Civilization had reached California by the 1890s. San Joaquin County was crisscrossed with roads, telephone lines, and railroad I track. The bands of rogue bandits that had terrorized citizens throughout the state in previous decades were either locked up or dead. The lone highwayman, who held up passing stagecoaches for the treasure found in the Wells-Fargo box, had made way for the train robber and safecracker.
The Sheriff’s Office had changed, too, since its infancy. Sheriff Thomas Cunningham, the county’s longest tenured sheriff, had made many changes to the department since taking over in 1872. He had imported blood- hounds from Cuba to assist in tracking down fugitives. He was a meticulous records keeper, and he and his deputies had compiled files, records and photographs on criminals numbering in the thousands.
By the mid-1890’s the sheriff employed seven deputies to handle the day to day duties of the office, which included court and civil duties as well as criminal investigations. In addition, the sheriff’s staff included a number of resident deputies; men who lived in various outlying parts of the county, and who held outside jobs and could be called upon when needed.
It was a cold and rainy Thanksgiving night in 1895 when the two ranch hands rode up to the San Joaquin River bridge looking for Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Buzzell. There were some trespassers camping out on the McLaughlin ranch, located about two miles from the bridge. The campers had started a fife and were burning an oak tree. When the cowboys confronted the campers an argument ensued, and they were forced to go get the law. Deputy Buzzell was a watchman at the bridge, so they knew where they could find him.
That morning Henry Tison and three of his sons were intent on doing some hunting in the Coastal mountains. They left their home, located at the corner of Fremont and Monroe in Stockton, and headed south. Using a wagon and a team of three horses, they traveled all day, reaching the McLaughlin ranch at nightfall as the sky turned dark and ominous. They set up camp and started a fife under a nearby oak tree, using the wagon for cover from the weather.
Ranch hands John Staiger and Ed Sweem had spent their holiday celebrating in Stockton and were somewhat intoxicated when they returned to the ranch at about 9 o’clock that night. There, they found the Tisons camped out. A heated exchange of words resulted when the Tisons were confronted. The Tisons would later claim that Staiger and Sweem had threatened to come back with guns blazing. Sweem reported that when they demanded that the Tisons leave, the older Tison’s response had been for them to “get out or get shot”.
Joe Buzzell was a resident deputy who lived in Banta, near Tracy. During the day he worked as a watchman at the San Joaquin River bridge at Mossdale. He and bridge tender E.L. Remington were at the bridge when Staiger and Sweem rode up to report the trespassers. Deputy Buzzell telephoned Sheriff Cunningham in Stockton and they conferred on the matter. Then, fearing violence, Deputy Buzzell armed himself and headed towards the ranch with the two hands.
When the three men arrived at the ranch, Deputy Buzzell identified himself and ordered the Tisons off the property. The elder Tison had his rifle trained on Buzzell when the deputy made his demand. Tison said he had no intention of moving and that if the officer wanted to put out the fire he could do it himself.
Deputy Buzzell now saw Tison’s rifle aimed at him. He said, “Here, put down that gun, I am an officer!” Tison replied, “Well so am I!” At that point, the deputy drew his pistol and a gunfight immediately broke out. In the exchange of bullets, Tison was hit once in the stomach and Deputy Buzzell was shot twice, killing him instantly. Deputy Buzzell’s horse was also shot, as was Staiger’s. Although the Tison boys and at least one of the cowboys joined in the gun battle nobody else was hit.
Deputy Buzzell died where he fell. The Tisons fled on foot, leaving their possessions behind, including their horses and the rifle used to kill the deputy. Sweem rode back to the bridge at Mossdale to summon help. Staiger took up a position on the road. Although Henry Tison was wounded, he fled with the boys. Once in the nearby tules, Henry split up with the boys, heading south while they turned north towards Stockton.
When Ed Sweem reached the bridge a telephone call was made to Sheriff Cunningham in Stockton. By now it was about 100′ clock at night. Sheriff Cunningham formed up a posse, which included deputies Ike Robinson, George Black and Billy Wall, Stockton Police Officer Walter Walker, and Stockton Constables Beach and Carroll. They left at once on horseback for the bridge, arriving there about 12:30 a.m. Upon arriving on the scene at the ranch they found Deputy Buzzell and his horse, along with the Tison’s possessions.
Sheriff Cunningham obtained descriptions from the two ranch hands and immediately put out the word to lawmen in surrounding areas to be on the lookout for the killers. A search of the scene and the surrounding countryside was made using bloodhounds at sun-up, to no avail.
Based on descriptions of the men and their outfits, officers in Stockton were able to identify the Tisons. Officers were posted by their house, and when the three boys returned home the next evening Deputy Sheriff Barney Cassidy and Stockton Police Officers Mike Finnell and J. H. Burnham arrested them and took them to the jail. There, they were questioned by a number of officers but were not willing or able to tell the whereabouts of their father. They did confirm that he had sustained a bullet wound to the abdomen.
Although Sheriff Cunningham and the other lawmen were convinced that Tison had murdered Deputy Buzzell, public sentiment leaned towards Tison. Many people felt that he and his sons were merely camping out in the middle of the plains and were not hurting anything and that Deputy Buzzell and the cowboys had no right to demand that they move.
A funeral was held in Stockton for Deputy Buzzell on Sunday, December 1. He was laid to rest in the Stockton Rural Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
On Tuesday, December 3, a coroner’s inquest was held. After hearing evidence, nine members of the coroner’s jury said that the shooting of the deputy was done in self-defense, while the other three signed a verdict to the effect simply that Deputy Buzzell came to his death from the effects of a gunshot wound inflicted by Henry Tison. The three sons were released from custody. Tison remained on the run. Reported sightings came in, but Tison was still free.
On December 8 Sheriff Cunningham offered $250 of his own money for the arrest and conviction of the murderer. Finally, on December 18, Henry Tison was captured.
Merced County Deputy Sheriff Wegener was the foreman on a ranch six miles north of the town of Merced. Deputy Wegener had received the information put out by Sheriff Cunningham and became alerted when a man looking for work showed up on his ranch looking ill and frail. The man fit the description of the suspect, but Wegener wanted to make sure of his suspicions, so he decided to watch the man. A few days later one of his ranch hands confirmed that the man had a bullet wound in the abdomen. When confronted, the man readily admitted he was Tison.
Henry Tison was brought back to Stockton, where he was tried for the murder of Deputy Buzzell. A jury trial was held in Judge Budd’s courtroom on January 7, 1896. After hearing testimony from all of the witnesses; including the defendant, the jury took just eight minutes to acquit him on all charges.
Joseph Buzzell was 43 years old at the time of his death. He left a wife and two children. Joseph’s widow remarried several years later and moved out of the area with her children and new husband.