James McKinney

James McKinney - by Derryl Dumermuth

Some "bad guys" can claim at least one redeeming feature. Chris Evans was a devoted family man. Joaquin Murrietta killed dozens of miners but was a romantic gentleman with the ladies. Black Bart was a respected San Francisco businessman. But Jim McKinney, the subject of this essay, was a cruel, mean drunk, a killer with little respect for human life, although some said that he was devoted to his mother.

James McKinney was born in Illinois in 1861, the oldest of four brothers. His father, Andrew, took his family to Leadville, Colorado in 1878, hoping to strike it rich as a miner. It was in that lawless town that 17-year-old Jim developed his love of guns. His favorite weapon was a bone-handled six-shooter. He practiced shooting regularly and was rated a crack shot.

A few years later found the family in Farmersville, California, where Andrew found employment on a ranch. By that time Jim was a drifter with little interest in work. He preferred hanging out in the roughest parts of Porterville, Tulare, Traver and Bakersfield.

In 1889 Jim was arrested in Porterville, charged with assault with a deadly weapon, tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison. With help from his drinking friends, he escaped from the Porterville jail, and left town. A year later he was found in Cheyenne, Wyoming, extradited to Tulare County, and sentenced to seven years in San Quentin.

After his release from prison McKinney returned to his old haunts in Tulare County. In December 1900 Jim and a drinking buddy, Tom Sears, got into an argument in one of Bakersfield's saloons. The two drunks exchanged shots and then took their fight to an alley. Sears got down on his knees, opened his coat and invited Jim to shoot him. The expert marksman shot him through the heart. Tried for murder Jim pleaded self-defense, even though no weapon was found on or near the body. He was acquitted, probably because the witnesses were as drunk as the combatants and contradicted each other.

The night of July 27, 1902, was chaotic and long remembered in Porterville. Drunk as usual, Jim started shooting at the bottles and mirror behind the saloon's bar. City Marshall John Howell and his deputy John Willis soon arrived with the intention of arresting the law-breaker. In an exchange of shots reminiscent of Tombstone's "gun fight at the O.K. Corral" both Willis and McKinney were wounded. As he fled down the street he shot and killed, with no provocation, William Linn, a gambler.

McKinney then hurried to the Arlington Stables where he demanded a team and buggy, threatening death if the stableman didn't hurry. He then drove through town, shooting at everyone he saw, wounding several. While his wounded leg healed he hid out in Lemon Cove.

In June, 1903 McKinney was said to be in Mexico. Before he could be extradited he escaped to Kingman, Arizona where he murdered two men. He continued to evade both Arizona and Tulare County posses until April 19 when he was reported to be hiding in a Joss House (Chinese Temple) in Bakersfield. Officers from Bakersfield and Tulare & Kern Counties surrounded the temple. When an attempt was made to arrest the outlaw, shots were exchanged, killing City Marshal Jeff Packard and Kern County Deputy Sheriff Will Tibbets. When McKinney appeared in the doorway he was shot and killed by Bert Tibbets, Will's brother.

Derryl Dumermuth is a retired TUHS mathematics teacher, author of "A Town Called Tulare", and co-author with his wife, Wanda, of "Tulare Legends and Trivia from A to Z". Both books were written as fund-raisers for the Tulare Historical Museum and can be purchased in the museum's gift shop.