MODESTO -- Walking near 14th and G streets on the morning of Dec. 13, 1897, a Modesto resident would have seen the horrifying sight of, according to the next day's San Francisco Call, Etta Tiedemann running "from the house, blood pouring from a bullet wound in her breast. Her mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. George C.L. Owens, were found lying in their own blood on the kitchen floor."
While the daughter survived, Mrs. Owens died several days later. Her husband was her killer.
George Owens was a carpenter who had a reputation for being an alcoholic, but only recently had stopped drinking. In September of the same year, Owens' daughter had married W.F. Tiedemann, a blacksmith. While the mother approved of the marriage, George Owens did not.
By the time of the wedding, Mrs. Owens and another daughter had moved into her son-in-law's home. She also had sent notice of her intention to divorce her husband "upon the grounds of extreme cruelty and failure to provide," according to the Sacramento Record-Union of the same date.
After shooting his wife and daughter, Owens turned the gun on himself, but somehow he missed his head and damaged his scalp. Taken to the jail, "He begged Under Sheriff Waterhouse to give him a revolver so he could kill himself. He said that if he could only kill his son-in-law," who was out of town, "he could die in peace."
With his arrest would come a trial, but finding an impartial jury would prove difficult. As the Sacramento paper noted, "The neighbors say that Owens was very cruel, and the feeling is very bitter against him."
Ten days after the shooting, with his head bound from his self-inflicted wound, Owens appeared in court. He did not make any statement, and the judge ordered him to be held without bail. Two months after the shooting, his trial began.
Picking a jury proved to be difficult, but after five days and 171 potential jurors were interviewed, a jury was selected and the trial began.
Owens' lawyers' plan was to claim temporary insanity, but it would fail. The jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. On March 1, 1898, the judge set May 20 as the date Owens would be hanged at San Quentin State Prison.
A year later, Owens still was awaiting his execution because of the work of his lawyers, who tried to get his conviction overturned.
On Feb. 17, 1899, the state Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's denial of a motion for a new trial. Even with that ruling against them, Owens' lawyers continued to try to save their client. They appealed to the governor, but he refused to interfere with the execution.
That failure led to another absurd contrivance that appeared to do the work Owens' lawyers could not.
The new wrinkle was that the term of San Quentin Warden W.E. Hale was set to expire the day of the execution. After consulting the state attorney general, the April 21, 1899, edition of the Call said, "Hale is empowered to act as warden until his successor is appointed."
That was the last obstacle to the execution. The Call went on to note that Owens was "growing weaker and weeps continually. It is feared by the officials that an awful scene may occur at the execution."
A report in the April 22, 1899, Call said Owens "braced up" that day, spoke his final words with a "firm tone" and was hanged at San Quentin a year and five months after the crime.
Sources: San Francisco Call, Dec. 14, 1897; Sacramento Record-Union, Dec. 14, 1897; San Francisco Call, April 21 and 22, 1899.
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.