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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Bad Guy Charley

The newspapers reported his crimes and said his name was Charles Mortimer. He was, they said, the quintessential thief and murderer: intelligent, cunning, utterly remorseless—and dangerous. Betrayed by his paramour, Mortimer was finally hanged in Sacramento, on May 15, 1873, for the murder of saloon owner Mary Gibson.


By that time, owing to a daring rescue attempt by his brother William (who was shot and killed by Deputy Sheriff Cross in the jail yard during the bold endeavor), authorities knew Mortimer’s real name was Charley Flinn.


Charley Flinn was 39 when he died on the gallows, but just when he assumed the alias Charles Mortimer is unknown—possibly when he first arrived in Sacramento in 1861, where his misdemeanors went unnoticed during the catastrophic December floods. In 1862, as Charles Mortimer, he was convicted of robbing a San Francisco businessman of $800, and was sent to San Quentin for one year.  


In 1864, he was sentenced to three years in San Quentin for breaking into the home of San Franciscan C. L. Wiggins, subduing him with chloroform, then robbing him of $1,500 in money and jewelry. Bad enough; but Flinn’s true evil character emerged when he convinced the policeman escorting him to San Quentin—one Officer Rose, apparently devoid of moral fiber himself—to first take him to where he claimed he had buried Wiggins’s money and jewelry. When Rose obligingly took his turn digging for the buried treasure, Flinn beat him severely with Rose’s own pistol and fled, leaving him for dead. 


Two years later, Trinity County sent a prisoner with a different name down to San Francisco, a man sentenced to the state prison for seven years for grand larceny. At San Francisco’s City Hall, the prisoner was immediately identified as Charles Mortimer, for whom the police had been searching. This time Mortimer/Flinn served out the sentence, and was discharged in early 1872.


He soon became acquainted with Carrie Spencer, the daughter of a respectable farmer who had slid into a life of prostitution, stealing money or goods whenever she could. Their attraction was instantaneous and mutual: they lived together, frequently partnered in plotting and committing robberies, plus other criminal depredations, in San Francisco and Sacramento Counties. Although they weren’t married, she called herself Carrie Mortimer. In May, 1872, possibly with Carrie’s help, Charles murdered a prostitute named Caroline Prenel, in San Francisco.


On the morning of September 20, 1872, Sacramentans were shocked to learn that saloon owner Mary Gibson had been brutally murdered, her throat cut with a knife, her living quarters behind the saloon ransacked. The prime suspect? One Charles Mortimer, whom two policemen had seen in the vicinity just the night before. After the body was discovered, those same officers went to Mortimer’s hotel room, where they found some jewelry and dresses belonging to Mary Gibson.  


Both Charley and Carrie were arrested and jailed, where both attempted to cast most of the blame on the other as the primary perpetrator of the two murders. Carrie, in turning state’s evidence against her lover, evidently saved herself from the gallows, and—despite some later court appearances for small-time robberies and enticing a young girl to join a house of ill-repute—eventually went free.


Less than a dozen people attended Charley Flinn’s funeral on May 17, 1853. Just seven months after Flinn was hanged in Sacramento, Carrie Mortimer had a new true love from whom she refused to be parted. He was James Willis (whom she was supporting), a convicted vagrant ordered to leave town or go to jail. The couple boarded a train for Stockton on November 13.    

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