Harry Morse (Henry Nicholson Morse) was an Old West lawman elected in 1863 as the sheriff of Alameda County, California. He served in that capacity from 1864 to 1878. Because of his tracking skills he became a celebrated and legendary figure partly because he found and captured some of the most notorious and infamous outlaws plaguing the Western Frontier. Thus, he earned the reputation of being the “Bloodhound of the Far West.”
“Morse loved to tell tales of his adventures, and he was frequently interviewed by newspaper reporters. … These accounts, rich in color of the horseback era and written only a decade after the events they portray, are the most complete and detailed contemporary narratives of a fronter lawman.”
Among the gangs that the “Bloodhound of the Far West” broke up were various Hispanic gangs. They were composed of what were called Californio bandidos who tormented the people living in central and southern California in the 1860s and 1870s. One of the troublesome bandidos that Morse brought to justice was Procopio (also known as Red-Handed Bebito, Red Dick, Procopio Bustamante, and Thomas Redundo). He was the nephew of the legendary Joaquin Murrieta.
Procopio had gotten into trouble for cattle stealing in 1863 and was sentenced to nine years at San Quentin. He was released in March of 1871. However, his freedom did not last long because he and several others got in trouble for stealing cattle in the Livermore Valley. A warrant was issued for their arrest and one of the bandidos was arrested and hung.
When Procopio heard about the hanging and that he was wanted, he escaped to San Juan in Monterey County. There he joined with Tiburcio Vasquez, another Hispanic bandido, who was active in California from 1854 to 1874. Together they “robbed a stage station on the Salinas river, and soon robbed the Visalia stage and [Procopio then] made himself generally obnoxious to the residents in that county.” The pair then traveled to Calaveras County and sometime later Procopio journeyed to San Francisco.
About the time that he appeared in that city, Harry Morse received a telegram informing him that Procopio was there. Morse then arrived in San Francisco with his deputy Lee C. Morehouse. They went hunting for Procopio accompanied by two San Francisco detectives Stone and Bohen, who were told to cooperate with Morse. At the time Morse had information that Procopio was frequenting a certain house (referred to as a brothel or a dance hall) on St. Mark’s place. Hoping to capture the bandido they instituted a watch on the place. Then according to San Francisco Chronicle one afternoon around 1:00pm:
“A descent was made on the establishment. Morehouse, Stone, and Bohen entered at the front door, while Morse went around to the rear entrance. Looking in at the back door, the Sheriff saw [Procopio] seated at a table, facing the front door. As the officers entered from the street, the desperado sprang from his seat and was about to draw his revolver, when Morse rushed up behind him, seized him by the throat with one hand, while he leveled a revolver at his head with the other and casually remarked: ‘Put up your hands, Procopio – you’re my man.’ The other officers almost simultaneously grappled the bandit, and he was led like a lamb to the Oakland boat, and taken to San Leandro where he now reposes in the jail.”
Part of the reason that Procopio was pursued was because Otto Ludovisci, a clerk at a general merchandise store in Sunol, was shot dead after being accosted by three masked men. The men had suddenly appeared in the store and without provocation shot and killed him. The masked men then escaped in the darkness with no one having a clue about their identities.
Fortunately, Harry Morse arrived the following morning and immediately took “vigorous measures” to discover the culprits. A rancher had located the masked men’s tracks and identified them as belonging to a vaquero he once employed named Bartolo Sepulveda. Morse followed the tracks and became convinced they belonged to Sepulveda and another bandido, Jean Soto. Ultimately, Sepulveda was captured, found guilty of Ludovisci’s murder, and sentenced to life in prison.
Despite Sepulveda’s guilt, Morse could not find enough evidence to get Procopio convicted. Instead, Procopio was charged with cattle theft. He was found guilty and sentenced once again to San Quentin but this time he served seven years.
Another of the Hispanic bandidos that Morse went after was a Chilean named Narrato Ponce. On 3 October 1867 he had been playing poker with several men at Graevenor’s Saloon, located in Haywood, California, just east of San Francisco. A dispute arose, Ponce left the room, and returned firing a pistol. One of the bullets went straight through the lung of Lewis Joy, who after being shot, rose from the table, took a few steps, and then dropped dead.
Some accounts claim that before Ponce escaped, he first walked up to the bar and had the audacity to order a drink. He then asked if anyone in the bar wanted anything, but witnesses said it was not clear if he meant a drink or a bullet. After downing his drink, Ponce then escaped under the cover of darkness leaving his horse behind.
