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Even the small town of Manhattan has its share of drama


Manhattan, along with Tonopah, Goldfield, Rhyolite and Round Mountain, was a great central Nevada turn-of-the-century mining boom town. Together these towns represented the last flowering of the American western frontier.

The first mining in the Manhattan area began in 1866. A town now known as Old Manhattan was established, then faded. The discovery of gold in Manhattan Gulch in 1905 led to the founding of the present community. Like all mining boom towns in central Nevada, Manhattan had its brothels.

Perhaps the most famous brothel in Manhattan was the Jewel Saloon. There, on April 6, 1906, Nye County’s highly regarded and much-loved sheriff, Thomas W. Logan, was shot and killed. I have previously written a column detailing that event and his great-granddaughter Jackie Boor recently (2014) published a fine book on his life and murder titled “Logan: The Honorable Life and Scandalous Death of a Western Lawman.”

I will briefly review the facts of the story here. Logan was born in Washoe Valley in 1861. By 1899, he was married and the father of eight children. In 1898, he ran for Nye County sheriff and won.

Death at the Jewel Saloon

May Biggs was the owner of the Jewel Saloon. Though Sheriff Logan was married and had a large family, he had become romantically involved with Biggs. She was the only witness to his murder.

At the preliminary hearing following Sheriff Logan’s death, Biggs testified that a gambler named Walter Barieau had been in the brothel and had become drunk and obnoxious. She had asked him to leave but he refused, grabbing her wrist and giving it a painful wrench, which provoked her to scream for help.

Her screams, she said, attracted the attention of Sheriff Logan, who, dressed in his nightshirt, rushed from Biggs’ sleeping quarters to her aid. A confrontation between Logan and Barieau ensued and the sheriff, who was unarmed, was shot and killed.

Funeral services were held in Tonopah and Logan was buried in the Tonopah cemetery. Major mines closed out of respect.

At the time of his death, a Nye County commissioner was quoted in the Tonopah Daily Sun as saying, “Tom Logan was a man in a thousand. He was an ideal sheriff, and we will not see his like again. The man was absolutely fearless, and his only fault was that he was too kindhearted for his own good” (Tonopah Daily Sun, April 7, 1906).

Perhaps Barieau had his greatest stroke of luck when local attorney Patrick A. McCarran served as his defense counsel. Walter Barieau’s trial began in Tonopah on July 9, 1906.

Though Nye County District Attorney Key Pittman, who later became a Nevada governor, cast aspersions on Barieau’s character for the jury’s benefit, the prosecution could not shake the gambler from his story. Barieau contended he acted in self-defense.

Pat McCarran was exceedingly eloquent in his closing argument. He presented Sheriff Logan as having been a decent married man with eight children, a victim of May Biggs, an “enchantress who had wound herself into the life of a man inclined to do right and making him a slave of her every will and wish.”

On July 14, 1906, at 5:30 a.m., after 17 hours of deliberation, the jury, worn out with its all-night struggle to reach an agreement, rendered its verdict: Not guilty. After beating the hangman’s noose for his Manhattan encounter, Barieau lived a long life. He died in San Diego, California, in 1953 at the age of 83.

Young Pat McCarran established his legal reputation during the trial. He was appointed Nye County District Attorney a short time later and eventually moved up to the state supreme court. In 1932, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death in 1954.

Dynamite at the Brothel

Imagine Margaret Werst’s emotions when, in the spring of 1911, she found a box of dynamite on the front steps of the brothel in Manhattan’s red-light district. A Hills Brothers coffee box had been filled with dynamite pieces about half their usual length.

Nicely coiled around the inside of the box were two pieces of fuse and at each end a primer or a blasting cap. Sticking out from under the lid was about a half a foot of fuse and its char indicated someone had lit the fuse with the intention of the package producing a powerful explosion.

Contents of the box were said to have been sufficient to “have destroyed several houses and with them gone three or four lives at least.”

The item in the Tonopah Daily Bonanza (June 14, 1911) said, “It is little short of miraculous that the powder was not exploded and can be accounted for only by the supposition that the person placing it on the step was in too much of a hurry to get away to properly ignite the fuse.” The appearance of the apparatus suggested that it had been made some time before.

Manhattan Constable Santos was notified and took charge of the box. He gave it to Judge Heywood as evidence. Suspicion was directed at William Olson who, on the previous night, had become “incensed at the treatment accorded him by one of the inmates [women]. He stated that he would ‘blow the establishment up.’” Because he had made the same threat on previous occasions, it had not been taken seriously.

The previous night he was intoxicated and had “been drinking pretty heavily of late.” He was taken into custody and would face a hearing when he sobered up and realized the gravity of the charges against him, said the Tonopah Daily Bonanza (June 14, 1911).

Madeline McKillip Recollections

Madeline McKillip was born in Manhattan, Nevada, November 27, 1924. The Nye County Town History Project did an oral history with her in 2010 and it is available at Nye County libraries and museums, UNLV, and on the Internet.

Madeline remembers when she was a child living in Manhattan around 1930, there were three houses located at the west end of town, each occupied by a prostitute. She recalled that the houses were covered with tar paper and each woman worked independently in her own home.

She said when she and her young friends would go down Manhattan Gulch to play, on the way back one of the women, named Ella, would always come out and give the kids lemonade and cookies. To Madeline and her young friends Ella seemed old. The children never told their mothers they stopped and talked to Ella or that she gave them food treats. Their mothers would not have approved. The children knew, “Don’t tell Mama.”

Madeline would accompany her mother to the post office at noon, which was a kind of community social hour where people talked with friends and neighbors while waiting for their mail. Ella and two other prostitutes would show up at the post office at this time.

Madeline recalled that they would be wearing a lot of makeup and never talked with the others waiting. They always stood off. Madeline recalled that the children might sneak a look at the women and smile at them, but they, too, never spoke. No one acknowledged the women’s presence.

Madeline recalled that years later, she and her brother returned to Manhattan accompanied by her son, who was about 12 at the time. She said in years past they used to find purple bottles in the Manhattan area. On this visit, they found themselves looking for purple bottles where the prostitutes’ houses once stood.

While digging there they found a case of empty Mumms champagne bottles. Madeline said, “That tells you they must have had some good parties.” She said the bottles were still white but when they were put in the sun they turned purple.

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