SHOSHONE BASIN • Either Jim Bower or Jeff Gray — or maybe both — shot and killed Oakley sheepherders John Wilson and Daniel Cummings in 1896.
Never heard of any of them? Chances are you are not alone.
The title character of southern Idaho’s best-known murder mystery was “Diamondfield Jack” Davis, an innocent man who was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang for the killings. Over the years, Davis’ story has eclipsed the real story about the victims and the shooters.
Several years ago, former Idaho Representative Max Black visited the city park in Albion, where a historical marker is dedicated to Diamondfield Jack. The story on the marker left Black hungry for more details of the crime itself.
“I couldn’t find anyone who knew exactly where this took place,” Black said. “Then I wondered about the court records.”
Black contacted the Idaho State Historical Society and was led to a large box containing old newspaper clippings and transcripts from Davis’ trial.
In mid-February 1896, Oakley sheepherder Ted Severe found his friends Wilson and Cummings shot to death in their sheep-camp wagon along Deep Creek, in the Shoshone Basin area, north of the Nevada border. Cassia County authorities estimated that the sheepherders had been dead for two weeks.
Davis quickly became the one and only suspect in the deaths.
John Sparks — who later became the governor of Nevada — hired Davis to police the range claimed by the Sparks-Harrell Cattle Co.
Jeff Gray and Sparks-Harrell foreman Jim Bower, who were known to have been in the area when the shooting occurred, denied any responsibility in the murders.
Davis’ trial was high profile from the beginning.
Cassia County Prosecuting Attorney John C. Rogers brought in William Borah — who would later become a U.S. senator from Idaho — and Orlando Power, a former Supreme Court Justice in Utah Territory.
Davis’ defense team included future governor of Idaho James Hawley, Kirkland Perky — a former law partner of William Jennings Bryan — and future U.S. senator Will Puckett.
Davis was convicted and sentenced to hang the following year. Shortly before Davis was to face the gallows, Bower and Gray confessed to shooting the sheepherders in self defense, and Davis was given a short reprieve.
According to their depositions, Wilson attacked Bower in the camp wagon, knocking Bower down. Fearing Bower would be killed, Gray shot both Wilson and Cummings. In the scuffle, Bower was able to remove his short barrel .44 caliber Model 1878 Colt Frontiersman from its shoulder holster, and fired a few shots of his own.
Despite the confessions, Borah was not willing to concede defeat. Through appeal after appeal, Davis spent a total of six years in prison, before he was eventually pardoned and released.
Black became somewhat obsessed with the murders, trying to sort out fact from fiction. In the court papers, he found surveys of the crime scene that eventually directed him to the site.
Black solicited the aid of Hollister native Alex Kunkel to triangulate the coordinates determined by the 1896 surveys. The two located the old camp site on private property in what is now southern Twin Falls County.
With a metal detector, Black located a .44 slug wedged under a rock. It is believed to be the missing slug that was shot through a saddle hanging on a large sagebrush in the camp.
Black believes the slug was shot from Bower’s pistol, which according to Bower’s deposition, was lost in the desert after the shooting.
Black took the slug to a Boise firearms expert to verify its age and caliber. After Black explained the story of the slug, the man told Black that he had purchased a short barrel .44 caliber Model 1878 Colt Frontiersman from a man who had found the rusted pistol in the desert near the area Black had described.
The sight had been filed off the pistol, which was then a common revision to shoulder-holstered pistols like Bower’s.
Black recently wrote a book titled, “Diamondfield: Finding the Real Jack Davis,” which will be released this summer.