Saturday, August 22, 2015

Harry Nicholson Morse -- A Better Lawman Than Most Legends

Harry Nicholson Morse
Harry Nicholson Morse was an Old West lawman. Or more accurately, he was a Far West lawman.

The Far West was what folks in the 1800s called the region of the United States originally comprising all territories West of the Mississippi River. Today it is generally restricted to the area West of the Rocky Mountains.

Born on February 22nd, 1835, in New York City, he relocated to California to search for gold in 1850s at 15 years of age.

Harry N. Morse came from New York as an eager 49er to the gold fields of Northern California. Like others at the time, his thoughts were to get rich as soon as possible.

While thousands of others had the same dream and were soon disappointed, many leaving California to head back East to where they came from, others like Harry Morse turned to a variety of other jobs for a steadier livelihood. Most found that their need to eat meant taking jobs simply because the gold was not as easy to find as they were led to believe.

The rush for gold in 1849 brought a flood of people from all corners of the globe, some good and some bad. It is said that for every one successful miner, they were 9 trying to make money off of him and just as many wanting to rob him.

Fact is, what attracted prospectors also attracted thieves and swindlers ready to dig out the gold from the prospectors' pockets. There were those who sold supplies, equipment, goods and clothing, and there were those dishonest individuals who scammed and robbed miners using any means imaginable.

Vigilantes cleaned out many of the outlaw gangs, but with the hundreds of thousands who were arriving to search for gold, there continued to be others to replace them.

The two basic penalties to Miner's Courts in the mining camps was either banishment or hanging. Small crimes that weren't hanging crimes usually meant being banished, the miners would rather you get lost and send someone packing off to somewhere else than have to deal with some lowlife who might not have done enough to get hanged -- but was awful close to that.

Harry Nicholson Morse married Virginia Elizabeth Heslep in 1862. His wife Virginia was a loving wife, mother and grandmother. And yes, it is said that his wife Virginia supported him throughout his career as the Sheriff of Alameda County and all the absences involved in his chasing desperadoes West of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

She lost 2 children in 1869, 9 year old Harry Nicholson Jr, and 2 month old Lincoln. The next year Charles died at 6 weeks. Her son George was shot in 1904. These children are buried in the Morse family plot.

After different jobs including working as a Laborer among other things, he became a Constable in the San Francisco Bay Area. He served as a Constable until he was elected Alameda County Sheriff on September 2nd, 1863 at the age of 28. He was the 2nd Sheriff elected in that County's history. He would serve as the second Sheriff in Alameda County's history from 1864 to 1878.

Friends. that's a long time to be county sheriff anywhere in the West at the time. And believe me when I say, only a few others lasted the long. Morse is regarded today as one of the finest, but least-known, lawman of the Old West.

Of his accomplishments, he chased California bandit Tiburico Vasquez for months and supplied information to the Los Angeles Sheriff that led to the capture of the outlaw leader.

Fact is, in 1871, he led an exhaustive search which ultimately resulted in the capture of the notorious Tiburcio Vasquez.

As for locating and killing other vicious outlaws, Morse is known to have helped bring to justice other notable early California outlaws including Bartolo Sepulveda, Narrato Ponce, "Red-Handed" Procopio, and Juan Soto. And yes, Harry Morse is known to have single-handedly captured or killed many them.

The leader of a group of bandits from 1860-65, Noratto Ponce had gunned down a man at Governor's Saloon in the town of Hayward, California, on October 3rd, 1865. The killing occurred following a heated argument during a poker game. Ponce is said to have shot the man and ride away without a soul taking him up on what he had just done.

October of 1865 was only six months after the end of the Civil War, and California was further West than what most thought of as the West. And no, don't make the mistake of thinking that it was not as wild as the Great Plains Mid-West states of Kansas or Missouri or down South in Oklahoma territory or Texas. In many cases it was a much more dangerous place to be in the 1800s than many places we think of as being wild and wolly.

Narrato Ponce was one of the worst of these outlaws in 1865. Ponce was truly a "man-killer" and Morse knew this. Sheriff Harry Morse and a deputy caught up with Ponce a few days after the killing.

It was midnight on that October day when Sheriff Morse and his deputy caught up with Ponce. The outlaw was on his horse near a hideout near Livermore, California. Morse called out for him to surrender. Ponce drew his gun and fired as many shots as he could get off.

All Morse could make out in the darkness was the muzzle flashes of the outlaw's gun as he fired toward them. But that was enough as Morse and his deputy returned fired at the muzzle flashes. They wounded Ponce and shot his horse, but the outlaw still escaped into the darkness.

Yes, as incredible as it sounds, though Ponce was severely wounded and his horse was shot out from under him -- he still got away. That is, until six weeks later, in mid November, when Morse and two deputies got another chance to get him.

They cornered Ponce in Contra Costa County, California, at the adobe home of his friend Jose Rojos. When Morse arrived at the house, Ponce was holed up inside recovering from his wounds. Morse and his deputies were just about to break in the door when someone ran out and hightailed it from the house.

