Harry, the ‘601’ and Carson City’s firebug
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles about the history of the Nevada Appeal. The Appeal first published on May 16, 1865. This article originally appeared during the Nevada Appeal’s 125th birthday celebration. To read the full article go to nevadaappeal.com.
Mystery that has long tantalized historians inside and outside the Appeal offices, is the possible existence of a connection between Harry Mighels and the vigilante group knows as the “601” which reared its ugly head one cold, moonlit night in Carson City.
A suspected firebug was condemned and silently dispatched with a hangman’s noose while the city slept that night and Mighels was unable to hide his satisfaction while reporting the incident later in his news columns.
The “601” as it surfaced around Nevada, was not specifically a hanging society. Lynchings by the “601” were, in fact, rare occurrences. The usual procedure was to issue public or private warnings to suspected rowdies and threaten them with tar and feathers. Such warnings were usually sufficient to make them move along. The tar and feathers routine, when invoked upon some hapless individual, usually had a quieting effect on others.
To the early Nevada citizenry, uncontrolled fire was a very real and constantly haunting specter.
For Carson City residents, the first cold chill of realization of a firebug’s presence came Oct. 2, 1875, when it was discovered that an earlier reported house fire of unknown cause had been set on purpose.
An astonished Harry Mighels apologize to his readers for a reporter having missed the important facts on an earlier story and then went on to describe how the arsonist had splashed coal oil over some clothes hanging on a fence and onto the side of the house and then set the whole thing afire.
Three days later, the home belonging to a family which happened to be out of town at the time, was broken into, coal oil splashed about and then put to the torch.
Even as this deadly scenario was developing, Virginia City residents, with whom Carsonites could easily identify, were digging themselves out of the remains of a catastrophic fire. It didn’t take much imagination to see a similar fate for Carson City.
In the Oct. 7, 1875, Appeal there was a letter to the editor, which gave a hint to the tone of public concern. The letter in apparent response to some rhetorical question, gave advice on how to fire a gun through window glass at a prowler without injuring oneself.
“If you fire straight into the glass,” the writer offered, “the bullet will make a hole. If you shoot at a slant it will splinter the glass. But the shattered glass in all cases will blow outward.” The letter writer concluded with the helpful observation that “glass will not deflect bullets.”
On Oct. 30, the arsonist celebrated Nevada’s 11th birthday a day early by burning the local acid works to the ground. The next morning Harry queried editorially:
“When shall we catch and adequately punish one of these devilish villains who set fire to a house in the dark?”
As community concern grew for the situation, every pile of burning leaves and every smoldering trash heap was a suspected product of arson.
By mid-November, the soap factory had been victim of a torching attempt and the near-hysterical Carson residents had simply seen enough.
There was a group of unemployed, drunken, misbehaving n’er-do-wells hanging around Carson City. They were captained by a Hamilton jail escapee known as Tom Burt who had a tacky history of arson and robbery in eastern Nevada. Several locals were convinced Burt was their culprit. Spokesmen for the “601” issued a warning that the arsonist’s identity was known and that he had better “cease and desist.”
Harry hinted at a possible solution in an editorial comment at the foot of one of his arson reports:
“This class of criminal is more dread than any other. There should be, where possible, some vigilante private party and an assisting force to the sheriff and deputies to deal with the problem.”
On Dec. 17, 1875, Mighels got his editorial wish. A group of vigilantes arrived art the Curry Engine House where Burt kept sleeping quarters, and called him out. The caretaker in the building, who answered the late-night knock at the door, wisely stepped aside and let the sinister group carry Burt off to the cemetery where they hanged him from the crossbar above.
An undertaker arriving early the next morning to bury two scarlet fever victims, discovered the body turning slowly n the breeze. Burt’s body had a white sheet of paper pinned to the chest with the inscription “601.”
A coroner’s inquest was held the next day and it confirmed the obvious: Burt died at the hands of vigilantes — carried away from his bed in the Curry Engine House at 1:30 a.m.
The morning of Dec. 18, 1875, Harry published an editorial in which he defended the use of vigilante justice to cure Carson City’s arson problems. While he was at it he even went so far as to point out the probable inadequacies of the existing legal system to deal with the firebug. In his editorials he postulates that the suspect would have, if arrested, turned state’s evidence and escaped prosecution himself. The editorial says:
The tragedy of yesterday morning was none-the-less startling and terrible from the fact that it was done quietly and with no noise and in the dead watches of the night, under the cold gleams of the waning and comfortless moon. The excitement of the day, itself also subdued, was profound and intense. What shall we say of this stern act of self defense against the constant menace of a brazen outlaw’s presence? What should be the comments of a newspaper whose professions have always been in behalf of the majesty of the law and the observance of its mandates? These are no light questions.
