The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff

The Redemption of Herbert Nicholls Jr.

Nancy Bartley

  • Published: July 2015
  • Subject Listing: History / Western History; Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir; Pacific Northwest / History
  • Bibliographic information: 304 pp., 12 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

In 1931, a 12-year-old boy shot and killed the sheriff of Asotin, Washington. The incident stunned the small town and a mob threatened to hang him. Both the crime and Herbert Niccolls's eventual sentence of life imprisonment at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla drew national attention, only to be buried later in local archives.

Journalist Nancy Bartley has conducted extensive research to construct a compelling narrative of the events and characters that make this a unique episode in the history of criminal justice in the United States. Niccolls became a cause for Father Flanagan of Boys Town,who took to the airwaves, imploring listeners to write Governor Hartley on the boy's behalf. The bitter campaign put Hartley in such a negative light that he lost his bid for reelection. Under a new and progressive warden, Niccolls thrived in prison. Inmates like physician Peter Miller and literary agent James Ashe became his tutors, finding that Niccolls had an insatiable appetite for knowledge. During the deadly 1934 prison riot at Walla Walla, several prisoners kept him from harm.

Niccolls was finally released from prison in his early twenties. He went to work at 20th Century Fox in Hollywood, where he kept his secret for the rest of his long life. The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff explores this little-known story of a young boy's fate in the juvenile justice system during the bloodiest years in the nation's penitentiaries.

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Nancy Bartley has published in the Seattle Times, Washington Post, Sydney Morning Herald, Toronto Star, Houston Chronicle, and Home Magazine. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

"The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff is the result of some very impressive research by an author obviously engaged with the subject. And it tells an important story few of us know."
-Joann Byrd, author of Calamity: The Heppner Flood of 1903

Herbert Niccolls Jr.'s Story

Note on Sources

"The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff also has contemporary currency - it shows that violent juvenile crime is not a recent phenomenon and it prompts readers during this budget-conscious era to contemplate whether prevention might be more cost-effective than punishment."
-Barbara Lloyd McMichael, Bellingham Herald

"Bartley brings both rock-solid reporting and a storyteller's instincts to the job. The result is a sensitive, clear-eyed, and historically framed account of an extraordinary life story."
-Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, Seattle Times

"It is a completely true story, but Bartley uses a literary voice that makes it read like a novel as she brings to light one of the more bizarre crimes in history."
-Mike Bookey, Pacific Northwest Inlander, April 2013

"Seattle journalist Nancy Bartley uses the Niccolls case as a lens through which to examine the development of the juvenile justice system."
-Katie Schneider, Oregon Live, April 2013

"Readers learn what a life behind bars was like in the days when murderers were still hung and there were no provisions for young offenders. . . . This is a welcome addition to the true crime genre, and will also interest scholars of social issues and American history."
-Publishers Weekly, January 2013

"Niccolls' trial and sentence are just the starting point for Bartley. The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff also tells the fascinating story of how Niccolls was the pawn in an epic struggle between Washington Governor Roland Hartley and Father E.J. Flanagan. . . . [I]ntriguing reading."
-Allen Bentley, NW Lawyer