Santa Cruz County History - People

Old Soldiers: Santa Cruz County Civil War Veterans
by Robert L. Nelson

ATHERTON, M H ( 1838 - ? )

Santa Cruz Local Item (August 11, 1876)

Photograph of M H Atherton
M. H. Atherton

A Felons Cell

Interview with the Condemned Man, Atherton - Brief Outline of his career - Words of Warning

A Local Item reporter visited the county Jail last Monday, for the purpose of interviewing M.H. Atherton, sentenced to death for the killing of Edgar May in September last. Through the courtesy of Jailer Silva, we were admitted to those classic portals, and entering the cell of the condemned man, was invited to a seat on a box in one corner. Occupying one end of the small room was a cot on which was seated the prisoner. A sort of carpet covered the stone floor, and aside from the cot and box on which we sat, no other article of furniture was visible. In the center of the room was an iron bolt, to which the prisoner was chained by one leg, the chain being of sufficient length to allow him to be on the bed. He looked pale, haggard and was rather nervous, the long confinement having told perceptibly on a naturally robust constitution. Papers and books were strewn about, by the perusal of which he whiles away the monotonous hours, the pale sunlight that struggled in through the grated doors affording sufficient light for the purpose. He expressed himself as perfectly satisfied with the treatment he was receiving, and was profuse in his praise of the jailer, whom he said did everything possible for his comfort. Every reasonable want is supplied and freedom is the only thing debarred him.

Atherton's History

Although not in a very communicative mood, he willingly consented to answer our questions, and by degrees we gathered the following brief outline of his career. He was born in Manchester, England, A.D. 1838, and is consequently thirty-seven years of age. In 1840 his parents immigrated to this country, and located in Kentucky. About the same year 1851 he was sent to Greencastle, Indiana, to school, and for seven our eight years pursued his studies in that State and Ohio. Early in 1866 his father died, his mother following in the same year, leaving himself, a brother and sister alone in the world. His parents were respectable hard working people, who had endeavored to instill into him the true principles of manhood, and had endowed him with a fair education. For a time he engaged in the grocery business in Albi Iowa, but on the breaking out of the war in 1861, he...

Entered the Union Army

As a three months volunteer in Co. E, 1st Regiment Iowa Volunteers, under Capt. Perkins, and was at the battle of Wilson's Creek, where the gallant Gen Lyons was killed. At the expiration of his time he re-enlisted in the 101st Indiana Volunteers, and remained in service during the war. At its conclusion he had developed a roving disposition and was when discharged, he traveled extensively, visiting most of the States, as well as taking a short trip to South America. In his travels he had fallen into bad company and contracted many bad habits, among them that of using alcoholic liquors. He was one of the naval surveying party that was detailed to map a shorter route between China and San Francisco. Soon tiring of this monotonous life, however, he left it and returned home. He was conscious of having fallen low in the scale of humanity during these eventful years , and was ashamed to visit the scenes of his earlier years. The better instincts of his nature prompted him to a different life, and with the hope of breaking away from evil associations and retrieving his lost manhood, he turned his fact...

Toward California

Where he arrived in April, 1874. He had learned the trade of a plumber, and with the firm intention of forsaking his evil habits, he sought work at that business. An opportunity offering, he went to Gilroy to work on the new theater then building. The habit he had contracted was too strong for his resistance, and here he again indulged in the intoxicating cup, and after a lengthy spree, went to work on a farm, where he remained several months. Leaving there he went to Hollister , and found his way to the New Idrian mines, where he spent some time among the bad characters that infest that region. At last he found himself again in San Francisco. Many resolves to lead a better life were formed by as easily broken. The demon of drink had entire control of him, and his appetite could not be appeased. Getting tired of city life, he took to the country again, and early in 1875 Watsonville became his abiding place. There he worked for a man named Cox, and after suffering an attack of delirium tremors, tried ranch life again. For several months things went well, but indulging in another spree he set out on foot toward this city. Reaching Soquel, he entered the employ of Mr. J. Bowman and was on good behavior for a time. Temptation came in his way however, and he fell again. He then came to Santa Cruz, after two week' spree and was to have gone to work for Mr. G. Bowman Monday. On the Saturday night previous, however, occurred the difficulty which resulted in the death of young May.

[According to Phil Reader, "In 1875, Atherton had stabbed Ed May at the Steven's saloon on Pacific Avenue. He was tried here in Superior Court and found "Guilty" of Murder in the 1st degree and sentenced to be hanged in July of 1876. He was confined to the old stone jail up on Mission Hill.]

His life since then has been monotonous, broken only by the excitement of his trial and sentence of death, which was to have carried into effect on the 18th inst. His case has been appealed to the Supreme Court, however, and his execution must be deferred until action is taken by that tribunal. He expresses himself as perfectly resigned to his fate, whatever that may be, and is occupying his leisure moments with making his peace with his God. He is frequently visited by different clergymen, who offer him all the consolation in their power.

A Word of Warning

Before our departure, Atherton handed us a paper, with the request to publish hoping that the warning of a man so near his end who had been through all the devious ways of his wicked world, and was about to expirate his crimes on the gallows, might have a salutary effect upon the youth whose feet were tempted to wander from the path of rectitude and virtue.

Excerpt from research conducted by Phil Reader

"On the day he was to swing, the State Supreme Court granted him a new trial and he was transferred to the Santa Clara County Jail and tried again... It was an emotional trial, with the people and press of Santa Cruz county urging death, while the folks in Santa Clara wanted him to go to prison for life...The new jury found him guilty of 2nd degree murder and gave him life in prison...But the sentence was reduced to 25 years, and ten years later Governor Stoneman granted him a pardon...On his last day in prison, Deputy Sheriff Bob Majors went up to San Quentin and told Atherton to not EVER return to Santa Cruz or he would be lynched...(and he would have been too, the home folks were always quick with the noose)...At this point, he faded from history never to be heard from in these parts...A rumor that was circulated here in the 1890's, had some of the "local boys" kidnapping Atherton and hanging him somewhere in the Santa Cruz mountains...(indeed this happened several times in our history). So it is not proof however, but a good story none the less."

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