Herbert Nicholls, Jr.
Washington's Youngest Convicted Murder
YOUTH CONFESSES SLAYING SHERIFF
12 Year Old Lad Said Not Responsible Mentally
Asotin, Wash., Oct. 27-Hubert Niccolls, 12-year-old barefoot boy slayer of Sheriff John Wormell, took the stand in his own defense late in today's session of his first degree murder trial and admitted shooting down the 72-year-old officer, corroborating in detail the statements of officers who arrested him.
Dr. John M. Semple, Spokane alienist, then testified for the defense, saying the boy suffered from a constitutional brain weakness, but that he was not definitely insane at the present time.
The defense pleaded not guilty because of mental irresponsibility. Mrs. Marie Addington, grandmother of Hubert, declared that "he was possessed of a demon."
Taking the stand as chief defense witness, the aged woman sorrowfully traced a streak of insanity that runs through the family saying her mother and her son, "the boy's father," were confined in insane asylums.
Mrs. Addington declared that on the day before the Sheriff was killed the lad asked her to read him the first six chapters of the Book of Joshua in the Old Testament. The biblical drama related that Hebrew spies entered the city with the help of Rahab, followed by "40,000 prepared for war," who marched around Jericho blowing trumpets, then attacked and "utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old...with the edge of the sword," then looted and burned the town.
After hearing this, the grandmother said, Hubert left home, carrying a pistol he had stolen. [October 28, 1931, Nevada State Journal - Sub. by Shauna Williams]
HOME LIFE OF BOY ENTERS THE TRIAL
Asotin, Wash.- Harmonica in hand, Hubert Niccolls, 12 year old killer enjoyed himself today as his trial for the slaying of Sheriff John Wormell neared the end.
Almost all the testimony for and against the frail boy who admitted robbing a store and shooting down the aged police officer was in the record. Hubert pleaded insanity.
"I saw some tobacco through the window," Hubert testified yesterday, "and I wanted it. So I broke the pane and went in. I was filling a sack with tobacco and gum when I heard the door rattle" Then followed a calm admission of the slaying, but the boy added. "I did not wan t to shoot him."
Describing his home life, Hubert said he was given little to eat, few clothes and said his parents, both of whom became inmates of insane asylums, quarreled frequently. He said he liked to read books and magazines about Boy Scouts, adding "They are good for boys to read"
Dr. John M. Semple, alienist, pronounced Hubert a constitutional psychopath, but said he was not insane. Dr. W.J. Sherfey county healthy officer, said Hubert's lack of of emotion and remorse for the slaying indicated he was insane. [October 28, 1931, The Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh Wisconsin - Sub. by Shauna Williams]
YOUNG SLAYER NOW IN PRISON
Walla Walla, Wash., Oct. 30-Twelve year old Hubert Niccolls, slayer of Sheriff John Worwell[sic] of Asotin county, today began a life sentence behind prison bars with his cornet and harmonica among his belongings.
After being sentenced at Asotin the boy was brought here late yesterday and in a short time when through the usual prison procedure for new inmates.
"We will take good care of him," Warden Clarence E. Long said.
With a smile on his face, the boy, youngest person ever to be brought here for a sentence, appeared before Warden Long. He carried his cornet in one hand and had a harmonica tucked away in a pocket.
"He showed little emotion," Warden Long continued, "but was a little curious when escorted within the institution."
The boy will be placed in a separate cell, away from other inmates. A medical examination and mentality tests will be given him within the next few days. He will have no young playmates, only prison employees to watch him in his daily exercise. An instructor will give him school lessons. [October 30, 1931, Reno Evening Gazette, Reno Nevada - Sub. by Shauna Williams]
CHILDISH MURDERER WOULD REFORM; FATHER FLANAGAN ANXIOUS TO TAKE BOY OF 12
Walla Walla, Wash., Oct. 30-The youthful Hubert Niccolls, --o at the age of 12 faces a life sentence behind prison bars, today ---d a fatherly prison official that henceforth he wanted "to do the right thing."
