TAHOE NUGGET #237: THE HANGING OF LUCKY BILL
Fate had been kind to William J. Thorington. Although a short attention span had hindered his formal education in New York, young Bill was smart enough to join the thousands of Forty-Niners rushing to the California gold strike.
Thorington trekked overland during the summer of 1850, traversed the rugged Sierra Nevada at Carson Pass and then headed for the gold diggings. After three years placer mining in the Sierra foothills, Bill Thorington bought a fine farm for only $600 in the fertile Carson Valley near Genoa, Utah Territory.
Nevada Territory was split off Utah Territory and incorporated in March 1861. The region gained statehood in 1864 when President Lincoln needed more electoral votes for re-election. It’s motto is the “Battle Born State” because it achieved statehood during the Civil War.
By 1855, a financial windfall from a short-term loan had netted him the prosperous Eagle Ranch and ownership of the Clear Creek Canyon toll road to Lake Tahoe. The industrious Thorington also planted Nevada’s first fruit trees and dug the first irrigation ditches in the Carson Valley.
Big and burly, with mirthful eyes and curly black hair, Thorington earned the Lucky Bill moniker from his legendary skill as Nevada’s first professional gambler. He excelled at shell and card games.
Gambling has always been a tradition in Nevada, going back to the early mining days of the 1850s.
Over the years Lucky Bill helped many friends and road-weary travelers, as well as strangers fleeing from justice. Historian H.H. Bancroft noted that Thorington was “Benevolent in the sense of Robin Hood; he robbed those that had money or property, and good-naturedly gave of his easily gotten gains a small portion to those who had not, when they appealed to his sympathies—a trait which often distinguishes the gambler.”
Bill was also a devout Mormon and suspected of practicing plural marriage, an issue that generated suspicion and animosity among the increasing number of anti-Mormon residents in the region.
The first permanent settlement in Nevada was established in the Carson Valley in the spring of 1851 by Colonel John Reese, a Mormon who planned to open a trading post on the overland trail. Shortly after the Mormons built Mormon Station, later named Genoa, the first town in Nevada. By 1850 the trans-Sierra route near Donner Pass had been eclipsed by the more popular Carson trail just south of Lake Tahoe.
Lucky Bill’s reckless risk-taking eventually led to his downfall. In the spring of 1858, William Edwards, a newcomer to the Carson Valley, asked Thorington if he could live at Eagle Ranch for a while. Lucky Bill was unaware that his unassuming guest had just murdered a man in Merced County, California, and was fleeing the hangman’s noose.
After lying low for several weeks, Edwards drifted north to Honey Lake in eastern California. A few days later, Edwards and two accomplices killed Honey Lake rancher, Harry Gordier, for his money and small herd of cattle. When Gordier’s body was found tied up in a sack, floating in the Susan River, community vigilantes took the law into their own hands. The outraged citizens of Honey Lake wrongly hung an innocent man named Snow for the killing, but they soon began to suspect Edwards.
View across Jack’s Valley north of Genoa. Job’s Peak in the distance is located along the eastern front of the Carson Range. A mountain range, river and nearby valley are named after Christopher “Kit” Carson, who came through the region with John Frémont during the winter of 1844.
Edwards stole a fleet-footed horse and galloped back to Thorington’s ranch. Claiming innocence, he explained to Bill that there had been “trouble back at Honey Lake” and he wanted to sell the valuable steed to escape to South America. Always a champion of the underdog, Lucky Bill agreed to hide Edwards and sell the stolen horse. However, both men underestimated the determination of the Honey Lake mob. Two vigilantes, William Elliott and John Gilpin, pursued Edwards to the Carson Valley where they convinced Edwards and Lucky Bill to sell them the stolen horse. Edwards also told the vigilantes of his escape plans.
This steaming, geothermally-heated creek feeds David Walley’s Hot Springs Resort established in 1862. Nevada has 312 hot springs, the most of any state.
On June 14, 1858, Lucky Bill was arrested. A quick search of the ranch failed to turn up Edwards. Despite threats of death, Thorington refused to help the authorities locate Edwards, but Bill’s 12-year-old son Jerome was persuaded to reveal the killer’s hideout. Both Edwards and Lucky Bill were taken into custody.
A citizen’s trial took place three days later. Mr. Elliott acted as sheriff, John Cary as judge and eighteen jurors were convened. On the stand Edwards acknowledged his own guilt and swore that Lucky Bill was innocent. William Edwards was condemned to death and ordered hung at the scene of the murder in Honey Lake Valley. Wasting no time, Edwards was escorted back to Honey Lake and by early the following week he was swinging from a hemp rope. (Ironically, Edwards’ two accomplices in the Honey Lake murder were only fined $1,000 each and ordered to leave the territory.)
Mormon Station State Park. Mormon leader Brigham Young sent Orson Hyde to Mormon Station in 1854 to survey a town site, determine the California boundary, and set up a government. Hyde changed the name to Genoa, allegedly in honor of Christopher Columbus’ birthplace in Italy. The name is pronounced “Jen-o-ah” in Nevada. Some might consider it ironic that the Silver State, today renowned for gambing and prostitution, was founded by Latter Day Saints.
Everyone agreed that Thorington was only guilty of aiding an escaping criminal, but vengeance was in the air. The jury ruled Bill Thorington an accessory to murder after the fact and sentenced him to die. The verdict was no surprise to the residents of Carson City since the hanging scaffold was built before the testimony ended. Bill’s luck had finally run out.
Frontier justice was often swift and permanent.
Two days after the trial, William Thorington was hanged at his farm at Clear Creek. The vigilantes placed him on a wagon with a noose around his neck. At 4 p.m., the crack of a whip startled the horses and ended Bill’s life. With a gambler’s resignation to fate, Lucky Bill faced death singing his favorite song, “The Last Rose of Summer.”
Lonely Nevada gravesite.
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