The Shooting of Alvin Thorpe Branson

This page is a supplement to the biography of Alvin Thorpe Branson, son of John Sevier Branson and Martha Jane Ousley. If you have stumbled across this page first, please go back and read Alvin’s page before continuing. You can click here to do so.

The murder attempt was, alas, completely in character for William Simmons. The only odd aspect is that his violent nature did not cause his own death much earlier in life. He was sixty-one when he killed himself. (He is fifty or fifty-one in the 1871 photograph shown at left.)

Born in Cornwall 24 August 1820, William had grown up in circumstances that cultivated his resentment toward society and toward other people in general. The economy of that peninsula, which had been based on the tin mining industry, was in terrible shape by the time William came of age. It is likely he found it difficult to find employment, and that he drifted about, probably one step ahead of debt collectors and ex-wives. His eventual migration to Australia may well have been as a “convict” sent to that continent as part of the scouring of the English nation of “undesirables.” Those sent to Australia were not necessarily guilty of real crimes. The aristocracy had a cavalier attitude toward the poor, the descendants of families who in earlier generations had owned a certain kind of status as peasant farmers, but who were being increasingly displaced by the Industrial Revolution. William’s offense may simply have been that he was a vagrant, i.e. he was homeless and had no job. However, it is also likely that his own actions and questionable judgment was the cause of some or all of his troubles. According to writings left by his daughter Mary Eliza Simmons Branson and by her children Ivan Thorpe Branson and Maude Ethel Branson Chamberlin, William had at least three wives and twenty-eight children, and might have left both England and Australia not because he was forced to go, but because doing so allowed him to escape his responsiblities as a husband and father. Given his example, some of his sons and daughters grew up to be less admirable individuals than they should have been. Mary’s granddaughter Alice Corkins Campbell recalls being warned to avoid cousins from the Simmons side, as they would be nothing but trouble.

Mary’s dictum did not apply to two branches of her clan. She was close to her sisters Annie and Jennie and their offspring. All three girls -- Annie, Jennie, and Mary -- were the children of William’s third wife, Catherine Christina Thomas (10 January 1823 - 19 December 1889). The three grew up in Mariposa County and played significant roles as homemakers and mothers in the Hornitos area during the latter part of the 19th Century and early days of the 20th. Annie (Anna Maria) Simmons had been born 4 August 1850 in Thebarton, a community not far outside Adelaide in South Australia. She married John Northrup and then Maurice Kimball Flint, having large families with each husband. She died 4 December 1921 in Hornitos. Jennie (Elizabeth Jane) Simmons was born in February, 1855 in Sandhurst in Victoria. (The distance from Thebarton to Sandhurst is substantial and could well mean William had made himself unwelcome back in Thebarton.) Jennie married Italian Swiss immigrant Joseph Spagnoli, with whom she had six children. (One of those children was Joseph William Spagnoli, who would marry into the extended Branson clan.) Jennie died 18 May 1929 in San Joaquin County, CA.

In finding Catherine Christina Thomas, William Simmons had apparently found a woman suited to him. First, she tolerated his extreme solutions to problems. A firm rumor whispered among the family is that William chose to get rid of an “extra” child or two by throwing him or her or them overboard while crossing the Pacific, letting the ocean conceal the evidence of his deed. He could only have succeeded with her collusion. Second, Catherine was not above her own wicked behavior. Alice Campbell recalls her grandmother saying she had caught Catherine trying to poison Alvin with arsenic, and that this was the event that precipitated Alvin and Mary’s departure from William and Catherine’s home in late 1881 or early 1882. Ivan Branson wrote an account in Bones of the Bransons that offered a different reason for the schism and the violence that followed, an explanation less shocking than arsenic but perhaps more tragic -- it was an argument over a pig.

According to Ivan’s version, Alvin and Mary had been given a sow as a gift. But Alvin having been laid off from the mine, the couple couldn’t afford to feed the animal. They didn’t wish to slaughter it because it was pregnant and the offspring would be valuable. An arrangement was reached with Mary’s parents. William agreed to feed the pig until it gave birth. The piglets were to be evenly divided.

Naturally, an odd number of piglets was born. Apparently William and Alvin could not agree on who should get the extra piglet. Apparently things did not work out the way William would have preferred, and his dissatisfaction led him off in search of his pistol.

Various versions of the shooting and suicide passed down among the family over the years. It is best at this point to offer the account that appeared in the 21 January 1882 edition of the Mariposa Gazette. The writer probably got some details wrong -- frontier journalism being what it was -- but the article establishes the gist and sequence of the events quite well. (Note: the text below preserves the misspelling of the name Spagnoli, an error in the original article.)

Homicide and Suicide near Hornitos

A Father-in-law Fires Three Shots at his Son-In-Law and then Shoots Himself.