In his first day of penitentiary --e, to which he was sentenced for the shooting of Sheriff John Wormell, of Asotin, when Wormell ---nd him robbing a store, the boy had a long talk with Hans Damm, assistant prison superintendent.
WOULD BE GOOD BOY
"I'm sorry for what I did," the boy sobbed. "I--I didn't intend it should happen. Now I want to do the right thing."
Later, after he had taken his exercises, which hereafter will be a part of his daily prison routine, he became more cheerful.
During the day, Warden Clarence E. Long described the request of a Catholic priest in Nebraska to be given custody of the lad, as "impossible." The offer was made yesterday by the Rev. Father E.J. Flanagan, of Omaha.
The law has taken its course, Warden Long said, and even if he did approve such action, he could do nothing. He said he did not care to comment further.
NEVER HAD A CHANCE
Father Flanagan said in his message, addressed to counsel who defended the boy during his trial, that he believed the lad "has never been given a chance."
In addition to playing his harmonica and cornet, which young Niccolls brought to the prison with him, the boy revealed today that he likes to play checkers and dominoes.
He told Assistant Superintendent Damm, the man said later, that he couldn't play them alone, however.
"Maybe you'll play them with me?" he asked.
"We're going to give this boy every opportunity," Damm commented later.
"He seems bright enough. He's a problem, all right. We can't treat him as we might a man. We must assume more of a fatherly attitude towards him."
[October 31, 1931, The Helena Independent, Helena Montana - Sub. by Shauna Williams]
JURIST WOULD HANG BOY GIVEN LIFE FOR MURDER
Despite Tender Age; 12 Year Old Hubert Niccolls, Slayer of A Sheriff, Should Suffer Ultimate Penalty, Kenneth Mackintosh Says.
Sentenced to spend the rest of his life in Washington State prison, 12 year old Hubert Niccolls, who killed John Wormley as the latter surprised him in the act of holding up a store, may consider himself lucky that Kenneth Mackintosh was not his judge. Mr. Mackintosh, a jurist and member of the famous Wickersham Commission, is emphatically of the opinion that the lad should have been hanged, reasoning that he will always be a criminal and a menace to society. On the other hand, Warden Lewis H. Lawes, of Sing Sing Prison, New York, considers the verdict a just one, holding the belief that the boy's execution would not deter other potential murders. Mr. Lawes is of the opinion that it is not necessary to keep the boy in prison for life, as there is a possibility of making him a good citizen. [November 5, 1931, Sheboygan Press, Sheboygan Wisconsin - Sub. by Shauna Williams]
(Photo: Top-Hubert Niccolls and Grandmother. Bottom Left-Warden L.H. Lawes. Bottom Right-Kenneth Mackintosh.)
YOUTHFUL CRIME AND COMMUNITY GUILT
When a 12 year old boy steals a revolver, breaks into a shop with evident intent to rob and then kills an aged sheriff when disturbed by that official, the community in which the boy lived has an unusual and troublesome problem to solve.
Such an event occurred at Asotin, Washington and the youth, Hubert Niccolls, was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to the state penitentiary at Walla Walla for life.
The court and the jury apparently were convinced that the element of individual responsibility was vital and that the boy in his present stage of development was a menace to society.
But that this 12 year old boy should have been hanged for his crime is almost unthinkable. Yet Judge Kenneth Mackintosh, member of the Wickersham crime commission and former justice of the state supreme court, was of this opinion. "The boy undoubtedly always will be a criminal, a continued menace to society," he said, "and it is reasonable to expect that at some future time he will again be at liberty. He should have been hanged."
In the salvage of this boy's life, his community had a definite obligation to meet. To hang him and then forget it would have been the easy way out. To sentence him to prison for life with the future possibility of parole if proper instruction should accomplish what might reasonably be expected, should keep the community mindful of its obligation-which is the search for cause of such a crime as well as the reform of the youthful offended.
"He who does not prevent a crime is guilty of it." This pre-adolescent youth was not more guilty than his parents and the kind of hom training he had or the possible influence of boy companions, or the community environment which brought him to such a pass.
