton. After extensive questioning, Johnny Morton Blair, a member of a gang of outlaws led by “Tarantula Bill,” told Teeter that Tarantula Bill had killed Hamilton. Bill’s gang of desperados was known to terrorize, rob, and murder citizens and establishments at will.
Teeter confronted three men suspected of robbing a town merchant of money and merchandise in September 1887. The constable surprised the robbers near the railroad tracks behind the sawmill, where they were dividing up the loot. Teeter approached with his 3-foot hardwood pick handle in hand. The largest man drew a revolver, but before he could fire, Teeter struck the gunman across the forehead, followed by another decisive blow from the constable’s club. He single-handedly marched all three to the stone jail on Jibboom Street.
Truckee’s famous criminal “guests”
About a half-century after its days of early violence, Truckee was considered a safe haven for gangsters during the Prohibition years of the 1920s to 1930s. Smaller cities and towns, often used as a refuge and safe harbor providing relaxation and entertainment, were important to gangsters and mobsters. Prostitution, gambling, and bootlegging thrived.
Lester “Baby Face” Nelson arrived in Reno in 1932, seeking such a haven. He was an unusual figure in the realm of auto bandits, being a family man with a wife and two kids. Nelson was nicknamed “Baby Face” due to his youthful appearance and small stature. When he passed through Truckee on his way to the San Francisco Bay Area, he sought out a warm place to sleep. The sheriff kindly accommodated the bootlegger, putting him up in the Truckee Jail. It is assumed that the sheriff did not know it was Nelson who he had helped at the time. During the summer of 1934, Nelson was eluding a nationwide dragnet, hiding out in Northern California, Reno, and the Lake Tahoe area. He was fatally shot by FBI agents that same year on Nov. 27.
Notorious kidnapper George Kelly Barnes, infamously known as “Machine Gun Kelly,” — whose nickname came from his favorite weapon, a Thompson submachine gun — also had a brief incarceration in Truckee. During Prohibition, Barnes worked as a bootlegger. After several run-ins with Memphis police, he headed west with his girlfriend. Rumor has it that Barnes may have been running low on bullets and blindfolds when he was caught shoplifting at the Truckee Variety Store. Both he and his gang did a short stint at the Truckee Jail.
The darkest of Truckee’s criminal run-ins, however, came on a cold, April night in 1940. Ma Spinelli was stranded with her daughter, the daughter’s two young sons, and three other men, in their car outside Truckee. Called the “The Duchess” by her associates, Spinelli and her gang had been on a rampage of theft and murder in California when highway patrolman Art Barrett found them. Since Truckee’s hotels were full and Barret took pity, he helped them find a hotel room and drove them to Reno. When he got back to Truckee, the patrolman received a message that the folks he had helped were the infamous Ma Spinelli gang. He rushed back to Reno and convinced them to return to Truckee to clear up some car registration irregularities. Barrett put them into the Truckee Jail, where they stayed until reinforcements could arrive. Spinelli is known as the first woman executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber.
For more stories please visit Truckee’s historic Old Jail Museum, built in 1875 and used until 1964, and experience what it was like to be incarcerated in the Wild West.
Old Jail Museum
LOCATION: 10142 Jibboom St. in Historic Downtown Truckee
OPEN: Weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend); and Thursdays, 5 to 9 p.m. (mid-June to end of August).
MORE INFO: For a complete list of summer activities taking place in Truckee to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, visit goldspike.org or the Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration page on Facebook.
~ Judy DePuy is a retired civil engineer, marketer, and a volunteer for the Truckee-Donner Historical and Railroad societies.