The Wild Bill Ebaugh Story


Bob Paine


Henry Lewis, discharged war veteran was murdered October 15, 1944 in the Willow Valley area near Nevada City. Immediately the word went out...."Find Bill Ebaugh." On October 19, 1944 Bill Ebaugh was shot to death in the wilds of Nevada County. The bullet that killed Ebaugh was fired by Irvin Woodrow Davis (29) a carpenter employed by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company. A reward of $300 had been posted for the capture of Ebaugh after the death of Lewis. California Attorney General Robert V. Kenney said, "It looks to me more of a bounty than a reward."

(Left are Sheriff Carl Tobiassen and handcuffed Bill Ebaugh on an earlier arrest.)

This is the story of Bill Ebaugh the so-called wild man of the mountains. It is also the story of hysteria, prejudiced pre-judgments without a hearing. It is the story of a massive man hunt in Nevada County. Was Ebaugh capable of murder? Did he shoot Lewis in the back? If, indeed, he did shoot Lewis in the back then why did he do it? I knew Bill Ebaugh, but not well. I knew that he had become a legend in his own time. I have talked to people who knew him very well. The official records to this case vary greatly with opinions of many citizens who knew Ebaugh.

A coroner's jury exonerated Irvin W. Davis (right) and found that the killing of Ebaugh by Davis was "under the circumstances, justified and excusable." The jury was Charles F. Parsons, Foreman--Robert C. Dorsey, R. C. Pengelly, Alvan W. Walters, Wendell J. Hartley, G. Hopkins, Ted Kohler Jr., John J. Hodge, Jerold F. Brust and J. R. Dean.

The press of the day was not sympathetic to the bearded recluse. I quote from a yellowed newspaper clipping: "With the fatal shooting of William Ebaugh, hunted slayer of a discharged war veteran, Nevada County has been rid of a dangerous menace...."Had he been taken alive, his conviction in the courts would have been certain. Thus, the county has been saved the time and trouble of a trial...."A former inmate of a state mental institution, Ebaugh never could have been of any benefit to society and always a liability. "It is unfortunate his villainous career was not ended before it ran to the point of murder." End of Quote.

It was popular to be anti-Ebaugh. Those that thought the whole series of sad events were badly mishandled were afraid to speak up. They could get no local officialdom to do..."do process of law." District Attorney Ward Sheldon stated that only if there was a "public demand" would he summon the grand jury to consider the slaying of Lewis with Ebaugh as only a possible suspect.

"Wild Bill" had rightfully been named phantom of the hills. He stood over six feet, weighed 275 pounds. He was a stallion of a man and was as properly proportioned as Michaelangelo's famed statue of David in Florence, Italy. He was perhaps, Nevada County's first hippie. As to attire, or lack of it, he wore long flowing hair and a fierce looking beard. He knew the mountains better than most animals did. He would run naked through the woods. He had a beautiful deep throated tenor voice. Youthful lovers, holding hands near Scott's Flat dam have told of hearing the pine needles crackle and of hearing the booming Ebaugh voice in the summer evening breeze and of seeing a clothes-less human form disappear through the brush. The tales of his strength were fantastic, and almost unbelievable. Perhaps, like Samson, it was his long light brown hair and beard that gave him his great muscle ability. Generally, he was content to lead a hermit's life in the Sierras.

When a youth, he had been found insane and was committed to Napa State Hospital in 1928. Later, he was pronounced cured, and was returned to Nevada City and to Willow Valley where he had been born. Nine years later, in 1937, he was accused of buying a mountaineer's wife for $20 and holding her a love slave in his cabin for three months. A Nevada County jury acquitted him. In 1939 he was charged with assaulting a neighbor's wife. Women liked him. He mesmerized them with rare mystic charm. A second Nevada County jury acquitted him. Every time a cabin was entered Ebaugh was blamed. Every time a cow was found to be slaughtered Ebaugh was blamed.

Some say he enjoyed playing cat and mouse with the sheriff's office. In November of 1943 the sheriff received a complaint that Ebaugh had stolen and killed two heifers. Two deputies made a hurried trip to the recluse' farm. They entered the house quietly, but Ebaugh managed to escape through a window. Bloodhounds were put on his trail but he outsmarted the dogs and they pursued the wrong trail.




