OFFICER JAMES L. WELLS – EOW: 11-28-1897
By: Officer Mike Severance – North Precinct
In 1897, the population of Seattle was around 69,000 people. The Seattle Police Department was located on 3rd Ave. between Jefferson and Yesler. The building was known as Katzenjammer Castle. It had been the King County Courthouse. The city purchased it in 1891 for $61,000. It was renovated, and became City Hall. The SPD and jail occupied the southern part of the building. The land occupied by the “Castle” is now a park. During my rookie years, officers called the park “Muscatel Meadows”. In 1897, the Seattle Police Department had one Chief, two Captains, two Sergeants, two jailers, two patrol drivers, four detectives, and twenty-eight Patrolmen, including Officer James L. Wells.
On the evening of November 28, 1897, Officer James L. Wells, 38, was working as a Seattle PD jailer. Seattle officers had arrested ex-convict Charles Phillips, 20, at the Price Hotel for suspicion of burglary. Officer Wells and another officer took the horse-drawn patrol wagon to the Price Hotel where they picked up Phillips and transported him back to the jail. Phillips was not handcuffed. After arriving at the jail around 8:55 p.m., Officer Wells, standing at the back of the wagon, ordered Phillips to get down. Phillips pulled a pistol, and fired a shot at Wells at close range. Officer Wells fell to the ground. Phillips jumped from the wagon, fired a shot at the wagon driver which missed, and ran across 3rd Ave. Officer Wells got to his feet, and fired shots at Phillips. Phillips fired back. Wells fell to the ground again. Officers pursued Phillips while other officers carried Wells into the assembly room of the police station and laid him on a table. Officer Wells died within minutes. Dr. Henry Yandell arrived at the police station. There was nothing he could do or could have done to save the officer’s life. Officer Wells had sustained a gunshot wound to the chest. The bullet pierced his pulmonary artery.
Officers L. A. Barbee and W. L. Meredith chased Phillips north on 3rd Ave. King County Sheriff Moyer, who was riding on a street car, heard the shots and saw officers chasing Phillips. He jumped off the street car, and took two shots at the fleeing suspect. Phillips managed to make it to 4th Ave., and started running south. He turned east at Washington St., and his way was blocked by Detective J. H. Williams. Phillips jumped off the sidewalk, and exchanged several shots with Williams. Phillips then ran into the Chinatown section of Seattle where officers lost sight of him.
Chief of Police Charles S. Reed learned of the shooting of Officer Wells. He ordered Captain John Sullivan to mobilize the entire police force. Chinatown was surrounded. Around 10:00 p.m., Officers Barbee and Meredith found Phillips hiding under a house near the corner of 4 Ave. S. and Main St. Using light from a lantern, they could see Phillips, and ordered him to come out. Phillips refused, and raised his pistol. Officer Barbee fired. Phillips was hit in the arm and leg. He dropped his gun, and was pulled out from under the house. Phillips was taken to the police station where he confessed to shooting Wells. He said he only meant to wound the officer. Phillips recovered from his wounds, but it was necessary to amputate his right hand.
Officer James Wells was un-married. He was survived by his parents, Joseph and Sarah Wells, and several siblings, Mary, Joseph, Nannie, Libbie, Susie, and John. His body was released to Butterworth and Sons Funeral Home. There was certainly some type of memorial service in Seattle, but an account of it has not yet been found. Officer Wells’ remains were transported to Buchanan, Michigan for burial. Before his death, Officer Wells lived at 116 ½ Pike St.
Charles Phillips had served prison time in British Columbia. He went on trial in Seattle for the murder of Officer Wells. Phillips claimed he had been mistreated while in prison. He also claimed he had been mistreated as a child. The judge or the jury must have been moved. Phillips was convicted of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison and fined $1000. It is unknown if Phillips served 12 years, but he was a free man in 1909 when he was convicted of murder in Okanogan County when he was also a wanted man in British Columbia.
James L. Wells was born on May 11, 1859 in Bertrand, Michigan, a small farming community on the Michigan and Indiana border. Bertrand is about three miles south of Buchanan, and about seventeen miles northwest of South Bend, IN. In 1880, at age 21, he and his family were living in Warren, just across the state line in Indiana. In 1891, Wells was living in Seattle, and employed as a Deputy Sheriff for King County. He was so employed into 1895. In 1896, his occupation is listed as Detective for the Seattle Police Department. In 1897, he is listed as a policeman. He was most likely commissioned as a Seattle police officer in 1895. He was well known in Seattle, having served as a law enforcement officer for at least seven years. Officer James L. Wells is buried at Portage Prairie Cemetery in St. Joseph County, IN, along with his grandparents, parents, and two brothers. The engraved name and dates on the headstone are very weathered and barely readable after 116 years. The possibility of having the headstone re-engraved is being investigated.
In May 1998, Officer James L. Wells was one of forty Seattle police officers to be posthumously awarded the Washington Law Enforcement Medal of Honor. His medal has been in the custody of the Seattle Police Department since 1998.