Murder in White River
By M.P. Pellicer | Stranger Than Fiction Stories
Was it naivete, stupidity or a clash of cultures that led to the death of a young student?
July, 1931, White River, Arizona
Henrietta Schmerler was only 22, when she won a fellowship to study the Apache Indians on the White Mountain Reservation in Arizona, which housed about 1,500 Apaches, in an area between Phoenix and Holbrook
She had studied anthropology at Columbia University, under Franz Boas who would go on to be called the "Father of American Anthropology".
Later it was said that Henrietta discounted the warnings given by her female mentors, about her living and working alone in an Apache village.
Unfortunately their misgivings were well grounded when she disappeared on the way to the Canyon Day School dance at Fort Apache, three weeks after she arrived.
Claude Gilbert an Indian who had acted as her guide, and was the last person seen with her was arrested. He denied any knowledge of her whereabouts, and he was released.
Henrietta had built her own brush wickiup near the East Fork settlement, however she was not familiar with the floods produced by the summer rains. Chester Cummings the Indian Agency farmer convinced her to rent a small cabin owned, but not occupied by an Apache named Jack Keyes.
She asked an Apache woman to make her a complete outfit in the Apache style, in order to help her integrate with the people she came to study.
Henrietta disappeared on July, 18. Two days later Jack Keyes came to the cabin, and saw that it had been broken into and robbed. Most alarming was that Henrietta Schmerler was not there. He went to Cummings who in turn notified Superintendent Donner.
The Agency police made little progress in the next few days to find the missing girl.
Five days later, Jesus Velazquez, a Mexican married to an Apache woman, and Dan Cooley came to the trail leading to the Canyon Day School, where they found a piece of cloth entangled in a barb wire fence. Down the trail they came across a flashlight, a blue beret, a beaded buckskin bag, her broken fountain pen, beads and a nail file. They continued to scout the area and found her mutilated body in a gully below the trail, close to the Apache cemetery.
She was partly covered with sand washed loose by a storm. Her clothes were torn, her nose was broken, her front teeth were dislodged and the ride side of her neck bore a long knife wound. There were signs of a struggle around the body.
Her father learned of her disappearance when he read of the posse that was scouring the area looking for her. It was led by Deputy Sheriff George Woolford, and Apache scouts accompanied him.
A couple of days later, the U.S. attorney at Tucson came to White River and found the Indian police holding seven suspects. They and others were questioned, but released for lack of evidence. The U.S. Attorney asked the FBI for help since they felt the Apaches would not tell on each other, due to loyalty and fear of retribution. Also the crime had been committed on Federal land belonging to the Apache tribe.
On July 31, 1931, Henrietta was buried in Baron Hirsch Cemetery on Staten Island next to her mother Bertha who died in 1928.
Her brother had gone to Arizona to bring her body back. Her father Elias had made a large fortune as a manufacturer and real estate operator.
Henrietta had written letters to her family in which she described, "The natives call me 'The White Lady Who Stays Up All Night Writing'"
Initially it was theorized that Henrietta had discovered some secret belief or custom the Apache held, and that she had been killed to keep her quiet.
A.L. Spellmyer who had owned the Apache Cattle Co. and who had lived and worked with the White Mountain Apache for many years wrote an article for the L.A. Times, where he described they had no secret religious beliefs which would have been the reason Henrietta was done away with.
He described where the Apache made great efforts to hide any discovery of gold on their land, as it was believed that if gold was found, they would lose their homeland. He said prospecting for gold would invite their immediate enmity.
Spellmyer said there were places that were guarded but not because of gold but because of a tradition to the "old ones".
He described where the Apaches trusted him to dig in ancient graves of prehistoric men. There were "many ruins, and seven cities including a causeway of stone." He had found two skulls with well defined horns.
He said the people who lived there in ancient times knew of irrigation and grew beans and corn. They herded turkeys, but had no other domestic animals. Neither horses or dogs.
Spellmyer said they had two classes who lived in the ruins; dwarfs who measured 4 feet, the others which giants measuring 7 feet. It appeared the taller one were slaves to the shorter ones. He didn't specify how he came to this conclusion.