The responsibility of the community does not end with his conviction. It has just begun. Much could be written about the increase of youthful crime since the war. The growth of organized banditry due to changed social conditions, the flagrant display of crime motion pictures and the casting of murderous gun-toters and infamous crooks in the roles of gallant outlaws, have all had their influence in lessening the value of human life in the minds of impressionable and susceptible youths.
The crime of the Washington boy may well serve as an incentive to his community to give introspective study of its own negligence and guilt. (November 5, 1931, Appleton Post Crescent, Appleton Wisconsin - Sub. by Shauna Williams]
WOULD HELP BOY
Responsive cords of sympathy in many hearts were touched the other day by the kindly offer of Rev. E.J. Flanagan of Omaha to take the 12-year-old boy, Hubert Niccolls, serving a life sentence in the Washington state prison for shooting dead a sheriff, place him in a boys' home at Omaha, headed by Father Flanagan, and make an effort to train him to become a God-fearing, law-abiding and useful man.
There are people who will agree with Father Flanagan that "no 12 year old boy can be a murderer at heart even though he has killed," or in other words that no boy of that age, even though he fully understands that it is wrong to kill, is sufficiently developed mentally to fully or even greatly appreciate the heinousness, cruelty and deliberate malice in what the world recognizes as murder committed by an adult.
Father Flanagan left Omaha for Washington to ask the Governor to parole the boy into his hands for the purpose stated. Even though it be admitted that deplorable leniency toward criminals and failure to enforce the climinall[sic] laws in America, is largely accountable for the widespread crime, it is hard to see what good it will do to keep this boy behind prison walls all his life, and set aside what seems an opportunity to save him from such a terrible fate and make a good man of him. [November 21, 1931, Helena Independent, Helena Montana - Sub. by S. Williams]
NOTED PRIEST TO TRY TO HELP BOY SLAYER
Seattle, Nov. 21-Father E.J. Flanagan, famed "boy's friend" of Omaha, Neb., said tonight he would confer here tomorrow with Governor Hartley over the case of Hubert Niccolls, 12 year old boy slayer.
Father Flanagan, founder and head of a Middlewest boy's school, who made the trip to the Northwest after requesting the boy be placed in his care, explained that he had requested an interview with the governor. [November 22, 1931. Helena Independent, Helena Montana - Submitted by Shauna Williams]
YOUNG KILLER GETS FREEDOM
Walla Walla, Wash. July 18-Hubert Niccolls, 14, burglar who killed a sheriff two years ago, saw new hope today, for the Governor, the Lieutenant-Governor and others have interested themselves in his release. Gov. Clarence D. Martin from Olympia announced that after two visits to the boy who slew Sheriff John Wormell of Asotin County, he had decided to appoint a clinic of experts to examine the boy and determine whether he would not be of more value to society in a training school with the possibility of parole ahead, than serving a life sentence. The boy, interested in music and aviation, was delighted by a visit of Lieut. Gov. Victor A. Meyers, who left his dance band in Seattle -----Victor Junior.
[July 18, 1933, Oakland Tribune, Oakland California - Submitted by Shauna Williams]
LIFE TERM PRISONER REACHES 18TH BIRTHDAY
WALLA WALLA, June 28. — Hubert Niccols, who entered the Washington state prison October 29, 1931, as the killer of the Asotin county sheriff, John Wormell, will be 18 years of age Tuesday, the day Governor Clarence D. Martin will celebrate his birth anniversary. This evening Warden J. M. McGauley declared young Niccols' birthday will be spent just like any day behind the bars. It will be the youth's sixth prison birthday with many more staring him in the face. He is serving a life term. [Spokesman-review ; 29 June 1937 - Sub. by K.T.]
GETS DIPLOMA IN PRISON
Hubert Niccolls Serving Life Term for Murder.
