Springtime is the most pleasant season in the valley for outdoor excursions including picnics at Henderson Park.
The park, situated on the banks of Merced River, is just outside of Snelling on Merced Falls Road. It was named after County Supervisor Dr. Frank W. Henderson who represented District One from 1919 to 1938. However, Dr. Henderson is not the subject of this story, his brother Frederick W. Henderson.
Frederick “Fred” W. Henderson was a well-known and respected attorney from Merced. When he died of a stroke in 1931, Merced County Superior Court Judge Elbridge N. Rector acknowledged him as a leader of the local bar when he noted that “[n]o man could leave this community with a greater void by his departure.”
Henderson was born in Waltham, Massachusetts on March 27, 1873 to Mr. and Mrs. Laughlin Henderson. The family moved to Stockton first and relocated to Merced in 1883 after the death of his mother. His father, Laughlin, became very involved with the local government and was first elected to City Board of Trustees (now City Council) in 1902 and became a mayor in 1908.
It was during his father’s time serving on the Board of Trustees that Fred Henderson was hired as the City Attorney of Merced in 1905. By this time, he had already had a stint in the office of Merced County District Attorney as a deputy and opened his own private practice for a couple of years. He was a legal giant as he fought cases involving individuals, corporations, municipalities, and organizations. Of the 17 attorneys, Henderson and F. G. Ostrander were considered the best bankruptcy, corporation, estate, and real estate lawyers in Merced, according to The Lawyer and Banker and Bench and Bar Review in 1913.
Henderson had his law office next to his mentor, F. G. Ostrander, in the Pedreira Building on the southwest corner of Main and K streets. It was while practicing at this location that a very horrible event occurred. There were a couple of circumstances leading to that fateful day of May 26, 1915.
First, Henderson not only had a successful law practice, he had also married well. His wife was Eliza, the only child of Marshall Atwater for which the town of Atwater is named in his honor. By 1915, Atwater had died and left his 2600-acre ranch and estate to his widow and daughter. The Hendersons had a home in Merced at 259 W. 21st St. which remains to this day and maintained a ranch home outside of Merced. Second, Henderson had a run-in with a man by the name of Robert A. Kirkman. Kirkman was driven out of town by Henderson and Sheriff John S. Swan in November 1908 after he attempted to blackmail an old rancher out of $1,000.
On the morning of May 26, Henderson was kidnapped at gunpoint by two men as he was driving his buggy from his ranch to his office in Merced. Henderson immediately recognized Kirkman. Henderson was ordered to write a note to his stenographer before he was handcuffed and hidden in a car. In the note, he asked his stenographer to delay and cancel all his appointments and to inform his wife that he would be out of town for a few days on an important business. Kirkman then had his accomplice deliver the message to his office at the Pedreira Building.
After abandoning the buggy upon delivering the note, this man later identified as Al Fisher met up with Kirkman who was waiting on the County Highway near the Oakdale Railroad on the outskirts of Merced and they both travelled north to Stockton with their captor. Henderson contemplated his escape the whole time. Once entering Stockton, the car slowed down because of the busy traffic. He jumped out of the car suddenly and ran into the office of the California Traction Company for help. Kirkman drove into a light pole because of this sudden movement and Fisher failed to grab hold of Henderson. The men then abandoned their vehicle and fled on foot as the police soon arrived to help. They escaped in a stolen buggy.
The plan, later recounted by Henderson, was to kill Henderson in Reno after he signed the affidavits so Kirkman and Fisher could obtain money, lands, and other valuables from the relatives of Henderson. The items recovered from their abandoned car showed the men were well equipped with a new knife, a saw, a steel cable, a blackjack, a large sack, and change of clothes to carry out their evil deeds. Al Fisher was later captured in Los Angeles. He was tried and convicted, serving 25 years in prison. Robert Kirkman was never found or captured.
Just as Henderson survived this awful ordeal, he never once gave up hope in face of danger. This probably is one of his main traits in dealing with difficult and complicated legal cases which established his reputation as a legal giant in Merced in the early first half of the 20th century. To learn more about Merced County history, please visit the Courthouse Museum. Currently on display is the “Grazie America! From Italy to Merced County” exhibit.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.