29 April 2021

Chris Lovering, Sourland Mountain Outlaw

It was the morning of Friday, August 21, 1896, and Somerset County Detective George Totten had just spent his second sleepless night alone in a snake-infested cave on the Sourland Mountain in Hillsborough, New Jersey. He had set out from Somerville on Wednesday morning in a small wagon loaded with enough provisions to camp for several days. As he approached the mountain, he stopped at a farmhouse near Rock Mills to put up his horse and take what he needed from the wagon - making sure that one pocket contained his revolver and the other a warrant for the arrest of Chris Lovering.

Illustrations from the 23 August 1896 New York World

Lovering was known as a "mountain man" - a desperado with no fixed address and no means of support other than thievery. Among these outlaws, Lovering was the best - and the worst. Horses, pigs, goats, chickens - whenever one was found to be missing, the farmers would murmur about Lovering. He was also known to waylay the upstanding inhabitants of the region along the roads in brazen holdups - and he had been at it for fifteen years! Spending his nights in caves during the summer and in some unsuspecting farmer's barn in the winter, Lovering spent his days terrorizing the residents of Somerset and Hunterdon Counties.

Illustration from the 23 August 1896 New York Herald

He had only been captured once. A year earlier in the summer of 1895, he was suspected of assaulting a thirteen-year-old girl. It took twelve nervous deputies surrounding him in a barn to get him to surrender. But his incarceration at the county jail was brief as the actual evidence was scant. And so he was released a week later.

23 August 1896 New York Herald

The event which aroused the ire of the farmers and brought Detective Totten to the mountain occurred on August 12. William Blowers was one of the most prosperous farmers who made their living in the shadow of the mountain. His pretty wife Josephine, thirty-five years old, was out picking blueberries when she was violently accosted by Lovering who held a knife over her head and threatened to "cut her heart out if she cried out." She tried to scream but wound up fainting. When she was found hours later there were indications that she had been assaulted. 

23 August 1896 New York World

This was too much to bear and the farmers immediately formed a posse. This time the attack was so cruel and the posse so fierce-looking that the other mountain men formed no resistance. They searched the Sourlands for days - inspecting every cave and turning over every rock. On the sixth day - worn out to a man - they finally encountered Lovering in the distance near the entrance to a cave. In fact, he saw the posse first and fired off a shot which was returned by a hail of ineffective bullets from the farmers as Lovering retreated into the cave. A day earlier, the men would have stormed the cave - even though the narrow opening would have meant that each of them would have been shot until Lovering needed to reload. But now, as weary as they were, they limped back down the mountain in defeat. 

Illustration from the 23 August 1896 New York World

Mrs. Blowers, upon hearing of the outcome, decided that she must go to Deputy Sheriff Barkalow in Somerville and swear out a warrant against Lovering. Barkalow handed the warrant to Totten saying, "Better take some help along." But Totten wouldn't hear of it. "There's only one of him and it'll only take one to fetch him back."

23 August 1896 New York World

The cave where Totten spent the two nights killing snakes that came too close was the same one where the Farmers' posse had encountered Lovering a few days before. Totten knew that the outlaw would be back. And when he peered out of the cave on that Friday morning Lovering was standing right there with his back to the entrance, almost within arm's length. He recognized him immediately - a blue shirt and gray trousers tucked into his boots, a gunbelt around his waist holding a heavy revolver. 

23 August 1896 New York World

Lovering whirled around at the sound of Totten emerging from the cave, his hand already on his gun. Totten leaped and got his arms around Lovering's neck. Here's how the writer for The New York World described the scene:

"Swerving to and fro, tipping, tumbling, cursing, panting, they pitched here and there among the rocks far from the rest of the world. For one of them defeat meant a long imprisonment, for the other it meant instant death."
The men were about evenly matched in strength and when Lovering was able to turn his revolver towards Totten the outcome for the detective looked bleak. But just as Lovering fired Totten spun around, flipped his man to the ground. pinned him, and slapped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists. Then he hustled his prisoner quickly done the mountain and into his wagon before any of the locals could think about "mountain justice". 

23 August 1896 New York Herald

Detective Totten turned Lovering over to Deputy Sheriff Barkalow at the county jail with a two-word explanation - "Got him".

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