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From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Richard Thompson

The road to Richmond with the Susan River in the foreground, taken in the 1880s.

by Susan Couso

Of course, domestic abuse is not new, but it still is painful to think of what some people have endured. Take the case of Margaret Thompson, wife of Richard. Richard Thompson came to Honey Lake Valley in 1857 and bought a place near Janesville, which he sold the next year.

In 1858, Margaret arrived here in the valley with their children. The Thompsons, both Irish emigrants, eventually settled on a ranch about two miles south of Susanville on the Richmond Road, and that’s where our story begins.

The two older children were grown and gone by 1867, and the youngest, Sarah Catherine, was 19 years old and in love with Thomas Mulroney. Thomas was the brother of Ed Mulroney, who had a place about a quarter of a mile from the Thompsons.

They were a good Irish family, and that should have been a perfect match for young Sarah. She thought so. But the Thompsons were of the Protestant faith, and the Mulroneys were Catholic.

Father, Richard, did not seem to mind, but Sarah’s mother, Margaret, was set against the marriage. By the first part of March, the young couple had finalized their plans. They were getting married, no matter the objections.

At about 6 or 7 in the morning, on March 11th, Thomas came by the Thompson house to pick up Sarah and together, they would travel to Virginia City to be married.

The new St. Mary’s Catholic Church, built in 1862 by Father Patrick ‘Paddy’ Manogue, was the closest church. It was quite a trip, but Sarah and Thomas wanted to do things ‘right’. Thomas brought a barrel of whiskey to the Thompsons to help celebrate and ease tensions, and before leaving, he used a hatchet to tap the barrel and share a drink.

The rest of the story is centered around the Tompsons at their place on Richmond Road, and that fateful day, March 11th, 1867.

For quite some time, Margaret had allegedly suffered at the hands of Richard Thompson.

He used a ‘black-snake’ whip to try to force her to obey, and often hit her with his fists and other objects. At one point, she had fled to her daughter’s house ‘down below’, but after the short separation, Margaret had returned to her husband as wives often do.

Richard Thompson admitted to others that he had often whipped her and that he could not live with her, and that she would have to leave, “one way or another.” But Margaret was determined to make a go of it.

On March 11th, it got much worse. Most likely, the whiskey played a large part in the event. That evening, after dark, Richard showed up at the Mulroney house next door. There was a group assembled, ready to go to a party at the Stiles home, and some were already in the buggy. But Richard’s pleas got their attention.

He said that his wife was dying, and he needed help. Several of the partygoers left immediately for the Thompson home.

On arrival, the house was dark, with only the glow of the embers in the fireplace providing light. Even in the dark, they could see Margaret lying on the bedroom floor. Someone found a candle and matches, and the full horror of the scene became clear. Margaret was covered with a blue blanket, and she was still alive, but her body was covered with wounds and blood.

They carefully lifted her onto the bed, and someone offered her a sip of water, but it was too late. Richard Thompson wailed and begged Margaret to speak to him, and then sat in the other room, talking incoherently, then silent.

As people milled about, Thompson pulled out a book, wrapped himself in a blanket, and began to quietly read.

Calvin Quinn, who had just been passing by the Mulroney home when Richard Thompson appeared, was sent to find the doctor. Quinn immediately took his horse and left to find Dr. Spalding.

Spalding came at once, and looking at the battered 65-year-old woman, told Thompson that his wife was dead. Quinn helped measure the body for a coffin. At this point, Dr. Spalding suggested a Coroner’s Inquest.

He had seen the body, and the wounds wove an obvious tale. There were so many that they could not be counted… one on top of the other. There were healed bruises, marks from what looked like a whip, and there were what looked like shovel injuries too. This, and deep hatchet wounds to her head. There was quite a bit of blood, some splattered up onto the ceiling, and some puddled on the floor.

According to Thompson, he had been out doing chores, and when he came in, Margaret was laying on the fireplace. He moved her to the bedroom, but because she was a large woman, he could not lift her onto the bed.

A couple of the women sat with the body all night and cleaned the best they could. In the morning, Dr. Chamberlain arrived. His assessment of the situation was nearly the same as Dr. Spalding’s. Before long, the sheriff showed up with a warrant for Richard Thompson’s arrest.

The whole area was in a fury as the word spread. They were ready to lynch Richard Thompson. If he had not been secured from the crowd, the story would have ended here, but Thompson lived on to stand trial for his sins. The jail was not safe enough, so Thompson was confined in the Steward House Hotel.

The Grand Jury’s investigation brought out the details, and Thompson’s trial was set for June. Richard Thompson was tried for murder in the District Court of Lassen County and found guilty of murder in the first degree. Judge Sexton set the date of his hanging for August 9th. The case was then appealed to the California Supreme Court, which upheld the earlier verdict. The execution date was reset to December 18th, 1868.

But by October of 1868, Lassen County citizens had a change of heart. For some odd reason, Thompson received sympathy from a large majority of the populace. A petition was circulated and signed by all of the ‘movers and shakers’ of the county. Supporters included: the sheriff, county supervisors, county treasurer, and even District Attorney Isaac Roop, who had prosecuted the case.

All-in-all, there were hundreds of signatures, all supporting the idea of commuting the sentence to second-degree murder, which held a penalty of life imprisonment.

California Governor Henry H. Haight received the petition, and on January 8, 1869, commuted the sentence to life. As Sheriff Thomas N. Long transported Thompson to San Quentin on March 9, 1869, Thompson reportedly remarked that he would rather be “incarcerated there than spend life here!”

But Richard Thompson’s story was not over. By all accounts, he was a model prisoner, obedient and respectful. He spent his days reading and napping. He was said to be in extremely poor health and his mind was gone. He was considered to be an imbecile.

In 1872, his son-in-law, Thomas Mulroney, petitioned then Governor Newton Booth requesting a pardon for Thompson. Thompson was 68 years old, considered quite old for the time, and he was in dire health.

On March 12, 1874, at age 70, Thompson received his pardon. He moved in with his son-in-law, Thomas Mulroney and daughter Sarah. The sickly, demented old man lived another twenty-one years and is buried in the Susanville Cemetery beside his wife, Margaret.

If you are a fan of our weekly history stories you should join the Lassen County Historical Society! It’s a fun way to be a part of our county’s rich history. When you sign up, you’ll receive regular Historical Society newsletters with interesting stories and information. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in area history.

Through your membership you help preserve local history. You can download a membership application by clicking here.

Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso Publisher/Editor
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