The Shootout at the Free Roll Saloon

This story was initially intended to be part of our book Murder and Mayhem in Boise but was cut at the last moment by the publisher. Good thing we had the story of Boise's cat hunt to replace it with! Check out the book on September 5th, 2022! Pre-orders are available now.


The townsfolk of Boise knew Jimmy Turner as a “sporting man,” meaning he liked to gamble and pay for “time” with the ladies working the brothels and “cribs” downtown. Turner loved to drink, a problem for a card player who routinely carried pistols who could not hold his liquor. He was hot headed and no one understood this better than Nettie Bowen, an infamous lady of the “trade” who suffered several violent run-ins with Turner while he wallowed deep in a binge. One such event occurred November 24, 1891 at a “house of shady reputation” on 6th Street near its intersection with Idaho Street. Witnesses testified they heard loud and aggressive shouting and the breaking of a lamp. Neighbors of the bawdy house alerted the police about the escalating fracas before it turned murderous. Officer Sam Howry arrived on the scene to find Turner waiting outside Nettie’s chambers; Howry promptly forced the drunken gambler to return to the scene of his crime and apologize to the woman he wronged. Nettie’s nose was bleeding and badly swollen. She informed Officer Howry that Turner had “smashed her” and she wanted him to be arrested “real bad.” Before being taken to jail, Turner received a hard shot to the jaw by enraged Nettie. However, Officer Howry let Nettie be, being of the opinion that bullies deserve the shots they take now and then.


Turner brought more problems on himself in 1892. For his previous offense against Nettie, he was fined twenty dollars and five days in jail. The punishment failed to deter Turner from his sinful ways for on March 28, 1892, Nettie and Turner had yet another violent encounter in a “crib,” basically a hastily constructed shack-like structure attached to the backside of a building in one of Boise's infamous alleys where tired, scarred, and older prostitutes sold themselves. This particular “crib” was located in the alley between Main and Idaho, and 6th and 7th Streets to the east and west - the current site of Boise’s City Hall. Once again, Turner started to beat Nettie when she finally decided to make good on an oft-repeated threat. She whipped a knife from her stocking, stabbing Turner in the arm and leg, severely wounding him before the blade broke off and lodged itself deep in his flesh. The authorities stated that if the blade had been made of stronger steel, the abusive Turner would surely be dead. The actions of the authorities regarding the thug they held captive summarized their feelings of the man, as Nettie was not arrested for the stabbing and nobody seemed “anxious to swear out a warrant.” Nettie, the officers told Daily Statesman reporters, “was well behaved when decently treated.”


By 1894, Turner was a well-known and notorious “sporting man” around the bars, gambling tables, and brothels of Boise. This was the year, however, when Turner’s turbulent life caught up with him at the Free Roll Saloon, once located at 832 Main Street and named so on account of the free short stack of chips gamblers received on entering the premises. Witnesses say Turner first entered the bar around 7:00 pm the night of July 18th, 1894. He struck up a conversation with W.H. Mead, the bartender, admitting he liked Mead and Harry Gilbert, both proprietors of the Free Roll, but shared that he “ain’t got no use for Billie Gilbert,” the third owner of the saloon and brother to Harry. Turner added, he would “make him know it someday” boasting “Billie Gilbert won’t stand fire, I will make him piss down his pants legs.” After uttering these threatening words, Turner left the saloon for nearly five hours, returning heavily intoxicated in the early hours of Thursday morning, July 19, 1894. We know from Mead’s testimony, given during the murder trial of Billie Gilbert, that Jim Maxon accompanied his drunk friend Turner into the saloon in a similar state of inebriation. Upon entry, the pair stumbled up to the bar asking Mead for three dollars. Finding no luck with the barkeeper, Turner and Maxon headed to the clubrooms in the back of the saloon where card dealer and co-proprietor Billy Gilbert dealt cards. Gilbert testified in court that the men asked him to borrow three dollars. He lent Turner a dollar-fifty, all he had on his person.


Diagram of the Free Roll Saloon shootout from the murder trial transcript


With his recently acquired riches, Turner stumbled up to the bar and attempted to order drinks. However, Maxon remained unsatisfied with the amount of charity the men had received. He returned to the card table and demanded that Gilbert give him the three dollars. When Gilbert informed Maxon once more he did not have that much money, Maxon tried to steal the dealer’s cash box and was told to leave, at which point Maxon declared “we want a drink and we are going to have one!” Maxon returned to the bar, immediately instigating a fight with Mead after he refused to credit the pair drinks, prompting Maxon to yell “you big cock sucker I will just slap your face,” and he attempted to do just that, but being very drunk, he managed merely to graze Mead with his fingertips. When the bartender reached for a weapon under the bar, Maxon proclaimed “Don’t do that, Mead; I’m not armed.” Mead shouted “Stop your monkeying with me Jim, quit your damn foolishness,” at which point Maxon tried to slap Mead again. At the same time, another patron ran to inform Gilbert of the trouble. Gilbert paused his card game before confronting the hostile guests. By this time Turner had pulled his revolver from its holster when Gilbert reentered the front of the Free Roll and shouted “Jim, what are you trying to do here, you know we don’t allow no trouble here in this house.” In reply, Turner bellowed, “fuck the trouble, we will do as we damn please.” Maxon grabbed Gilbert by the wrist while an unknown patron held tight to Turner. Subsequently, Turner became agitated. Gilbert’s testimony detailed how Turner reached for his pistols and, referencing Gilbert, threatened to “cut that son of a bitch down. Turner uttered his last words, however, in demanding of the stranger restraining him to “let me go you son of a bitch!”


