Laura Ann Slinkard was a younger sister of my great grandmother, Elizabeth Jane “Betty” Slinkard. Betty was born in 1857 to Solomon and Laura Glass Slinkard in Los Angeles. She was the second of nine children: eight girls and two boys. Laura Ann was the 7th born January 1, 1874, in White River, Tulare County, California. By the time Laura rang in the new year, big sister Betty had already been married one year to Alford Pace Ellis and had her first child, Alfred Pelham.
I didn’t know much of anything about Laura. That is until a 3rd cousin, Jill Rozier Shelley, reached out to me in August of 2021 through FamilySearch.com, the Mormon genealogy platform, with an amazing story about our shared relative.
It turns out Laura Slinkard was infamous in Tulare County thanks to a huge public scandal and one of the most followed, salacious trials ever held in their courts. It was April of 1894. Laura, 19, had just delivered her first child, a boy, Delbert. The father, Lee Jackson Danner, who began having “relations” with Laura when she was 14, had broken several promises to consummate the relationship with marriage. When Danner continued to refuse her pleas, Laura took matters into her own hands.
Terry L. Ommen, a well-known Tulare County historian, had stumbled upon Laura’s story and he collaborated with Jill on this article that was published in Lifestyle magazine in January of 2018.
A Perilous Trip to The Altar, by Terry L. Ommen
Exactly how the White River couple first met or how their relationship began is not clear, but Laura Ann Slinkard was only 14 when it started and Lee Jackson Danner was 25.
Since their first contact in this southern Tulare County town in 1890, several marriage dates had been set, but Danner never followed through. So when 19-year-old Slinkard gave birth to their first son in April 1894, she was still waiting for a wedding ring. The baby’s birth obviously did nothing to motivate the reluctant man to the altar, so in her mind, she had no other option than to go to the Tulare County authorities and “swear out” a complaint against Danner charging him with seduction. In her complaint, she claimed that she consented to a physical relationship with him “under the promise of marriage,” and that his refusal to follow through constituted a violation of California law.
Filing criminal charges against him surely strained their relationship and the resulting drama put Visalia at ground zero of one of the most unusual criminal trials in the town’s history.
Slinkard’s felony charge resulted in a warrant issued for Lee Jackson Danner, and in mid-April 1894 the defiant man was arrested. On April 19, a preliminary hearing was held in a Porterville courtroom with Deputy District Attorney William H. Alford in charge of the prosecution. During a lull in the proceedings, Danner walked out and rode off on horseback, with several men chasing him. He was eventually taken into custody and the judge found that there was enough evidence for a trial. Danner was released on $5,000 bond pending the December court appearance.
On December 3, 1894, the trial began in Visalia’s Superior Court Department 2, with Judge Wheaton Gray presiding. Alford, assisted by Theodore S. Shaw of Porterville, represented the People, and Alfred Daggett and D.M. Adams were counsel for Danner.
After jury selection, more than four dozen witnesses took the stand, including Slinkard, who told her “story of shame.” The courtroom was packed with spectators as the defense grilled her. Several witnesses testified that she had prior illicit relationships with other men, which if true, showed that she was not of “previous chaste character,” a requirement for conviction. Spectators listened intently to the salacious testimony. The courtroom was full each day of the trial, and a newspaper reporter observed that virtually all were men.
The trial lasted for 12 days and ended with both sides giving lengthy closing arguments. Alford addressed the court for more than five hours. Those who heard his oratory called it forceful, eloquent and powerful, describing it as a “tongue lashing” of Danner. Defense attorney Daggett spoke for more than two hours and those who heard his closing argument called it “the most powerful address ever delivered to a jury on behalf of defendant…” On December 18, the case was given to the jury.
It did not take jurors long. By the next morning, they had a unanimous decision. “We the jury find the defendant guilty,” reported the jury foreman. Danner turned pale. A sentencing date was calendared for Dec. 27, and Danner’s bail was set at $10,000. He couldn’t immediately make bail, so he was locked up in a room at the Palace Hotel, a place considered by authorities to be safer confinement than the county jail because of recent jail escapes. Soon, a relative of Danner posted his bond and he was released.
Immediately after the guilty verdict, Danner, his friends and family members, as well as Slinkard, began talking about a plan for the future. The attorneys soon entered the discussion and an agreement was reached between the couple. Danner agreed to marry Slinkard and he signed a contract that bound him to live with his bride and support their child fro two years. With the agreement in place, the attorneys requested that Judge Gray delay the sentencing date and he agreed, setting the new one for Jan. 3, 1895.
On the evening of December 28, just after 6 p.m., a small and quiet wedding took place at the Visalia House, with Methodist preacher Edmonds officiating. The couple was finally joined in matrimony. The convicted Danner was anxious to announce the good news to the judge, in hopes of receiving leniency.
