The Las Cruces Triple Murder

by R Lawson Gamble

This is the story of a triple murder and a mystery that occurred in Las Cruces, California in 1864. My research has revealed deep roots to the mystery and far-flung connections that give rise to possible motives beyond a local tragedy. Above all, it is a story of incredible irony.

No one may travel through the Gaviota gorge, that great cleft in the Santa Ynez Mountains, without remarking on the wild beauty of the place. After an abrupt turn to the north, the 101 Freeway passes from tranquil slopes and lulling seascape and descends among a tumble of rocks and sheer mountain walls turned on their sides by ancient upheavals through a gap so narrow a tunnel is necessary to accommodate the highway. Emerging from the dark bowel of the mountain, the motorist faces a vertical landscape of tangled undergrowth and deep ravines shaded by mossy oak trees with twisted limbs growing around the carcasses of their dead and rotting neighbors. Patches of bare sandstone glisten here and there at the height of the ridges a thousand feet above the narrow creek bed where the highway follows it along its snaking course. Even on the brightest day, gloom pervades the atmosphere in the deepest parts of the gorge, wherein some places the sun can never fully reach, and rock walls remain cold to the touch.

Today the area is designated a state park, and hikers and cyclists follow trails originally trod by Chumash Indians and early Spanish settlers. There is a hot spring, once the centerpiece of a resort for early auto travelers, ready to refresh the weary limbs of hikers if they can find it. A few park signs and curated trails are but a flimsy facade behind which the eternal nature of this place lurks. The wildness here has not been tamed; boulders still tumble down the steep slopes, bears and mountain lions still find refuge in its hidden caves, and poison oak clusters within the dense undergrowth. Here is not a park with graded parking areas, shaded picnic tables, and water fountains. The trailheads are stark, with signs warning of mountain lions and prohibiting the removal of artifacts. An old adobe lies crumbling behind a high fence, the elaborate sign describing it scratched and neglected, the once modern restroom accompanying it closed off and shuttered.

The pervading sense of gloom here is not without foundation. The enveloping canyon walls have witnessed evil deeds; massacres, robberies, and murders. A triple murder that occurred here was never solved. If ghosts dwell anywhere, they cavort here.

What follows is the story of the aforementioned triple murder. It is a complex and lengthy story and will be presented on this blog site in several parts. We will begin at the beginning, and the beginning is an overland journey on the Oregon Trail.

In 1854, Lucretia R Judson set out from Vermillion, Ohio, with the Vermillion Covered Wagon Train led by Alexander Yantis, destined for Washington Territory. A graduate of Oberlin College, Lucretia was an intelligent woman of letters and the sister-in-law of Phoebe Goodell Judson, married to Lucretia’s only brother. Phoebe would one day write “A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home: A Personal Memoir” about her journey by wagon train the prior year and her experiences settling in Washington Territory (her book is currently available as a Kindle book at Amazon.com). Also on the Vermillion Train were Elizabeth Austin and Anna Marie Goodell (also diarists with published works), close personal friends growing up, the latter related to Phoebe by marriage, the former affianced to Henry Roeder, who awaited her arrival in Washington. She did arrive safely, and Elizabeth Austin and Henry married as soon as the arrangements could be made. The ceremony took place at the Olympia Hotel, and one of the witnesses was a part-owner of the hotel, George W Corliss.

George Corliss was born in Vermont and departed Elgin, Illinois, for Washington Territory in 1852, settling in the Olympia area in 1854. Corliss married Lucretia Judson not long after she arrived in Washington Territory, on April 10, 1855.

George is in the 1860 census as a butcher, but he was more than that, even serving as U.S. Marshall to the new territory beginning in 1856. He accepted the commission following the mid-term resignation of U.S Marshall Anderson, who was prescient for leaving when he did. Marshal Corliss soon found himself caught up in a dispute between the Governor of the new territory, Isaac Stevens, and Chief Justice Lander over three men accused of aiding and abetting the enemy, specifically, hostile Indians (Indian Wars 1855-56). The situation was complicated: Governor Stevens declared martial law and imprisoned the three suspected traitors over the objections of the Chief Justice, whom he subsequently arrested as well. Upon his release, Lander ordered U.S. Marshall Corliss to arrest Stevens in turn, which he attempted several times, each time meeting resistance, until upon his fifth and final attempt, he succeeded, some three weeks later. Before this, Associate Chief Justice Chenowith required Corliss to arrest and bring to confinement Colonel Shaw, the officer who had been holding the three suspected traitors, and the Chief Justice. The political rancor was such that it reached President Franklin Pierce, who wrote a letter to Governor Stevens, admonishing him for his tactics. The hard feelings engendered during this dispute, personified in U.S. Marshall Corliss in pursuit of his bounden duty, must have been long-lasting.

Isaac Stevens

As you shall see in future articles, trouble continued to follow George and Lucretia, despite their innocence.

PART TWO: The Whitby Island Beheading (next)

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