Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
t was hard to believe that Edward Morrell, the man who was nearly killed by lawmen in Visalia, was coming back to town. After all, he didn’t have fond memories of the place that gave him so much grief. In fact, he described Visalia as having a “hard reputation” and wrote that “more questionable characters lived there than any other place of equal size in the world.”
So why was he returning? It was simple. He was coming back to sell his recently published book and to prepare for a motion picture that was going to be based on it.
The story of Edward Morrell is oftentimes overshadowed by the other two local outlaw celebrities operating about the same time, Chris Evans and John Sontag. So it’s time to give this lesser-known character in Visalia’s past the recognition he deserves.
Morrell was born in Pennsylvania in about 1868 and made his way to California in about 1891. Two years later, he was in Fresno. In December 1893, while Visalia bandit Chris Evans was awaiting sentencing for murder in the Fresno County Jail, Morrell was working as a waiter in the nearby Quinby House restaurant. His job required that he occasionally bring meals to Evans in his cell. One evening after conspiring with the convicted man’s daughter, Morrell delivered dinner to Evans, but this time the meal included an additional course, a hidden pistol. Evans escaped from jail, with Morrell tagging along. Outside, they were confronted by Fresno city Marshal John Morgan, who was shot and wounded in the resulting struggle. Before fleeing, Morrell took the wounded lawman’s pistol, and Evans and Morrell became wanted fugitives. In February 1894, they secretly traveled to Visalia, the home of Evans’ family. Thanks to an informant, lawmen found them and negotiations began. Seeing the futility of their situation, the two surrendered rather than face what would have been certain death.
Evans was sentenced to life in state prison for the earlier murder, and in 1894, Morrell was given a life sentence for stealing Morgan’s pistol and other crimes.
According to Morrell, during his 14 years of confinement, he was tortured and spent long periods in solitary confinement. In 1907, he applied for a governor’s pardon and, the following year, he was granted his freedom.
After his release, he spent much of his time publicly advocating for more humane prison conditions and penal system reform. He lectured in playhouses and churches with the purpose of “awakening the conscience of a lethargic world to the horrors and brutalities of our jails.…”
And Visalia was included on the lecture circuit. On the evening of March 4, 1912, Morrell and a fellow prison reformer, Donald Lowrie, presented a one-night program at the Visalia Opera House. They called it “The Reform of the Hour” and charged 25 cents to attend.
During the event, Morrell gave a graphic account of the treatment of those incarcerated in state prison and displayed what he called “the implements of torture employed at state prisons.” The “fair-sized” audience seemed to enjoy the program as Morrell gave a detailed account of the “Sontag & Evans Episode.” He even included “humorous” stories about his role in Evans’ Fresno jail escape. Following the program, the Visalia Morning Delta seemed to agree with the two reformers, editorializing that “California treats its prisoners like wild beasts and keeps them caged, idly and uselessly chewing the cud of resentment against the society which placed them there.…”
While on the speaking circuit, Morrell won over more sympathetic ears with politicians, newspapermen and celebrities. One was popular American writer Jack London, author of “The Call of the Wild” and other books. In 1915, the noted writer also wrote “The Star Rover,” a fiction novel based on Morrell’s prison experience that made him into a hero.
In 1924, Morrell wrote his own book, calling it “The Twenty-Fifth Man,” subtitled “The Strange Story of Ed Morrell, the Hero of Jack London’s ‘Star Rover.’” The autobiography explained his friendship with Evans, their exploits together and his account of his 14 years of inhumane treatment while in state prison.
In the 1920s, Morrell was living in Southern California and mingling with Hollywood film types and entertainers. He even dressed in the clothing of an “early west” character and was a familiar figure around Hollywood movie studios. Apparently, it was there that he teamed up with screenwriter Burl Tuttle and the two began to actively work on a screen version of “The Twenty-Fifth Man.”
In April and May of 1929, Morrell came back to Visalia to interview old-timers and visit locations pertinent to his story. There was even some talk that he might do some of the writing, directing and even acting in the film. And while in town, he found time to sell and autograph his books.
The newspaper would regularly update its readers about the progress of the movie. By October, the Visalia Times-Delta announced that the film production was moving along quickly and, according to Tuttle, it would be ready for viewing on about April 1, 1930.
But the news coverage included some “alarm bells” about the film’s public acceptance. Tuttle said some newspapers “have ventured vigorously to denounce this work.…” He added that the movie project had been criticized for not having enough “curls, sex appeal, situations, suspense, excitement….”
As April 1, 1930, arrived, the local newspaper fell silent about the production. It seemed that the coverage on that day and after totally disappeared. In fact, I can find no evidence that the movie was ever made. Was it finished later, or was the project abandoned totally?
In 1946, Ed Morrell died of pneumonia in Los Angeles at the age of 78. His obituary appeared in the Visalia Times-Delta, but there was no mention of a film.
If anyone has information about his mystery movie, please let me know. What a treat it would be to see it. By the way, a few copies of Morrell’s “The Twenty-Fifth Man” can still be found. It is a very interesting book — an important part of Visalia and Tulare County history.