The lawmen weren't fooled into following this man who was just a decoy. A moment later Ponce leaped from the house running the opposite direction. Ponce ran into the nearby brush, but by them he was spotted. Both lawmen opened fire simultaneously, and Morse shot and killed Ponce.

It's said that the moment of truth came when Morse and Ponce faced each other head to head with weapons drawn. Morse pulled the trigger on his rifle a moment before Ponce could fire his pistol. Morse's bullet slammed into Ponce killing the outlaw instantly.

In the late 1860s, California towns weren't as civilized as some like to think. They certainly were as civilized as some in the mid-West.

Morse's concern was to simply do his job as Alameda County Sheriff. And frankly, while we may not have heard of Harry Morse, among lawmen he was becoming increasingly respected. In fact, by the 1870's, his method of hunting down the lawless made him stand out among the rest.

He was known to ride alone into the hills, and he studied the areas where outlaws hid out. He made friends with ranchers and sheepherders in that area, and he corresponded with other lawmen to learn all he could about the outlaws' habits.

Criminal Investigation, the science of police work looking for clues and evidence was in its infancy at the time. Great changes in law enforcement techniques, including using better community relations, were coming. And yes, Old West lawmen like Harry Morse helped introduce those changes to world in need of better law enforcement.

In 1871, Morse and several others found themselves in Sausalito Valley, California on the trail of Juan Soto, another exceptionally dangerous killer with the nickname of the "Human Wildcat."

Back on January 10th, Juan Soto, who was Hispanic and Native American, had robbed a store in Sunol, California. In the process, he and his two partners shot and killed a clerk by the name of Otto Ludovici.

In the months that followed, Morse used all the he had learned about the area to track down this "Human Wildcat." When Morse and a deputy had caught up with him, he had been hiding out in the Panoche Mountains in the Sausalito Valley.

He and a deputy named Winchell entered an adobe building where they thought they would find Juan Soto. They were right, but Soto was not alone. Inside were a dozen of his criminal cohorts.

As soon as Morse sensed trouble, Morse drew his pistol and told deputy Winchell to handcuff Soto. Suddenly several in the room drew their guns. At that point, Winchell ran for cover.

As bad a situation as it was for any lawman, it was about to get worse as two of Soto's friends tried to grab and restrain Morse's hands as Soto drew his gun to finish off the Alameda County Sheriff.

Morse knew that he had to do something or die, so Morse broke free and fired at Soto. Morse's round went through the outlaw's hat. And yes, that's all it took, for the room to settle down and send Juan Soto fleeing out the door. The loyalty of Soto's friends only went so far as they returned to their seats.
When Soto ran outside, Morse was close behind. But then Soto turned, and fired four bullets at Morse -- thankfully all bullets missed Morse.

Then in a fit of anger, Soto rushed toward Morse. Calmly but swiftly, Morse moved to his horse to retrieve his Henry rifle in .44-40. On the way to his horse, Morse turned and fired his pistol at Soto. And believe it or not, his bullet struck and jammed Soto's gun.

With that, Soto ran inside the house and picked up three pistols before running back outside for his horse to escape. Because of the excitement and gunfire, his horse shied away from him and Soto had to run for the hills.

With his Henry rifle in hand, Morse followed Soto in his sights. Then when Soto was about 150 feet away, Morse leveled the Henry rifle and fired. The bullet pierced Soto's shoulder.

Infuriated at Morse, it's said that Soto turned and ran toward Morse. It is say that Juan Soto started screaming insanely at the top of his lungs, and charged at Morse. Calmly, Morse took careful aim and sent a bullet crashing through Juan Soto's brain.

Soto's friends all stayed in the building. It was obvious that they didn't want a piece of Harry Morse.

Several months later, in October 1871, Wild Bill Hickok shot and killed gambler Phil Coe and his own deputy in Abilene, Kansas. While Hickok's event continues to live in Old West history, the Morse-Soto fight receives little notice.

A year later, in the summer 1872, Harry Morse again risked his life. This time against bandit Tiburcio Vasquez. Again, this was one of the most dangerous and wanted men of that time.

Morse was visiting the sheriff of San Benito County in Monterey when they were interrupted with news. Vasquez along with outlaws Fancisco Barcena and Garcia Rodriguez had just escaped from a double holdup.

The two lawmen along with a constable scrambled to their horses and rushed toward the Arroyo Cantua. The lawmen knew the outlaws would be headed toward their hideout there. Soon the two groups confronted each other.

Guns blasted away, and when the dust settled, Barcena was dead and Rodriguez and Vasquez wounded. Though Vasquez was shot through the chest, believe it or not, he escaped and recovered from his wound. Some time later, with Morse's help, lawmen tracked Vasquez down. The outlaw was eventually executed.

Morse retired as Alameda County Sheriff in 1878. But frankly, his work did not end as he founded the Harry N. Morse Detective Agency and Patrol Systems in San Francisco, California.

Of his agency's accomplishments, he and associate James Hume working with the San Joaquin County Sheriff Tom Cunningham to identify Charles E. Bowles as the highwayman Black Bart who was robbing stagecoaches in four counties.

In the 8 year period from 1875 to 1883, Charles E. Boles robbed many stages. He did so in the Gold Country, and particularly stages in Calaveras, Tuolumne, Amador, and San Joaquin Counties.