A rare photo of Bill Ebaugh (left) without his beard. In his many appearances in court his attorney always insisted that his infamous client be smooth shaven. This always infuriated the Sheriff's office. At right is Henry (Hank) Lewis - he survived the battlefields of WWII only to be murdered near his home.

Henry Lewis, 24, had returned to Nevada City with hero status as a discharged WWII  veteran. it was October 15, 1944. he wore a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation Medal. he had survived Japanese inflicted wounds on Los Negros Island. Henry Lewis had one wish. He asked his father Fred to set up a deer hunting party near Scott's Flat dam. he was to drive the deer towards stands taken by his father, his younger brother James, and a friend, Fred Reed.

In less than 15 minutes Reed heard a rifle shot from the general direction in which Henry Lewis had sought to flush out a buck. Five minutes later two family dogs (right) that had followed Henry ran to Fred Reed. The dogs were very excited. As the dogs arrived there was another rifle shot from the area that young Lewis should have taken up the drive towards his father and brother. Then there was terrifying silence. Fred Lewis and his son James joined Reed one hour later. All were sure that Henry had met with an accident. They fired the customary three shots of assistance. The three started their physical search for Henry. They could find no tracks. They exhausted themselves till midnight with the use of flashlights. At dawn they searched again for two hours.

Fred Lewis said it was time to tell the sheriff. In less than an hour Sheriff Carl Tobiassen had organized a posse of men and boys. They knew the wild primitive slopes of pine, manzanita and scrub brush. Included were Al Bates, Scoutmaster and six boy scouts. Fifteen year old Dave Tobiassen, older brother bub Tobiassen; Undersheriff Bill Woods, Deputy George DeSoto and some special deputies. They were joined by the three searchers of the night previous and Jack Lewis, an uncle of the missing youth. It was Jack Lewis who chose to search the banks of Snow Mountain Ditch, some 1500 feet below the top of the mountain where the new search had started. Jack noticed marks on the bank which appeared to be caused by something slipping in the water. There was one well defined footprint, apparently make by a cowboy boot of the type he knew Henry wore.

Henry's uncle continued on down stream. The water varied in depth from six inches to three feet. In one pool he saw something dark. Using a stick he fished out a pair of Levis. The pockets were empty. One mile down the ditch he found the body. Pants, boots and hat were missing. The arms were stretched ahead of him. A leather jacket was bunched over his head. There was a gunshot wound under the left shoulder. Again the planned three shots were to be fired by Jack Lewis. The rifle jammed. Jack had to run to where the autos were parked and gave three blasts on the auto horn. All the searchers came to the spot.

George DeSoto examined the body and said flatly that young Lewis had been murdered. "The bullet entered his back under the left shoulder blade and emerged above the left breast. His leather jacket had been put on wrong-side-out. He was shot on the left side, but the bullet hole in the jacket, asit is on him, is on the right side." Sheriff Tobiassen explained that in his opinion the jacket had come off when the corpse was being dragged, deep scratches on the body from head to toes and that the killer put the jacket on backwards.

Deputy Coroner Howard M. Edwards arrived as the body was being examined and removed the remains to Hoop-Weaver mortuary in Grass Valley.

Sadly the body of Henry Lewis had been found - dead. Now the posse was to search and find the killer. Al Bates shouted that he and his scouts had found a tunnel opening. Tobiassen and Bates went through a canvas like door. Inside that found a pair of boots, socks and long underwear - all very wet. They opened a truck. It contained several books on sexual behavior. Near the trunk was a large metal phonograph horn. There was no doubt in Carl Tobiassen's mind that this was Ebaugh's secret hide-away. He had seen the trunk at Ebaugh's home. Tobiassen remembered that two years previous Ebaugh had serenaded the residents of Willow Valley by singing through the horn on the rugged hillsides. no one in Willow Valley at that time would sign a complaint that the nightly singing bothered them.

