Historic Roseville slaying offers insights to ‘cursed’ family

Post Civil War crime followed mind-numbing events for Turley clan
By: J’aime Rubio for the Press Tribune
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Do you believe that death and tragedy seem to follow certain people?

In the case of David Turley, they indeed seemed to follow him, leading him straight to the gallows. The question for modern history lovers is, why?

It was April 1, 1875, and a group of men were headed back to Roseville on horseback, returning from a race at a ranch several miles beyond the city limits. Among the group was William H. Shaw and David Turley. Several newspapers reported both men, who worked in Roseville as Sheepshearers, were intoxicated when they started to quarrel nearby the 12 Mile House, once located at South Cirby and Old Auburn Road. Other newspapers claimed the incident took place on Old Marysville Road, 12 miles from Roseville. Today, it is hard to be certain of the exact location.

What words were exchanged still remains a mystery. Some accounts even suggested that it was an April Fools’ joke gone wrong. Whatever was said, it prompted Turley to challenge Shaw to a duel — a threat designed to make the other take back whatever negative remark was said. Shaw refused to duel Turley and tried to get away from him. Turley pulled his pistol out and fired two shots in Shaw’s direction, hitting and killing him. 

The trial was held in Sacramento and became highly publicized, making headlines in papers all the way to Los Angeles. One of the witnesses, Creed Haymond, stated for the defense that Turley was too intoxicated to have known what he was doing, therefore he believed it wasn’t his fault. The other four witnesses together confirmed that Turley did in fact shoot Shaw as he was attempting to leave.

Turley insisted that his actions were caused by an inherited mental illness. He also claimed that this inherited psychosis contributed to many deaths in his family; however, Judge Ramage did not allow this information in the trial.

When all was said and done the jury found Turley guilty of murdering Shaw. The defendant eventually took his appeal to the Supreme Court, alleging errors were made during his trial. The Supreme Court came back unanimously on November 16, 1875, deciding that the initial court ruling was correct, and that Turley’s conviction would remain the same.

So was the story Turley claimed about his family true, or just a desperate attempt to spare his own life?

Extensive research into the matter reveals that David Turley’s tragic family background was stranger than most would imagine. His father, Jesse Turley, was a wealthy and well respected farmer. According to Missouri historian Rhonda Chalfant, Jesse Turley was the first landowner in the Pettis County to free his slaves due to his support for the Union during the Civil War, prompting his own neighbors to engage in two attempts to murder him. Both times he was shot and survived. Sadly though, Jesse Turley’s life ended at his own hand, after his own gun discharged by accident while he was mounting his horse during a stint in the Missouri State Militia. He was hit in the abdomen and died shortly thereafter.

David Turley’s mother, Lucy, was also killed by an accident bullet — shot by one of her other sons, William, while he was sleepwalking with his gun. Like David Turley, William Turley was also in the state militia, and was never the same after killing their mother. William was later done in during a raid in the Civil War involving Confederate General Joseph Shelby. 

One of David Turley’s sisters had a stroke, rendering her brain damaged for life, while his other sister couldn’t handle the bizarre death of their mother, and literally went insane. She also died in a relatively short period. A third brother, John Turley, was killed in Kansas around 1875, while a fourth brother, Thomas, and was shot in Texas the same year.

David Turley had left Missouri to California in 1857 after getting into some sort of “trouble.” Following his father’s death, he inherited a large amount of money and so he moved back to Missouri. He opened a saloon in Georgetown and moved in with a well-known woman of ill-repute. David’s surviving brother, James, had tried to convince a doctor to have him committed to an asylum at Fulton due to erratic behavior. The Sedalia Bazoo Newspaper stated that besides being his own best customer at his saloon, David Turley was known to get into fights at the drop of a hat and quick to draw his blade or his gun — often times shooting at people for “imaginary offenses.”

It was after getting into too much trouble in Georgetown that David decided to head back to California.

James Turley, a.k.a. “Sedalia Jim,” was a former policeman who ultimately spent his entire savings, an estimated $2000, to help with David’s defense for killing Shaw. James tried to prove that his brother was mentally ill.  It was James who wrote Colonel John F. Phillips, asking him to help gather affidavits to prove David was insane, a danger to himself or others, and that he needed to be committed rather than executed.

Even after a petition was sent to California Governor William Irwin with numerous signatures begging for a reprieve, nothing was done to explore if David Turley suffered from mental illness. By 8 a.m. on Feb. 25, 1876, David Turley was given notice that Irwin was not going to grant him clemency.

The Daily Alta California newspaper chronicled the last hours of David Turley’s life in detail, including his request to meet with Father Patrick Scanlon to be baptized as a Christian and be read his last rites. It was noted that people were lined up outside the building in hopes of catching sight of the hanging. At 2 p.m. Turley was marched up to the scaffold, a large shroud was placed over his clothes and a hood over his head. After a short prayer, it was documented that Turley shouted, “Mother, mother I am coming!” as the rope dropped.  

Although his neck was broken instantly, his pulse continued for another fifteen minutes until the doctor pronounced him dead. 

In the end, although Turley was not given a chance to prove his mental state to the courts, we now know that he obviously suffered from something that made him very violent. Whether the Turley family as a whole suffered from inherited bad tempers, some sort of psychosis or chemical imbalances, they all seemed to have been affected by it. Most of David’s brothers were shot in the same way that Turley shot Shaw: Death didn’t just follow the Turley Family, it seems to have chased after them with a vengeance. Yet, by the lifestyles that they chose, the male members of the Turleys died the very way in which they lived. As the saying goes, “live by the sword, die by the sword,” so all men are responsible to face the consequences of their own actions, just as David Turley did on that day in 1876.