When Harry Morse learned Joy had been killed by Ponce, he set out to apprehend him. He tracked him down and he and Officer Conway of Oakland got in a shootout with Ponce, who unfortunately escaped and hid out in Pinole at the home of a friend named Jose Rejos. In the meantime, Morse, along with Officer Conway and Deputy George Swain, also of Oakland, continued to search until they located Ponce. What happened next was published in the Contra Costa Gazette:
“Arriving opposite the house of one Jose Rejos, they saw a man on the mountain side, with a bundle on one arm and the inevitable shot gun on the other, whom the officers imagined might be Naratto [Ponce]. [Morse] told officer Conway and Deputy Swain to go to the house and allow no one to go until he [Morris] had ascertained who the man on the hillside was. Just as [Morse] arrived on the hill, he heard Swain cry out, ‘John, he’s here?’ followed by a loud noise and a pistol shot. [Morse] immediately started for his horse … when he discovered Naratto running and trying to escape Conway and Swain, and the two latter firing on him as rapidly as possible. A ravine intervened between [Morse] and Naratto, obliging Morse to dismount. [Morse] now ordered Naratto to stop and lay down his pistol, to which command he paid no attention, but kept on running and trying to escape. [Morse] fired four shots at him ineffectually, but the fifth one proved fatal.”
Harry Morse served successfully as Alameda’s sheriff for fourteen years before opening his own detective agency. It was called the Harry N. Morse Detective Agency and was headquartered in San Francisco, California. Of his successful agency, the Oakland Tribune wrote in 1878:
“During the past year Mr. Morse has perfected arrangements with numerous officials throughout the Pacific Coast States and Territories, for the prosecution of a general detective and collection business. He employs detectives of established reputations for integrity, shrewdness, tenacity of purpose, and of experience. He has placed himself in communication with the foremost detective agencies of Europe, the Eastern, Middle, Southern, and Western States and Territories, the Canadas, and with the Mexican authorities, which will be of great aid in unraveling of crime and the detection of criminals. Mr. Morse has also established a special agency in Washington City, D.C., for the collection of all claims against the Treasury, Pension, Quartermaster-General, Land Office, Navy, and War Departments, etc. … The San Francisco office is at room 12, Safe Deposit Building, (328 Montgomery Street), and the Oakland office is in the Glascock Building, corner of Seventh and Washington.”
Harry Morse continued to make a name for himself after opening his detective agency. For instance, he identified Charles E. Boles as the infamous American outlaw Black Bart, who was noted for his poetic messages and considered a gentleman bandit because of his sophistication and style. Boles operated as Black Bart in Northern California and Southern Oregon during the 1870s and 1880s and robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches at least 28 times between 1875 and 1883. Wells Fargo was thus highly determined to capture him.
Black Bart’s capture came about after he dropped a handkerchief at a robbery that bore the laundry mark FOX7. Morse was hired by Wells Fargo and with the assistance of Wells Fargo Detective James B. Hume they visited every laundry in San Francisco trying to locate the FOX7 mark. Morse eventually found a laundry facility between Kearny and Montgomery on Bush Street that knew the mark and told him the handkerchief belonged to Charles E. Bolton.
When Morse further questioned the clerk, he learned that Bolton was a mining man. He therefore told the clerk that he wanted to consult Bolton on some ore he had in his possession and gave his name as Charles Richmond. In addition, Morse found out where Bolton was staying in San Francisco:
“[He] found that Bolton kept a room in a small hotel, and going there, made a minute search. He found nothing more suspicious than a small, worn Bible, on the flyleaf of which was written Mary Boles’ inscription to her husband.
This revealed to Morse two strong probabilities … 1, that Black Bart was Bolton; and, 2, that Bolton’s real name was Boles. Therefore, when the owner of the laundry mark FOX7 showed up at the laundry Morse beguiled him by the ore expert trick into Hume’s office. ‘I knew he was Black Bart,’ Morse afterward said, ‘the moment I heard his hollow voice.’”
Boles was then questioned by Hume and Morse extensively and quickly realized that he was trapped. Boles therefore decided his best course of action was to stay silent. However, Morse was determined to get a confession from him and matched wits with him. Morse eventually got Boles to confess by stating that a confession would save the government a lot of money and encourage officials to be lenient to whoever had committed the robberies. Boles thought about it:
“[B]ut before [confessing] … made terms relating to his sentence and an early pardon. …… The terms as finally settled were a sentence of seven years’ imprisonment at the state penitentiary and a pardon at the end of the second year.”
Besides bringing Black Bart’s robberies to and end, Morse broke up the Harkins Opium Smuggling Ring, which also resulted in the prosecution of a corrupt federal magistrate in San Francisco. Morse also investigated San Francisco’s Dupont Street Frauds in the 1880s. In addition, Morse assisted in a case against a defendant charged with several sex murders that made headlines in San Francisco in 1895. His name was Theodore Durrant and he became known as the “Beast in the Belfry” after being accused of murdering 20-year-old Blanche Lamont and the discovery of her body in the belfry.
Lamont had been teaching in a one-room school in Montana before moving in with aunt, Tryphenia Noble, in San Francisco. On 3 April 1895, Lamont and Durrant met at the trolley on Polk Street. Several people saw them together and they were again seen entering the Emanuel Baptist Church on 21st Street. Later that afternoon, a pale looking Durrant asked his friend George King, the church organist, to go get him some medicine because he wasn’t feeling well.