Within the nooks and recesses of the law there are, necessarily, it seems, places where rogues may screen themselves from their just desserts. The vicious old maxim,’ Set a thief to catch a thief,” has its interpretation in favor even of professional scoundrelism. If the unwritten statues of Judge lynch have any admissible time and place of application it is when and where their executives ferret out those nooks and recesses and chase their skulking occupants to justice. If we understand the case which we are now considering, here is an instance where Lynch law was the only law that could reach a man whose presence in the community was a constant and alarming danger — for, self-confessed, this tom Burt was a criminal, a worse than vagrant, an associate and counselor with thieves and incendiaries, and a bold, bad man.
Sometimes in the course of the life of the most peaceable and law-abiding of men, the emergencies of self-preservation demand the taking of the law in the hands of individuals. Every man has a right to protect his life, the life and honor of his family and his property. It is justifiable homicide even in the eyes of the law for the citizen to slay the robber who demands his purse, the burglar who breaks into his dwelling or the incendiary who fires his property — if these acts can be prevented by so taking human life. The scoundrel who turns state’s evidence against his pals secures for his guilty self immunity from punishment at the hands of the outrage law. He may be known as a cutthroat, a highwayman and an incendiary; but the law, unavoidably in some instances, is on its honor with him and must hold his person inviolable and exempt from arrest until new crimes are proved against him. He may, by his presence, fling contempt in the eyes of peaceable, industrious citizens, appoint to himself as the sacred ward of the law, and, by his example, lend aid and encouragement to all with whom he is brought in contact. If he turns his attention to the infamous business of a professional informer and stool pigeon, he is stimulated to the promotion of crime, for he is interested in reaping such rewards as may be in store for the conviction of criminals. In short, such men as this dead scoundrel, Burt, are a example to the undergraduates of the schools of forgery, a promoter of crime for crime’s sake, and an unbearable pest and danger to the community whom they curse with their practices. The theory of the law’s punishments is the strength of example. Legal examples are weak compared with the fore of such summary work a this of yesterday morning. Judge Lynch does two things by hanging, by mysterious hands, in the dead waste of night such a villain as this fellow Burt, frees the community of a nuisance and danger and frightens evil doers into self exile.
Upon the broad and well-grounded principles of self-preservation, then we cannot condemn this act of the midnight conclave whose awful sign and footprint is “601.” For more than two months Carson City has been at the mercy of a band of villains whose ringleader and counselor and betrayer this man was. Now that he is dead, mothers will feel that they may lie down at night with something less of feverish apprehension that their little ones may be burned to death before morning by the devilish torch of the incendiary; the belated citizen will experience something less of a sense of danger from attack and robbery as he winds his way home through the dark streets of the town; and there will be a general sense of satisfaction that by an act of summary and informal justice a skulking scamp has been brought to such an end as seems something like an adequate satisfaction for the midnight deviltries and which will prove a terrible warning to the rogues who still remain among us undetected and unhung.
In addition to Harry’s earlier obvious editorial request for vigilante action, one circumstance that strongly hinted at his connection was the fact that the Appeal for may years used Post Office Box 601, and it was easy to assume that Mighels was the one who had obtained it. William “Bill” Dunfield, a former Carson City postmaster, squelched this possibility by noting that new mail boxes and numbers came with the completion of the post office and federal building in 1890. The Gothic, four-story brick building now houses the Nevada State Library. Dunfield observed that the large mailboxes began with the number 600. He theorized that the Appeal was one of the first customers to apply for one of the larger boxes in the new post office and received, by luck rather than design, Box 601.
In 1973, the Appeal abandoned Box 601 for yet another because it needed an even larger box.
In any event, Mighels himself had been dead over 10 yeas when box 601 came into the Appeal’s possession. Further, all of his mail seen by this writer was simply to him by name in Carson City, with neither street address nor box numbers.
Today, with the existence of a sound court system and well-staffed, well educated lawmen and court officials, there is no genuine excuse for hanging justice. But, in an 1875 frontier community like Carson City, desperate situations called for desperate measures. With a firebug running amok and tinder-dry buildings, the “601” was a viable solution and Burt’s shocking death successfully halted the long string of arson attacks.
Harry had seen his beloved community snatched from the jaws of inevitable disaster. Therefore, his less-than tacit approval of the vigilante action was understandable. Indeed, his opinion was probably that of the community’s greater majority. But by simply approving of the deed, he doesn’t necessarily prove himself a part of it.
One more interesting point that discredits the possibility of Harry’s complicity is the fact that he offered news space to print an “explanation” from the “601.” It was never printed.
If Harry had been a member or, worse, a participant, he would not have had to depend on second-hand information and official statements to write his articles. Further, he would have found it simple enough to come up with a policy statement form the “601” and not have to ask for (and then not get) such a document.