Arts & Entertainment
A gun, a murder and a chance to start anew
Book Review - The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff: The Redemption of Herbert Niccolls Jr. - By Nancy Bartley
In 1931, a 12-year-old boy with poor impulse control shot and killed John Wormell, the sheriff of Asotin County, Wash. The “barefoot-boy murderer” — he didn’t even own a pair of shoes — had been burglarizing a grocery store looking for gum and cigarettes. The sheriff was well-loved; the boy was branded a “congenital psychopath.” There were calls for the boy’s execution and fears that the good citizens of Asotin would lynch him (something they’d done to other accused criminals in past years). Instead, he got a life sentence at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, which marked a turning point in his life — but not in the way you’d imagine.
That’s the background of Nancy Bartley’s well-written narrative history about Herbert Niccolls Jr., who served nine years in prison before being paroled. Herbert eventually got a job at MGM Studios as a very early computer specialist, became a highly paid professional and had lived a mostly unremarkable life by the time he died at the age of 70. Unremarkable, that is, unless you compare it with the typical ex-con or even with his siblings, who, as Bartley puts it, “looked at him … in awe as he cruised around Hollywood in his green Mustang.”
There were a number of factors in Niccolls’ “redemption.” Probably the most important was that he was intelligent, well-spoken and polite. He didn’t suffer due to racial prejudice since he, like most of the prison population of Washington at that time, was white. He looked much younger than his 12 years, and the wardens at Walla Walla kept him isolated from the general prison population. He thrived with one-on-one tutoring from a couple of educated inmates, though one might shudder at the idea of a boy spending years with no playmates and little exercise.
It’s a remarkable story. The weakness of Bartley’s narrative is the lack of direct information about what was going on in Niccolls’ head, especially as he grew up in prison and found work after his parole. She fills in the gaps with descriptions of prison riots and escapes; information on the wardens and the governors of the state, one of whom liked to visit Niccolls; and a description of the famous Father Flanagan of Boys Town, who campaigned hard for Niccolls’ parole.
If Niccolls was redeemed, it was a partial redemption. In later years, he started drinking heavily and had several DUIs. Bartley points out that his secret status as an ex-con always weighed on him. Bartley also implies that being in prison kept Niccolls under control while he matured. But he likely was also emotionally damaged by the sterile environment.
There are larger questions. Some of Niccolls’ redemption was clearly due to a bias toward those who could make it in a class society, because he could speak politely and well and loved to read. His jailers were willing to excuse his past, something he deserved, but something a less well-spoken or more hardened boy might not have elicited. Perhaps many, if not all of our prison population could be redeemed if they got the kind of attention Niccolls did.
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