He tried to show these artifacts to two different men from scientific institutes, but he realized they were using their position to scout for oil, and he dropped both of them.
According to him the Apaches denied any knowledge of the ancient ones except their "sign" which they found when they arrived to settle in the area.
He said he had found Athabascan pipes carved with walrus and reindeer near one of the ruins. They are the original inhabitants of the interior of Alaska.
Spellmyer took the pipes and one of the horned skulls to an agent in order to have them forwarded to a national museum, but he said the man was "pin headed and did not represent it as it came, and the skull they declared a freak."
He returned to the area and found another, older and larger in another ruin, and ended up putting it back, thinking, what was the use.
He confirmed the Apaches venerated the ancient ones.
It wasn't until August that an FBI investigator from the El Paso office came to seek answers. His name was J.A. Street, and he had been a New Mexico lawman, and spoke Apache. He posed as a cattleman, and to complete his disguise he used interpreters to question those closest to the scene. He became distrustful of the first interpreter, and sent for Tom Dosela from the San Carlos reservation who he believed would be more loyal.
During the investigation they held Robert Gatewood after suspicious behavior on his part when he was questioned about the murder.
He sent Dosela to speak to him through the bars of the prison. After some assurance of protection he said he knew who committed the murder but was afraid of his own people.
According to him on the evening of the dance, he, Golney Seymour and other young Apaches met at Henrietta's cabin. After talking awhile he and Seymour left, but came back later. Then either at Seymour's invitation or the girl's request, she got up on the horse in front of Seymour and road away headed towards Canyon Day.
Later that night Seymour, who was his brother-in-law, returned with a deeply scratched face and a torn, bloody shirt. He told him he had attempted to become familiar with the girl, and she had resisted him with a knife she had in her purse. He battered her, than stabbed her with the knife. He threw the body down the gully and left it unburied. From there he left to attend the dance at Canyon Day.
The next day the FBI man confronted Seymour at McNary where he was shipping cattle. At first Seymour refused to talk, then the investigator detailed for him how the murder occurred. He told him that Henrietta's ghost told him what happened. After this Seymour made a full confession of what he had done, and he was taken to the Gila County jail.
In November, 1931, Golney "Mac" Seymour, 22, was arrested and indicted on a first degree murder charge.
The newspapers described that perhaps Henrietta's death was related to a violation of an "almost sacred Apache conventional code" in which a married woman may ride with her husband, but an unmarried girl "loses caste if she mounts the same pony with a buck."
However it was never established if Henrietta had left willingly with Seymour, or if she did, she might have been in ignorance of this tradition.
During his incarceration Seymour refused to talk, and just stared from his cot at a spot on the wall. He wouldn't speak to Sheriff Bailey his jailer.
He went to trial in March, 1932, and pled not guilty.
At the opening day of the trial, Gatewood said that Seymour more commonly known as "Mac" Came to his wickiup late in the night of July 18. He retold the story he related to the interpreter.
Mac threatened him by saying "If you tell about this, I will do the same to you."
Another witness was William Maupin, reservation special officer and prohibition agent known on the reservation as "Tualpal Bill". He described where he found a suitcase jammed between rocks in a canyon two miles from Henrietta's cabin. The stage driver testified that it was "brand new" when he took Henrietta to the reservation from Showlow, Arizona in late June. Now it was ragged and torn and contained papers bearing Henrietta's name.
Seymour's defense painted a picture of an Indian youth "whose emotional grip had been loosened by intoxicating liquor given him by his victim."
Special Agent Street testified that he discovered overlooked clues from the initial investigation. They were prints of horse's hooves near the scene.
It became known that Henrietta had wanted to attend the Canyon Day dance but Claude Gilbert her usual guide did not take her. Close to her house was the camp of Sam Seymour, Golney's father, whose actions had been suspicious since the murder. He was heard to warn another Indian not to talk with anyone about the case.
While on the stand Mac Seymour refused to handle any of the personal effects of the dead girl. He shrank away from them. This was attributed to the Apaches' superstition regarding the dead.
