1898: A shady county attorney stirs controversy
In the 1962 film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" a young eastern lawyer (Rance Stoddard) tries to establish a law practice in a western town where a gang of bullies dominates the territory. Everyone fears the gang led by Liberty Valance that plagues the area. In the picture Stoddard gets talked into facing Valance in a shootout on Main Street and somehow wins the battle, killing the bad guy.
He becomes a hero but later learns that a friend he had made in the town had actually shot Valance from seclusion and that his shot entirely missed. The story is set as a retrospective with the young lawyer, many years later, telling the story to a newspaper reporter. He talks about the guilt he had felt all those years being known as hero yet not being one at all. At the end of the interview the reporter rips up his notes and says "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
J. Wesley Warf, the county attorney in Carbon County around the turn of the 19th century was in no way like Stoddard. If anything, based on newspaper reports and other historical data, he was more like Valance. While only county attorney for two years, he was like a whirlwind in town, having a shootout with a deputy sheriff near the Price railroad station in early 1898 and then later that year being involved in something much more serious; the beating and later the death of John Watson. Yet through all of it, Warf was completely let off the hook for his actions.
On June 9 of that year Clarence Marsh, who worked for the newspaper at the time, and Watson who worked for him in another endeavor, went to a headgate at the Carbon Canal to turn water down a ditch to do some irrigation. While they were attempting to do it another man came along with a shotgun and told Marsh that if he opened the gate he would shoot him. Marsh opened it anyway. His wife was apparently made aware of the situation and came up and convinced him to go home. Watson stayed, sitting on the ditch bank, possibly at Marsh's orders to be sure the water flow would continue.
A few minutes later, Warf and Alpha Ballinger (who had a very bad relationship with Marsh to begin with because of a complaint Marsh had filed against him for disturbing the peace in March) came riding up armed with rifles. Ballinger immediately leveled his rifle at Watson and while he had his attention, Warf walked up behind Watson and relieved him of his pistol. Warf then took the pistol and hit Watson in the head. Watson was hurt but Warf continued to beat him with the weapon. He fell unconscious from the blows.
Watson was badly injured, according to the report in the Eastern Utah Advocate. The worst injuries were largely confined to his head, but he had also been beaten after he fell down so he was bruised and had a hard time keeping food down for a few days.
Ballinger and Warf were arrested on charges of assault with a deadly weapon, but because of Warf's position the case was moved to Helper where Justice J. Tom Fitch presided over the trial.
After the trial, in which the pair were found innocent, the Eastern Utah Advocate said of the legal action "It was a farce." It said that five eye witnesses stated the fact that the 59 year old Watson was beaten by the men with no reason for them to do so. Yet at the end of the trial both Warf and Ballinger were absolved of the deed by the Justice.
The incident brought out a storm of protest and the newspaper led it. But while their attack on the trial had been direct, the paper took on the newly formed county and its first government by pointing out in an indirect way what was wrong with some of what had been done overall. While complaining about the county's operation in general and some towns in specific, the paper wrote in an editorial "...we know of a county (Carbon) where reform might be made by sending the county attorney to a reformatory (and) we know of a town (Helper) where men guilty of penitentiary offenses have been turned loose when the evidence convicted them to the certainty required - a chance to reform a little in the election of a justice of the peace."
The fact is that Marsh and Watson were probably taking water illegally, but the resulting beating was far beyond where any justice for the action should have gone, according to the paper. March and Watson were cited for the action and sat in front of Judge Simmons in Price for their actions. But in those times, court officers being what they were, the Judge stated that he had brought a Colt .45 into the courtroom with him, and had intended to put down the pairs attorney if he "tried to run his court."
No shooting took place in court that day, but the paper did take the Judge to task for his even bringing a gun to court with the idea that if the lawyer did something wrong there would be bigger consequences than just contempt of court.
"A justice of the peace who will take a loaded six-shooter into court and tell his townsmen that if the attorney for the party litigant 'rattles' him he intends to shoot him, is about the most beautiful specimen of innate depravity and all around cowardice that God in his infinite mercy has even permitted to crawl upon the earth."
An election year, and the first time the counties residents would be actually voting for people for local office rather than having them appointed by a court set up to run the county the first few years, the heat of the entire incident would simmer much of the summer.
It would come to a head in late July.