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Media Life: Meet Auburn’s Wild West bad guy, “Rattlesnake Dick”

By: Gus Thomson/Media Life
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It’s hard to wrap the cranium around the concept that civilized, sedate Auburn once was the scene of a Wild West gun battle involving a notorious outlaw. But return with Media Life now to those thrilling days of yesteryear – July 11, 1859 to be exact – to take a look back at one Richard “Rattlesnake Dick” Barter, the man the dime novels of the time would dub “The Pirate of the Placers.” The big shootout would arrive that night at the north end of what is now High Street. The Martin Park fire station has a commemorative sign to mark the spot where Barter – known far and wide for a string of heists and some unbelievable escapes – would take on a posse and ultimately lose his final fight. The gun battle by the light of a bright moon pitted a three-man posse against Barter and an outlaw companion. The posse rode out after learning the two were riding north through town. Undersheriff George Johnston, the deputy tax collector and a deputy caught up with the pair on horseback and Johnston barked out an order to halt. Within moments, Barter had fired a shot with his revolver, wounding Johnston’s left hand. Barter’s companion shot next, missing the deputy but striking and killing the deputy tax collector. According to an account written shortly after the shootout, Deputy Sheriff W.M. Crutcher was able to fire off a single round at the fleeing horsemen. It struck and mortally wounded Barter as the outlaw twosome disappeared into the night. The next morning, the Iowa Hill stage driver and his passengers found Barter’s body at what was then called the old junction house but is now known as the Raley’s shopping center. The spot where Barter was found is also memorialized with a marker. Mystery in death Barter had apparently spurred his horse about a mile away from the shootout scene. The mystery surrounding his death was the discovery of two bullet holes, with both bullets passing through his body. The assumption at the time was that either bullet wound would have proven fatal but that the cause of death came from a bullet through his brain. Who fired the shot? His still-anonymous companion or Barter himself? The position of a pistol in his hand indicated that he had done himself in. Adding to that belief was his boast in the past that he’d kill himself before going to jail again. But he had also told fellow outlaws to kill him and escape if he was wounded in a shootout. The even-more-bizarre part of the story involves the note scrawled in pencil in his kid-gloved hand. Between the lines, it reinforced Barter’s hatred for the law and one particular lawman – Placer County Sheriff John Boggs. Boggs had dogged Barter’s footsteps, and even captured him twice. But “Rattlesnake Dick” escaped both times in a blaze of bullets. The area’s primitive lockups couldn’t hold Barter either, with the story being repeated that he had broken out of nearly every jail in Northern California. Canadian roots Barter was only 26 when he died. A native of Canada, the “Rattlesnake” tag came from his early days mining at Rattlesnake Bar, from which Rattlesnake Bar Road gets its name. But after a couple of accusations of thievery eventually proven false – one of clothing, another of a horse – the young but bristling Barter began a short yet spectacular life of crime. Barter started by robbing a stage in Shasta County, then formed a gang based in Folsom and continued stage and gold-sluicing thefts. One of the group’s biggest hauls came in a mule-train robbery worth $80,000 in gold. Half of the total is still purportedly buried near Trinity Mountain, near Redding. The robberies and other crimes continued, with Barter and his gang headquartered at Rattlesnake Bar. Then came the shootout and the note that left an exclamation mark on an unusual chapter in Auburn history. “Rattlesnake Dick dies but never surrenders, as all true Britons do,” Barter wrote. “If J. Boggs is dead, I am satisfied.” Barter had shot the deputy, but hadn’t shot the sheriff. Making it a trio of markers in Auburn to mark Barter’s infamy, there’s a tombstone in the Auburn Cemetery commemorating his life and death. And the deputy tax collector – George Martin – is buried nearby with a bigger marker. And his name is on the park that now serves as a reminder of Auburn’s Wild West past. Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at (530) 852-0232 or gust@goldcountrymedia.com.