On the evening of October 10, 1890, ten men raided a roadhouse, the ‘Camper’s Retreat’ near Middletown. The Camper’s Retreat was single-story small tavern twenty feet off the Calistoga-Middletown Road with a covered porch and a horse trough in front. A simple sign next to the Inn faced the dirt road in front. On the sign, the words, Camper’s Retreat, were painted badly on a wooden board. The only other structure, sixty feet away, was a barn for the horses and the storage of hay and feed. The ten raiders, who carried out the crime at Camper’s Retreat, were all residents of Lake County. The raid, that October evening, ended in two murders and trials that drew the attention of the entire state.
The small roadhouse lay one mile north of two mines; the nearby Bradford Quicksilver mine and the adjoining Bullion mine. The Retreat was three miles from town. Its saloon, which occupied the main part of the single-story building, by its reputation, had a hard name. It was a retreat… not so much for campers as for the rough, harddrinking miners that went there to play cards and drink their grog.
There were bar fights from time to time over a loss at cards or because someone had too much to drink, but the place served a need. Besides, the Bartender, Fred Bennett, a man of size and strength, handled the miscreants with muscle and kept rowdiness to a minimum.
Fred Bennett was a ‘bruiser’, as many of the miners could testify. His job as a bouncer used no gentle means to keep the peace. During his tenure in Lake County, Bennett had clubbed several men into unconsciousness with his fists, including several of the men who came later that fateful night disguised as raiders. These disputes and the beatings he gave made Fred Bennett a hated, dangerous man.
The only people in the Saloon that evening was the proprietor, J.W. Riche, his wife, Helen Riche, and the Bartender, Fred Bennett. Since there were no customers, Mrs. Riche and Bennett played cards while Mr. Riche watched.
By nine o’clock that night in October, it had grown dark. The card game had finished, and the three persons in the tavern were conducting a postmortem on the play. The front door was closed. Suddenly, and without knocking or warming, the door was flung open. Before anyone in the room could react, five masked men entered the room, guns drawn. Outside, more masked men waited to make a raiding party that totaled eleven men.
They all carried weapons; rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Mr. Riche’s first reaction was to smile. Thinking he recognized one of the six men that entered the tavern, a young miner he knew as Charles Evans, Riche reached out and, playfully, slapped Evan’s cheek. The tavern proprietor was sure the intrusion and the men were playing a prank.
Riche called out, “You can’t scare me.”
The answer was a gunshot. A bullet whizzed past Riche’s head.
He testified later, “I knew there was no joke about it. I knew then they meant business.”
Riche’s young wife, Helen, angry at the sudden rude intrusion and manner, rushed to one of the men and tried to pull the mask from his face. At the same time, seeing her intent, her husband grabbed at her, moving to protect his wife. One of the masked men reached her first. He pushed her to the floor, and at that same instant, a volley of gunfire erupted in the room.
“There were eight or ten shots, or maybe more,” Riche said later.
”I tried to pull Helen away from the man that was holding her down. That was when I saw Helen was wounded. She had been shot, and her side was bleeding.”
Riche always kept two pistols in his bedroom under his pillow. He also had a rifle. Unfortunately, getting to that weapon at that moment was no longer possible. His Winchester 44 was behind the front door of the saloon, and the masked men were in the way.
“I pushed Helen’s body under a little raised part of the bar. I hoped to take her into the kitchen for safety while I went to the bedroom for my pistol.”
Next episode; A Bloody Discovery
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