Black Bart’s last holdup was the stage from Sonora to Milton on November 3rd, 1883. San Joaquin County Sheriff Tom Cunningham arrived at the scene of the robbery, and after an inspection of the area -- it showed that the bandit had left a number of items behind including a handkerchief. The handkerchief had the laundry mark "FX07."

The handkerchief was taken to San Francisco and after a long search similar marks were found on other linen in a laundry, by Harry Morse, head of the Harry N. Morse Detective Agency of San Francisco. 

While Morse was in the office of the laundry investigating the marks on the handkerchief, he was told by the proprietor that the gentleman who owned that particular handkerchief was a respected customer, having mining interests in California, and he occasionally called at the laundry. 

By a rather remarkable coincidence, the "owner" of the linen walked into the building while Morse was there and the detective immediately engaged him in a conversation by stating he understood he was interested in mines. 

Incidentally, Morse told him he had some property he would like to submit for his consideration and that he would be glad to show him sample of ore as well as give him other details of the mining prospect. 

Boles apparently "fell" for what his newly made acquaintance had to offer and agreed to accompany him to the latter’s office on Montgomery street. When Boles entered and took in the surroundings, he was satisfied he had been trapped and threw up his hands and exclaimed, "Gentlemen, I pass."

It is interesting to note that when "Black Bart" was arrested he was using the name Charles E. Bolton, the name under which he had been living for years in San Francisco. When he was booked, he gave his name as T. Z. Spalding. However, his real name was Charles E. Boles. 

Respected as a fine lawman and investigator in a time when criminal investigation techniques was just being looked upon as a legitimate science, he achieved renown as a relentless and resourceful lawman and man-hunter. In fact, so much so, that he was known as the "Bloodhound of the Far West," best known for the capture of the outlaws Tiburcio Vasquez, Narato Ponce, Narciso Bojorques, Juan Soto and America's greatest stagecoach robber Black Bart. All while apprehending many more during his time.

Morse built a large home in Oakland in which to rear his family, and he engaged in a number of business interests other than his detective agency, including real estate, publishing, and mining. All in all, besides being the most celebrated law enforcement officer in the Old West during his time, from 1878 to his death in 1912, Henry Nicholson Morse is said to have been the most famous private detective on the Pacific Coast.

Virginia Morse passed away on May 23rd, 1907, of natural causes at the age of 69. Harry Morse passed away on January 11th, 1912. He passed away a natural death, very peacefully at the age of 76. Both passed on at home in Oakland, Alameda County, California. And both are  buried in the same Morse plot with their children and some grandchildren in their family plot in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

Through all his adventures Harry Morse escaped serious injury. And though he was often only a moment away from death when tracking some of the most dangerous outlaws in Old West history, he never received as much attention as contemporary Wild Bill Hickok.

Take for example the shootout between Morse and outlaw Narrato Ponce. Though that was as deadly an exchange as any in the history of the Old West, and received a lot of press in the Far West, Morse didn't achieve the reputation of a Wild Bill Hickok or Wyatt Earp simply because Morse didn't have Dime Novelist friends or a biographer.

Maybe that's the reason that he didn't receive the honors that say someone like Hickok or Earp or Masterson received, as undeserving as they were? Morse had no Dime Novelist writing exaggerated tales about him.

But what's new about that. After all, even from the 1920s to the 1960s when Wild Bill, Bat Masterson, and Wyatt Earp were being made famous for doing a great deal less, Hollywood script writers were no different than the Dime Novelist of the 1800s. They didn't care about facts when portraying those men on screen or television.

It's sort of sad that Harry Morse does not get the credit is due. Facts be known, Morse was a much more effective law enforcement officer than Wild Bill, Bat Masterson, and Wyatt Earp. Morse spend 14 years as Alameda County Sheriff.  That alone is more time in law enforcement than the combined years as lawmen by Wild Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson, and Wyatt Earp. And frankly, Harry Morse is known to have killed more men than Hickok, Masterson, and Earp combined.

Fact is, unlike James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and Bat Masterson who were never professional lawmen and primarily made their livings as gamblers and barmen, Harry Morse was the consummate professional lawman.

It is a shame that Harry Morse has never gotten the acclaim that he deserves. Frankly, Morse was an American Lawman that was truly a legend in his own time, a man who helped tame the Far West, a great role model, a person to be emulated, a very good man.

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa


  1. Nice write up! Thanks for this info
    Rick Silva

  2. Thanks for the write up, our family tried to get Oakland or Allameda County to declare the house as a historical place for preservation, but both declined. His guns and saddle along with some other items are at the Oakland Museum

  3. Yes,thank you so much for this Very nice piece.I only dicovered this remarkable man when I started researching my family tree and found that we are related! I am so proud and facsinated to learn what an incredible man he was and sad to think that he didnt get the recognition he so richly deserves,so again I thank you for this great artical. Ps i also have read the book by john boesnecker (?sp) "Lawman: The life and times of Harry Morse" which is very detailed and shares passages from (Harry morses)Own journals.
    Thanks,scott morse


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