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The Murder of Aaron M. Tullis, Grand Island, California, 1878


Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
Celebrated Criminal Cases of America
Part II: Pacific Coast Cases

Aaron M. Tullis, an old bachelor, resided on Grand Island on the Sacramento River for many years, and by hard work and judicious investments he accumulated a fortune estimated at $100,000.00, including 667 acres of orchard land which yielded him a handsome income.

At 6 p. m. on August 1, 1878, two men came down the river in a duck boat and landed near Tullis’ residence. They asked a Chinese man (worker) at the house where Mr. Tullis could be found, and were directed to the orchard where Tullis was budding trees.

About 6:30 p.m. people living across the river heard three shots fired, and the next morning the body of Tullis was found with two bullet wounds, one in the small of the back and one in the neck.

As none of the valuables were removed from the body and as Tullis led a secluded life and did not interfere with his neighbors, it was hard to find a motive for the crime. The Chinaman gave a very unsatisfactory description of the two visitors, and the prospects of apprehending the murderers did not seem bright.

Immediately after the discovery of the body, Public Administrator Troy Dye applied for letters of administration on the estate, but a Mr. Figel, a friend of Tullis’, objected to Dye acting as administrator and telegraphed to Tullis’ brother in Texas for instructions. During this time, Sheriff Drew and Deputy Harrison were cleverly weaving a case around the conspirators. While they located people who saw the two men in the boat, none of them knew the men, and no further trace could be found of them or the boat. The officers continued their search on the river, and near Clarkville they found a piece of lumber on which someone had been figuring, and among other words and figures was found “64 feet.” It was ascertained that this amount of lumber would make the boat described to them, so they took the board back to Sacramento and began a search of the lumber yards. When they arrived at the yard conducted by Walton, at Twelfth and J Streets, L. B. Lusk, the salesman, identified the words and figures as his own writing, and stated that he had sold 64 feet of lumber to Edward Anderson on July 30, who requested that it be sent to the home of Troy Dye on I Street near Twenty-First, where he intended to make a duck boat.

Anderson formerly worked for Dye when the latter was in the butcher business. Dye admitted that the boat was built at his home, but he stated that Anderson intended to use it to carry himself to his place of employment up the river.

On August 12, Troy Dye was arrested, and on the following day Anderson was arrested at his home at L and Nineteenth Streets. Expressman Stone stated that he hauled the boat to the river on the early evening of July 31.

On August 14, Dye broke down and made a complete confession to District Attorney G. A. Blanchard, as follows:

“I was born in Iowa and I am now 35 years old. I came to Sacramento in 1866 and I was first employed as a rancher, then as a butcher and afterward I conducted a saloon. On March 4, 1878, I took office as public administrator. A few weeks later, while Forepaugh’s Circus was in town, I was in company with Edward Anderson and several friends, and in speaking about the income from my new office, I explained that I received no regular salary, only a percentage from the estates that I administered upon.

“This put an idea into Anderson’s head and without consulting me, he went that night to the residence of a rich man named Jackson whom he saw downtown and laid in wait to murder him with an iron bar as he returned to his home. Fortunately, for Jackson, he was accompanied by two friends and thus his life was saved.

“The next day Anderson told me of what he had attempted to do and I admonished him to be very careful. He replied that he had already killed two men. He said that six years previously he was working on Patton’s ranch and he killed a man who was the cause of his (Anderson) being discharged and threw the body in a well.

“In the second case, the victim was a sheepherder who had a falling out with Anderson and the latter struck him with an iron bar after he had gone to sleep and then burned the cabin.

“I continued to conduct my saloon after being elected to office, and one night Anderson and Tom Lawton, who resided with his mother and sisters in Sacramento, came to my saloon and we had a long talk about my office. Shortly afterward Anderson went to Yuba City in Sutter County to work, and on July 5 I went up after him and discussed the advisability of killing Tullis. Anderson was agreeable to the proposition and agreed to leave his position on July 13 and join Lawton and me in Sacramento. He kept his agreement and on the next day Lawton and Anderson stole a boat and rowed to Tullis’ place. The next morning I met the men near Freeport according to agreement, but they stated that they had accomplished nothing, as Tullis was away on a visit to friends.

“Anderson then returned to Yuba City, but came back to Sacramento on the 27th, he wanted to go after Tullis again, to which I was agreeable, but I was opposed to his building the boat that they used as I feared it would lead to our arrest. I preferred to steal a boat.

“I loaned my pistol to Lawton and borrowed one from a blacksmith named Way to loan to Anderson. They left Sacramento on the evening of July 31 and took along a basket of provisions. On the evening of August 1 they found Tullis in his orchard and first knocked him down with a sandbag and then shot him twice.

“They then rowed away and broke up the boat in the tules on the Odell Ranch, and I met them the next morning with a horse and buggy about a mile below Richland.”

When confronted with Dye’s confession Anderson weakened and admitted that it was the truth. Lawton escaped before the confession was obtained and was never apprehended.

While Dye claimed that he had never participated in any other crime, it was subsequently learned that his saloon, known as the “Sierra Nevada,” had been a rendezvous for thieves. On March 28, 1878, just a few weeks after Dye took office, the body of a young man named George Lawrence, who had been a frequenter of Dye’s saloon, was found in Tivoli pond, north of Sacramento. The day before Lawrence disappeared, he delivered his property to a young man, who subsequently delivered it to Dye and then suddenly disappeared.

On October 29, 1878, Dye, Anderson and Lawton were indicted for murder, and on January 7, 1879, the trial began before the Sixth District Court. Creed Haymond entered a plea of guilty for his client Dye.

The prosecution presented its case, and on January 10 the jury returned a verdict of guilty with the death penalty attached.

On January 11, Anderson’s case commenced and he also plead guilty and was sentenced to be hanged.

March 13, 1879, was set as the date for the execution of Dye and Anderson, but a stay was granted, and the cases were appealed to the Supreme Court, which sustained the lower court in a decision rendered on April 22.

The date for the execution was then set for May 29.

Anderson remained indifferent to the last, but Dye nearly collapsed when he bade his little family goodbye, and collapsed completely when the cap was placed over his head.

See Also: Aaron M. Tullis,