by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This third part of a look at some of the history of Millard Canyon above Altadena and Pasadena in the San Gabriel Mountains prior to 1919 when the featured snapshot of a hiker crossing a bridge was taken has covered some pretty diverse territory. Beyond the natural beauty and allure to hikers, campers and others of the canyon, there were also contested water interests, wildfires, the encroachment of houses and the establishment of two sanitariums, including the better known La Viña.
As with many canyon and mountain locales, especially those fairly removed from more populated areas, there was no lack of unusual characters at Millard Canyon in those years. One of the stranger accounts, a bit reminiscent of the mythical if persistent story of Bigfoot, appeared in the Los Angeles Express of 2 June 1905, which referred to
Reports of a strange creature, half man, half beast, who has been living in the mountains north of Pasadena and subsists on the raw flesh of small birds and animals which he kills in a primitive fashion, have been brought to Pasadena by members of picnic parties who have caught glimpses of him in Millard’s canyon, and the local authorities have been asked to make an attempt to capture him.
Adding that there was said to have a dozen sightings in the previous few weeks, the account noted that “the creature runs naked except for a breech cloth around his loins” and it was described as having shaggy mane-like hair, broad shoulders, considerable body hair, sunburned and blistered skin and feet and hands “covered with unsightly sores.” Moreover, there were purportedly only two persons who were close enough to get a decent view, with most accounts observing that the figure climbed up steep slopes and vanished into the brush when seen, with those pair of sightings finding the individual seated in a pool of water in the canyon stream.
Evidently, not unlike concerns about tuberculosis sufferers at La Viña when that was proposed four years later, the habit of the figure of bathing in the watercourse led Levi Giddings, owner of the ranch where the sanitarium was later established, to form a posse to find the mysterious “wild man.” Apparently, these exertions were sufficient to force the figure out of Millard and westward to Devil’s Gate and the Arroyo Seco, though the difficult terrain was such that it was impossible to seize the individual and Giddings asked Pasadena police officials to make an attempt at capture.
The account concluded, almost as if a foreshadowing of the famous discovery in 1911 of Ishi, said to be the “last wild Indian” in California, that
Who or what he is and where he came from is not known. It is possible that he may be an escaped patient from some insane asylum, although the color of his skin would seem to indicate that he is an Indian.
Less mysterious was the arrest, more than a decade later, on the last day of March 1916 of James D. Clark at a strange two-story clapboard structure he built in Millard Canyon for his elaborate minting of counterfeit of $1, $5 and $10 gold pieces and silver coin of various denominations. He built the edifice so he could do his illicit minting on the second floor, which had a small opening so he could keep an eye on any interlopers, while the first level is where he stashed a pair of sawed-off shotguns and two revolvers.
When federal Treasury Department agent George Hazen, an assistant and a Pasadena police officer arrived, they were able to evade detection and surprise Clark at his work, though the latter pulled a knife and attacked Hazen, though he was overpowered before he could harm the agent. It was learned that Clark had been engaged in his counterfeiting scheme in the canyon for six weeks, but that he’d recently been operating a dairy at Lamanda Park in east Pasadena.
Subsequently, it was learned that Clark leased, in July 1914, a blacksmith shop in an industrial area of downtown Los Angeles for his nefarious ends, but abruptly decamped to the Bay Area. There he was tracked down by federal agents, but slipped away and back to Pasadena before he could be nabbed. Meantime, he’d stashed away some $15,000, all from his ill-gotten gains, in banks and he confessed all to Hazen on 20 April, revealing that he’d left his native Kansas and gone to a suburb of Houston and worked for a merchant, as well as marrying the store owner’s daughter and having two children with her.
In 1908, he began his counterfeit racket with a blacksmith shop (for obvious reasons) as a front and, while he was arrested in Houston on a charge of minting bogus coins, he was acquitted. In 1912, he, his wife and their children migrated to Lamanda Park, where her father provided the money for the purchase of a piece of property on which a house and blacksmith shop were built. Clark added a dairy to his enterprise, but this was shut down by local officials because of unsanitary conditions and he turned back to counterfeiting. After he fessed up to his racket at Millard Canyon, Clark was sentenced to eight years and transported to the federal lockup at McNeil Island in Puget Sound.
Colorful as Clarke’s story was, that of Hyrel Gill (1873-1940) definitely falls under the heading of “the truth is stranger than fiction.” About 1912, she established mining and water claims at Millard Canyon and engaged in years of conflict and controversy with a host of local residents, the La Viña Sanitarium, and regional and federal government officials, often in concert with fellow claimant Frederick W. Ford, of whom little is known. While Ford got into trouble for alleged assaults, vandalism of water pipes and other shenanigans, it was Gill who drew the lion’s share of attention.
Hyrel Chaney was born in Dubuque, Iowa, the Mississippi River town bordering Wisconsin and Illinois, as the youngest of five children to Martha Crockwell and Richard Chaney, who was a lead miner and later a surveyor. The family lived for a time near Kansas City, Kansas before moving to Salt Lake City, where Hyrel worked as a clerk before marrying George A. Gill. Gill, born in 1867 in Keighley, northwest of Leeds, Yorkshire, England, was the son of a police superintendent and, at 18, secured appointment to the constabulary of his hometown. Later the family lived at Wakefield, south of Leeds, when Gill’s father was transferred there as part of his police duties.
