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1909 killer’s Auburn ‘home’ a highlight of Heritage Trail tour

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Joanie Maxwell goes back to jail this weekend with a smile on her face. Maxwell has donned a rooster-feathered hat and clothing in the style of a circa 1910 Placer County woman for the past four years and headed behind bars on Heritage Trail weekend for a stay in what was once the women’s lockup at the Placer County Courthouse. This Saturday, she’ll be in the lockup again to tell the story of lovelorn, early 20th century killer Alma Bell. Bell was a local lady who shot her lover to death after being cast aside for a younger woman from Pilot Hill. Poetically, her target – 25-year-old Joe Armes – died from a single gunshot to the heart. And during her five-month stay as guest of the county in the exceedingly sparse and primitive lady’s lockup, Bell was known to have ordered flowers for the love of her life’s grave. Bell, daughter of legendary gold miner Pike Bell, shot the man she claimed was her betrothed as the two confronted each other over the soured relationship in a Newcastle house in June 1909. She was held in the Old Town Auburn Women’s Jail, under the stairs of the courthouse until acquitted in late November by reason of insanity. The Placer Herald report of the time said a majority of jurors – which included four or five of Pike Bell’s fellow gold miners – favored acquittal and were able to convince the others to apply an unwritten law holding men who promise marriage to their word. The Herald’s take on what had become a local cause célèbre was that a message had been sent: “A warning to young men and a bitter lesson to young womanhood.” Maxwell, who guides regular Saturday Old Town Auburn walking tours, said that if she were a juror, she would have probably convicted Bell – particularly when the 24-year-old woman readily admitted she shot Armes dead. “But it would have been hard if I was a juror back then, given the mentality that was so different 100 years ago,” Maxwell said. Bell’s case may have been bolstered by the propensity of gold miners to come in aid of one of their own. And men back then may have had a chivalrous attitude toward promises rendered women, she said. While Bell walked away from the Auburn courtroom a free woman, much of that goodwill dissipated a short time later after she moved to Willows – and threatened to kill the family she was working for. And back in Placer County, skeptics were still talking about a mystery fire that burned down the Armes family farmhouse four months before Joe was shot to death. Ralph Gibson, Placer County Museums curator of programs, said the story of Alma Bell continues to fascinate visitors to the courthouse, who can view the Women’s Jail and read old clippings. But Maxwell – as well as a second Alma Bell re-enactor Sunday afternoon – bring the story alive, he said. In recent months, the museums division has come across the initial interview Bell had with Sheriff George McAulay and District Attorney Charles Tuttle after the killing. Bell freely describes what occurred the night of the killing, including the dramatic few seconds before the fatal shot was fired as she wields the gun in front of an unbelieving Armes. “I says, ‘Very well, then, we will die together,’” Bell was quoted as saying. “And he says ‘I ain’t afraid, you wouldn’t shoot me.’ I says then ‘Goodbye, we will go together.’ Then I shot him.” Bell would die at age 80 in San Francisco and be buried at the Bell family plot in an unmarked grave at the old Auburn Cemetery. Nearby is another marker – for the man she killed. -------------------------------------------------- Heritage Trail: Placer County Museums Tour When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday What: Free admission to open houses at 18 museums throughout Placer County Information online: the heritagetrail.blogspot.com Information by phone: (530) 889-6500