Arrest warrant for William H. Gilbert


Having extracted himself from the stranger’s grasp, Turner advanced on Gilbert - pistol drawn. This decision cost the drunk man his life. Unbeknownst to Turner, Billy Gilbert had gained a reputation in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas El Paso for possessing a quick hand, and a man not afraid to use his pistols to settle disputes. One day after a different shooting, the El Paso Times reported Gilbert had dispatched two men into the hereafter while working in the mining camps of Colorado. As Turner advanced, Gilbert snarled “you pull a gun on me, will you, you son of a bitch?” The Idaho Daily Statesman described the chaotic scene, with an eyewitness sharing, “like a flash he pulled his revolver and shot Turner'' who, having been hit by a .44 slug, reeled back a few feet falling slightly while bending over and trying to gain his breath. Not thinking clearly, Turner once again raised his gun towards his foe, prompting Gilbert to shoot him once more in the left hip, the bullet ranging upward and out his right side. The stricken man slumped against the wall before dropping to the floor and remaining still, a pool of blood forming around him. Gilbert told Maxon to get out before calling a nearby doctor, Dr. Perrault, to come care for the mortally wounded man. Yet, there was nothing to be done. A group of men carried Turner to the doctor’s office above the Early Saloon, also on Main Street, to make the dying man comfortable in his last minutes in the mortal realm. Dr. George Collister also attended Turner but came to the same diagnosis. Two hours later, at approximately 2:30 a.m. Turner expired.


Meanwhile, Gilbert had been arrested by the police. Of the affair, Gilbert sadly told the arresting officers, “I’m sorry this has happened, but I had to do it. He came there to kill me, and there was nothing else for me to do.” During his trial, Gilbert testified, “I jerked it [the gun] out just as quick [sic] as I could shoot two shots in succession,” a statement corroborated by Boise police officer M.M. George who had just arrived on the scene as the shooting started. Of Gilbert’s shooting of Turner, Officer George testified he “moved more rapidly than any man I have ever seen.” He added that he believed Gilbert shot in self-defense. Judge Ryals discharged Gilbert from jail the following Wednesday. Jimmy Turner was laid to rest within the confines of Boise’s Pioneer Cemetery, known as the Masonic Cemetery in 1894, a picturesque and historic cemetery located at the western entrance of Warm Springs Avenue. Turner’s story is one more violent tale of a man that lived a violent life in the closing years of a violent time in American history, the era of the Wild West played out right here on the streets of Boise.



Jimmy Turner's grave at Pioneer Cemetery


Where to find it: Though the Free Roll Saloon, once located at 832 Main Street, is now a parking garage adjoining the west end of the Zion’s Bank Building, Jimmy Tuner can be visited at his final resting place in Pioneer Cemetery, block 3, lot 8, space 5.


Image 1: Jimmy Turner's Grave in Boise's Pioneer Cemetery -Idahistory Collection

Image 2: Exhibit B from the court trial that would result from Turner’s night at the Free Roll - Courtesy-Idaho State Historical Society

Image 3: Arrest warrant for Billy Gilbert - Courtesy Idaho State Historical Society

Sources:

Ada County v. Gilbert, 1894, AR 202, Box 13, Folder 13, Ada County District and Justice Courts Collection 1864-1922, Idaho State Archives, Boise, Idaho, United States.

“Jimmy Turner’s Arrest, He Struck a Woman then He Went to Jail,” Idaho Daily Statesman, November 28, 1891, pg. 8.

“Local Brevities,” Idaho Daily Statesman, November 26, 1891, pg. 3.

“Jimmy Turner Stabbed,” The Caldwell Tribune, April 2, 1892, pg. 1.

“Jim Turner Stabbed, An Unpleasant Outcome of a Sunday Row,” Idaho Daily Statesman, March 28, 1892, pg. 8.

“Advertisement,” Idaho Daily Statesman, June 26, 1894, pg. 6.

“Fatal Saloon Fight, Shooting of a Well-Known Montana Sporting Man,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 20, 1894, pg. 3.

“Jimmie Turner Killed, Shot to Death by Billy Gilbert at the Free Roll,” Idaho Daily Statesman, July 19, 1894, pg. 3.

“Jimmie Turner, A Gambler was Fatally Shot,” The Caldwell Tribune, July 21, 1894, Pg. 3.

“Too Quick with a Gun, Billy Gilbert Dropped a Man Who Wanted to Kill Him,” The Caldwell Tribune, July 25, 1894, pg. 1.

“Local Brevities,” Idaho Daily Statesman, July 26, 1894, pg. 6.

“Gilbert Discharged,” The Caldwell Tribune, July 28, 1894, pg. 3.

“A Gambler Shot,” The El Paso Times, July 20, 1894, pg. 7.

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