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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story

Tender Mercies: The redemption of Herbert Niccolls

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The Great Depression had the nation in its grip. Gangsters who robbed banks were counterculture heroes. Cops-and-robbers radio shows and crime stories filled the media. Men and women — the first generation to routinely own cars — traveled greater distances from home. And more than ever before, youths seemed out of control.

On Aug. 5, 1931, a 12-year-old from an impoverished home, who was in possession of a stolen gun, made the small town of Asotin, the last pinprick of civilization in the southeast corner of Washington, a symbol of the problem of "juvenile delinquency.''

Today, we are still shocked when children commit murder, and we still debate what should be done with them. For Herbert Niccolls Jr., there were "fathers'' who in many ways turned his life around.

The following is from the book manuscript "Souvenir Sky: The Redemption of a Child Murderer."

MOONLIGHT SPILLED over the banks of Asotin Creek where a symphony of frog choruses played at the cool, damp hour after midnight. The boy woke cold and unsure of his surroundings. Then it came back to him. This was not Grandma's house. Grandma with her belt and her Bible. He had escaped. He was free. He was underneath the bridge. He was hungry, but then he was always hungry.

That's why Mama gave him and the rest of the boys away to foster homes. Too many mouths to feed, now that Pa was in the Orofino (Idaho) State Hospital for the insane — sent there for killing the neighbor woman. No one, not even Mama, was sad to see him put away. Mama knew he had meant to kill her that day she fled the house and ran into the field with her new baby when she saw him coming up the road.

Had Junior, as Herbert Niccolls was then called, not stolen from his foster family, he would never have come to live in Asotin with his grandmother, Mary Addington, Pa's mother, who was almost as scary.

Junior crawled out from under the bridge and the frogs stopped singing and only the creek murmured, hush, hush, like the silken sweep of willows along the deep pools. He had never before been alone in town at this hour of the night. Storefronts, the solitary, white-board courthouse, the square, white, shingled jail with its barred windows, cast shadows.

Junior removed his belt, looped it through the holster he made from an old boot top, slipped it over his neck and tucked the gun under the bib of his overalls.

The stream song was muffled now that he was among the shadows of the buildings. He stopped before the People's Supply Store, took out the .32-caliber Iver Johnson, smashed the glass door and stepped inside. The store was cool and fragrant with tobacco and the tang of fat pickles swimming like trout in the shadows of the vinegar barrel.

He suddenly was aware of three shadows by the front door, a murmur of deep voices. At the sound, he scurried to the back of the store and slipped behind a barrel. Then the front doorknob rattled and the door swung open, the little bell jingling.

"Come on out.''

Peeping over the rim of the barrel, the boy could see Sheriff John Wormell silhouetted in the moonlight, could see the glint of light on the sheriff's gun.

In a flash, the store lights came on and the boy ducked, blinked in the harsh light and fumbled as he removed the pearl-handled revolver from the holster. As the sheriff stood only inches away, the boy leaped up and fired.

Wormell, 73, a former state representative, four-term sheriff and one of Asotin County's most beloved citizens, died instantly — slain by a 60-pound, 4-foot-8-inch boy who was only 12.

Although Junior had a long history of offenses — setting fire to a church and multiple counts of theft — the murder of the sheriff stunned citizens far beyond the Snake River Valley.

Only seven years before, Clarence Darrow defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb — youths who killed merely for the "thrill'' of it. Now there was a cherub-faced 12-year-old killer. Once again the public wondered about the youth of America and the increasing problem of "juvenile delinquents." Could any be rehabilitated?

Many believed Junior could not, and to avoid the crowd seeking to lynch him, Deputy Sheriff Wayne Bezona drove Junior to the Garfield County Jail 40 miles away in Pomeroy.

In the meantime, 1,500 people from three states gathered in Asotin Park — the only place large enough for the crowd — to mourn the sheriff.

"If parents would stay home with their children instead of spending their evenings pleasure seeking, there would be no such crimes committed by the youth of the country," the Rev. J.B. York said.

Oct. 26, 1931

The trousers were long and the bow tie a sporty bright red. The deputy tied it for him and helped him into a jacket donated by a wealthy Pomeroy wheat farmer.

With his dark lashes and dimples, Junior looked like he "stepped right out of one of Booth Tarkington's Penrod stories," a reporter wrote later in an account of the trial.

The boy hadn't been back to Asotin since he was arraigned Sept. 3, and pleaded not guilty due to mental irresponsibility. The courtroom was filled to overflowing. Just down the street, the enterprising Methodist Church sold fried-chicken dinners to the crowd.

Prosecutor Elmer Halsey eliminated all women from the jury because he believed they'd be too sentimental to return a guilty verdict, and defense attorney Charles Doyle was dismayed to find all potential jurors had extensive knowledge of the case. As the attorneys postured, Junior wolfed down a bag of gingersnaps given him by a sympathetic spectator and gazed out the windows to the patch of blue sky.

He was as always, detached — an airy star of dandelion down adrift on a breeze.