Tobiassen remembered that on Christmas day 1943 Ebaugh had bragged to three miners "Tell the sheriff nobody's ever going to take me alive." The posse now had a new goal - find Ebaugh but Jack Lewis cautioned. "I don't think Ebaugh is that dangerous. Besides he probably doesn't know anything about Henry's death. They've been friends for years."

DeSoto and Jack Lewis looked for more evidence near the canal. Under one bush they found a large pool of what appeared to be blood mixed with earth and signs that something had been dragged over the spot. Something bright caught DeSoto's eye. He picked up a .30-caliber rifle shell right out of the earth. It was the kind Henry Lewis used. On the next bush a long bright light-brown hair caught on a twig swished across DeSoto's face. He carefully removed it from the branch and placed it in his wallet. It was too long to have come from Lewis' head. Large footprints started to show in the loose dirt. 300 yards later another long hair was found. The lower branches of the bush were covered with dried blood. The trail of clues lead to a mine dump near the tunnel entrance.

As the search for clues continued Sheriff Tobiassen found a .30-caliber jacket. it was the same caliber of a rifle owned by Ebaugh. It was decided that Lewis had been shot at that spot. Careful investigation revealed several drops of blood in the area between the end of the mine cut in front of the tunnel and the edge of the dump. The posse did not find Ebaugh.

One fact is certain in the Ebaugh case. In this mid-February of 1973, some 29 years after Ebaugh was felled by a rifle bullet, he would be pleased to know that he has many friends. Friends who have talked to me by phone. Friends of Bill...long time natives and residents of these history laden mountains, that I know and respect. I let them talk and talk. Four women and three men. Their privacy and confidence I will respect. I will share with you some of "their" beliefs in the Ebaugh case. You will note the wide variance in what they truly believe in this bizarre tragedy. My phone sources of recent days all have one common denominator...the deep anger and resentment still evident in the way the case was handled. I know the ancient adage - A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing - I feel that after three weeks into the first re-telling of this murder - murder history that - fact or fiction or magnified myths - that I have been told more that I really wanted to know. I have a one party only phone - these are bits and pieces of those conversations:

"Bill Ebaugh was railroaded to the Napa Insane Hospital. He was not even mentally retarded. He did not fight his being taken there. He was caught between the devil and deep blue sea. The father in a prominent Grass Valley family had caught Bill Ebaugh making love to his daughter. The father gets rid of Ebaugh by trumping up a court hearing on Ebaugh's eccentric behavior. Bill's first experience with "justice" in Nevada County. He goes to Napa and voluntarily accepts a vasectomy before release. He later uses this minor surgery as a plus in his Lothario salesmanship in his many affairs. He returns to Willow Valley mildly repulsed by the phony morals of others forced upon him....

"Did you know that Bill Ebaugh is buried in Pine Grove Cemetery in an unmarked grave? Some ghoul stole his internment marker three days after the final rites. He's buried by the big Cedar in the lower part of Pine Grove. Bob, you better be careful writing about this Ebaugh case. You will open up a big can of worms....

"Bill Ebaugh was the kindest, most sensitive man I ever knew. He had a great sense of humor. I knew him when he wore blue bib overalls with shoulder straps, and nothing else. He had a body that glowed. Bright blue, piercing eyes. Golden wavy hair that hung over his shoulders like a torrent. I never had an affair with him but some rotten minded officials in Nevada County hinted that I did....

"Everybody wanted Ebaugh's mining claims. Individuals. Monolithic mining companies. Get him off his own properties. File on the claims. Do the assessment requirement....

"Bill Ebaugh never ate meat. He was a vegetarian. Why would he kill deer and cattle?....

"Why would Bill Ebaugh kill one of his best friends...Henry Louis? Bill didn't even know that Henry had come home from the wars. Even if Bill did kill Henry it could have been a mistake. Henry was wearing puttees the day he was killed. Bill could have mistaken the gangly youth for another person that Ebaugh was afraid of...another man that always wore puttees and carried a 30-30 rifle...

"Remember the red points needed to scarce beef in WWII? There was an illegal cattle slaughtering ring operating in Willow Valley catering to those that had money and no questions asked...just money and no red points. Young Lewis, out hunting that day came upon this illegal sensational disclosure. He recognized some professionals in this activity. he turned and started to run. And got shot in the back. But no Nevada County official of any kind was involved in this cattle rustling...cattle killing sordidness...