In 1889, Gill migrated to the United States and headed to Colorado, though for what reason is not known and his occupation was given as a clerk. Within a short time he relocated to Salt Lake City and married Hyrel and then they headed for Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where George acquired a ranch. News reached home in England of an Indian attack on the settlement during the Bannock War or Uprising of July 1895 and rumors were that the Gills may have been among dozens of whites killed by the Bannock Indians.
They managed, however, to escape and ended up in Oakland, where George secured work as a railroad conductor, initially as a Pullman employee on the Southern Pacific and then with a local streetcar line. A son was born early in 1896, but died not long after, and a second child, Richard, followed four years later. In 1902, another move was made south to Pasadena, where George began working for a real estate company and Hyrel and their son came a year later, but, after a few years, trouble arose as it was reported by the Los Angeles Herald of 27 November 1906 that “the most sensational action ever tried in Pasadena” involved Hyrel’s charge against George for a lack of financial support.
It was added, however, that “Mrs. Gill is the woman who created some sensation at Redondo by having an altercation with her husband, whom she charged was stopping with another woman.” What was not reported then, but was later, was that she produced a horsewhip and laid it on both George and the other woman, not identified by the Herald but who was May Wotkyns (or Watkins.) The proceeding also produced letters from George stating that Hyrel ruined his life and he told her, “if a man ever does hate a woman I do certainly hate you,” but he also heatedly denied any improper extramarital relations.
On 15 January 1908, however, Gill, who’d returned to Hyrel and their son at Pasadena, went to a Redondo house and engaged in a two-hour conversation with Wotkyns/Watkins, the end of which included her screaming “Don’t, George, don’t,” after which a gunshot shattered the glass of a door and nearly hit the woman owner of the residence. As she ran panicking to find her husband, a second shot was fired. When the husband returned with a shotgun, a third shot was heard and, on entering the room where Gill and Watkins were located, she was found seriously wounded with a wound to her left side and he dead from a bullet in the heart.
Watkins soon died of her injury and it was believed by her friends and documents found on Gill that he intended suicide and she may have first grabbed the gun leading to the first two shots. Apparently, as he realized what happened, Gill then turned the weapon on himself and ended his life. In fact, at the inquest, it was learned that Gill intended for Watkins to take charge of his funeral, though she apparently uttered, after the shooting, “we might as well end it all right here for both us.” In a letter to the coroner, Gill confessed to drinking too much prior to the incident, but it was also reported that the two met while he was a conductor and began an affair.
That, of course, led to Hyrel’s horsewhipping of her husband and his paramour and it was also revealed that Watkins abandoned a husband in Texas in 1905 and took their son with her when she went to Los Angeles where her mother resided. Reporting indicated both that she wanted to end her fling with Gill and that he went to Redondo to terminate their relationship so that he and his wife could move to Ogden, Utah, this latter version being from Hyrel, who, during her separation from George, worked for a real estate firm in Pasadena and then moved to Los Angeles.
An account from the Los Angeles Times, however, stated that the missive to the coroner proved intended murder and suicide. Playing up the love triangle angle for all it was worth, the paper stated that Watkins and Hyrel “battled for months” for George’s attentions and “fought for him as only women can.” It added that Hyrel went to her rival, got on her knees and begged to end the affair, claiming that Watkins said that she would not do so unless George was dead and further insisted that Watkins threatened to kill him if he left her and returned to Hyrel.
When she testified at the coroner’s inquest, the paper stated, “she is an unusually handsome woman, and manifestly a person of strong character.” She stated that she’d met him at a Los Angeles cafeteria and he told her he would see Watkins, but that he was afraid of her, and that he wanted her to release property he purchased in her name for little Richard. Hyrel continued that the plan was for them to reunite and leave the area.
She not only insisted that he had no gun when he left for Redondo, but that his physical condition was so weak that she had to help him get dressed for the trip—her insinuation was that Watkins had the weapon and would kill George if he tried to break off their relationship. A doctor treating Watkins, who was conscious after the shooting, though paralyzed by the bullet grazing her spinal column, testified that she said to him that, when George pulled out the weapon, she grasped his right hand, forcing him to switch the gun to his left and “he understood her to say that Gill fired the first shot at Mrs. Hinsdale,” the house’s owner.
A strange twist occurred just days after the homicide-suicide when Hyrel turned up as a witness in a murder case involving Estelle Corwell, who, in July 1907, shot George Bennett, whom she claimed had been her common-law husband for several years. It is not entirely clear how Hyrel Gill got involved, though it was claimed that she became something of a detective on Corwell’s behalf. When Corwell was acquitted, some press accounts noted that hers was one of three such verdicts in well-known cases, the others involving Norman Melrose and Charles P. Temple, the latter being the younger brother of future Homestead owner and builder of La Casa Nueva, Walter.
By 1912, Gill moved to Millard Canyon, where she made claims on large chunks of land for mining and water purposes and got into the disputes over nearly a decade that are so numerous and interesting that we’ll conclude this post with a fourth part tomorrow.