Who Killed Thomas Godwin*?

By Dave Dyas
dyas [at] netzero [dot] com
September 2010

In the Old Tehachapi Cemetery in Tehachapi, California, a wooden grave marker reads:

DIED 1876

Says it all, right? James Hayes was the self-admitted killer that took the life of Tehachapi Constable Thomas Godwin. James Hayes was the name he was using, but who was he really?



In Hayes’ 1877 Bakersfield jail cell revelations, he had several stories to tell from his short 27 years of life. He had come to realize he was out of hope of escaping his fate on the gallows, and he no longer showed the bravado and confidence he had been espousing in the months following his crime. In fact, for the first time since being arrested, he displayed a nervousness about him. Having given up trying to escape, and standing fast with his self-defense position, he needed to tell his story.


Staring out through his jail window’s iron bars towards the gallows being erected for him, he began to clear his soul of dark secrets and burdens he had been carrying for years. His saga begins 3,000 miles away in his birthplace of Providence, Rhode Island, in May of 1849, although he was raised in Boston. In his youth, he ran away and joined the Army as a drummer boy in the Civil War. At the close of the war, he and others were sent to New Mexico to be in the band of the 3rd Cavalry. Eventually the band was broken up and he was transferred to Company L in New Wingate, New Mexico. While his unit was encamped near Prescott, Arizona, he deserted the Army with several others, taking rifles and 14 horses with them to help pay for their journey to California. Hayes made it to San Francisco, but he was soon recognized by an old acquaintance that reported him to authorities. He was arrested and sent for confinement in Fort Point, San Francisco. He escaped twice and was recaptured twice. He said in one of the attempts he ran through a hail of bullets unscathed. He was then sentenced to what he called Russian America (Alaska), and held at the military prison of Alcatraz, awaiting transport to Russian America.

In the meantime, in bitter cold weather, he and 2 others escaped the island by swimming for shore in 1868. One of the others, a man named Frank, drowned, while the other companion, named King, made it to San Francisco and escaped. Hayes, however, said he swam 5 hours and was a half mile from Sausalito when he was picked up by a schooner and returned to Alcatraz. He said the entire swim included a 6 foot chain attached to one leg. Then, while still waiting to be sent to Russian America, he and others bribed a guard, stole a boat, and successfully made it to shore.

After this escape, he began using the alias of Charles Sweeney. He told of saving a man and woman from drowning when their boat capsized near Meiggs Wharf, San Francisco, while using this name. He said the story of the heroic deed appeared in the local newspaper, but being an escaped deserter and fearing capture, he did not stay long in the area. He said he also saved the lives of 5 people as a boy in Boston Harbor. “I have saved seven lives,” he said, “but there is no one to save mine.”

He soon left the San Francisco area for the Owens River country of California, using a new alias of James Hayes. He landed a job on a farm, and his new name does appear in the 1870 Inyo County census as a resident of Bishop Creek, present day Bishop. The census also states he was born in Rhode Island. Even though he says James Hayes was not his real name, he would not reveal what it was, wanting to spare his mother and sister in Boston from learning what he had become.

Not long after Bishop Creek, he drifted down to Kern County. He told of a murder that took place in 1874 behind the Cotton Grower’s stable in Bakersfield. He, a man named Dave Hitchell and another man, lured the victim to the location. There they killed the man with a knife and took the body about 300 yards north to bury. With the body, they buried the victim’s watch bearing his name, but kept a valuable chain to later sell. This was a murder for hire, for which they received $500.00.

He explained that he gave up Hitchell’s name and not the other man as a result of Hitchell’s recent betrayal of Hayes. Hayes had met with two other inmates of the Bakersfield jail that were about to be released. Hayes instructed them to make impressions of the jail locks and entrance lock and deliver them to Hayes’ friend, Dave Hitchell, in Mojave. Hitchell was to then take the impressions to a locksmith Hitchell had served time with in state prison. The plan was for Hitchell to use the newly made keys to help Hayes escape. Instead, however, Hitchell informed Sheriff Madison Wells of the scheme. Wells then went to Hayes and told him to give up any thoughts of freedom. The sheriff suggested Hayes prepare for death instead.

An angry and indignant Hayes then asked for the District Attorney to come see him. Upon arrival, Hayes told of another Bakersfield murder that had taken place on the night of April 30, 1873. The victim, Mauricio Revilla, was found with a crushed scull at Chester’s Lumberyard. Hayes revealed that Hitchell had come to him that April night telling him that Hitchell had a quarrel with Revilla, and that Revilla had money that Hitchell now wanted to take. The two men, along with Cal Valpey and Frank Collins, went to Chinatown to find Revilla. Using a club, Hitchell hit Revilla three times on the head, then robbed him. Hayes said he brought some water from a ditch trying to revive the fallen man, with no success. They carried the body to Galtes Store, with Hayes leaving the group and Hitchell carrying Revilla the remaining distance to the lumberyard. Having heard this, the District Attorney had Hitchell and Valpey immediately arrested.

Hayes revealed another murder that he did not participate in, but was asked by the killers to take the victim three miles out of Bakersfield to bury, which he did.