"Bob, did you know that would-be citizen assistants to justice got out a printed throw away poster that read WANTED - BILL EBAUGH DEAD OR ALIVE? Fury was fanned in every direction."

And so the phone calls went. I went back to The Union and other newspaper files. I was living in an apartment in Rome the winter of 1944-45 and missed all the excitement. The story became an international one. I recall an Italian friend asking me if I knew where Nevada City, California was. He had read an Italian language story on the case in the Roman newspaper The Message. The Union deplored the invasion of the metropolitan press and their lurid coverage of the case. The Union reporter referred to the "saffron-tinged" outside newspapers. Only a local cousin Jack would know what The Union was talking about. Anybody else would have called it "yellow journalism." That passions were running high and careless unjustified remarks were being made caused some persons to take out paid advertisements in The Union to refute libelous remarks. For example: TO THE PUBLIC....WE HAVE NEVER ADVOCATED ANY ACTION AGAINST MR. WILLIAM EBAUGH DURING HIS LIFE AND HAVE NEVER ADVOCATED ANY ACTION SINCE HIS DEATH...ANY USE OF OUR NAMES REGARDING TO ANY MATTER CONCERNING MR. EBAUGH EITHER DEAD OR ALIVE IS ENTIRELY UN-AUTHORIZED AND WITHOUT OUR KNOWLEDGE OR CONSENT. Signed - Maurice S. Packer - Peter H. Daley.

But back to scene where Lewis was believed to have been murdered. Here is the theory and the reconstruction of events: That Lewis had come upon Ebaugh in his secret hide-away and that Ebaugh had shot Lewis to protect knowledge of his tunnel escape living quarters. Ebaugh dragged the body to the Snow Mountain ditch. There had been one shot fired as heard by the hunting party. That was believed now to have been Ebaugh's gun. Then there was a second shot after a length of time. it was now believed that Ebaugh suddenly discovered that no shot had been fired from Lewis' gun. He then fired the second shot from Lewis' gun to make it appear that Lewis had lost it there.

Sheriff Tobiassen asked Justice of the Peace George W. Gildersleeve to file a formal charge of murder against Ebaugh and this was done. The search of the tunnel retreat was intensified. The loot included two gasoline lamps, gallon jugs of gasoline, cooking utensils, a table, two stoves, two sacks of field corn, two sacks of potatoes, three alarm clocks, flashlights, women's clothing, a gasoline heated flat iron, two guitars, wood, a trunk with books. Yes, there was evidence that Ebaugh had planned a long hidden stay. Many of the items were those taken from other cabins in the past few months. The sheriff destroyed the tunnel by caving in the entrance.

There was a war-time manpower shortage. Sheriff Tobiassen tried to secure men from Camp Beale in the search for Ebaugh, but army regulations prevented. Never more than a few men searched for Ebaugh at any given time. But these man-hunts failed. men were kept at certain spots night and day where it was believed Ebaugh would get help from friends for food and lodging.


The  Wild Bill Ebaugh case should be called the "Great Presumptions." It was presumed that Billy (as one of his friends still call him) was crazy because he wore long hair, because he sang soulful ballads on moonlight nights. It was presumed that he would harm women and children. Gladys Davis, wife of the man that killed Ebaugh was afraid of him. In court or out of court no evidence was ever presented to establish that he was of evil makeup. There was no gun in the cabin after Davis shot Ebaugh. It was presumed there was.

Al Silva, later to become county trapper, knew Ebaugh, his habits, his gentleness, his behavior patterns. Silva used to leave packaged food at vantage points for Bill to sustain himself. Bill himself had testified in court after he had been accused of buying a neighbor's wife for $20 and keeping her a love slave...."The door to the cabin was never locked. I was not a home with her all the time...she could have left anytime she chose to."

