Love and violence often made crimes in the Wild West more colorful and sensational, from Joaquin Murrieta’s vengeance for his beloved Rosa to the unsolved murder of John L. Ivett.
Ivett’s murder was one of the most brutal and mysterious crimes in late 19th-century Merced County.
On the morning of Nov. 10, 1890, Ivett, a Merced Falls rancher, was found dead on his porch, a victim of a brutal murder. Some said his wife’s ex-suitors were suspected, while others believed Ivett’s brother-in-law was the perpetrator.
So in the case of John L. Ivett’s murder, was it for love, or money, or both?
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It all began June 15, 1887, when a wealthy old widower married a beautiful young woman at least 50 years his junior. Ivett was an English immigrant who came to the area in 1852 and was already farming along the Merced River when Merced County was organized in 1855. His home ranch was between Snelling and Merced Falls. A prosperous farmer, he enjoyed the company of his wife, Elsie, and three children. Unfortunately, a series of deaths in the family left him a widower and childless by 1886.
Ivett was heartbroken and lonely. Then there was the young Sophie Augusta Olsen from a neighboring ranch who had blossomed into a beautiful woman. It was not difficult for Sophie to pick Ivett over other younger admirers. Ivett was pleased with his new bride and Sophie appeared to be a devoted wife. However, a couple of events leading up to his killing cast a shadow over an otherwise happy marriage.
First, Sophie fell ill and needed better medical attention. As a result, she was transported to San Francisco and was being treated there at the time of Ivett’s killing. Then, Ivett, at the time of his death, had not drafted any kind of will for an estate that consisted of $80,000 in personal property and 12,000 acres of land in Merced and Mariposa counties. So these events had made Ivett’s brutal murder even more sensational.
There were no murder weapons found or witnesses to the crime. Ivett was last seen alive Nov. 9 when he left the lower house after dinner and retired to his upper house for the night. As Ivett’s body was discovered, doctors S.O. Cassity and E.S. O’Brien thoroughly examined the victim and concluded that he was struck with a blunt instrument in the head several times because every bone was fractured. The investigators suggested that Ivett was killed by someone he was acquainted with, because the crime scene suggested he and his visitor were on their way to the cellar for a drink when the murder occurred. They also concluded that it was not a robbery, because no money or valuables were taken from the victim or his house.
As the investigation by Sheriff Charles A.H. Warfield’s office progressed, the ex-lover angle was checked out and eliminated. But the cloud of suspicion over Sophie’s brother, August Olsen, was getting stronger and stronger. It was said that Olsen was concerned with the welfare of his sister. Because of her poor health and the absence of a will, Olsen allegedly worried that Sophie would either expire before Ivett or be left with nothing.
Olsen was visiting Ivett at the time of the murder, although he claimed that he had gone home to his mother’s ranch in La Grange that night. The officers found that the tracks of the horse at the crime scene matched his horse, the clothing and boots uncovered at his place had human bloodstains, his hackamore also contained bloodstains, and the hammer and pincers that he carried to Ivett’s ranch were missing.
Circumstantial evidence led to Olsen’s arrest that November and the subsequent trial began in March 1891. The trial presided over by Judge John K. Law was full of excitement and surprises and lasted eight weeks. There was alleged perjury, jury bribery and jury intimidation. The most surprising move was when the special prosecutor and ex-Sen. Pat Reddy, one of the best criminal lawyers in the state, did not even cross-examine the defendant.
Olsen was acquitted by the jury, his attorneys went on to become California governor (James H. Budd of Stockton) and Assembly speaker (Frank Gould of Merced), and Sophie eventually received her share of the inheritance.
For love or money, Ivett’s murder became one of the most coldblooded and sensational mysteries in Merced County legal history.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.