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Rated: 13+ · Non-fiction · Western · #1766476
Discovery of a feud between two families in 1893 in Austin Nevada
Cheated Gallows

In 1893, within the quiet lonesome winds and winter cold of the high desert of northern Nevada, a tragedy occurred touching generations to follow…generations that most likely are not aware of the misfortune cast upon their ancestors before them.

I thought my enjoyment of visiting cemeteries and ghost towns wasn't shared by many around me, but now know I must not be the only one or I wouldn't have stumbled upon the web sites findagrave.com, or ghosttowns.com. Sites like these permeate the Internet validating my interest to family and friends who think it's a little disturbing. 

Because of this disturbing trait, I came across a tombstone in the Austin, Nevada cemetery which made me wonder about the story behind two boys buried in the same grave.  Johnny Litster and his brother Willie Litster died December 28, 1893. 

After a little research cultivating stories from the Reese River Reveille newspaper archives, Newspaperarchive.com and Ancestry.com, as well as a book found in the Austin museum, (Boone Canyon Feud: Escaped Justice by Don Colson), an interesting story of heated calamity emerged.

The story begins with two ranching families, the Litsters and the Vaughn's. Both lived in the Boone Canyon area near Austin, Nevada. The Vaughan's were considered "outsiders" by many principally because the majority of the families in the area immigrated to the United States from Scotland.  The Litster's as well as the Dunsford's, Watt's and Eason's all came to Austin from Scotland and were either relatives or close friends; the Vaughn's moved west from New York.  However, some newspaper articles of the time stated the Vaughn's were pioneers of the community and well respected.  Yet another article tells a different story, at the very least, by their actions, that may be due to the enormous stress thrown upon them by seeing their son's life in jeopardy.

The feud was between the family’s sons, Alfred Vaughn, age 21 and Charlie Vaughn age 24 against Willie Litster age 16 and Johnny Litster age 19.  However, who knows what disagreements were fostered between the adults as well.

The newspapers reported the cause of the feud was the common use of sharing a "gap" or gated fence to access each others property, but there seems to be an underlying cause of this feud of which no one can conclusively write as fact. There is some speculation the disagreement between the boys may also have had something to do with Jane Eason, a young single woman whom after the murders, never married. 


What is known is that Alfred Vaughn, age 24, without provocation, shot and killed Johnny and Willie Litster with an 1873 model Winchester 44-caliber lever action rifle after arguing at the gap.  Alfred's older brother Charlie and Nick Rast age 27, a German miner hired to help haul supplies, accompanied him to the site of the gap which led to a supposed mining claim the Vaughn's owned.  Detouring through the gap took miles off the strenuous wagon trip.  Even though the youngest, Alfred was the dominant figure out of the three because of his volatile nature; so much so that Nick Rast lied for him in the beginning out of fear of retaliation.

Johnny was killed on the spot, and while the culprits rode back to their dwelling to claim self-defense, Willie lay fatally injured, alone, until his father William Litster found him.  Willie lived long enough to tell his family what happened before he succumbed to the gunshot wounds. 

The Reno Evening Gazette, September 6, 1895, reports that two years after his incarceration,  Alfred attempted to escape by sawing through the bars of his cell. Someone in his family smuggled in the saws he used, and he was caught only because his demeanor had changed enough to cause the jailer to investigate his cell.  Alfred had been sawing for awhile, and used soap to fill in the spaces he’d created.  With only a few more scrapes at the bars he would have been free. 

The conviction of Alfred took 3 trials, the last one with a change of venue to Reno.  It was a long and debilitating time for both families. One newspaper article states Mrs. Vaughn went "insane" during this time.  The trials lasted from 1894 to 1896, and in the end Alfred took matters into his own hands and poisoned himself the same day the verdict was handed down, before sentencing commenced.  The Weekly Gazette Stockman reported on April 16, 1896 Alfred Vaughn "cheated the gallows". 

When I think of this, that it really happened, my heart goes out to these families and especially for the boys involved.  Two killed, with the third perhaps getting the worst of it. For Alfred, knowing he had killed two human beings. The feelings of shock he must have experienced immediately afterward and the realization of the finality of his actions as he sat in jail, as well as the consequences for himself, had to have weighed heavy on the young man.

Well of course, I had to find out where this happened, where they lived, where the jail and courthouse was that held these family members hostage to the actions Alfred forced upon them. 

The Vaughan place is about 30 miles outside of Austin. Now, the place has no trespassing signs and I've noticed the road sign noting it as Boone Canyon/Vaughn Ranch has been removed.  I'm sure the owners are discouraging lookie loos, of which I am one. 

Through the years, I've stopped there with my faithful black lab/border collie Annie many times.  One of the outbuildings built of rock and mortar has carvings of other lookie loos leaving their mark in the soft stone.  DH 1937, Jenny 1957, etc., some with dates as old as 1910.  On the header of this building carved in a more professional manner, is J.M. Dias 1902.    Dias, the apparent owner or renter after the Vaughn's moved to Reno, shot and killed his wife there.  The place holds a sad, mysterious aura for me.

Dead silent, with no life present save for the rabbits that occasionally leap through, the buildings stand quietly, hiding the past hostage within their walls.  The house has been added to through the years, with buckling linoleum tiles, rusted pipes, and remnants of electrical outlets. The birds have found refuge here, making it their home now. The outbuildings are built of rock, probably carried in by wagon, and remind me that people worked here, kept their horses here, and played here at one time.  There is a small valley between the homestead and the highway, green with grass in May, a good pasture for cows. 

I lost something there as well. Once again, Annie and I stopped on the road beside the place on our way home from Arizona.  She knew this was where she wouldn’t have to be on a leash, and could run and relieve herself.

Suddenly, a military jet flew overhead, so close to the ground it seemed I could touch the gigantic bottom if I’d have had a pitchfork. The impossibly loud sonic boom blasted us, and Annie was a half-mile away through a field in seconds. 

That was the last time I saw her and wonder daily what happened to her.  Yet another reason to feel sadness and mystery in this place.  I lost a beloved dog there, but not a son…the grief that must live in the Vaughn’s and Litster’s old homesteads. 

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