Born to respectable, hard-working parents who had come to California as gold-rushers in 1849, Robert L. McFarlane quit the family farm in Merced County at age eighteen for a more self-indulgent lifestyle. By his early twenties, he had a reputation as a seasonal hired hand that spent more of his time as a combative barroom brawler, and at age twenty-six he was arrested on a charge of assault to commit murder.
Convicted only on the assault charge and fined $25, a year later Bob McFarlane—then working as a packer from Merced County to a sheep camp in Mariposa County—was involved in a serious feud over grazing rights with Portuguese immigrants, who gave him a beating. He swore revenge.
In mid-June 1884, Bob and a boyhood pal named Alfred Hulz opened fire inside a Spanish dance hall in Merced, where he figured the Portuguese men who had beaten him would be. Antone Enos died instantly from two shots in the chest; Antone Brazil and Joseph Mendocia were both seriously wounded. In the resulting chaos McFarlane ran outside the front door, mounted his horse, and fled— abandoning Alfred Hulz—who was arrested near the scene of the shooting. A month later, after a $300 award was offered for his arrest McFarlane surrendered, probably afraid he would otherwise face a lynch mob. During his October trial McFarlane established his claim to self-defense so well that the jury couldn’t agree on a verdict. Released from jail, Bob drifted south to Tulare County, where he frequented gambling establishments with his new drinking partner Jim McKinney, until the pair decided a change of environment was in order.
They took a hired buggy to the small foothills community of Merced Falls. By nightfall both were arrested for brawling, assault with a deadly weapon, and attempted murder at a town saloon. Bob’s luck held: the murder charges were dismissed, but he was sentenced to two years at San Quentin on the assault charge. There, with no liquor available, he followed the rules and stayed out of trouble. Released in 1886, Bob McFarlane walked the straight-and-narrow for eighteen months before he was involved in a drink-induced pistol target practice inside a Visalia saloon.
The following year he was arrested after another saloon tussle—and this time his jail mate was none other than his old buddy Jim McKinney, charged in an unrelated crime. The two escaped, with the law in hot pursuit. They made it to Wyoming, where McKinney’s gloating did him in, but McFarlane eluded capture until 1891, when he couldn’t resist making a quick trip back home. Within a month Bob was on trial for battery, but somehow his fugitive status went unnoticed and, once again, the jury couldn’t agree. McFarlane high-tailed it for New Mexico, where he killed a man and spent time in a New Mexico penitentiary before being granted parole for ill health. Around 1896—his health recovered—he was back in California, evading prosecution for his 1889 jailbreak (because of lost records) while resuming his intemperate ways.
Liquored-up misjudgments piled one on top of another, until he killed prominent saloon owner James Tucker, his paramour’s ex-husband, on February 22, 1901. Having become romantically involved with Ida Tucker some weeks earlier, McFarlane was on the premises when James and Ida began quarrelling on the porch of the Alameda House in Merced's Tenderloin District, over their post-divorce ownership of the Alameda. Tucker shoved Ida until she fell down. Bob suddenly appeared on the scene and shooting began between the two men. Tucker fell mortally wounded; McFarlane claimed self-defense. Two trials later, McFarlane was sentenced to eight years in San Quentin for manslaughter. He served six.
Released from this second stint in San Quentin in 1908, Bob managed to stay clear of major misadventures for seven years. In the fall of 1915 he encountered a second cousin named Frank Dickinson near the Cliff House Saloon in Mariposa County. The two had been on unfriendly terms for some time; and Dickinson, having himself been in jail many times for various misdeeds, harbored tendencies much like Bob’s own. A scuffle ensued when McFarlane attempted to seize Dickenson’s gun. Frank fired into Bob’s left side, killing him instantly.
Cousin Frank shot and killed Bob McFarlane—the long-time terror of Merced County—on November 12, 1915, and eventually walked away a free man on a plea of self-defense.