We’re so familiar with the phenomenon of information spreading ultra quickly and widely that we have a metaphor for it. We say the news item (or the joke or gossip or cat video) has gone viral. Good metaphor, I think. Colorful. Clever. But we tend to think of the occurrence itself — the widespread and almost instantaneous public reaction — as something of recent vintage. That’s not the case. Instances of viral news stories go back to the Nineteenth Century.

For most of human history, even the most compelling sort of news spread no faster than a horse could gallop, and went from one continent to another no faster than a ship could ride the waves. But as the 1870s eased into the early 1880s, the first high-efficiency transoceanic telegraph cables were deployed. From then on, all that was needed was for something, ahem, earthshattering to happen. Some have argued that the first truly viral news story was the explosion of Krakatoa in 1883. Barely more than 24 hours after the volcano blew itself to bits, The Times of London was reporting about it on the other side of the world.

The anecdote I’m going to offer here is an example of a news story that went viral back in 1894. I doubt it’s one any of you have heard of before. It had its day and was forgotten. I learned of it only because it emerged from genealogical research I was doing. Obscure though it may be now, I think you’ll get a kick out of reading about it.

First, briefly, the genealogy angle: I grew up with only two aunts, and only one of those was biological. The other was Mildred Stone, the wife of my father’s brother, Roy Smeds. (That’s their wedding portrait from 1937 you see adorning the top of this blog entry.) Mildred is a cherished figure of my early life. Given the bond, I always knew that whenever I got around to serious probing into my family history, I would devote some energy toward piecing together Mildred’s heritage, even though she was not my blood relative. I began to do so not long after her death in 2010.

That’s when I became aware of a fellow named George Decker. To Mildred, he was the second husband of her great-grandmother, Caroline Osborn. But in 1894, to people living in places as far-flung as Lewiston, ME, Savannah, GA, and Duluth, MN, he was a notorious mass murderer.

Or so the story went. It was actually a case of what we now call fake news.

George had already been the subject of a fabrication. However, it was a victim-free one, and he was the perpetrator. George had come into the world in 1835 on a farm in Middlesex County, Ontario Province, Canada with the name Joseph Davis. His father, Robert Davis, became a rebel leader in the failed attempt by Canadians to establish independence from England. Robert died in early 1838 from wounds sustained while participating in a raid near Fort Malden. If George had ever later in life chosen to assert his birth identity, he would have had to own the stain of being a “son of a traitor to the Crown.” Instead, George’s genuine origin became a subject not talked about, particularly not after his mother, Rosina Hall, wed her subsequent husband David Decker in 1843.

In 1858, George, still known then as Joseph Davis, married Margaret Ellen Mitchell, daughter of the very clergyman who had performed the rites at Rosina and David’s wedding. The young couple decided they would move to central California, where his brother Hugh Davis and her brother Benjamin Franklin Mitchell had recently settled.

Something happened along the way. Perhaps it was an immigration issue. Whatever the obstacle, the best way to get past it was to adopt an alias. Joseph Davis used a stepbrother’s name and stats and perhaps even some of his documentation, and from that moment onward was known as George Decker.

George and Margaret had a couple of kids early in their union, Eva and Frank. To support them, George began working cattle in Siskiyou County in the northernmost part of the state. By 1863 or so he was employed on the large ranch of Samuel Goodrich. This was a steady situation, but the lifestyle was rustic and the locale somewhat remote. George made do with bachelor quarters and with tents out on the range. Meanwhile Margaret and the kids resided at the Union Hotel in Yreka, some twenty miles apart from him. The spouses saw each other infrequently.

In the summer of 1864, Samuel Goodrich died, leaving nine children fatherless. That same event transformed his wife, Caroline Osborn Goodrich — my aunt Mildred’s great-grandmother — into a rich, eligible widow of only twenty-nine years of age. George was not oblivious to the potential of the circumstances, and handsome a fellow as he was, as shown in the photo at left, he had what it took to attract Caroline’s interest.

George’s moment came as a result of the birth of his third child, Nevada Decker, at the beginning of 1866. George accused Margaret of having been unfaithful, and declared that Nevada was not his child. This might have been the truth. Certainly Margaret would have had plenty of opportunity to stray while living in a hotel with a husband so seldom around. On the other hand, it might have been slander. An important detail is that in California in the 1860s, adultery was one of the few transgressions that would permit a divorce to be granted, so George had the means he needed to make himself a single man again. Margaret ultimately did not fight his position. In return for her signature on divorce papers, George provided her with funds. Margaret and little Nevada boarded a stagecoach and headed off to seek shelter with her brother Ben, many miles southward.

The path was clear for George to marry Caroline. They became husband and wife in 1867. They went on to a life together of decades, ending with Caroline’s death in 1890. Despite the questionable way it began, it was a solid, loving union. Along the way the couple had five daughters together, and together they finished bringing up the Goodrich brood as well as George’s two older children, Eva and Frank.

