Sarah Lim: Museum Notes

Shaping Justice Exhibit Opening at the Courthouse Museum

Looking East on Front Street (16th Street), circa 1910. The two-story building behind the trees on Front Street indicated by the narrow marks the location where Jim Collins (pictured here) shot and killed his wife in 1913. (Courthouse Museum Collection)
Looking East on Front Street (16th Street), circa 1910. The two-story building behind the trees on Front Street indicated by the narrow marks the location where Jim Collins (pictured here) shot and killed his wife in 1913. (Courthouse Museum Collection)

Rugged individualism and frontier spirit are often the themes of the stories and songs of the American West. No need to look further than our own county. Harry Granice’s killing of rival newspaper Editor Edward Madden to avenge his mother’s honor and the jury trial that followed made this event one of the most visible and colorful chapters of Merced County legal history.

The “Shaping Justice: A Century of Great Crimes in Merced County” exhibit, opening at the Courthouse Museum on June 27 at 5 p.m., will chronicle the development of Merced County’s legal system in its first 100 years by examining 30 crimes/cases from the Snelling Wild West shootout in 1857 to finally putting the elusive “vice king” Rusty Doan behind bars in 1952.

Being a new county in 1855 with a population of no more than 500, Merced tried to put in place a basic legal framework as its citizens elected J. W. Fitzhugh as Superior Court Judge, Charles F. Bludworth as Sheriff, J. W. Smith as District Attorney, and Samuel H. P. Ross and J. A. Vance as Associate Justices. When the county’s settlements grew beyond the Merced River bottom, the need for additional law enforcement became apparent. This led to the establishment of Justice Courts throughout the county and the expansion of judicial townships to eight by 1914.

As for the defense bar, the right to legal counsel and the right to appointed counsel for criminal defendants in the state courts was instituted in 1921. Merced County was actually ahead of the state in this matter when Tom Bellon of Dinuba, who faced a charge of first degree murder of his mother-in-law near Atwater, was provided with an appointed attorney by the name of Terry W. Ward. Bellon rejected counsel and pleaded guilty. When he was hanged in 1919, Bellon became the first convict from Merced County to be executed at San Quentin Prison.

In addition to the Bellon case, Merced County witnessed many notorious crimes in the 1910s from the kidnapping of Merced attorney Fred W. Henderson, the killing of Game Warden George Rodolph, to Jim Collins’ cold-blooded murder of his wife. For the most part, the accused defendants were convicted and punished according to the sentencing standards of the time. Meanwhile, Merced County made great strides in women’s rights and their participation in jury service.

Soon after California women were enfranchised in 1911, they began to participate in various civic and political activities. In Snelling, Nora Gallo and Johanna Latour became the first two women to serve in an inquest in Merced County when they were part of a coroner’s jury on February 17, 1915. Also in the same year, Merced’s first trial with an all-women jury occurred in Justice F. H. Farrar’s court. Then in 1919, the first appearance of a female attorney took place in Judge E. N. Rector’s courtroom. Miss Enid Childs of Stockton was so convincing in her arguments in this civil case that Judge Rector ruled in her client’s favor.

The Roaring Twenties was a crazy time in Merced County as bootlegging and glorifying anti-heroes became common-place during the Prohibition era. In 1922, Heaine Haislip (a.k.a. Francisco Lopez), 21, justified his killing of Tom Sablich of South Dos Palos as self-defense and described how he courageously pushed back Sablich’s multiple attacks. His rebel persona captured the fascination of the youth and adults alike who closely followed the trial and gained sympathy from the jury who returned a manslaughter verdict instead of first degree murder. This led to a Merced Star editorial calling out the residents for celebrating villains and the judicial system for being soft on crime.

The Great Depression did make life miserable for many Merced County residents as domestic disputes often resulted in the murder of family members. While Bertha Talkington was able to be acquitted of murder by demonizing her husband and denouncing his treatment of her, Ygnacio Ayerza was found guilty of first degree double-murder of his daughter and her fiancé which arose out of disagreement regarding the young couple’s planned marriage. However, the despair of the 1930s did not hinder progress from being made in our legal system. Criminal defense attorney Stephen P. Galvin, in 1939, won a landmark state Supreme Court decision in People v. Luther Hines which ended the de facto practice of excluding blacks from serving as jurors in both civil and criminal cases in Merced County.

The decade of the 1940s marked the rise of a couple of legal giants in Merced County, local attorney C. Ray Robinson and Superior Court Judge James D. Garibaldi. They both were involved in another landmark case which was ultimately decided by the state Supreme Court. In Escola v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. (1944), Robinson was one of plaintiff Gladys Escola’s attorneys who successfully sued the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Fresno in a personal injury case, and Garibaldi ruled that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (Latin for “the thing speaks for itself”) applied to this case which was detrimental to the defense arguments. This case became a must-read tort case for first-year law students.

With storyboards, newspaper articles, photos, and in-depth study of the crime databases created by the Museum, the “Shaping Justice” exhibit will provide a fresh perspective of criminal justice history in Merced County. At the exhibit opening, local attorney and Historical Society president Neil Morse will give a PowerPoint presentation titled: “Scoundrels, Crooks, Thieves, and Politicians” at 6:00 p.m. For more information about the exhibit, please contact the Courthouse Museum at 723-2401. Admission to the event is free.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at