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Front Page » November 20, 2012 » Local News » Killer played roles of hero and villain in Price history
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Killer played roles of hero and villain in Price history

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When Edward Johnstone killed a young coal miner in 1912 because he thought the man and another were going to rob him of a payroll he didn't even have, the court took into account the fact that he had been warned that a robbery could well take place that night. Having been a Carbon County Deputy Sheriff at one time and then a special agent for one of the coal mines, the situation he had found himself in was cause to pause about his guilt.

However, that fall he went to the Utah State Prison in Sugarhouse to serve his one year conviction for manslaughter.

But this wasn't the first person that Johnstone had killed. And the local press made no mention of the fact that only three years before (Aug. 23, 1909), he had been the person responsible for shooting C.L. "Gunplay" Maxwell, a well known outlaw in the area, in fact throughout much of the west.

According to the Carbon County News at the time of the Maxwell killing, Johnstone had come to Carbon County a few months before from the southern part of the United States. There he had served as an officer for the Internal Revenue Service (pre-income tax days). He also had relatives in the area, including a brother in one of the coal camps and a mother and sister in Salt Lake City. However the two papers differed on the spelling of the lawman's name. The Carbon County News referred to him in 1909 as Johnson, but three years later got his name right.

"Mr. Johnson is a quiet and unassuming man, always affable and courteous," stated the paper. "But he has a determination backed up by a cast iron nerve that has carried him safely through in many dangerous encounters with the lawless element...The sheriff ... saw in him a man able to round up the law breakers."

However, the Eastern Utah Advocate told a little different story. That paper said he was from West Virginia and had come to Utah in 1902. At that time he had worked in the Clear Creek mines and had a brother-in-law (Mark Beatty) who was the former manager of the Wasatch Store in that town. It also said he had younger brother employed at Clear Creek as well. Later it was reported that he went to Nevada and while working for a gold mining project there (apparently as a lawman) was shot during a strike.

He "...spent some eight months in a hospital at Salt Lake City (after the shooting) coming here about two months since to do some special work for Sheriff Kelter..." stated the paper on Aug. 27, 1909.

The report went on to say that Johnstone was about 35 years of age at the time and that "he is one of the last men in the world that would be picked out for a gun fighter."

But a gunman he was. And that time spent in Nevada at Goldfield was one of two very good reasons that Maxwell had it out for him, and tried to ambush him on that summer day in 1909.

Based on reports in each paper there was an aloof side to Johnstone as well. No one seemed to know him very well and after he had killed Maxwell, he was seen just walking calmly away from the dying man's body that was laying in the street just north of the railroad crossing near where either Carbon Avenue or 100 West now is.

After the event, and up until the shooting of the miner in 1912, Johnstone was in many ways a celebrity, not only in the Carbon area, but also in Utah in general. In September 1909, he was offered $1,000 for the sixshooter that did Maxwell in by a wealthy Salt Lake party. He said he would not sell it (Eastern Utah Advocate, Sept. 9, 1909).

In November of that year he was named a special officer to Kenilworth. He was basically going to work for the mine owners there, and later accompanied them on a business trip to Salt Lake where a Salt Lake police officer realized he was carrying a concealed weapon. He was arrested, but released soon after when the explanation he gave for carrying it jived with the mining officials story (Eastern Utah Advocate Nov. 25, 1909).

He was in the news again in 1911 when he got into a fight with a former resident of Kenilworth with whom he had bad blood from one of the strikes he was policing as he worked for the company. He had beaten the man to the ground, when police and others arrived. He was exonerated when company officials related what had started the melee.

After the shooting of the young miners, a number of articles ran in the papers concerning Johnstone, his bail, his statements and what his defense in court would be. One of those stories ran on Sept. 26 in the Eastern Utah Advocate and right below the story was another story about the miner who was not killed, who hailed from Springville. According to the story, he was healing well, but townsfolk were very upset about the shootings and that Johnstone appeared to be getting preferential treatment in Carbon county because of his background as a lawman and notoriety for gunning down Maxwell.

One of Maxwell's escapades was the robbery of a bank in Springville many years earlier. Although he had not gotten away and had been convicted and sent to prison, he was still regarded as a cowardly outlaw in that town. The paper proclaimed in the article that after the Maxwell killing Johnstone "would have bee a hero" in the town, but that now he was regarded as "cold blooded killer" (Sept. 26, 1912).

After Johnstone's conviction on the voluntary manslaughter of Brigham Taylor in March 1913, and his subsequent sentencing of one year in the state prison, he languished there for only about six months. At that point in time he was released because his sentence was commuted by Governor William Spry (who held office from 1909-17) and was within a few months hired as the governor's body guard. Spry was the same governor who refused to commute the execution of famous union activist Joe Hill in 1915.

Between those times he came back to Carbon county quietly and took up with work with the coal company once again.

Once hired by the governor he was in charge of the office's security. In once instance in January 1916 (as reported by the News-Advocate on Jan. 28, 1916), he threw a union agitator out of the Utah State Capitol's front doors and onto the steps. The man was carrying a box and headed toward the governor's office when Johnstone spotted him. He asked the man if he could help him and the man started swearing at him, using Joe Hill's name amongst the epitaphs he was spitting out. Johnstone worried the man had a bomb, but when the box didn't explode when he landed him face first on the steps he figured it wasn't.

But despite all that he did, both good and bad, he will always be remembered as the guy who ended "Gunplay" Maxwell's long string of crimes. What happened that day is a story that can stand alone.

Some information for this article came from the book The Unforgiven, written by L. Kay Gillespie.

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