by Duane Preimsberger


Statehood for California in 1850 brought some unusual challenges to an area now beginning to flood with hordes of gold seekers as well as those who would try to take advantage of these fledgling prospectors. Gamblers, thieves, confidence men, women of ill repute, rustlers and murderers joined the waves of newcomers. County Sheriffs had their hands full trying to deal with all of the problems associated with the explosive growth and it was indeed a very trying task. Supposedly, at that time and for a couple of decades after statehood there was more major crime in California than in all the other states combined.


Southern California and Los Angeles in particular did more than its share to keep the numbers up as hundreds and hundreds of persons landed at the Port of San Pedro where as many as 600 sailing ships arrived each year. The results of this influx could sometimes be seen in the large Zanja that ran through the town of Los Angeles bringing fresh water from the San Gabriel Mountains. Unfortunately, this flowing stream was used for other purposes, sometimes as a sewer or as a receptacle in which to float the bodies of murder victims.


The mantle of Los Angeles County Sheriff had been passed several times when in 1871, former school teacher and ex- U.S. Marshal, James Franklin Burns was elected to that office. Burns looked like anything but a lawman, he was a short, round-bodied man with a quiet demeanor and pleasant face. However, appearances were deceiving and Burns was tenacious and unflagging in his pursuit of bandits and killers. He got a little help from an unusual group that the first L.A. Sheriff, George Burrill, had created. They were known as the Los Angeles Rangers.


Their purpose was to pursue and either arrest or eliminate the murderous bands of bandits that preyed on the citizens of Southern California. Most of the young men in the County who had a horse of their own and money to buy the uniform joined up and they were a sight to behold. This phalanx of young riders armed with lances, swords, pistols and rifles often paraded to their duties. Each of them was dressed in a bright red, band major styled Vicuna hat with gold trim, a fitted light blue, gold trimmed, Charro styled jacket, red waist sash, and light blue trousers with a gold stripe down the outside of the leg that completed the uniform. In spite of their gaudy appearance they managed some successes in their official duties and were responsible for assisting the Sheriff in apprehending or killing a number of outlaws.


Shortly after taking office Sheriff Burns learned that two honest, hard-working brothers had been unceremoniously gunned down on a piece of land they were clearing in the Verdugo Hills, just north-west of the town. The likeable twins, Henry and Oscar Bilderbeck, had been chopping down trees and were selling the wood in order to make payments on the land they were purchasing when they were confronted by their killer. They were first shot and then robbed of their meager possessions and the killer escaped. The Sheriff set out to find the person responsible and after doing some astute investigative work he was able to identify the murderer as David Stevenson, a.k.a. Stephen Samsbury, Buckskin Bill and the most well known of his many monikers, Six-toed Pete.


For months, Burns hunted Six-toed Pete, trailing him around the State, almost capturing him in Lone Pine and again in Temecula only to then lose his trail. Both the State of California and the County of Los Angeles placed rewards for the capture of the killer, dead or alive. Unexpectedly, an informant came forward with a message that Six-toed Pete had crossed the Mexican border into Baja Norte, California with an Indian woman and a baby. Burns got together some of the colorful Rangers and others for a posse and they went in pursuit. The Sheriff managed to convince the Governor of Baja, California to give him the necessary authority to apprehend the killer outside the jurisdiction of the United States. With the documents in hand he and the posse accompanied by a Mexican Federale rode into the hard, desolate desert in search of their man.


The rugged, sometimes impenetrable countryside was without much in the way of roads or trails and water was extremely scarce. Sheriff Burns described the pursuit as the most arduous and difficult of his life. The dry, rugged, punishing ground and scorching sun took a toll on both the men and their horses. Burns and the posse had pursued Six-toed Pete for almost two hundred miles from the border when they learned from local inhabitants that they were nearing their quarry. Burns offered the locals a reward of fifty dollars for the body of the killer, dead or alive and twenty-five dollars for evidence of his death- the six-toed foot.


A few days later, local area reward seekers came upon Six-toed Pete who had camped near a spring in the nearby mountains. They tried to take him alive but as they rushed him, he went for his rifle and in the ensuing struggle he was shot in the stomach with his own gun. He lingered in agony for several hours, all the while begging his captors to end his misery with a bullet to his head but they refused. Once dead, they cut off his six toed foot and buried the remains of his corpse under a pile of rocks.


Sheriff Burns gladly paid the twenty-five dollar reward and placed the foot, toes first in a metal container and then filled it with Mescal, a potent local alcoholic drink that would preserve the evidence on the long trip back to Los Angeles. Wanting to take the easiest and most direct route home, Burns hired a local guide to help them find the path. Even with the guide the return through the Baja desert was another tortuous journey on horseback.


After traveling some 300 miles on the trip north, they found themselves close to the coastline a little over a day’s journey from home when they were enshrouded in a dense fog that made further travel dangerous. They decided to make camp and await the lifting of the fog the next morning before attempting to travel onward. That evening, in the darkness of the flickering campfire, Burns and his men smelled something intermittently that was putrefying and they assumed that they had camped near a dead animal. At first light Burns began searching for the source of the odor and initially, he couldn’t locate it. However, being a good investigator he kept at it and discovered that their guide had been drinking the evidence preserving Mescal. Now, only the toes in the metal container were covered by the powerful brew. Whenever the container lid was lifted and the foot exposed, the odor arose; the guide was fired on the spot and no one kissed him goodbye.


The Sheriff and his posse made it back to Los Angeles where Burns applied for the rewards that had been offered for the capture of Six-toed Pete, dead or alive and the State of California paid off immediately. However, the County Board of Supervisors balked at paying the reward they had offered; they made it clear that they were unsure that the partially pickled, six-toed foot brought back by the Sheriff and the posse from Mexico was that of the wanted outlaw. Finally, after months of wrangling, they accepted the word of the posse that in fact the foot present was in fact from a very dead, Six-toed Pete and the Board paid off the two hundred dollar reward.


Sheriff Burns’s career had both good as well as rotten moments but there is every indication that he enjoyed being a lawman in Los Angeles. After a term as a State Senator in Nebraska he returned to L.A. and became one of the first Chiefs of Police in the newly formed City. When he retired from public life he enjoyed telling stories about some of his escapades as a Los Angeles County Sheriff, Police Chief and U.S. Marshal. His past as a school teacher made him an excellent taleteller and he particularly enjoyed talking about his experiences in Mexico on the trail of Six-toed Pete and the resulting “Preserved Evidence.” James Franklin Burns lived to see his 89th year as a resident in the City of Angels; he died in his home on Burns Avenue, a street named in his honor in 1921.