On March 21, 1932, Mac Seymour was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment to be served on McNeil Island, Washington. This was a federal penitentiary located on Puget Sound. Seymour was married, and his wife Elizabeth had given birth to a baby during the time he was in prison. She volunteered to go to jail in his stead.
In February, 1933, Federal prosecutor Gung'l who handled the Schmerler murder, was involved in another case against Silas John Edward, an Apache accused of killing his wife. They lived in the same White River reservation as Seymour.
By the end of 1933, Edwards who was a self-styled "Miracle Man" of the Apache at White River had founded a religious cult that had spread throughout the Southwest. He was known in his tribe as "The Snake Man".
Edwards, an ex-convict was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife. Margaret Colelay's body was found on a lonely trail on February 19, on the White River reservation by an Apache who was hiking from Fort Apache to East Fork.
The prosecution said the motive for killing his wife was for the love of Bell James, an attractive 20-year-old Apache woman. The prosecutor showed love letters between the two, including after his arrest in 1931, at San Carlos after a complaint from his wife. The girl had been sent to a mission school when she received the letter.
He was also sent to McNeil Island prison.
Accompanying him was Ben Patterson who was sentenced to 18 years after pleading guilty to the murder of Edward Kasey, another Apache. Henry Dazen was sentenced to two 15-year terms after pleading guilty to killing his wife Marie Henon, and her grandmother, Elsie Lupe, 91 years old.
In 1936, Earl Gardner,30, an Apache used a hatchet to kill his wife and decapitate their one year-old baby over a love quarrel. They lived on the San Carlos reservation. The federal government decided to execute Gardner on the reservation by hanging him, in response to a murder wave on the reservation.
Fourteen other Apaches were awaiting trial on strange slayings.
The Indians blamed the sale of liquor by white men on the reservation for 90% of the crime.
Apache Chief Thomas Dosler said, "The trouble centers around Indian marriages. Indians are not required to conform to state laws regarding marriage and divorce, but may use their own ceremonies and customs. This was all right years ago, when every Indian respected the customs of the tribe. The husband and wife usually lived together then for life, except for some good reason which the entire community approved. Now, though many of the Indian ideas have broken down, and a few youths, not a majority by any means are taking advantage of their freedom from Caucasian laws to live as they please, changing mates every few weeks or months."
Gardner insisted on being hanged instead of returning to prison. He had served a sentence in Leavenworth penitentiary for killing another Indian.
The gallows was erected in an abandoned rock crusher down the canyon from Coolidge Dam. He was executed on July 13, 1936. In falling through the small trapdoor his arms struck one side throwing his head against the other, which broke his fall and denied him an instant death. He swung wheezing for breath through unconscious for 21 minutes. The noose was adjusted and he was pronounced dead 12 minutes later.
The last Indian to be hung in Arizona had been Sugayamie Dixon, a Walapai Indian who was hung in Prescott in 1925 after he killed a taxicab driver.
Mac Seymour's fate is not certain. It was reported he was paroled after 20 years, and another version said he spent 30 years at McNeil Penitentiary.
In 1990, Henrietta's nephew, Gilbert filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the names of three people at Columbia University who were interviewed by FBI agents about his aunt's character. His attorney said he was writing a book about the murder, and believed the three sources were prominent anthropologist who were already dead.
The FBI refused to release the names. The U.S. District Court in Washington told the bureau to release the names saying the persons had not been promised confidentiality, and were probably dead. However the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the FBI. The reasons given was the there was no time limit in the FOIA requiring the release of confidential sources. They said it was presumed the interviews with the sources were conducted with implicit assurances of confidentiality.
Eventually he was given the file and wrote a book about his aunt's death which was released in 2017.
Sources - Periodicals: Tampa Bay Times, Chillicothe Gazette, The Fresno Republican, The Marshall News Messenger, Arizona Daily Star, St Louis Post Dispatch, San Pedro News Pilot, The Arizona Republic, The Holbrook News, The Tipton Daily Tribune
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Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer