Back in the Day

Financial dispute led to Johnston native's slaying

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In Lone Mountain Cemetery in San Francisco, California, lies murder victim Andrew Randall.

Born in Johnston in 1819, he lived long enough to learn that money is indeed the root of all evil.

The son of Samuel Randall and Marcy (Thornton), Andrew was living in Kentucky when he married Elizabeth Todd in 1844. The couple relocated to California, where Andrew worked as a medical doctor and geologist, eventually founding the California Academy of Science. Greatly successful in his career, he accumulated impressive wealth, which he spent purchasing a variety of ranches and parcels of land.

By 1854, however, he found himself unable to financially support all of his holdings and arranged to borrow $20,000 from Joseph Hetherington, another man of rich means, who had come to San Francisco in 1849. In his mid-30s and originally from Louisiana, Joseph was tall and handsome with wavy black hair, a thick beard and the finest of clothes. People liked him, and that earned him a lot of privileges.

The previous year, Joseph had entered into a land dispute with a Dr. Baldwin. By some error, both men held the deed to a certain tract of land. When Dr. Baldwin took it upon himself to erect a fence around the property, Joseph was furious and issued more than a few threats.

Fearing for his life, the doctor brought a gun with him when he visited the property. On one occasion, however, he left the gun sitting atop the fence while he and his entourage enjoyed what he deemed to be his property. Joseph showed up, grabbed the gun and threatened that anyone who didn’t vacate the property would be shot. Dr. Baldwin paid no attention. Joseph pulled the trigger, but it stuck. He then slipped a revolver out of his pocket and shot the doctor in the arm.

Dr. Baldwin realized Joseph wasn’t issuing idle threats, and he ran toward the fence and tried to climb over it. But Joseph shot again, hitting him in the back. Dr. Baldwin died three days later.

Joseph had immediately gone to police after the showdown and announced, “I shot Dr. Baldwin.” Now that he was dead, a murder trial would go into effect. The proceedings were brief and, probably as he expected, Joseph was found not guilty.

Andrew Randall had handed Joseph the mortgage to a large parcel of land as a sort of promise that he would pay him back the $20,000 by a certain date. When the terms weren’t meant, Joseph began legal proceedings to have the land transferred into his own name. Andrew was greatly distraught by this and took every delay tactic he could find to court with him, promising Joseph that if he just waited a short while longer, he would get his money.

But time lagged on, and Joseph finally threatened that if he didn’t get the money or the land soon, he would shoot Andrew. Scared for his life, Andrew took his family and snuck out of town. When Joseph learned of this, his anger boiled over. He waited for Andrew to return and, eventually, he did.

Andrew was sitting inside the bar of the St. Nicholas Hotel on the afternoon of July 24, 1856, when Joseph suddenly walked in. He stormed up to him and grabbed him by the beard as he shouted insults.

Andrew pulled out a gun, but he was not quick enough. Joseph pulled out his own gun and fired five shots, the last one passing right through Andrew’s brain. He died the following morning.

Joseph’s wealth and popularity didn’t save him this time. In the days to come, a gallows was erected on a public street and crowds gathered to watch Joseph Hetherington be executed for murdering Dr. Andrew Randall.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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