Once treasured family remembrances and pictures are often donated and accepted to become part of the Pioneer Museum’s collection. The museum makes every effort to continue honoring and celebrating each item’s historical significance to the area. One such item was a worn scrapbook of now yellowing pages, with pictures and faded newsprint articles of years gone by. A particular news article caught the interest of a museum library researcher. As the researcher read on, the 1903 faded news print told of a tragic incident on the Siuslaw River involving William Washington Withers, a former Lane County Sheriff. It is an incident worth re-telling in this story.
Incident on the Siuslaw
In 1903, neighboring Douglas County had issued a warrant for the arrest of 35-year-old Edward Elliott Lyons on charges of horse theft. Mr. Lyons, himself a former deputy Sheriff, had previously been convicted of embezzling school funds and sentenced to prison for one year. Aware Mr. Lyons’ had family members residing in a cabin on the Siuslaw River, Sheriff Withers kept a watchful eye on the area near Walton, 30 miles west of Eugene. Soon enough, he learned Mr. Lyons was indeed seen at the cabin.
On February 5, 1903, Sheriff Withers visited the cabin to serve the warrant on Elliott Lyons. With assistance from family members who grabbed both the Sheriff’s arms, Mr. Lyons emerged from a back bedroom and shot the Sheriff at close range before fleeing. A posse was immediately formed. It was said that despite being on his deathbed, the Sheriff confirmed his assailant was Lyons, and that his wife and mother held his arms during the shooting.The Sheriff died two days later. Disguised as a tramp, Mr. Lyons, was apprehended after boarding a freight train near Creswell. At his hearing, he stated, “I don’t know why I fired the shot, . . .I, . . I didn’t mean to do it.” He was convicted for the murder of Sheriff Withers and sentenced to “rope and trap”. He was hung on April 17, 1903 behind the Lane County Courthouse.
A nephew of Thomas Jefferson Brattain, one of the earliest sheriffs of Lane County, Sheriff Withers was a well-respected office of the law. The year prior to his death, he successfully captured a murder suspect after tracking him for 2 months, through 3 states. The suspect, Bert Heaton, had murdered Benton Tracey, a Junction City saloon keeper in 1902. Despite the county‘s $500 reward, “dead or alive” Sheriff Withers refused to accept it, citing, “his work was only in the line of his duty”. By all accounts, Sheriff Withers was “noted for his persistence in following criminals and was highly skillful in locating them.” Sadly, he was just 45-years old at the time of his death, leaving a wife and son.
As a family researcher herself, the museum’s researcher was recently able to contact and forward the tragic, but revealing news accounts to Sheriff Withers’ great-grandson.
Gillespie, Jan. Officer Down Memorial Page. Reflections for Sheriff William W. Withers. 23 Aug 2006
Image of Bert Heaton: The Eugene Guard. The Heaton Murder Trial; 05 Nov 1902 pg 4
Image of Sheriff: The Eugene Guard; Sheriff Withers Shot by Thief; 06 Feb 1903 pg 1
Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc. Copyright 1996 – 2023..
The Capital Journal; After Long Pursuit 07 Aug 1902 Pg 4
The Daily Eugene Guard. To Hang in April. 06 Mar 1903, pg1
The Stateman Journal. While Attempting to Arrest a Desperate Horse Thief He is Shot . . .07 Feb 1903 pg 1