Sun Advocate Archives: Shoot first, ask questions later gets early lawman into big trouble
The story of a shooting and a subsequent death from the actions of a company guard (and former deputy sheriff) dominated the news of the fall of 1912 and the winter of 1913 in Carbon County.
According to the Carbon County News on Sept. 12, 1912 Ed B. Johnstone was an employee (a guard) of the Southern Utah Railroad company. At the time of the shootings he was accompanied by Louis Fossett and they were on the way back from an errand to pick up the payroll for employees from the Castle Gate payroll office. According to the paper, Johnstone and Fossett had gone to Castle Gate by wagon to get the money, but it had not arrived so they had turned back toward Helper.
The Carbon County News reported that Johnstone had been very nervous that day. According to witnesses he had be on edge and particularly on the wagon ride to Castle Gate. This was according to Fossett's later testimony.
"Johnstone's mind appears to have been filled with the possibility that an attempt to hold him up would be made. As the testimony showed, at one point in the journey, when passed by two men on horseback, he pulled his gun and laid it across his left arm in anticipation of trouble."
After this, a little futher down the road beyond a curve two men emerged from the bushes just ahead of the wagon. Johnstone told Fossett, who was driving the team of horses, to stop. He then called out to the men "What are you trying to do?" To which one of the men on the road yelled back "What are you trying to do?" Whether the tone of the man who spoke was mocking or serious was not noted in the paper but immediatelly Johnstone took his gun and fired at the men, hitting them both. He then told Fossett to drive onto Helper. As soon as they arrived in town he informed Sheriff Thomas Kelter that he had shot two highwaymen between the two towns.
It turned out, however, that neither man had intentions of holding up the pair.
"It developed that the two young men shot and left lying beside the road were two unoffensive men employed at the Spring Canyon mines," stated the paper.
They were reportedly on their way to the railroad Y.M.C.A. in Helper. Ronald Beardall, was shot in the leg and the bullet broke the bone. The other, Brigham Taylor, however, died within a few hours of being plugged by Johnstone.
Later that day, Johnstone was arrested by Kelter and put in jail. He was subsequently released on $10,000 bond.
On March 6, 1913, after a short trial and pleas by Johnstone's defense attorney that he was only trying to protect himself. The defendent was found guilty of manslaughter in the shooting, getting a one year sentence in the Utah State Prison in Sugarhouse for his actions.
However, there is a lot more to this story than was reported in the Carbon County News at the time. The story of how the men were accosted and then shot by Johnstone was very different when it was reported by the Eastern Utah Advocate at the same time. That paper reported more details at the time of the shooting and the stories reported by that paper right after the incident as well as after the trial vary greatly.
In the Eastern Utah Advocate version of the story Johnstone was an Emery County Deputy Sheriff as well as a special guard for the Castle Valley Coal Company for which he was to pick up payroll that day. Over the days before the payroll was to be picked up an unknown man was seen hanging around the coal mines area asking men about how they were paid and when they would be paid. Johnstone was made aware of this and that probably is what was on his mind on the trip to Castle Gate. He was also not riding in a company wagon coming back from Castle Gate, but the wagon (or buggy it was referred to in some parts of the paper) was Fossett's who was delivering groceries and Johnstone had hitched a ride. The Carbon County News also did not report that the incident took place after dark at a bridge crossing the Price River just a little over a mile north of Helper. The first encounter the pair had with the two men on horses was also reported differently. The Eastern Utah Advocate reported that the two groups exchanged words and then the men on the horses turned around and rode back to Helper.
As for the shooting itself, the version the Eastern Utah Advocate reporter pointed out that the men (18 and 19 years of age, often referred to as boys in the reports) did not sass Johnstone and that they had moved off the road to let the wagon go by. Johnston had then stopped the wagon after passing them and went back and asked them what they were doing. One of the boys had said "Nothing" and it was then that Johnstone shot them. Another difference in the reports was that Johnstone immediatelly realized he had made a mistake and had loaded the boys into the buggy and taken them to Helper where "Taylor died in great agony."
While the sentence in prison was the end of Johnstone's legacy in Carbon County, falling right in with many other characters that populated the area at the time, he was one who made history in other and similar ways in the years before.
E.B. Johnstone was known in the area long before the manslaughter sentence. Three years before, as a Carbon County Deputy Sheriff, he had shot down the well known C.L. "Gunplay" Maxwell in the streets of Price.
And that is a story that must also be told.