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Series of Tragedies in Nevada Town Starts Inside Gambling Saloon

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A violent episode in a gambling saloon in Hawthorne, Nevada and ensuing events destroyed at least one resident family, the Gonces.

A Little Background

Vollie “Sam” V. Gonce and Kathleen L. Chapman had tied the knot at age 38 and 21, respectively, in Storey County in 1946. It was a second marriage for them both. She’d gotten divorced earlier in the year on the grounds of cruelty, he, a year earlier, because of desertion. The two had four daughters. The family lived in Hawthorne, a former bustling military town with a population of only about 1,900 people in 1951.

Gonce was a blackjack dealer who’d worked in several gambling clubs in Reno. Earlier, in 1938, when living in Colorado and going by Vollie, he’d served time in the state penitentiary for burglary. In his youth, at age 16, he’d seriously injured his left leg in a work accident at an industrial corn production facility, which had led to amputation.

A Vengeful Heart

On Friday, March 23, 1951, Gonce, now age 43 entered Hawthorne’s 222 Club sometimes between 1:30 and 3:00 in the morning and walked up to a table where bartender Leonard E. Erickson was dealing 21. Gonce said to him, “I’ve waited a long time for this” then pulled a 0.32-20 Colt revolver from his pocket and shot him.

Bystander Marie Diggins reacted by trying to wrest the gun away from Gonce. During the struggle, he yelled at her, “I’ll blast your guts out, too” and fired, the impact knocking her down.

Gonce then left and sped away in his 1946 Packard.

Erickson, 37, was married, the father of three and a former Mineral County deputy sheriff. He and Gonce had been feuding over something for a long time, a fact widely known among Hawthorne residents. Erickson’s gunshot wound wasn’t serious.

Diggins’ injury, to her stomach, however, was; she remained in critical condition in Mineral County Hospital for the first three days afterward. Eventually, she recovered to the extent that she could. Diggins, 35, was a civil service employee who worked in the small mining town of Babbitt.

On A Mission

A local group of armed men using Jeeps and an airplane set out into the barren hills around Hawthorne to track down Gonce.

A few hours later, the posse came upon the Packard, parked on the road leading to the Pamlico Mine, about 10 miles southeast of town. The men followed a set of tracks leading away from the car, which took them to a cliff of rocks. Per their report, they spotted Gonce’s lifeless body among them, dead from a gunshot wound to the chest. Suicide was the official ruling.

On or near Gonce’s corpse, the searchers found the Colt, a 0.30-30 Winchester carbine, the man’s cane and a box on which was scrawled, “Hayden Gallop, you are next.” (Gallop was a Hawthorne resident, too.)

Gonce’s pockets contained two notes. One, on the back of an envelope, was a last minute will in which he bequeathed everything to his wife Kathleen.

Another was a pseudo-apology, written on the back of a keno ticket. It read: “Too bad the girl, whoever she is, couldn’t mind her own business … that smart alec bartender … and most of the people of Hawthorne can’t mind their own damned business” (The Sacramento Bee, March 24, 1951).

Tragedy Compounded

About 1.5 months into the aftermath of the entire ordeal, Kathleen Gonce, now age 26, went missing. Her brother, who also lived in Hawthorne, became concerned and started looking for the widow.

Eventually, he located her, in the family car in roughly the same place where her husband allegedly had killed himself.

Kathleen had slashed her wrists. She was dead.

The couple is buried in the Hawthorne Cemetery.


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