Walla Walla, Wash.-Hubert Niccolls, 18, received his high school diploma in the first commencement program ever held inside state prison here. Supt. W.A. Lacey gave the address; H.R. Holm, school board chairman, presented the certificate and the prison orchestra supplied music. Niccolls was 12 when he killed Sheriff John Wormell of Asotin county. He was sent to prison for life. During the last six years he has advanced from the sixth grade thru high school and has started an extension course thru Washington State College.[June 3, 1938, Evening State Journal, Lincoln Nebraska - Submitted by Shauna Williams]
The following is from the "Free Online Encyclopedia of the State of Washington":
Twelve-year-old Herbert Niccolls Jr. shoots and kills Asotin County Sheriff John Wormell on August 5, 1931.
On August 5, 1931, 12-year-old Herbert Niccolls Jr. (1919-1983) shoots and kills Asotin County Sheriff John Wormell (1859?-1931). The case attracts national attention. Niccolls receives life in prison at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla, but is pardoned in 1941. He goes on to live a successful, crime-free life before dying in 1983. Wormell remains the only officer in Asotin County as of today (2006) to lose his life in the line of duty.
A Harsh Childhood
Twelve-year-old Herbert Niccolls Jr., had lived a hard life before August 5, 1931. Believed to have been born in Boise in 1919, he lived in several foster homes and later at the St. Anthony Reform School in southeastern Idaho during the 1920s. By age 12 he had committed a series of offenses, including setting fire to a church and multiple counts of theft.
By his 12th birthday in June 1931, "Junior," as the boy was called, was living in Asotin with his paternal grandmother, Mary Addington. Addington was a strict disciplinarian who, by some accounts, routinely beat Herbert with a club for the slightest infraction. On August 4, Niccolls ran away from his grandmother’s home, carrying a .32-caliber Iver-Johnson pistol that he had recently stolen.
About 1 a.m. on August 5, Niccolls broke into Peter Klaus’s People’s Supply Store in Asotin, intending to steal candy and cigarettes. But within minutes Sheriff John Wormell knocked on the door at the front of the store. Wormell was a 72-year-old former state representative, four-term sheriff, and descendant of one of the first settlers in Asotin County. “Come on out,” he said. “I am the sheriff of Asotin County”(Lewiston Tribune).
Receiving no response, Wormell entered the store. With him was Peter Klaus, the store owner. Waiting outside were Deputy Charlie Carlisle and Deputy Sheriff Wayne Bezona. Wormell and Klaus began to search the store. Someone turned on the light. Niccolls, hiding behind a vinegar barrel, panicked. He jumped to his feet and fired at Wormell, who was standing less than five feet away. The bullet struck Wormell in the head, killing him instantly: "Wormell fell in his tracks without an outcry, his gun in his hand” (Lewiston Tribune).
Arrest and Trial
Niccolls was taken to the Asotin County Jail. However, Deputy Sheriff Wayne Bezona, fearing the boy might be taken from the jail and lynched, quickly moved him to the Garfield County Jail in Pomeroy, nearly 40 miles away.
Niccolls, at four feet, eight inches, and 60 pounds, looked even younger than age 12. He became known as the “barefoot boy murderer,” as he was barefoot when he shot the sheriff. Reports claimed that he had not owned a pair of shoes in two years.
With the exception of a brief return to Asotin on September 3 for his arraignment (he pled not guilty due to mental irresponsibility), Niccolls remained in Pomeroy until his trial.
The trial began in Asotin on October 26, 1931. For Asotin County, it was the trial of the century. The courthouse was full, and the Methodist Church down the street sold fried chicken lunches to the crowd. Dozens of reporters from various newspapers shouted questions at Niccolls as he walked from the police car into the courtroom.
During the trial Clarkston attorney Ed Doyle argued that Niccolls was not guilty due to insanity. Prosecutor Elmer Halsey rebutted Doyle’s argument by producing a doctor as an expert witness who testified that Niccolls was a constitutional psychopath, but not insane. "This type, because of their high intelligence, are extremely dangerous. They are not safe to be at large. They can never recover because of an inherited trait" (Lewiston Tribune). Even Niccolls's grandmother, testifying on his behalf, hurt his case by testifying that she believed him to be possessed by a demon.