The killing of Thomas Godwin, for which Hayes was soon to be hanged, was his next topic. It was known that Constable Godwin had killed a man named Dosier some time earlier, with a judicial investigation following and finding Godwin justified in the shooting. Hayes said Dosier was a great friend of his and he believed Godwin murdered Dosier in cold blood. Hayes also carried a grudge because Constable Godwin had arrested Hayes on more than one occasion. Since then, the two men had exchanged words over Dosier’s death, with Hayes claiming Godwin had threatened his life several times, including the morning of Saturday, October 21, 1876. Hayes had come to Tehachapi that day on a wagon with a horse in tow. He had a heated exchange in the morning with Godwin, but being unarmed, Hayes said while leaving, “I’m coming to see you Tom.” Godwin replied, “Well, come a shooting!”

That night about 7:00 p.m., Hayes went to the Mountain House restaurant and saloon in Tehachapi on horseback. Thomas Godwin was town constable, farmer, stock raiser, and keeper of the Mountain House, where he was at that time. He was near the end of the bar preparing for a speech he was giving that night. While outside, Hayes hired a boy to hold the reins of his horse until he came back.

Eyewitness Harvey Spencer stated he saw Hayes come into the Mountain House Saloon that night. Spencer said Hayes entered and upon seeing Godwin, drew his gun and said “Tom Godwin, you are my meat!” firing his pistol at the same time. In trying to get behind the bar, Godwin was not quick enough to avoid the bullet that entered his right side. The second shot missed, going through the door behind the bar for which Godwin was rushing. Hayes ran out only to find the boy gone, having been frightened by the gunfire and letting the horse go. Now on foot, Hayes disappeared into the night. Spencer said Thomas Godwin lived about 19 hours, dying Sunday, leaving a wife and three children to grieve. Tehachapi citizens immediately offered a $500.00 reward and Sheriff Wells added $250.00. (Spencer’s testimony came before the Kern County Grand Jury on November 10, 1876.)

By the following Wednesday, Hayes had made his way through Bakersfield, but not before being spotted by Dr. Frazier, who reported this to the Sheriff. Deputy Sheriff Harry Bludworth and Frazier began pursuit. They were on his tracks by November 1st, trailing him past the Buena Vista Slough, over the Temblor Range, and on to the Ventura County coastal landing of Oso Flaco. They found him in a small house waiting for a schooner he had arranged to board that was currently offshore. They entered with guns drawn finding Hayes sitting at a table unarmed. Raising his hands he calmly said, “I’m your man”. He was placed in irons and brought to Bakersfield on Sunday, November 5, without incident.

We may never know what all was true from Hayes’ self-stated accounts. However, the Revilla murder was known; the 1868 escape of nine Alcatraz prisoners by bribing a guard and stealing a boat was verified; the 1870 Census of Inyo County places him when and where he claims he was. He even admitted his cold-blooded killing of Thomas Godwin, in his own twisted sense of self-defense.

Shortly before his execution, being under heavy guard and supervision, Hayes calmly stepped out of the shackles that were thought to contain him. Knowing it was now futile, with no chance of escape, he wanted to reveal the sawed off rivet that he could remove at any time, and replace before inspections. He said if it were discovered after his death, he was afraid the guard might be blamed. He told of how he himself had cut it off a month prior, but would not inform who supplied the saw and chisel.

Hayes’ only last request was that he be buried next to his friend, Dosier. What he did not know was that the citizens of Tehachapi were so enraged at the killing of their beloved Constable, they refused to let Hayes be buried in the same cemetery with Thomas Godwin. Hayes was reportedly buried on a hill to the northwest, where it is believed his grave was inadvertently disturbed during excavation work in Golden Hills in the 1970’s.

James Hayes was the first legal hanging in Kern County. He was executed on Friday, March 30, 1877. The rope used was the same one used to hang the notorious bandit Tiburcio Vasquez.

His defense attorney was Benjamin Brundage, who later became the first Kern County Superior Court Judge. Brundage Lane was named in his honor.

The question remains, who was buried in James Hayes grave?

Thomas Godwin's grave can be visited in the Golden Hills area of Tehachapi on Lilac St.

*This article appeared in the September 2010 edition of the “Fence Post Country Reader” which is published in Caliente, California.


Bakersfield (and sometimes called Kern County) Courier Californian 26 Oct 1876, 9 Nov 1876, 8 Feb 1877, 15 Feb 1877, 22 Mar 1877, 29 Mar 1877, 5 Apr 1877.

San Francisco Daily Alta California 4 Oct 1868, 6 Oct 1868, 8 Oct 1868

San Francisco Bulletin 18 Aug 1868

The Great Register of Kern County

Inyo County Census 1870

I could not photocopy the Kern County Superior Court records. I had to wear white gloves to view handwritten records. I was only able to see 18 pages because that was all the protective plastic sheets they had. They seemed to be a random gathering with no actual trial transcripts, but it did have the names of jurors and eyewitnesses.

The witnesses were: Harvey Spencer, Ed Green, W.B. Brink, Constantine North, Jack Harris, P.D. Green, G. Collier, and Joe Hart. These guys were in the Mountain House Saloon that night, and I'm sure you recognize several names.

Constantine North was the guy marked "C. North" in the old cemetery, and his marker says killed in Greenwich, or something like that. He was a local mail carrier killed by Frank Cooper (or Collins) in Cooper's saloon. (I found that article while researching Godwin).

Harvey Spencer's transcript from the grand jury inquest of 10 Nov 1876.