Freight agent Eli Cummins is robbed and murdered at the town of New York Bar in Columbia County on July 26, 1882.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 6/14/2006
  • Essay 7789
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On July 26, 1882, in one of the most notorious murders in Columbia County history, freight agent Eli Cummins is robbed and murdered at the town of New York Bar. He is shot six times, struck with an ax three times in the face and head, and his throat is cut, severing his jugular vein and windpipe. Three men will eventually be convicted of the murder. One of these men will be lynched, another will be legally hanged, and the third will die of exposure after a failed escape attempt.

Commerce on the Snake River

In the early days of Columbia County, New York Bar was an important shipping point on the Snake River. The town was located above Texas Ferry in the northeastern part of Columbia County. Grain, primarily wheat, from surrounding communities was shipped from New York Bar via riverboats in the era before railroads criss-crossed the area later in the 1880s. The Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company had a large warehouse there, and kept an agent stationed there to carry out the company's freight business from the riverboats. In July 1882 that agent was Eli Cummins.

On July 26, 1882, two Pataha City residents went to New York Bar for freight. They were surprised to find that Cummins was not on duty. The two men waited and slept in the warehouse. Finally, about 2 a.m. on July 27, one of the men went into Cummins room and found him murdered in his bed.

A Grisly Scene

The murder scene was grisly. According to F. A. Shaver in his 1906 book, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington, the August 5, 1882, Columbia Chronicle described the victim's wounds in careful detail. Cummins was shot six times, and struck with an ax three times, including a "frightful gash across the mouth" (Shaver).

Cummins throat had been slit with such force that both his jugular vein and his windpipe were severed. He was described as being about 35 years of age. The warehouse's money drawer was found open and rifled of its contents.

Owenby's Confession

Over the next several months, several suspects were arrested on suspicion of the murder, but released. Late in 1882, Canada Owenby was arrested for the crime. His trial began in district court on January 10, 1883. It was established that Owenby had a pistol that was the same caliber as the murder weapon, and a Pomeroy (Garfield County) hardware merchant testified that several weeks prior to the murder he had sold the same caliber of cartridges to Owenby. It was also established that Owenby suddenly came into an amount of money immediately after the murder and overnight became a big spender.

The case went to the jury on the evening of January 13. The jury deliberated for 23 hours, but was unable to reach a verdict. But while the jury was deliberating, Owenby broke down and confessed to the crime.

In his confession Owenby provided graphic details of the murder. He said that he and James McPherson of Pomeroy (who reportedly had an excellent reputation in the community) had planned to rob and murder Cummins. Owenby's confession, reduced to writing, described how he and McPherson went to Cummins house at about 2 a.m. on July 26, 1882. They found Cummins in bed. Owenby claimed he was about 30 yards behind McPherson when McPherson stepped through the front door, shot all five rounds of his pistol at Cummins, and then stepped back outside. Cummins got up from bed and closed the door. McPherson then took an ax and broke down the door.

Owenby testified that he and McPherson both ran into Cummins' room. He stated "Cummins recognized McPherson and said 'Mack, what have I done to you?' McPherson answered 'Nothing, G-d d--m you; I'll finish you!' About the same time, I commenced firing ... just as I commenced firing Cummins cried out 'My God! Don't murder me!' ... Cummins fell to the floor. We picked him up and laid him on the bed and I immediately went out of the room ... McPherson used the knife and the ax after I left the room" (Shaver).

Owenby also said that Ezra Snoderly of Garfield County knew of the plans in advance and had planned to participate in the crime, but on the night of the murder was unable to leave the ranch where he was working without attracting attention. Owenby added that he met with Snoderly shortly after the murder and told him the details of the crime.

Immediately after Owenby's confession -- indeed, while the jury was still attempting to reach a verdict in his criminal case -- Deputy Sheriff Cavanaugh left Dayton and went to Garfield County where, with the sheriff of Garfield County, he proceeded to arrest McPherson and Snoderly. (An additional defendant, one Porter, was briefly arrested; however, it was quickly shown that he had no involvement in the crime and he was released.)

Legal and Illegal Proceedings

Despite his confession, a retrial was held for Canada Owenby in June 1883 in Dayton since the original trial had ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict. Ezra Snoderly and James McPherson were also tried at the same time in front of Judge S. C. Wingard. Both Snoderly and McPherson pleaded not guilty. All three defendants were convicted. Snoderly and McPherson were sentenced to hang on August 7, 1883. Owenby's sentencing was delayed.

Owenby and Snoderly did not appeal their convictions, but McPherson did. This caused considerable controversy in Columbia County. The Columbia Chronicle of July 31, 1883, summed up the prevailing sentiment:

"Lumber is on the ground and work will commence tomorrow on the scaffold from which Snoderly will take his final leap into eternity. It does not look exactly right for the one the least guilty of the crime to be the first to swing, while those who actually committed the deed gain another year's lease of life and a possible acquittal if the case should come up for another trial."

On August 3 N. T. Caton, one of McPherson's attorneys, returned to Dayton with a stay of proceedings granted by Judge Wingard and filed a copy of the same. This postponed McPherson's execution by 19 months and raised the possibility of a successful appeal.

The following day, Saturday, August 4, 1883, a crowd congregated in Dayton. By evening the streets were full of people. About 10 p.m. that night a group of masked men broke into the jail. Despite spirited resistance from the lone jailer, McPherson was taken out and "assisted upon the scaffold" (Shaver).

The Columbia Chronicle, reporting on the lynching, related what happened next:

"As he ascended the scaffold he [McPherson] exclaimed 'Before God I am innocent. You are hanging an innocent man.' He begged piteously for mercy and asked them to hang Owenby first. McPherson then offered up a prayer, when, as soon as he was through, he was pushed off the scaffold. The rope was either too long, or else it slipped, McPherson striking the side of the trap as he fell, and his feet reached the ground. Strong hands grasped the rope and his ponderous body swung clear between the heavens and earth, and he was literally strangled to death. By this time the streets were full of people, all eager to see the execution, but the vigilantes kept them out of the yard until all signs of life were extinct."

Snoderly's execution was considerably more staid. At 11:40 a.m. on Tuesday, August 7, he was taken from his cell and, at his request, taken into Owenby's cell. He shook hands with Owenby and said he forgave him. Snoderly then walked with a firm tread to the scaffold, professed his innocence several times, "and at 11:50 the trap was sprung, the body falling four and one-half feet, where it hung perfectly still, with the exception of spasmodic breathing and a slightly swinging motion of the lower limbs" (Shaver).

Owenby's End

It is unclear whether or not Owenby was ever sentenced. He continued to freely admit his guilt and declared he wished to be hanged. Yet on the evening of December 25, 1883, he and another prisoner assaulted the sheriff and a jailer and broke out of the county jail in Walla Walla. A posse was quickly formed but the only clues the searchers had for a week came "[When] they learned the following day that the two desperate men had gone to Cold Springs, left their exhausted horses, stolen two others, killed a Chinaman and robbed the body of $140" (Shaver).

On January 2, 1884, Owenby was found dying of starvation and exposure in a barn about three and a half miles north of Milton (near present-day [2006] Milton-Freewater), Oregon. He was taken to the Columbia County jail in Dayton. Though there was initially some lynch talk in the town, this time cooler heads prevailed -- and in any event, it was not necessary. Owenby gave a final confession affirming his previous testimony just before he died. "He lingered until Tuesday morning, January 8th, when his soul went forth to meet his victim and his accomplices in the great beyond" (Shaver).

Sources: F. A. Shaver, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1906), 314-323; W. F. Fletcher, Early Columbia County (Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1988), 101-102, 147.

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