The case went to the jury on October 27. After deliberating for three hours, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Although the prosecution had asked for the death penalty, the following day Judge Elgin Kuykendahl sentenced Niccolls to life in prison. Niccolls became the youngest person in the state of Washington to receive a life sentence and was sent to the state penitentiary in Walla Walla.
Supporters and Detractors
Father E. J. Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, was moved by an account he read of the trial and conviction. He mounted a public campaign and gave a speech on Niccolls's behalf on national radio on the night of November 12. Flanagan urged his listeners to write to Washington Governor Roland Hartley and ask that Niccolls be paroled to Boys Town, and many did. Hartley was said to have bitterly resented the pressure.
Also joining in the call for Niccolls's parole was Armene Lamson of Seattle. She was a prominent member of Seattle society and a devoted crusader for child welfare. She successfully urged Flanagan to visit Seattle to argue his case. Flanagan spoke at a dinner at the Washington Athletic Club and promised to personally supervise Niccolls’s training and education if he came to Boys Town.
In Asotin, sentiment was decidedly against Niccolls’s early parole: The Asotin Chamber of Commerce issued a proclamation asking that he not be freed under any circumstances, and the Asotin Town Council made a similar resolution. Wormell’s family took no stand on the matter.
On December 20, 1931, Governor Hartley denied the request for Niccolls's parole. When Clarence Martin was elected governor in 1932, Flanagan and his supporters hoped that the new governor would parole Niccolls to Boy Town.
Martin did not immediately parole Niccolls when he assumed office in 1933. But he did take a more personal interest in the case than Hartley had. Martin began visiting Niccolls in prison and followed his case through the 1930s.
Life in Prison
Niccolls flourished in the structured prison environment. He became an avid reader and was gifted in math. He received homework weekly from the Walla Walla School District, and in 1938 received his high school diploma. He subsequently took correspondence classes from Washington State College while still in prison.
Governor Martin pardoned Niccolls in 1941. During most of his 10 years in Walla Walla, Niccolls had not been kept with the general population. Initially kept in a prison cell, he later stayed in a specially built hut built near a guard tower, where he was alone at night, separated from the other prisoners. He ate his meals with officers instead of inmates, did not have to wear the denim prison uniform, and received tutoring from other prison inmates.
After a brief, unsuccessful start at a bakery job just after his release from prison, Niccolls worked in the accounting department of a Tacoma shipyard, and there he excelled. He subsequently moved to California and joined the accounting department at MGM, and later worked for 20th Century Fox in Hollywood. He married and had a son, John.
Herbert Niccolls died of a heart attack in 1983, having lived a crime-free life since his parole 42 years earlier.
historylink.org, the Free Online Encyclopedia of the State of Washington, creative common license, HistoryLink File #7634
Their sources for the above article included:
Vic Deering, “It Was A Tragic Night In Asotin Back in 1931,” Lewiston Tribune, May 1, 1991, p. 1-A; Elaine Williams, “Slain Asotin County Sheriff To Receive State’s Highest Honor; Award Today Won’t Bring Closure For Family,” Ibid., May 11, 1998, p. 1-A; Nancy Bartley, “A Single Gunshot Echoes Through Asotin County,” Ibid., November 25, 1999, p. 11-A; Nancy Bartley, “Boy In Safekeeping As County Mourns Its Loss,” Ibid., November 26, 1999, p.1-A; Nancy Bartley, “After A Quick Trial, Boy Gets Life At Walla Walla,” Ibid., November 27, 1999, p.1-A; Nancy Bartley, “A Seed Grows In Prison,” Ibid., November 28, 1999, p. 1-A; Nancy Bartley, “Tender Mercies,” The Seattle Times Pacific Northwest Magazine, June 20, 2004, website accessed January 29, 2006; (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com). The Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc., website accessed January 29, 2006 (http://www.odmp.org/agency.php?agencyid=168). By Phil Dougherty, February 04, 2006
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