On a quiet morning on an isolated beach, a double homicide was committed north of Oceanside that shook all of Southern California. On September 10, 1895, the bodies of Harriet Stiles and John D. Borden were discovered by Harriet’s husband, Leroy Stiles. They had both been shot twice, and each in the face. There appeared to be no motive and the two were unarmed and defenseless.
Leroy and Harriet Stiles had been camping on the coast near the mussel beds north of Las Flores. They were accompanied by Harriet’s 86 year-old father, John B. Borden, who came to visit his daughter from Michigan and was looking forward to “an outing on the beach.” The Stiles were residents of Fallbrook, and had visited the spot before to escape the inland heat, enjoy the cool ocean breeze and do some fishing.
The trio set up camp in a tent on the remote beach and had the area all to themselves to enjoy. Las Flores was about two miles south of their spot; the small town of Oceanside was another 7 to 8 miles further. They likely saw no one else except an occasional train.
On the morning of the murders, Leroy and John walked from camp about a mile north to a spot at which to fish, while Harriet stayed behind. Leroy spotted two men in the distance walking south along the railroad track. Perhaps something about the men caused him to be uneasy. Their presence prompted Stiles to instruct his father-in-law to walk back to the tent to inform Harriet that two men may be approaching their campsite. Leroy would later tell law enforcement he simply did not want Harriet to be alarmed by the two male passersby.
John Borden walked back to the camp while Leroy proceeded to fish. Leroy likely assumed that his father-in-law, at age 86, was too tired to make the trek back and that he decided to stay with Harriet.
At about 10:30 am Leroy Stiles returned to his camp. Upon entering the tent he came upon a horrific site. His wife had been shot dead, as well as his father-in-law, the tent floor covered in blood. Stiles swung into action and immediately set for Oceanside on a horse and wagon to notify authorities. On the way south Stiles was stopped by a man he described as a “half-breed” who asked him for a ride. Stiles, who was unarmed, refused the request and afterwards said he believed the man was one of the two individuals he spotted walking towards his camp that morning and believe the man intended to kill him. He would later describe the man as a “negro of rather light complexion, good size and dressed in blue clothes or overalls.”
Stiles met a rancher on the way to Oceanside, who in turn went to reach law enforcement. Returning to camp alone, Stiles waited with the dead bodies of his family members. He later broke down in tears, overcome with emotion, when he told the first arriving lawmen that he and his wife were married forty years.
The early newspaper accounts of the murders said that Harriet had been sexually assaulted and that there were three deceased, not two. (Harriet in fact had not been raped. Her clothes were not disheveled or removed and her glasses were still on her face.) Nothing of value was missing from the camp, except a package of Durham tobacco, described by Stiles as “half full, the sack being the smallest size, just two ounces.”
One initial theory is that the two were murdered by Isidor Renterias, a known outlaw who had served jail time for horse stealing and murder. On September 6th, just a few days before the murder of Stiles and Borden, Renterias had shot and killed Ramon Araiza in San Luis Rey. Renterias operated a restaurant near the Mission San Luis Rey, wherein he had his wife by the hair and was beating her. Ramon Araiza’s wife was the daughter of the woman being beaten and Araiza came to her defense. Renterias then focused his rage on Araiza, picked up a rifle and shot him dead. He then fled while a posse led by Constable Ben Hubbert, who was still trying to track him down when the double murdered occurred on September 10th. (Renterias would later die in a shootout but not until he shot and killed a deputy by the name of Juan Castro.)
Deputy Sheriff Fred Jennings and a posse, traveled to the Stiles/Borden murder scene to hold an inquest. Railroad section men in the area were questioned and they informed law enforcement on the morning of the murders that two men had approached them. They shared breakfast with the strangers and talked to them at length. They provided a description of the two men, one was “a man six feet high, dark complexion, possibly “mulatto” and the other was “a smaller man, light hair and had a small hand valise.” The witnesses also noted that the pair had separated at some point as the smaller man went in a different direction.
