The Demise of Bad Man Sam Brown
Legend has it that by the year of 1861, Sam Brown was the worst desperado Virginia City had ever known. He stood 6 foot tall, weighed 200 lbs. and had long flaming red hair and whiskers. He wore a Bowie knife on one hip and a pistol with 11 notches (one for every man he’d killed) on the other. At the age of 16 he spent time in the newly established San Quentin Federal Penitentiary in the San Francisco Bay. It was reported that upon losing at the card game of Faro one evening in a Virginia City saloon, he carved the dealer’s heart out with his Bowie knife and then crawled up on the table to sleep off his over indulgence of liquor. When Sam was sober he was dangerous, but when he was drunk he was lethal.
By great contrast, the amiable Dutch businessman Henry Van Sickle came to Genoa (then Utah Territory) in 1853. He eventually opened a blacksmith shop and livery stable in town, purchased several lots and also built three ranches. One ranch was built on the south shore of Lake Tahoe nearly on the state line of California and Utah Territory. The other two ranches were built just south of Genoa in Carson Valley. The largest of which was Van Sickle Station located at the base of the Kingsbury Toll Road, which Van Sickle helped to finance and eventually became the Toll Master of in May of 1860. Unfortunately for the upstanding and well liked businessman, Henry Van Sickle soon fell to Sam Brown’s bad side through an apparent misunderstanding. And from that point on, Sam had it in for old Henry!
On July 7th of 1861 Sam Brown was celebrating his 30th birthday at the Ormsby House Saloon in Carson City. The more Sam drank, the more it stuck in his craw that he needed to deal with Henry Van Sickle. Sam felt he owed it to himself to celebrate his birthday properly, by adding a 12th notch to his pistol butt and why not Van Sickle? So the well intoxicated Sam Brown rode out to Van Sickle Station just south of Genoa and knocked on the dining room door. Van Sickle himself answered and warily invited the known desperado inside for a bite to eat. Sam Brown’s response was, “I’m not here for something to eat. I’m here for YOU!” As Henry dove behind the bar, he just missed the shot that Sam fired in his direction. When the entire dining room full of guests stood up, Sam made his decision to call it a day and head on south to some other way station to spend the night.
Something in Henry Van Sickle snapped that evening. He had lived with the rumors of Sam Brown’s vindictiveness for too long. He grabbed his scatter gun, jumped on one of his mounts and chased Brown in hot pursuit. Gunfire and near misses ensued along the 10 mile stretch between Van Sickle’s and Lute Old’s ranch at the south end of Carson Valley. Henry was able to take a cut-off as he headed south and arrived at Lute Old’s just ahead of Sam. Henry waited behind a barn door until Sam rode up to it, on his distinctive grey mare. At that point he stepped out from behind the door and fired his scatter gun directly into the chest of Sam Brown, knocking him off of his mare and killing him instantly. When brought before Judge Richard Allen on July 9, 1861, Henry Van Sickle was fully exonerated with a ruling of “Death by a just dispensation of an all-wise providence at his own expense.” Judge Allen did rule however, that Van Sickle was to pay for the burial of Sam Brown, including a grave marker and a new suit of clothes.
In the late 1890s, the town of Genoa removed nearly all of the buried remains from the old cemetery on the south-west corner of Nixon and Genoa Street, to the newly granted land from Senator Haines one-half mile north of town on Main Street. In his University of Nevada Oral History Project interview, old-timer Harry Hawkins stated that a conscious decision was made to NOT remove the body of “Bad Man Sam Brown”.
Photos and editorial courtesy of Lake Tahoe Historical Society Museum. Written by Kim Copel-Harris with Western History Alive! and the Genoa Historic Ghost Tours.
www.laketahoemuseum.org, www.genoahistoricghosttours.com, www.westernhistoryalive.com