The life of a sheriff in the late 19th and early 20th century was never a dull one. Arresting suspects, tracking down men wanted in other jurisdictions, preventing jailbreaks and having shootouts with bandits were all part of the job for Stanislaus County Sheriff Robert Purvis.
Tracking some suspects in December 1885, Purvis and a deputy decided to search a cabin in the foothills of Livermore. The door was locked. Finding a boy playing outside, Purvis asked him if there was anyone inside. The boy said, "No," so the sheriff sent him climbing through a window to open a door for Purvis and his deputy, which the boy did.
Upon entering, Purvis quickly discovered there was someone in the cabin and there was a gun pointing at him. The suspect leveled his gun at the sheriff and fired, hitting Purvis in the shin. After shooting the sheriff, the man approached the deputy, pressed his gun into the deputy's chest, pulled the trigger and nothing. The gun misfired, after which the deputy shot the criminal at close range and the bullet buried itself in the suspect's scalp.
A few days later, according to the Sacramento Daily Record-Union, Purvis returned to Modesto with his criminal in tow and, once the man was left at the jail, the sheriff walked home.
Sometimes trouble just found Purvis as when in August 1889 the sheriff and a deputy were riding a train that stopped in Lathrop. Some passengers went to eat at a diner in the train depot. Amongst them were U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field and his bodyguard, Deputy U.S. Marshal David Neagle. Also entering was former state Supreme Court Justice David S. Terry.
Terry, who held a longtime grudge against his former friend, went over to Field's table, where he slapped Field.
Neagle quickly shot Terry dead.
In the commotion that soon followed, "Sheriff Purvis and a deputy of Stanislaus County," wrote the Fort Worth Daily Gazette, "had already taken charge of Deputy United States Marshal Neagle."
After several years of wrangling in the courts, Neagle was ruled to have acted properly in the shooting.
Other trips by Purvis were less eventful, such as bringing back bandits from Visalia after they had robbed a train in Ceres; heading to Los Angeles to retrieve John Blanchard, who was wanted in Modesto for perjury; or a ride to Newman to arrest someone wanted in Texas on suspicion of murder.
Working at the jail in December 1892, Purvis noticed odd sounds coming from where the prisoners were kept. Upon investigation, he found prisoner N.E. Hale, to quote the Los Angeles Herald of Dec. 21, 1892, "cutting through the brick wall to freedom. Thirty minutes later Hale and half a dozen other prisoners would have been at liberty, as only one thickness of brick remained."
One prisoner who escaped was James Phillips, a horse thief who sawed his way through the bars of his cell. He was captured in Stockton a few days later. Purvis went to Stockton and brought Phillips back to be sentenced to 12 years in San Quentin for his crimes.
A short time later, a grand jury indicted Phillips' attorney Thomas O'Donnell for providing the tools Phillips used to escape. Like his client, O'Donnell left Modesto for many points north ranging from Oregon to Montana and British Columbia. In November 1898, O'Donnelly surrendered himself in Modesto to Purvis.
Purvis' death in 1908 signaled the end of the early days of law enforcement in Stanislaus County. The days of arresting cattle rustlers and detaining the bodyguards of judges who shot other judges were over, and life in the area began to settle into a more routine way.
Sources: Sacramento Daily Record-Union, Dec. 12, 1885; Fort Worth Daily Gazette, Aug. 15, 1889; Los Angeles Herald, Dec. 21, 1892, and Los Angeles Herald, Nov. 27, 1898.
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.