The First
Halleck Station, Nevada - 1877

     Sam Mills could read fortune telling cards but he didn't see his own destiny or he would have packed his saddle roll and galloped out of Halleck Station as fast as a horse could carry him. Sam was going to be a first.
     He was born in the south in 1849. His parents were slaves but they were freed. Sam remained a slave and Sam's father had to buy his son's freedom. When he was old enough, young Mills made his way west and became a part of the abundant wild and wooly life in Nevada.
     Mills first made the news when he was drinking in his favorite watering hole in Eureka. A man insulted him with racial slurs and then struck Mills in the face without warning. Sam lost an eye in the fracas and became a man with a chip on his shoulder. He was a very bad character and spent time in Nevada's prison in Carson City.
     A few years later he made the news again. The Daily Elko Independent printed that Sam had shot and killed his best friend, William James Finnerty, on Thursday, June 7, 1877 at Halleck Station.
     For some reason, he became abusive to the proprietress of the Web and Deering hotel where he worked as a cook. She lost patience with him and gave him his walking papers. Sam drew a knife but was knocked down by one of the owners who paid him what wages were due and ordered him to leave.
     He was able to get a shotgun from a nearby house and headed for Griffin's Saloon. Finnerty told everyone that he would handle Mills since they were good friends. Jimmy opened the door of the saloon. Mills was about six feet away. He pulled the trigger and blasted a big hole in Finnerty's chest.
     Jimmy cried out, "Some one pray for me! I'm gone!" and died soon after without uttering another word.
     Mills stole a nearby horse and hightailed it out of town. A posse of local cowboys soon galloped out of town on his trail. Soldiers from Fort Halleck joined the chase but Sam eluded them.
     About noon, on Sunday, June 10 Myron Pixley and John Maverick of Lamoille Valley arrived in Elko with Sam. They found him in a haystack near Pixley's house. He had surrendered without any resistance.
     Mills was tried in District Judge John H. Flack's court and was found guilty. On July 24, 1877 Judge Flack sentenced Samuel Mills to death by hanging and gave Elko County Sheriff Ed Seitz the job. County sheriffs were in charge of legal executions until 1903 when the legislature gave the job to officials at the State Prison in Carson City.
     Sam sat in the county jail reading fortune telling cards, frequently singing his mother's favorite hymn, and planning escapes. He tried three times and failed three times. Didn't the cards tell him anything?
     He appealed his conviction to the Nevada Supreme Court but it upheld the decision. Judge Flack was an unusual person. From time to time he would take a silver dollar to the nearest saloon where he had it changed to ten dimes. He then proceeded from bar to bar plunking down a dime a drink. It didn't matter to him that drinks were a quarter and the bartenders certainly were not going to argue with the judge. Although Flack would doze occasionally during trials very seldom was one of his cases overturned.
     On December 21, 1877 (justice was very swift back then) Mills was led from the jail to the scaffold constructed for his execution. He climbed the steps without wavering. When Sam was told he could speak, he turned to the spectators, all men because women were not invited.
     Sam said, "Well, gents, to you all I have to say that I am a poor colored man with no friends nor money. If I had money and a good lawyer I could have got clear. I had no intention to kill Finnerty."
     He told the crowd he did not have a fair trial but and if this was justice, he was not afraid to die and would meet his maker like a man.
     His hands, arms and feet were bound, a black hood placed on his head. He was centered on the trap door and the rope was adjusted around his neck. At 11:50 a.m. the lever was pulled and he dropped six feet. Sam, though, was thin and his neck was not broken. There were convulsions of the body and legs for almost three minutes. The attending physicians said the heart ceased to beat in eight minutes. At the end of 20 minutes there was no heart action. Ten minutes later the body was taken down.
     Samuel Mills was the first person ever legally hanged in Elko County.
     The next and last victims of the rope in the county were Elizabeth and Josiah Potts on June 20, 1890. They were sentenced to death for murdering her former husband in Carlin.

Howard Hickson
October 14, 2002

Sources: Halleck Country by Edna B. Patterson and Louise A. Beebe, 1982; selected issues of the 1877 Daily Elko Independent, Northeastern Nevada Museum Archives; "An Outline of Capital Punishment in Nevada" by Guy Louis Rocha, State of Nevada website; and the transcript of Sam Mills' trial, Elko County Clerk's office. Special thanks go to the staff in County Clerk Win Smith's office who were able to find the microfilm for a case 125 years old. They're good.

©Copyright 2002 by Howard Hickson. Permission to use is given but, if any portion or all of this article is quoted, proper credit must be given.

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