At the residence of Joseph Spagnolia and family, at No. 9 Mine, about three miles above Hornitos, on Tuesday last, about 3 o’clock, P.M., occurred one of the most sanguinary scenes that has ever taken place in the county. Alvin Branson and his wife, who is sister to Mrs. Spagnolia, were stopping there for the time being. Previously Mr. Branson had been living with his father-in-law and mother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. William Simmons, whose residence is near the old Gaines mine, some two or three miles westerly from the No. 9 mine. By means of some difficulty naturally occurring between families, Branson had removed to Spagnolia’s, as above stated. The cause of the desperate act by the father-in-law, if any other than insanity, is yet to be developed. At the time mentioned the two families were altogether in the house, when Wm. Simmons rode up on horseback, dismounted and went into the house, and immediately addressed himself to Mr. Branson, who, as we understand, was in a sitting position, and without giving Mr. Branson a moment’s warning, or time to gain his feet, he drew a Navy six shooter, and fired, the bullet entering the body on the right side, about two inches below the nipple breaking a rib, and passing around the body and lodging in the back near the skin, and nearly opposite the point of entrance. Another report is, that the bullet entered the body near the fifth rib, passing diagonally through the body and coming out the left side of the back. Following the first shot Branson started to run out of the house, when the second shot was fired which took effect in Branson’s right hand, the third shot missed him. After firing the third shot, Simmons’s two daughters seized him and again prevented him shooting. Just at this instant Dr. Corbett, who was at the mine visiting a patient, arrived, and immediately ran up and disarmed Simmons, who instantly sprang upon his horse and started full speed for home. He was called upon to stop but paid no attention to the command, whereupon the three remaining charges of the pistol were discharged at him without taking effect by one of the men, who had by this time arrived on the scene. As soon as horses could be saddled Simmons was pursued by J.F. Thorn and John Mitchell, but before they arrived there he had shot the top of his head off with a double barreled shotgun. They found him sitting in a chair, the toe of his boot against the trigger, and the upper portion of his head blown away. Another reporter informs us that Mrs. Simmons, who was at home with her two little grand children engaged in papering a room, was not aware of Mr. Simmons being on the place until she heard the report of the gun in an adjoining room. Upon entering to ascertain the cause, the awful scene that presented itself to Mrs. Simmons can scarcely be imagined. She became frantic and ran out of the house screaming so fearfully that it attracted the attention of some of her nearest neighbors. Mr. and Mrs. Simmons were an aged couple, having lived quietly at their home near Mount Gaines mine for a great many years. They have three children -- girls -- married, and near a dozen grandchildren, Alvin Branson, one of the victims of this sad calamity, is a young man aged about 23, was married to the youngest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Simmons about a year and a half ago, and had lived with the old folks up to within a short time preceding this homicide, when they removed to the No. 9 mine, where the terrible tragedy commenced. At last accounts, Branson, whose wound is supposed fatal, was still alive.

The newspaper reporter probably could not have imagined that Alvin would go on to live another fifty years and more. But by the following week, it was clear the injury was not as dire as it had first seemed to be. This is what the 28 January 1882 issue of the Gazette reported:

Al. Branson Recovering

Al. Branson, who was supposed to have been mortally wounded by his father-in-law some ten days ago, is recovering rapidly, and expects to be about attending to business soon. It appears that the ball took a circuitous route around the body, and never entered the cavity of the chest.

Alvin’s survival was incredible, though it is easier to understand when put in context. The lead bullets of the Nineteenth Century were soft enough that if they struck something as resistant as bone, they sometimes behaved as did the one that hit Alvin in the chest -- become distorted and change directory. Had Alvin been shot by a modern steel-jacketed round, he would have sustained a mortal wound as his neighbors believed he had.

Though the article states the suicide occurred inside the house, Ivan wrote unequivocally in the literature given out at a 1970s Branson Family Reunion and tour of the sites in Mariposa County associated with the Branson clan that William Simmons met his demise down by the creek below his home. This detail may be correct, though other specifics in that same hand-out are blatantly wrong -- Ivan states the attempted murder occurred in 1885, and that his sister Maude was a baby in Alvin’s lap at the time Alvin was shot. Ivan goes on to state that a “vengeful crowd” found the body of William Simmons and buried it in a field, yet earlier on the same page, states that the grave was “on the top of the hill” above the house, once marked by a cairn of stones that had been removed by a subsequent landowner. This last anecdote has yet to be verified one way or the other.

Whatever the details, it seems the world was a better place once Williams Simmons had left it. Offered here are some words Mary Eliza wrote about her father:

My earliest recollection is fear of my father. We all feared him. He was very brutal to his family when angry. I witnessed him grab my sister by her hair and drag her around and kick her, just for some neglect of work on some trifle.

I fared better than the others that way, but was just as afraid of him. I often saved myself a beating by explaining to him first before Mother would, as she always exaggerated, largely on trifles. She often got herself a beating by nagging him. When she decided she wanted to go see someone, she would never let up till he gave her several blows and a few kicks, and one time went for his pistol to shoot her. I grabbed the gun as soon as he did and would not let go of it till he promised not to use it. But I knew he would, some time. (I was about sixteen then.)

In my youth I spent lots of my time helping my sisters with their children and work, so was not home more than half my time, but I had that worry on my mind just the same, expected to hear every day that he had shot her, or when I was home, expected to see it. I think I had a very unhappy girlhood. I was afraid to ask to go to parties or places, so I had very little amusement. I could count all the dances and parties I ever went to on one hand before I was married. My married sisters would sometimes go and ask me along, but they had babies and didn’t go much. I worked hard.

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