He would not be in court charged with murder had he watered the corn that day and returned to the house, as he was supposed to. But once he stepped into the light, all of summer bloomed before him. The rows of corn danced, the poplars shook their cascade of leaves and children down the road laughed. He ran to Murphy Watkins' house by the river.

Watkins recalled years later how that day they picked watermelons, hauling them home in a wagon, and shot at jacksnipes along the creek. Later he brought Junior home for red beans and rice, and asked his grandfather if Junior could spend the night.

With seven children and some sleeping out in the back yard because there wasn't space in the house, they had no room for an eighth. Junior must go home to his grandmother.

"But he couldn't go home,'' Jean Seibel, Watkins' sister, recalled. "She would beat him with a club. He had nowhere to go.''

In the middle of dinner the sheriff came to the door looking for Junior. At the sound of Wormell's voice, the boy fled out the back door and hid beneath the bridge, vowing to never go home, no matter what.

And here he was, seated at a table in the courtroom as his grandmother took the stand and told the jury he was not insane but "possessed by a demon."

Mercy Hospital Denver, Oct. 28, 1931

Father E.J. Flanagan was convalescing from a chronic respiratory ailment when he read the newspaper. It was preposterous! A jury had just convicted a 12-year-old, and in the morning he'd be sentenced to either life in prison or hanging. There is no such thing as a bad boy, Flanagan believed; any child of 12 still had a chance to lead a good life.

He dictated a telegram to the boy's attorneys, asking that young Herbert Niccolls be sent to Boys Town — in Omaha, Neb., the home Flanagan started for boys just like Junior. But it arrived one hour after Junior received a life sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

In Seattle, a reporter stopped by the office of Kenneth Mackintosh, a former state Supreme Court justice who was recently appointed by President Herbert Hoover to the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. What did the judge think about sentencing a child to life in prison?

"The boy had previously shown a criminal tendency and should have been removed from contact with society before he committed this murder," Mackintosh said. "He undoubtedly always will be a criminal, a constant menace to society . . . He should have been hanged."

Flanagan read the story and was outraged all over again. He summoned his nurse, issuing a statement to the newspapers of the country:

The judge's comment was "without mercy or gentleness," Flanagan said. "For who is he, or any other human being, to pronounce judgment of death upon a mere child, a victim of society?''

If the state of Washington was determined to send the boy to prison, then he would take his fight to the governor.

"Barefoot boy murderer gets life," the news vendors called from street corners in the largest cities across the country. Every story stirred up more requests for clemency, and as the chief executive of the state who had the authority to parole or pardon prisoners, Gov. Roland Hartley's files were full of such requests. In a note to Flanagan, he said he "intended to give it careful consideration.'' After all the years in politics, he had a stock supply of phrases to get him out of the line of fire, and giving something "careful consideration" was one of them.

Attorney Doyle, a devout Catholic, highly regarded attorney and father, enthusiastically supported Flanagan's idea.

"This little fellow was sent away by his mother to the Children's Home . . . He has been deprived of proper clothing, home life, the companionship of his brothers and sisters and everything that goes to build up the moral side of a child." The boy had a talent for music, his language was refined and he was polite, Doyle continued. Couldn't something be done?

On a clear, cold evening of Nov. 12, the voice of the Irish priest sailed into the living rooms of thousands of homes like an arrow shot from the stars. Between the symphonies and the prizefights, men and women and children paused around their Motorolas and Bendixes to listen.

"Dear radio friends," he urged them, write to the governor. Ask him to parole the boy and send him to Father Flanagan.

In Seattle, Armene Lamson was moved as well. Although her name was inscribed in Seattle's "Blue Book," a who's who among society, she would never be dismissed as merely a captain of pink teas and charity balls. She was a devoted crusader for child welfare, inspired by her own experiences in war-ravaged Armenia.

She joined hundreds of others in writing to Flanagan and Hartley, and offered to host a dinner in Flanagan's honor if he could only visit Seattle and possibly meet with Hartley in person.

On a late fall evening at the Washington Athletic Club, Flanagan told the hundreds gathered: "If you have an institution in this state where the boy can be saved for society, then let him go there. If not, I want to take him to my home.

"Of the 3,000 boys we have had there none ever took another false step. . . I personally will supervise his training and education."

A.E. McCabe, representing the American Legion, said he had wired a message to the governor, indicating that 30,000 members of the legion and its auxiliaries strongly favored the boy being paroled to the home. Representatives of 81 Parent-Teacher Associations also pledged support.

Five days before Christmas, a letter from Hartley arrived. Request for parole denied. And, an admonishment, which read in part:

"In my judgment, nothing in recent years has taken place so detrimental to the youth of our land as the melodramatic publicity and exploitation which attended your trip to the State of Washington and the request to have this boy turned over to your institution."

Flanagan would never meet Herbert Niccolls or succeed in freeing him. But because of him, the boy would not be forgotten.

