By M.P. Pellicer | Stranger Than Fiction Stories
The setting is 1890s Nevada. A lonely miner turned rancher was murdered by his friends. He was dismembered, burned and buried so no one would be the wiser of what truly happened to him. But perhaps there was more to this story.
Carlin was a small town, a stop on the route of the Central Pacific Railroad. Established in 1868, it wasn't long before it connected freight and stage routes to the railroad.
It thrived, and by the 1870s almost a thousand people lived there. It had a two-story brick school house, a library, a Chinatown and several small businesses.
Right around the time an ice-harvesting industry grew in Carlin, a murderous crime was discovered.
“Old Man Faucett,” as he was known in the community, was a miner and rancher and lived on a small spread outside Carlin, which was about 23 miles west of Elko. He frequently visited town and stayed with the Potts family, where Elizabeth washed his clothes and baked his bread for a fee.
Elizabeth Potts was reportedly a forceful woman, by contrast her husband Josiah was somewhat the milquetoast, physically smaller and timid, according to his neighbors. She was a housewife and mother of seven children. Josiah Potts was a machinist for the Central Pacific Railroad, who had relocated from Milwaukee with his family.
The crime occurred sometime on January 1, 1888, when Miles Faucett drove his rig into town and visited the Potts. Faucett was seen hitching up his team outside the Potts residence. Then he went back inside the house and was never seen again. His sudden disappearance didn’t cause any great stir since Carlin was pretty much a transient town in those days.
When Josiah was later asked about the 57-year-old Faucett, he claimed the old man had left for California and sold all his goods to Potts, for which Josiah possessed a bill of sale.
In September, 1888, the Potts family moved to Rock Springs, Wyoming. George and Amelia Brewer rented the Potts’ vacated house. The first thing they noticed was a bad smell coming up from under the floorboards.
Amelia had served as a correspondent for the Elko Free Press and considered herself a bit of a psychic. She sent the following to the newspaper on January 5, 1889:
I have intended to write you for several weeks, but when one moves to a new place one naturally is kept very busy for awhile… It is a little exciting when one has the good luck to move into a veritable haunted house. So far, the ghost hasn’t scared any of us, but he is here just the same. Sometimes he taps on the headboard of the bed, other times he stalks across the kitchen floor and then he hammers away at the door, but nobody’s there. But the gayest capers of all are cut up in the cellar. There he holds high revels, upsets the pickles, and carries on generally.
More incidents finally led George Brewer to investigate the cellar. After probing around with an iron rod, he found human remains. According to the official report, the head was “charred and fleshless, having been chopped up and burned. The legs, arms, and body were in small pieces and beyond recognition. The only clue to the body’s identity… was the half-burned pocket of the murdered man’s pants, in which was found an old knife… recognized as belonging to Miles Faucett.”
Posthaste a dispatch was sent to Wyoming, ordering the arrest of Elizabeth and Josiah Potts. Carlin Sheriff L.R. Barnard and Constable J.F. Triplett went after them. On the way back to Nevada, the Potts claimed Faucett had killed himself after Elizabeth caught him abusing their daughter, Edith who was 4 years old, and that Josiah had cut up Faucett’s body and burned it, fearing they would be charged with murder if it were discovered. No investigation of the abuse charges was ever reported in the court records.
The party arrived in Carlin at the end of January, 1890, and by mid-February both were indicted for murder. Justice traveled on swift wings, and Mr. and Mrs. Potts went to trial on March 12 before Judge John Bigelow. It took only four hours for the jury to return a verdict of guilty. When he heard the verdict, Josiah bowed his head and kept his eyes glued to the floor. Elizabeth’s demeanor never changed.
“She looked straight ahead, as unconcerned as if she was merely a spectator instead of a leading character in a terrible drama,” the local newspaper reported. She did break down after returning to jail and shed a few tears, her jailer said, but soon appeared herself again.
The two were led into court for sentencing on March 22. Elizabeth appeared the coolest in the room. Josiah’s lips were quivering. Judge Bigelow consigned the couple to the custody of the sheriff until May 17, at which time they were to be taken out and “hanged until dead.” Not a muscle moved in Elizabeth’s face.
Their attorney appealed to the Supreme Court and a stay of execution was ordered.
Edith Potts, would later be adopted by a local couple, but not before she calmly told authorities she’d seen her mother shoot Miles Faucett while her father was away from the house.
