This is a murder mystery, one that has fascinated me for years now. I keep threatening to write about it and now, in the time and space left by my leave of absence from teaching and summer vacation, I’ve gotten serious about my research. The basic facts are these:
In November of 1885, Lewis McDaniel, a prominent shopkeeper in Ashland, Oregon, was found dying just down the street from his house. Someone had shot him in the head. He died before naming his assailant.
And from there on, rumor and gossip took over.
People said that McDaniel’s wife, Amanda, was too fond of failed-prospector-turned-odd jobs man Louis O’Neal (his name is spelled a number of ways; I’ve settled on this because it seems to be most common in the historical records), and that McDaniel had taken issue with the closeness.
And that seems to have been enough. Within an indecently short period of time O’Neal had been arrested (the sheriff said it was to save him from a lynch mob). He never saw the outside of the jailhouse walls again except for brief trips to court, and then to the gallows.
Here’s something else:
Everyone agrees that the evidence against O’Neal was circumstantial–and yet each writer goes on to essentially convict O’Neal in print.
O’Neal maintained that there were serious flaws in the case against him.
O’Neal’s request for a change of venue (see “lynch mob” above) was denied, as was his request for a continuance until he could contact the man he had been seeing off at the train station at the time of the murder.
Public opinion was rabidly against him–newspaper coverage of the event is incredible; his guilt is assumed from the earliest coverage.
In an era when “the SOB had it coming to him” was considered a valid defense (see “newspaper coverage”) public sentiment was for hanging from the very beginning.
The woman at the center of the case, Sarah Amanda McDaniel, did not have public opinion on her side. Before she married McDaniel she had had a previous marriage to a man named Lewis Henry. And no, I have not made a mistake; all three of the men in this story were named “Lewis/Louis.” Sarah Amanda divorced him, claiming abuse and abandonment (the records I found indicated that he had taken a horsewhip to her at one point), and returned to her home in Eagle Point, Oregon.
So there she was, a single mother and a divorcee. Still, she managed to catch Lewis McDaniel’s eye. They married. And then they virtually disappear from newspaper coverage. This is strange, because the McDaniel family was quite wealthy; Lewis McDaniel is listed as one of the men who paid the most taxes in the area. Ashland, where the McDaniels lived, was a small town, and people liked to see their names in the papers. Accounts of social events like weddings frequently included extensive guest and gift lists. People liked to know who had given what.
Here’s the thing: Lewis McDaniel was from a prominent, wealthy family. He was wealthy himself. You’d think that the radiant brides would have sucked it up and invited Sarah Amanda if only for the present. But her name never appears in those society wedding guest lists. Maybe the divorce taint was just to strong.
So we’ve got a rich man married to a social outcast who seems to have been ostracized. Enter Louis O’Neal, failed prospector, failed farmer, and currently odd-job man. More important, he’ll talk to her. Maybe talk leads to other things; maybe not. Certainly people in town felt because divorcee Sarah Amanda had been seen “laughing” with O’Neal she must of course be up to no good. And then her husband winds up dead, and the people of Jackson County put two and two together and come up with considerably more than five. And it’s all in the papers.
Did Louis O’Neal and Sarah Amanda McDaniel conspire to kill Sarah Amanda’s husband? Good question. Certainly they were convicted in the papers. Certainly the Government in Washington, D.C. was pressuring the new state of Oregon to treat murder more seriously–that’s in the papers, too. Certainly the McDaniel family had considerable financial and social resources, and Louis O’Neal had none. Certainly Sarah Amanda’s reputation told against him. It was just so easy to believe that Louis O’Neal must be guilty.
And maybe he was. but maybe not. Research is moving slowly; I’m tracking the characters in this melodrama, as well as the events shaping their world. Will I ever know for sure if Louis O’Neal pulled the trigger? I don’t know. But that’s not the only story here. The bigger, more relevant story is that people seem to have given up on finding the truth and settled for a scapegoat. Louis O’Neal seems to have become a symbol of Oregon’s rectitude: “See, we’re tough on murder around here,” Louis O’Neal’s hanging says.
And of course, it was all so very lurid. And maybe it was true. But maybe not. I’ll keep you posted.