Based on witness descriptions the “smaller man”, who would later be identified as Jay Allison Garges, was arrested at Fallbrook. He told deputies that he and the other suspect, Joseph J. Ebanks, were traveling together but had parted ways at the train trestle. Garges said that about two hours later he encountered Ebanks again, who had a new male traveling companion, a German immigrant. They two talked about “meeting so unexpectedly” once more and Garges noted that Ebanks was in possession of tobacco that he had not had earlier. It was in a small, two-ounce Durham tobacco sack, which was the very thing that had been reported by Leroy Stiles as missing from the tent. Garges noted that Ebanks no longer had a sack that he had carried with him for the length of their trip which began near El Toro.
While the unidentified German departed, Ebanks and Garges trekked south towards Oceanside, and eventually parted at the Fallbrook Junction. Garges made his way to Fallbrook where he was eventually apprehended. He was charged with complicity in the murder, and was held at Oceanside until taken to San Diego. Garges, a traveling “watch tinker” would later be eliminated as a suspect and became a witness for the prosecution.
Joseph Ebanks was born in England in about 1865. His father was from the West Indies and his mother a white woman. Ebanks arrived in New York’s Ellis Island from Liverpool, England on May 15, 1893 traveling on the Aurania, a British ocean liner. He gave differing accounts as to his arrival in California.
Ebanks was caught on September 14th by Deputy Sheriff Ward. Ebanks had traveled to San Luis Rey, then on to Vista. The following day he continued southward and spent a night in Mission Valley before hitching a ride on a wagon leaving for Rancho Bernardo. After he arrived near Poway, he left the main road and traveled through thick brush and steep terrain in an apparent effort to elude authorities. Ward eventually tracked him to a cabin where he was arrested and taken to jail in San Diego. One of the first questions Ebanks asked was for something to eat. It was reported he was cheerful and talkative.
When questioned, much of his story corroborated that of his traveling companion; that the two parted ways at the trestle where they had stopped to get water to drink out of some barrels. Garges walked south along the railroad and Ebanks walked along a wagon road. He admitted that he was the one who had tried to flag down Leroy Stiles for a ride, but that Stiles passed him “at a rapid gait.” He continued walking and met up with the German man and the two eventually met up again with Garges.
Ebanks said he had no firearm with which to shoot anyone and declared his innocence in the matter. He said he spotted a woman near a camp who appeared to be swimming, and he want to take a swim in the ocean as well, but had determined the bluff too steep to negotiate and decided against it.
Upon his arrest, one newspaper made an overtly racially prejudiced statement: “[Ebanks’] appearance is against him, as he is a West Indian Negro, with heavy cheekbones, thick lips, small, shrewd eye and a generally sensual face. He speaks with a queer half-French and half-Negro accent, and uses nautical terms in his speech.”
The hunt began for Ebanks’ sack, in which it was believed a firearm was kept. It was eventually brought to light that Ebanks had stolen two guns in Fullerton. One was a white handled Colt 45, along with a belt loaded with ammunition. Several railroad men, including Arthur Steele, section foreman, testified they saw Ebanks carrying a sack, when they saw him and Garges the morning of the murders.
The pistol was found in a canyon near the Stiles campsite and delivered to Constable Ben Hubbert of San Luis Rey. It was wrapped in a shirt with the marking of R.F.G, who was the rightful owner of the two firearms allegedly stolen by Ebanks. Four empty shell cartridges were also found. Even more damning, when Ebanks was captured he was wearing another shirt with the same initials. One additional piece of evidence in the sack was a “ladies’ journal” which had been given to Ebanks by a woman at ranch house he had visited in Orange County.
The murder trial began on January 4, 1896 in San Diego. Newspapers from San Diego, to San Francisco, Sacramento and Reno published daily or weekly coverage. The trial lasted more than 20 days, at a cost of $2,000, which far exceeded the cost of other similar court cases. During the trial Ebanks was described as being impassive but at times “happy and indifferent.”
There was a lot of interest in the trial and Ebanks in particular. The San Diego Bee reported: “There was a larger attendance of spectators yesterday than on any preceding day of the trial of Ebanks, the West Indian mulatto who is on trial before Judge Pierce and a jury for the murder of Mrs. Stiles and her father, John D. Borden. There has been a perceptible increase each day in the number of women in attendance on the trial, and yesterday most of the chairs inside the railing except those used by the jury and counsel, were occupied by women young and old, who evidently enjoyed the testimony.”