It is accurate to say that George, at first as Caroline’s husband and then in his own right, became one of the leading property owners of Siskiyou County. He was a figure of renown and envy. Alas, that made him a target. He was a prominent citizen whose existence stood in the way of the schemes of various ambitious men. If he could be pushed out of the way, opportunities would arise. And so we come to the ignition point of the fake news.

In March, 1894, some boys were playing along Kildor Ridge a mile and a half south of Yreka. They discovered a cave, and in the cave they found two sets of skeletal human remains, those of an adult and those of an infant. A mother and her baby? Logic implied it.

The local gossips began chattering. Soon someone — some person with an agenda, perhaps — said words to the effect, “That’s Decker’s wife and baby. The ones that disappeared back in 1866. He must have killed them!”

It was as if someone had thrown kerosene onto the perennially-dry Siskiyou County grasslands and lit a match. Apparently one crime wasn’t enough for the talespinners. They kept adding further aspersions, sometimes inspired by various true parts of George’s biography, other times weaving the details from fresh skeins. Caroline’s death in 1890 had been due to ill health, but the conspiracy nuts said no, she must have been poisoned by George so that he could obtain the deed to the last part of the acreage not already signed over to him. Caroline’s daughter Ellen Goodrich (Mildred’s grandmother) had died in 1887 of natural causes, as had her infant daughter, who had never thrived. A year later, Ellen’s elderly widower, Edwin Stone, had died. While George was not accused of having murdered his stepdaughter, the deaths of her husband and infant were laid at his feet. Plus no one knew where Edwin and Ellen’s son Edward Stone was. (This was Mildred’s father, who I personally knew when he was an old man. In 1894, Ed was a young teenager living with relatives who had taken him in following the death of his parents.) Then there was the case of George’s son, Frank, who as a grown man had moved to the Pacific Northwest and had died there, leaving behind a widow and baby daughter. Obviously George must have killed his own son, long distance!

It didn’t help that some Yreka locals knew George had changed his name. That sounded suspicious on its face, and the theory was soon aired that George had done so in order to cover his tracks after murdering a man in Illinois during his trip west. But that wasn’t enough. Someone else conjectured that the name change had occurred just after he had come to California, and was because George had killed a man in the Sacramento area.

Throw in a another count based upon the way one of George’s hired hands had vanished decades earlier, and the tally came to ten murders. George was arrested and put in jail in Yreka, and a grand jury was convened to decide whether the evidence was sufficient to put him on trial.

The highest-circulation newspaper in the West in those days was the San Francisco Chronicle. Sensational stories tended to sell a lot of copies, so a reporter came up to Yreka, conducted interviews, and compiled the tales into a chilling, vivid narrative of mass murder, adding embellishments of his own. With the “truth” plainly etched in ink on newsprint, would-be vigilantes began champing at the bit. The sheriff in Yreka worried that the jail would be stormed and that George would be dragged out and lynched.

The Chronicle submitted the article(s) about the situation in Yreka to their syndicate. In a fraction of a week, the news was “known” all over the place, not just in Siskiyou County or the San Francisco Bay Area or George’s original stomping grounds back in Ontario Province, but in the far-flung locales I mentioned at the top.

(The photo here shows George as he looked about the time of his incarceration.)

Fortunately for George, the news came to the attention not only to a headline-craving bozo of a Chronicle reporter, but to responsible, civic-minded souls, and to truth-abiding newspapermen. A resident of Woodland, CA recognized from the published details that Nevada Decker must be someone he knew as Nevada Davis, recently employed in Woodland as a domestic servant in the home of a well-known, socially-popular physician. (In a bizarre twist, Margaret had gone on to marry a man with the last name Davis, and Nevada had been named for her stepfather, giving her the same maiden name she would have had if George Decker had never changed his name!) Nevada was determined to probably be residing near her mother in Colusa County. The editor of the local Daily Democrat of Woodland telegraphed his counterpart at the Colusa Sun, and a reporter soon tracked down Nevada and her mother. Suddenly the “big news” being reported was not a case of ten counts of murder, but of a man unjustly accused, and that at least a couple of his key “victims” were not even dead yet! Soon a train pulled in at the Yreka depot and off of it stepped a very-much-alive Margaret and Nevada, escorted by Margaret’s brother Ben Mitchell, whom George’s lawyer had been desperately trying to track down. Though it had been twenty-eight years, some Yreka residents recognized Margaret from her time as an occupant of the Union Hotel. George was soon released from confinement.

The ordeal had done George’s health and composure no good, but he recovered. In the end, he survived until 1922. He eventually sold his various tracts of Siskiyou County land (one parcel makes up what is now the northern half of the small town of Weed, named for Abner Weed, the man who bought the acreage from George), or gave them to relatives. With his third and final wife, Mary Jane Pemberton, he retired to Santa Rosa, CA in approximately 1909. Though he was by then in his mid-seventies, he wasn’t quite done with social prominence. He invested in the endeavors of famous horticulturalist Luther Burbank. He and Mary Jane’s home was next door to Burbank’s own home, and is now used as office space for the Burbank Home & Gardens memorial park. I live only a few miles from that spot.

(This essay is simultaneously available in the blog section of Book View Café. Comments can be posted there. Click here to go to the exact page.)

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