Nancy Bartley, a veteran Seattle Times reporter, was digging through state records a few years ago, trying to find the youngest person ever put to death in the state of Washington. Along the way, someone asked if she’d ever heard of Herbert Niccolls Jr., who in 1931 at age 12 was sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting the sheriff of Asotin, a rural area south of Clarkston, after breaking into a store.
“I was fascinated, especially when you see the picture of this kid. Then I found he was only 60 pounds and he went to Walla Walla State Penitentiary. The more I dug, the more I found it interesting that he got out and redeemed himself,” says Bartley, who masterfully tells Niccolls’ story in her new book The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff.
The exhaustively researched book reads like a novel as we watch Niccolls, who grew up the son of a homicidal father living in a mental institution, and a mother who couldn’t care for her children and left them to their religiously delirious paternal grandmother, go from a delinquent ne’er-do-well to a well-read model prisoner.
“A plain biography would bore the socks off of me. I like to set places. I’m a feature writer by trade and I love narrative style, but I’m invested in truth,” says Bartley, who leaves her attributions and sources for the 20-plus pages of notes at the back of the book.
Bartley tells a story that, for a brief time before being lost to history, made its way across the country. The people fighting for the boy’s freedom included famed Boys Town founder Father Edward J. Flanagan. He battled with Washington governor Roland Hartley, who Bartley discovered was using the 12-year-old boy’s incarceration as a political football.
What’s truly remarkable is that by the end of the book we see Niccolls transform into a man who Bartley calls “a good father and a good husband and a good member of society.” It’s an amazing redemption tale.
Nancy Bartley • Tue, July 30 at 7 pm • Auntie’s Bookstore • 402 W. Main Ave. • Includes reading, book signing and a question-and-answer session