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Bizarre killing shocked Petaluma in 1915


The headlines in the Petaluma Daily Courier of Oct. 21, 1915, blared: “Murder Of A.J. McPhail Startles City.” For, on the foggy Petaluma day of Oct. 20, 1915, a tragic crossing of paths of two old acquaintances led to the vicious murder of one, by the other. It was an event that shook our town to its roots.

Andrew McPhail had become one of Petaluma’s best known businessmen. He was a very popular, jovial and generous person. In 1855, Andrew had been one of the first non-Native American babies born in Petaluma. He lived his early life in a small cottage on Kentucky Street and had married Petaluma’s, Ella Gale of Howard Street, in 1889.

Pioneer Andy McPhail became a successful drayman in Petaluma and eventually operated his own drayage, express and transfer business on Main Street. There were few better respected men than Andy. He belonged to several lodges and he was loved and admired by his employees, some of whom were to, sadly, become his pallbearers. For Andrew McPhail was to die on that October morn, at the age of 58.

Hiram “Hi” Talley, aged 76 in 1915, was a veteran of the American Civil War and a member of the Petaluma branch of the Grand Army Of The Republic. Hi had lived alone for many years in a rented room on Keokuk Street. He had been a resident of Petaluma for 40 years and existed on the federal military pension of just $1 a day.

All who knew Hi Talley thought of him as a gentle and quiet man. Hi had been deafened by artillery fire during the war and carried a pencil and pad for folks to write their questions. Hi often spoke of that war, which he would never forget.

For the last 40 years of their lives, Hi Talley and Andy McPhail had known each other as friends. Hi would often sit on the bench just outside McPhail’s Drayage and chat about the war with Andy. At one time, Talley had owned a wagon painting business located in the McNear Building on C and Third Streets and Andy McPhail, with his many drayage wagons, had been one of Hi’s best customers.

But, on that fateful day, 102 years ago, Hi Talley had been observed pacing slowly, all morning with his cane, in front of McPhail’s Drayage. Andrew came out of his office to speak with one of his wagon drivers and to unload some egg cases. Then, Hiram Talley quietly drew a fully loaded long barreled .38 caliber pistol from his belt and aimed it at McPhail.

For several ominous seconds the two men stared at each other and no word had been spoken. Talley then replaced the pistol back into his belt. Then, several minutes later, McPhail again emerged from the store front. This time, Talley drew his pistol and fired a bullet into Andrew McPhail’s brain.

There were 20 stunned people within 50 feet of the shooter and his victim that day. McPhail, bleeding profusely, crumpled to the street. Several friends rushed to his aid and carried him inside, where he died moments later. Andrew J. McPhail was gone forever and no one had a clue as to why this had happened.

Hiram Talley had smiled strangely and been very cool and collected, as he slowly walked away from the terrible scene. He did not get far, before newspaper publisher, D.W. Ravenscroft, and several other men tackled and disarmed him. Taken to City Hall, and placed in a cell by Police Chief Flohr, Talley laughed madly and shouted: “I got him, I’m glad I got him!”

In the debriefing, Talley was incoherent and continually laughed aloud at questions, and expressed that he had had some kind of disagreement with McPhail. But, if he did, no one knew of it, not McPhail’s wife Ella, not his secretary, not his friends or employees.

When asked if he thought he had violated a law, Talley’s answer was: “Never gave it a thought.” When asked if he should be punished for his deed, he replied: “When you are ready to shoot me, stand me alongside a wall and shoot away, wouldn’t bat an eye!” Then, he continued: “Tell Captain Dickson to load his muskets and shoot away!” (No one here, had the faintest idea of whom ‘Captain Dickson’ was).

Unfortunately for Andy McPhail and his family and friends, Hi Talley had gone way crazier than a loon. His recounting of events ranged freely from Petaluma to the Battle of Gettysburg. The County Coroner’s jury took just 10 minutes to find him guilty and committed him to an insane asylum for the rest of his life. This result didn’t at all sit well with Petalumans however, who wanted to see Hiram Talley hanged high by his neck on Main Street.

No one ever knew the real story behind this violent moment in our history. It is quite possible however, that the devastating madness that had been the American Civil War had, 51 years later in a small town in the West, claimed two more victims.

(Historian Skip Sommer is an Honorary Life Member of Heritage Homes and the Petaluma Historical Museum. Contact him at skipsommer@hotmail.com.)