Later that evening, Lamont’s aunt went to a church prayer meeting thinking she might see her niece. When she was not there, Noble thought Lamont might be with friends. However, she remained concerned. The next day Durrant tried to pawn some women’s things and later that same day King was sent a package via Noble that contained some of Lamont’s rings. Despite the package and despite Noble worrying over her niece’s absence she still did not go to police for three days.
Everyone knew that Durrant had last been seen with Lamont and so police questioned him. Durrant denied any involvement in Lamont’s disappearance. As there was no body and there was no evidence that anything had happened to her, there was little police could do.
On 13 April female church members of Emanuel Baptist Church were decorating for Easter when one of the women opened a cabinet and found a mutilated body inside. The body was quickly identified as belonging to 21-year-old Minnie Flora Williams. She had gotten into a heated argument with Durrant the day before and because the argument was so intense police were called. However, by the time they arrived she had calmed down and afterwards she and Durrant entered the church together attested to by several people including attorney Martin Quinlan.
Williams was not seen again until her body was discovered in the cabinet. After the discovery police were called. They then decided to conduct a search of the church and grounds for clues about the missing Lamont. Nothing was found until a church member remembered the belfry and noted that it had not been searched. When police did search it they found Lamont. She, like Williams, was badly mutilate and her head was found wedged between two boards.
As Durrant was the last person seen with both women, police immediately began looking for him. He was arrested and it seemed likely he had been involved in the murders. He was thus brought to trial for murder. Unfortunately for him, his defense was weak. Hoping to shore up his case Harry Morse was hired. According to John Boessnecker, author of Lawman: The Life and Times of Harry Morse, 1835-1912:
“Harry Morse worked busily to round up character witnesses for Durrant. He also dug up nine witnesses who testified that the attorney, Martin Quinlan, was a ‘police court shyster’ and bore a bad reputation for truth and honesty [and that he was lying when he said he saw Durrant and Lamont together]. [In addition, Durrant’s lawyers. Eugene N. Deuprey and John H. Dickinson] did all they could do to discredit the memory of each witness who had seen Durrant and Blanche Lamont together, and Durrant took the stand himself to proclaim his innocence. But in the end the chain of circumstantial evidence against him proved overwhelming. … The jurors deliberated just twenty minutes before returning a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder. … Harry Morse was philosophical, telling a reporter, ‘Well, I suppose we ought to be glad that they have not hanged us. I really believe that there are some people who would have liked to have hanged us because we defended him. I do not think he is guilty, though I confess this morning I thought he would be convicted. … We made a good fight and did the best we could.’”
Durrant was sentenced to be hanged by Judge Carroll Cook, who had gained national attention because of some of his rulings in other famous cases. Durrant never confessed to the murder of Williams or Lamont and continued to declare his innocence up to the day he died. Despite a temporary reprieve granted to him in 1897, Durrant was executed at San Quentin prison on 7 January 1898.
After the Durrant case, Morse’s next and last big case was the poisoning death of Jane Stanford. She was a co-founder of the Stanford University in 1885 and died of strychnine poisoning while on the island of Oahu, in a room at the Moana Hotel. She drank some mineral water that tasted bitter on 14 January 1905, vomited, and sent it to be tested. It was determined to have contained the poison strychnine.
She then hired Harry Morse to discretely conduct an investigation into what appeared to be an attempted poisoning. The investigation uncovered that her household was a hothouse of petty staff jealousies, graft, and intrigue. Unfortunately, that was about all that was discovered as there was no evidence pointing to a single culprit or offering a motive for the poisoning of Stanford.
A month or so later, on 28 February, while in Hawaii, Stanford drank some bicarbonate of soda and later called for a physicians. She declared that she had been poisoned. This time she died. The source of the strychnine was never identified. Stanford was buried alongside her husband, Leland, and their son at the Stanford family mausoleum on the Stanford campus.
Morse died seven years later. His death happened on Friday, 12 January 1912. The Oakland Tribune reported on his passing stating:
“Harry N. Morse, proprietor of the Morse patrol service in San Francisco … died last night at him home, Newton avenue and Hanover street, this city. His death had been expected for several days. Morse, who was nearly eighty years old, was stricken with paralysis two months ago. Since then he had been confined to his bed. Every effort was made to save his life, but he continued to fail.”
-  J. Boessenecker, Lawman: The Life and Times of Harry Morse, 1835-1912 (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), p. xvi.
-  San Francisco Chronicle, “Procopio, the Bandit,” February 11, 1872, p. 5.
-  Ibid.
-  Contra Costa Gazette, “The Pursuit and Death of a Murderer,” December 21, 1867, p. 3.
-  Oakland Tribune, “Ex-sheriff Morse,” July 20, 1878, p. 3.
-  Oakland Tribune, “The Capture of Black Bart,” February 19, 1922, p. 14.
-  Ibid.
-  J. Boessenecker. 1989, p. 283.
-  Oakland Tribune, “Harry N. Morse, Once Famous Sheriff, is Dead,” January 12, 1912, p. 1.