Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Lewis Cowan Killed Fred French

It's a long drive from Yosemite to Los Angeles, so when we got to Fresno, I was ready for a break and the car was ready for some gas.  I figure that smaller towns are easier to navigate - to get on and off the highway, find gas, stop and walk around a bit - so we skipped Fresno and decided on Kingsburg.  We had stopped in a town called Kingston over night on the way to Yosemite, so this seemed like good symmetry. 

I don't want to keep you waiting for Lew Cowan too long, so here's his wanted poster.  Click it to enlarge and focus.  The details of the crime are below.

We found the poster in the Kingsburg historic jail.  Which we found strolling a downtown street. As you can see from the horse in the picture below, there's a Swedish flavor to this town as well.

We followed the sign  (above the horse's head) down a cute little passageway to the jail where we found this yellow poster about the dastardly deed.  You can click on the image to see it better, or you can just read the transcript next to it.

"On the night of November 2, 1916, Fred French, while performing his duties of deputy night watchman for the community of Kingsburg, encountered Lew Cowan behaving in a drunken and disorderly manner in the pool hall. Cowan and French engaged in a wrestling match, and bystanders pulled them apart, whereupon Cowan ran away. French then called Constable George Boyle who along with U.S. Marshall S.J. Shannon, found and arrested Cowan. Cowan also caused a disturbance at that time and managed to land a punch to the face of Boyle. They took Cowan to jail, but by that time he had become calm and pleaded that he was sorry and would go home and sleep it off if they would just release him. Constable Boyle then took him home.
Cowan's mother received him at home, but could not stop him from collecting a shotgun and shells and leaving the house. He met a fellow named, "Larson," who had been with him in the initial altercation in the pool hall. Allegedly he threatened Larson and force him to accompany him. The two men walked to the railroad depot, where they spotted French leaning against a fence. Cowan raised the gun and fired both barrels, hitting French in the head and killing him instantly.
Cowan sent Larson home and absconded. Ensuing searches failed to find Cowan.
In her book, "Bit of Sweden in the Desert," Pauline Peterson Mathes, gave this account: "Thirteen years after her father's murder and the day after her mother's funeral Alice (Fred French's daughter) was sweeping the sidewalk in front of their home when and old looking, bearded man came along, tapping a cane as he walked. He asked if that was Fred French's house. She told him her father had been dead for 13 years, having been murdered in 1916. The old man then looked at her with tears streaming down his face, and said, 'Oh, I'm really sorry to hear that.' He went on in the general direction of the old Cowan place. Was that old man Lew Cowan? We'll never know.'"
Drunks with guns isn't a new problem.  This happened 101 years ago last week.

Here's the actual jail.

 And out back, there's a person escapiing.  The muralist makes it look pretty real.

We were there about three weeks ago, but I did want to share our short diversion from the drive.  Kingsburg is on Highway 99, a road my dad and I rode summers for our vacations together in when I was kid.  It was a two lane highway most of the way and went right through the center of town.  Now it's four to eight lanes most of the way and full of big trucks.  Very unpleasant driving.  But reasonably fast.

The Kingsburg Historic Park website has more pictures of the inside - much better than the ones I took - so you can see more there.  There's lots to see in this world, if you just take the time to let it find you.

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