R. F. Gibson of Fullerton testified that the white-handled revolver that Ebanks used in the murder was stolen from his room, along with another gun. Both were found in the sack several witnesses had described Ebanks as carrying. Gibson also testified that the shirts, one of which Ebanks was wearing at the time of his arrest, belonged to him and were marked with the letters “R F. G.”
Simon Goldbaum of San Luis Rey testified that Ebanks came to his store on the afternoon of September 10th, the day of the murders and bought lunch. Goldbaum asked the tall stranger if he had beard of the murders at the mussel beds. According to Goldbaum, Ebanks looked down “at the mention of the crime”. Then, inexplicably “looked up and laughed, and replied that he had not heard of the murders.”
William McCrea, testified that he was baling hay at Vista the day of the murders, and that Ebanks came “to his camp between 11 and 12 o’clock at night and asked for work.” He stayed the night with the crew, but left in the morning “without any breakfast in the direction of Escondido.”
Garges, who had no longer been considered a suspect, was detained in San Diego as a witness until late February of 1896. During that time his satchel which contained his watch tools was also taken into evidence. (He was detained 143 days after which he filed a claim against the county for $214.50 at the rate of $1.50 a day. The county instead agreed to pay him just $114.15.)
Garges testified as they were walking south they saw two men fishing in the surf a few hundred feet from the railroad. About a mile farther down they spotted a woman near a tent on the beach. They continued walking about one-fifth of a mile, and came to a trestle where they sat down to rest. Garges said he was anxious to “hurry along”, and left Ebanks sitting on the bridge.
With Garges out of sight, Ebanks want back along the track to a bridge spanning a canyon which opened out on the beach near the tent, and made his way with some difficulty down into the canyon and to the tent. The prosecutor believed that Ebanks’ intention was to assault Harriet Stiles, but her father had returned to the camp by that time. The San Diego Bee reported: “It will never be known just what transpired, for Ebanks in his numerous confessions of the crime never told the story twice the same way. But he could have been at the tent but a moment when he shot Mr. Borden, who fell dead. Ebanks claimed that he was at first inclined to flee without [killing] Mrs. Stiles, but decided that he must take her life if he would himself escape.”
The prosecution had the last word and despite the testimony of 53 witnesses and damning evidence he instead focused the jury on Ebanks looks:
“It has been said that he could have had no motive for killing that poor woman who was alone and defenseless in the little tent—no motive for taking her life as she stood with hands upheld to her God, her last words tremulous in supplication and with a realization that a fiend incarnate stood ready and determined to send into her sick brain the leaden messengers that would sever the tie which bound her to this life. No motive for this hellish deed! Can you not read the motive on his face? Look in his treacherous eyes and on his brow, which bears the curse of his maker as plainly as it was ever born by Cain!”
After the trial concluded, and the jury began its deliberation, The San Diego Union wrote this openly racist account: “While the jury was out deciding his fate, the happy-go-lucky mulatto, who is more animal than man, whiled away the time by playing cards with a Mexican and negro in the jail rooms. When the jury came in and Ebanks was taken before them to hear the verdict of murder in the first degree, he took his seat and twirled his thumbs while everyone in the room fixed their gaze upon him.”
The jury deliberated just three hours. Leroy Stiles, who had sat through the daily testimony, waited in the courtroom into the evening to hear the verdict. Ebanks was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death. An immediate appeal was filed.
While awaiting appeal Ebanks actually confessed to the murder of Harriet Stiles and her father. He stated he wanted to clear his conscious and remove any doubt of his guilt. Ebanks’ confession in various versions was published in newspapers across the country from Nebraska to New Jersey.
Ebanks said while walking along the railroad track with Garges, they spotted the tent on the beach. Earlier he had found an orange, ate it and became sick. He went to the tent without Garges to see if he could “get some medicine.” He encountered Mr. Borden and his daughter Harriett and said, “I’m sick; give me something. I feel as if I was dying.”
Ebanks said Mr. Borden noticed that the muzzle of a revolver was showing out of the flour sack he was carrying. Borden walked toward the back of the cot and said he would get something “to relieve” him.