It was presumed that Ebaugh was slaughtering cattle. In November 1943 a warrant was issued for his arrest on the charge of killing cattle owned by Charles Morandi who pastured cattle near the home of Ebaugh in the Willow Valley section. On being sought by the authorities the man vanished and it was from the seclusion of a hideout then presumably established that he presumably fired the shot that took the life of Henry Lewis. Ebaugh was never told of the charges against him. He was shot down, silenced and buried on the presumption that if he had killed one man then he would kill another.

A lady phoned me a few days ago..."I know who killed Lewis. He is still alive. He was an alcoholic then and is in a California mental institution in this February 1973."

Hank Lewis had been buried on Thursday, October 19, 1944, with full military honors. A firing squad, pallbearers and a chaplain from Camp Beale handled the services.

(At left: The flag draped casket of soldier Henry Lewis with Camp Beale pallbearers. The civilian (with glasses) is mortician Andy Holmes of Nevada City.)

 Bill Ebaugh was buried at 2 p.m. on Friday, November 24, 1944, from Holmes Funeral Home. His golden wavy hair had been washed and cascaded over his shoulders. He was quite alone...a few relatives. If he had pallbearers I have been unable to find their printed names. Reverend Cedric Porter read the Trinity Episcopal internment rites.

Let's go back to the coroner's jury in the supervisor's chamber in the courthouse. Davis was tried and exonerated of the shooting of Wild Bill Ebaugh. I quote from newspaper clippings...the views of a reporter of the day.

"While the illusive fugitive Bill Ebaugh, accused murderer of Henry Lewis on October 15, 1944, was at last stopped in his unsavory career by the gun of Irvin Woodrow Davis, the necessary steps of law went onward.

"Following the formal proceedings the assembly was dismissed to wait the verdict of the ten jurymen. When the verdict was brought in Davis was handed a copy of their findings. It stated that the infliction of the fatal wound under the circumstances was found to be "justifiable and excusable."

The circumstances of the fatal shooting, as reviewed on the witness stand by Davis (right), told of the walk taken by Davis, his wife and son on the preceding Thursday afternoon. They found glass in the cabin of Adriano Melchior broken and a stovepipe protruding, of heat from the chimney causing leaves to flutter and of their fears of the long sought fugitive hideout was before them. Davis recounted in detail his indecision about whether to go to the authorities on the grounds of their slight suspicion or whether to go back and see what developed. He, Davis, decided to go back alone without telling the authorities. Davis left his own cabin, a mile from Melchior cabin, before daybreak the next morning. Knowing by reports that Ebaugh was probably armed and a dangerous customer he strapped his Krag over his shoulders and carried a shotgun. He took a carbide lamp to guide him until daylight. A telescope was taken along and later used to make sure of Ebaugh's identity. Davis carried sandwiches, not knowing how long his one-man manhunt was to take. He gave an account of the three times Ebaugh emerged from the cabin, of the positive identification and the firing of the fatal shot after the warning had been given. Davis had lain on his belly from daylight to 10 a.m. Moving carefully on his stomach till he came within a 100 feet of the cabin door.

Suddenly the door opened and Ebaugh stepped out, looked cautiously around, then walked to the end of the porch and began flipping the running water with his hands.

 The time for action had come. Davis took a bead on the giant and called, "Throw up your hands Ebaugh, and surrender." The lithe swiftness of Wild Bill was called upon to extricate himself from the trap. Ebaugh took the twelve feet to the cabin door in two strides. Davis believed that if Ebaugh reached the inside of the cabin and his gun that he, Davis would probably come out on the short end of a gun battle. Knowing this he had his gun trained on the bearded phantom. Ebaugh moved so fast that he almost made the door, but not quite. Davis, suppressing his excitement, kept the fast moving figure in his sights and pulled the trigger. The bearded giant staggered and toppled over against the door and slid to the porch floor.

Bill Ebaugh was dead. No longer would the "bearded terror of Willow Valley" scare women and children. No longer would he be a "cattle rustler." No longer would his Adonis body run naked through the Nevada County hills. No longer would he happily sing his soulful ballads on moonlight nights. Bill Ebaugh was silenced forever.

Why was Hank Lewis murdered? I don't know. Who shot Lewis in the back? I don't know. I can't be convinced, in spite of all the presumptions, that Bill Ebaugh was a murderer.