HERBERT'S PRISON home was a small cell with steel-latticework doors, a bunk and a bucket for a toilet. The cellblock was part of the original territorial prison, built in 1884, and it was hot in summer with an eye-burning stench and cold in winter. But eventually Herbert would be moved to a specially built hut near a guard tower. He would be alone there, locked in at night, safe from other prisoners.

It was the first of many accommodations his prison father-figures made for him. He ate his meals with officers instead of inmates, and he didn't have to wear the denim prison uniforms. Lessons were brought in by the Walla Walla superintendent of schools. Eventually, Warden James McCauley, who had turned down a government post in Olympia because he believed he could "do more good'' at the prison, befriended Herbert as well. McCauley encouraged him in his studies, visited him in the library, and, after Herbert completed his high-school work, made it possible for him to take correspondence classes from Washington State College.

Herbert's schooling in prison had gotten off to a rough start. Clarence Rose, a civilian librarian, was assigned to Herbert but wasn't happy about baby-sitting an incorrigible 12-year-old. Not only did he have to keep Herbert away from other prisoners and watch him constantly, he had to be sure the boy did his homework.

"Herbert was not always easy to handle the first year," Rose later wrote in a report to the warden. The boy delighted in seeing how quickly he could disappear when Rose became distracted; he tipped over chairs, stole pencils and books, and, when caught, lied to extricate himself from trouble.

Rose assigned Peter Miller to help with the tutoring. A doctor by training, Miller 15 years earlier had been sent to prison for perjury, having lied about being convicted of a felony in Chicago.

A King County Superior Court judge called Miller a habitual criminal and sent him to the penitentiary indefinitely. Professor John Edwin Ayer, a New York scholar and author, testified that Miller's eyes showed he had "the germs of insanity" and in Miller's German blood was "the potential for destructive expression.''

But in prison, Miller worked miracles. He started a fund to help prisoners being released, and he was known for his calm manner and ability to negotiate.

Within months of being assigned to Miller, young Herbert had read 2,000 books. He roamed the forests with Longfellow's "Hiawatha," rode the plains with Zane Grey and traveled the seas with Robert Louis Stevenson.

Miller also taught Herbert to love calculating numbers, and the boy eventually began referring to "my beloved math.''

After Miller was finally paroled, Herbert was tutored by a literary agent, James Ashe, who was also doing time for perjury. Ashe, a handsome man with a Boston Back Bay accent and easy charm, was the illegitimate son of British nobility — but had lost his fortune in the Depression. He not only encouraged Herbert to write, but told him about the budding movie industry.

"Come to Hollywood and change your life," was the motto of the day, and on a hillside north of town in bright white lights the word HOLLYWOOD lit up the night like a gilded invitation to a new life. Ashe spun stories of parties on seaside terraces, of grand hotels, fragrant orange groves and the kiss of the sun on golden sand.

In the city of dreams — a symbol of America's richness — a man could be anything he wanted to if he worked hard.

Herbert did work hard, but any real change in his life was only possible with his most influential mentor of all: Gov. Clarence Martin.

After Hartley's defeat, Martin became involved with the campaign to release Herbert. He wanted to meet the boy himself, and found him to be so bright and well-mannered — his speech sprinkled with "indeed'' and "I certainly shall'' — that Martin corresponded and visited with him often during his two terms in office.

After six years, Martin said Herbert proved himself to be worthy of the trust placed in him. "He has been an excellent student while in prison," Martin wrote, "and I have every confidence that he will establish himself as a useful member of the community.

"During the years I've been in office, Herbert and I have become mighty good friends."'

As Martin's term was nearing its end, Herbert turned 21 and was about to be released into the main prison population. Instead, Martin — who had the same June 29 birthday as Herbert's — conditionally released him.

"I know it will not be easy for him, after being in prison since he was 12, but whether he makes good is up to him,'' Martin said.

Martin had tried to find Herbert employment at the Boeing Co., building airplanes — something Herbert dreamed of. But company officials refused, suggesting Herbert first take vocational courses to see how he fared out of prison.

Herbert told reporters, "It is needless to say that I appreciate this chance to learn to stand on my own feet and make my own living,'' adding, "I'll do everything I can to make good, with the help of my friends.''

Martin, in fact, had helped Herbert find work at a Seattle bakery and housing at the YMCA. Herbert left for Seattle and a wide-open sky full of possibility — a souvenir sky to always remember.


Herbert Niccolls, who'd become a celebrity as a prisoner, found the transition to the outside difficult. After clashing with his boss at the bakery, he was soon fired and faced revocation of his parole. Former Gov. Martin came to the rescue again, persuading the parole board to give Niccolls a second chance and helping him get a job in the accounting department of a Tacoma shipyard. This time the job took, and Niccolls excelled.

Always gifted at math and interested in movies, Niccolls ended up working for 20th Century Fox in Hollywood, ushering the company into the computer age, and later writing screenplays and living a crime-free life. He died of a heart attack in 1983.

Says his brother, Wesley Niccolls, of Virginia: "One life was lost that night and another found.''

Nancy Bartley is a Seattle Times staff writer.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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