“I do not know that I said anything to the man at all, but it was only just my opinion that the man was then looking for something possibly to shoot me with. He walked away toward the cot and I did not know what he was doing behind the cot. I sat then in the chair and fired at him and I shot the old gentleman. I did not know at that time where I had hit him, but he fell. Then the old lady sung out to me, “My God, he had no gun.” I sat there and I looked at him and I looked at her and I begged her to hitch a team and go away and let me get away. I was sorry for what I had done.
“The woman said to me — I do not just remember the first words that were spoken — but anyway, I said to her, says I, ‘Now I am awful sorry for what I have done, and his own foolishness caused it’; now, says I, ‘what is I going to do about it to get rid of this? The only way out now for me’ — says I — ‘I know your life is sweet and mine is sweet and we all thinks that your life is sweeter to you than mine is to me. I suppose you think so, and says I, ‘I think about the same, I suppose, but the only way out of this for me is to kill you along with him, and for me to make my escape.’
“And I said to the woman, ‘I suppose I ain’t got much time to think this matter over. The best thing for you to do is get to praying for yourself; I may possibly have to shoot you.’
“The woman knelt down by the cot and she stayed there and I dropped tears over that woman; but I thought the only refuge for myself was to shoot that woman. After the woman raised from her knees and turned around, she looked at me and she did not say anything. I held the gun laying across my lap and I shot her; where, I do not know, up until today. She kind of fell back on the cot against something, but I saw she was just in misery. The wound did not kill her–it did not look like it to me–and I shot the woman the second time.
“With that I walked over to the cot where this man was laying to see and to be certain that there was no weapon there that he was looking for to injure me. After examining behind the cot and around the cot and seeing that there was no weapon there, before God I felt worse.
“I walked back to the door and I tried that gun three times in succession to my own breast, but she refused to go. I then turned around, and the old gentleman had some movement in some part of his body, or made me think that he suffered, and I tried it the fourth time on him and she went off, and I think that was the shot that was through his body.”
After his confession he stated his desire to see his family who were living in the West Indies. He then asked that his appeal to be withdrawn and that he was ready to “die any time.”
Notwithstanding his lengthy and detailed confession, Ebanks’ defense team filed three additional appeals, each of which was denied.
His appeals exhausted Ebanks was sentenced once again to die and to be delivered to San Quentin for hanging. Before he was transported from San Diego, it was reported that Ebanks, who had converted to Christianity while in custody, “delivered a sermon to the other prisoners confined in the county jail, and sang and prayed with them. He admonished the men to reform when they were released and lead an upright life. He later made a request for a minister in order that he might be baptized. He was taken north on the Santa Rosa last night by Deputy Sheriff F. M. Jennings and T. H. Scoby.”
On May 27, 1898 Joseph Japhet Ebanks was led from his cell to the gallows. The evening before, he had written a statement declaring his innocence, having retracted his detailed confession in which he had given Mrs. Stiles but a minute to pray for her soul. Yet he resigned himself to die “a brave man”. Ebanks was described as calm when he was readied for execution at 10:30 am. He offered no comment of any kind before he was hanged. The trap floor dropped, the force breaking his neck. Ebanks was pronounced dead 10 minutes later although the newspaper described his death as “instantaneous”. His body was buried in the prison cemetery. Ebanks was one of nine state prisoners executed in California that year.
After the murder of his wife, Leroy R. Stiles went to live with his married daughter in Long Beach. He died in 1913 at the age of 83. He was buried in the same cemetery in Fallbrook with his beloved wife Harriet and her father John. As is sadly the case today, there was more attention placed on the salacious murders than paid to the victims themselves. Little detail was provided about the lives of Harriet Stiles and John Borden but they were truly innocent victims enjoying an idyllic day on a quiet beach when their lives were abruptly and brutally taken.
Kristi S. Hawthorne, historiesandmysteries.blog “Defenseless”, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent and written permission from the author and owner is strictly prohibited. Links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author Kristi S. Hawthorne and historiesandmysteries.blog “Defenseless”, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
3 thoughts on “Defenseless”
Informative article. Thank you for researching and publishing this glimpse into the way things were.
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I second the comment from Kenny Langen and feel you have done a valuable job in sharing history.
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Thank you so much for the kind comments and for taking time to read my story.