On Jan. 3, Danner and his attorney Adams appeared in court for sentencing and quickly announced the marriage, anticipating a favorable reaction from the judge. Gray was not swayed by the hasty act. Danner was given a choice of either paying a fine of $2,050 or being incarcerated for 1,025 days or nearly three years. The fine represented the actual cost of the trial and Gray made it clear that he was not interested in Tulare County taxpayers footing the bill. Danner was remanded to the sheriff while he considered his options.
When Danner was asked about the sentence, he said, “This is pretty tough, and it hurts my wife as well as me now.” He admitted that he was hoping the marriage would have earned him clemency.
On Jan. 11, Danner’s two brothers, John and Jeff, arrived in Visalia with a bag of $20 gold pieces. They paid their brother’s fine and he was released from custody. The convicted man’s debt was paid, and he left Visalia for his home in the Kings County town of Grangeville to be with his new wife and child. This ended one of the most sensational cases ever tried in Tulare County and one of the most bizarre outcomes ever seen in Visalia.
The couple’s life together from that point on is sketchy. But the union resulted in at least four children. Laura died in 1903 at the age of 29. Why she passed away at such a young age is not known. Lee Danner died in 1941 at the age of 76.
I would like to acknowledge the research help I received for this story from Jill Rozier Shelley of Clovis. She was very generous and provided valuable information on family history and photographs. Thank you so much, Jill.
Postcript from Jill Rozier Shelley
This is a photo taken after Laura died of Lee Jackson Danner surrounded by their children.
Lorita had a twin sister who either died at birth or early on.
I don’t see how it could have been a happy marriage.
I also feel the need to add this: Laura’s mom died when she was 14, and her dad died the following year. That’s a lot of trauma for a young girl. Right in the middle of Laura becoming an orphan, along comes this man 10 years older who gives her attention and promises for a future. Laura’s younger siblings went to live with her older sister (my great grandmother). Laura chose Lee Jackson Danner.
Delbert Irwin Danner
Laura and Lee Danner’s first child, Delbert Irwin Danner, became a very successful rancher, businessman and homebuilder. He oversaw orange groves in Southern California before moving to Merced where he owned a tavern, operated a taxi company and, together with a partner, built hundreds of homes in Merced.
What about Lee Jackson Danner?
Lee Jackson Danner was from a good family. His father, Nathan, and his siblings were very successful and highly regarded. Nathan was an early California pioneer, coming by wagon train from Missouri in search of gold in 1849. He had some success and parlayed that into a mercantile business in Stanislaus County. He returned to Missouri in 1853 via steamship, traversing Panama, and got married and began his family. He and his young family returned to California, once again by steamship in 1857. Despite serious setbacks caused by the Great Flood of 1862 – Wikipedia in the Central Valley, Nathan was a cattleman in Kern County for many years.
Lee Jackson’s oldest brother, John, was a rancher and cattleman, and also owned a mercantile business in Tulare County. His next oldest brother, Jefferson Davis, was a college graduate, accountant, and owned the J.E. Richardson general store in Glennville, Kern County, where he was also the Postmaster. Jefferson was also an avid genealogist. It was John and Jefferson who paid Lee’s $2,050 fine with a sack of $20 gold pieces to spring him from jail so he could be reunited with his new bride and son.
Lee’s older sister, Minerva, married Tom Flippen who was a successful cattleman, businessman, and orange grove operator in Fresno, Tulare, and Orange Counties. Minerva took over the operation of the orange groves upon her husband’s death.
By 1910, Lee had moved to Orange County with his four children. He owned his own home and was a farm laborer. By 1920 he and his youngest child, Guenevire, had moved in with his sister, Minerva, in Orange. In 1925, Lee married Georgia Dunagan Henderson, 31 years his junior. Lee, Georgia and her two children from a previous marriage moved to Nuevo in Riverside County where Lee was a real estate broker. Lee and Georgia had a son in 1929, Jefferson Davis Danner.
Lee Jackson Danner died in 1941 at the age of 76. According to his obituary, he remained close with his children and the nieces and nephews of his siblings.
Was it unusual that Laura Ann was so young when she began her relationship with Lee Jackson?
That Laura married a much older man and began a relationship at a young age was not an anomaly in this family or for that matter most families back then. Her father, Solomon, was 25 when he married 14-year-old Laura Ann Glass in 1855, and they had their first child, William, that same year. Laura’s oldest sister, Betty (b. 1857), was 15 years old when she married Alfred Pace Ellis in 1873. Their 1st child, Pelham, was born 8 months later. Tragically, Pelham and his younger brother, Henry, died of diphtheria in 1878 at the ages of 5 and 3.
Jill Shelley’s great grandmother, Ellen Melvinia Slinkard (b.1860), married a first cousin, Richard Johnson Slinkard, 15 years her senior. And another sister, Mary (b. 1861), married a man 20 years older than she.
This was 150 years ago. Things were different and times were hard. Children were expected to leave home early. Boys were turned out in their teens after, maybe, completing the 8th grade, to find work and earn money. Girls were expected to marry early, begin raising a family, and ease the burden on their parents’ household.