Their son Charles, the other remaining offspring still living with his parents was only 18 when he left with a friend to Oregon. He changed his last name, and used Atherton, his mother's maiden name. He did well for himself and became a wealthy man. He owned the famous Blue Bird Tourist Company in Washington. He died in 1948, at the age of 76.
After a short deliberation, the Supreme Court confirmed the lower court’s decision. When that decision came down, a petition was drawn up and signed by 267 Carlin locals asking the board of pardons to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. The commutation was refused, and Josiah and Elizabeth were re-sentenced to death—scheduled for June 20.
The gallows were erected and tested behind the Elko courthouse. At first, the condemned couple appeared strangely detached from what was going on until the beating of the carpenters’ hammers reached their ears. Both went through brief crying spells. Afterward, Josiah paced his cell while his wife cursed “the world and all in it.” She appeared the more stalwart of the two, but on the day before the execution, Elizabeth Potts slit her wrists with a small penknife she had hidden in her hair. When her attempt was thwarted, she “cut up fearfully” and then fainted.
June 20, dawned bright and clear. The death warrant was read to the couple and Josiah said simply, “We are innocent.” His wife raised her head and pronounced, “I am innocent, so help me God. We are innocent that’s all we can say from first to last.”
One of the jailers gave the couple a small bottle of “reinforcing tonic” (assumed to be whiskey) to help ease their anxieties. At 10:40 a.m., they were walked to the gallows. Husband and wife mounted the scaffold and took seats just behind a trap door big enough to accommodate both. Elizabeth was dressed in white with black silk bows at her throat and wrists. Josiah wore a business suit. Neither flinched as their arms and legs were strapped and their footwear removed.
They stood and the nooses were placed around their necks. They leaned into each other and kissed affectionately for the last time, and then black hoods were pulled over their heads. At 10:50, Sheriff Barnard sliced the cord that held the trap door spring.
The Potts were then taken side-by-side to a potter’s field and buried, ironically, near Miles Faucett’s remains. Josiah was 48, Elizabeth, 44.
In the aftermath of the Potts executions, the San Francisco Daily Report delivered a stinging rebuke to its city’s own courtroom climate when it opined: “It is to the credit of Elko, Nevada, that it hangs a woman guilty of murder. It is a dreadful thing to hang a woman, but not so dreadful as for a woman to be a murderer. Evidently, Elko possesses citizens who, when on a jury, have some respect for their oath. In San Francisco, Mrs. Potts would have walked out of court a free woman.”
Many years later, Howard Hickson—at the time director emeritus of the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko—reported the following: “Several years ago, I interviewed Charles Paul Keyser, then in his nineties. He was a teenager when he [shinnied up] a pole to watch the hanging. After he told me the story of the murder and trial, I asked him, ‘This couple was convicted pretty much on circumstantial evidence. Do you think they were guilty?’
“Agitated more than a nonagenarian should risk, he blurted, ‘Hell, yes! Everybody knew they did it!’”
Two months after the execution a story started to circulate that Miles Faucett (Fawcett) had married Elizabeth Potts under the name of Elizabeth Atherton in San Francisco in March, 1887.
A reporter from the San Francisco Examiner found a marriage license was issued on the March 29, 1887, for Miles Fawcett and Elizabeth Atherton, listed as a widow. They were married that same day by a justice of the peace. There was only one witness named Lizzie Thomas.
After the marriage Faucett had Wickliffe Mathews, an attorney investigate her background as he believed, "all was not right." He told the lawyer that he paid Lizzie Thomas a marriage broker, $105 to get him a wife, and that he had married the woman supplied.
The lawyer told him his new wife had a husband named Josiah Potts living in Carlin. Fawcett planned a suit to recover his money, but the $105 was returned.
However it seemed that Mr. Faucett was in love with his new bride, and dropped the legal proceedings against her and took her to his home near Fresno. Afterward he followed her when she returned to her husband at Carlin, which is why he sold his property in California and brought a place close to the Potts family so he could be near her.
Now some wondered if the true motive for the crime was her fear he would disclose she was a bigamist. Supposedly Faucett had blackmailed her about disclosing this information.
Later Judge Reardon from the San Francisco Superior Court said that if she had provided this information about her illegal marriage, it would have the saved the couple from execution.
Elizabeth Potts' hanging marked the first and only time a woman was legally executed in any fashion in the Silver State.
Source - Nevada Magazine
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer