The Murder of Assemblyman Bell

There are some stories that should have more staying power. One mostly forgotten story that falls into that category is the brutal murder of Assemblyman John C. Bell in 1860. What makes it particularly noteworthy is that the murder was carried out by a fellow legislator, that it occurred on the floor of the State Assembly, and that the house was in session at the time.

During the session on Wednesday, April 11th, the legislature was working hard to pass a number of bills before the year’s scheduled adjournment on Friday. Although the bills being debated covered any number of subjects, the bill that Assemblyman William H. Stone brought up was particularly contentious. It proposed to change the boundary between El Dorado and Sacramento Counties in a way that would have drawn Bell outside of El Dorado County (and out of the Assembly district he represented). The fact that Stone, the author of the legislation, was also from El Dorado County and a political rival of Bell indicates that the bill was probably more ‘political’ than ‘policy’.

When Assemblyman Stone stood to address the house, Bell shouted “Doctor, I am going to defeat your measure.” In the words of the current generation; “GAME ON!” The comment apparently started a heated exchange that continued until the two were removed to the office of the Assembly Sergeant-at-Arms. After entering the room, just off the Assembly Floor, Bell reached into his pants pocket to remove a paper and Stone, fearing that Bell was drawing a pistol (keep in mind that this was still in many ways the “Wild West”) pulled his own gun and fired six times. Amazingly, in a testament to Stone’s poor shooting skills, all six shots missed Bell in the small room. Bell then advanced on Stone, and began hitting him. Stone dropped his pistol, pulled out a knife, and stabbed Bell several times.

After being stabbed, Bell stumbled out onto the Assembly Floor, saying “I am cut!” He was transported out of the Capitol and died four days later on April 15. A grand jury was convened to determine whether White Stone should be charged with murder, they ruled that he had acted in his own defense. Stone served for the rest of his term, and the State of California later appropriated $1,000 to cover the costs of his burial at Sacramento City Cemetery.

The Grave of California Assemblyman John C. Bell (April 2012)

Assemblyman John C. Bell

Updated 4/17/2012: Corrected the Stone’s name in the last paragraph. Good evidence that writers should only focus on one thing at a time.