MURDER MOST FOUL
February 5, 1903, was a cold and clear day, and Lane County Sheriff Withers, in company with deputized officers, set off for Walton to arrest Elliott Lyons, an escaped prisoner. Word had reached Eugene that Lyons, an embezzler and a Jackson County horse thief, was heading for his parents' home in Walton, where his wife also lived. The law officers reached the house, surrounded it, and Sheriff Withers, with his pistol at the ready, entered and demanded Lyons' surrender.
Immediately, perhaps fearing for the life of their husband and son, Lyons' wife and parents restrained Withers. While the sheriff struggled with them, Lyons entered the room with a revolver and shot him in the neck. The bullet cut his windpipe and lodged against the spinal cord. Withers died two days later. Lyons escaped.
When word of the shooting reached Eugene, citizens were enraged. According to the Daily Eugene Guard, "It can be truthfully said that he (Withers) was the most popular sheriff Lane county ever had. He was ever fearless in his duties as an officer, and had the reputation of catching every criminal he ever went after." Posses were immediately organized to "run the desperado to earth." Judge Kincaid offered a $500 reward for Lyons' capture, dead or alive. Withers' father matched the reward offer.
There were sightings of Lyons near Noti and, later, near Franklin, and men searching for the killer concentrated their efforts there. However, four days after the shooting, Lyons was seen in Creswell running down the Southern Pacific tracks and attempting to board a southbound freight train. "The posse got into Mr. Veatch's wagon, drove with great haste to where the train was pulling out and motioned the engineer to stop the train. The men then clambered out of the wagon, rushed toward Lyons, who was just then in the act of climbing into an empty freight car, and ordered him to throw up his hands." As he was being bound, Lyons exclaimed, "Well, it is all up; I am done for; I am your man."
Placing Lyons in a carriage, the posse started for Eugene, making sure that news of his capture did not proceed them. If they had not taken this precaution, "the party no doubt would have been met by an infuriated crowd of citizens and the prisoner promptly lynched." Lyons was locked up in a barred cell in the county jail, and Mayor Chrisman directed Eugene's chief of police to add extra law officers to keep the peace. The Guard urged citizens to assist the police: "If alive, the murdered man would protect a prisoner to the last extremity. Respect for the dead sheriff should discourage any lawlessness."
Withers' body lay in state in the courthouse until his funeral, which was conducted at Eugene's Christian Church. Mayor Chrisman asked all business establishments to close that afternoon, and about one thousand citizens attended the service, including the Elks, Woodmen of the World, Knights of Pythias, and Knights of the Maccabees. One hundred carriages were part of the large cortege to the Masonic Cemetery, where Withers was buried just north of the public square.
On February 11, the coroner's jury found that W. W. Withers died from a gunshot wound inflicted by Elliott Lyons and that the shooting was premeditated. Lyons was arraigned on March 2. No advance notice was provided, for law officers were still concerned that citizens would take any opportunity to avenge their sheriff's death. The indictment was read, and George Dorris was appointed to represent the prisoner. Lyons pled not guilty to murder in the first degree. His trial took place two days later before a packed courtroom. The jury deliberated for 20 minutes, and found "the defendant, Elliott Lyons, guilty of the crime of murder in the first degree as charged in the indictment."
On March 6, Judge Hamilton pronounced the sentence: "On Friday, April, 17th, 1903, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., in the courtyard of the jail situated at the county seat of Lane county, Oregon, witnessed by at least 12 bona fide citizens of this county, you hang by the neck until dead. May God have mercy on your soul." The execution was duly carried out. It was Lane County's second hanging.
(Note: Information for this article is from the Daily Eugene Guard
, February-April, 1903.)