Tragedies of Natrona County
Hanging of "Cattle Kate" and Jim Averell
THOUSANDS upon thousands of cattle perished in the middle western states during the severe and long-continued storms of the winters of 1886, '87 and '88, and in the summers that followed the hills and hollows of the open range were literally covered with the bones of the beasts, which were bleached by the scorching rays of the summer's sun. The stockmen of Wyoming were the great- est losers of any of the cattle states, and many of the men who were comfortably well-to-do in the fall of '86 were financially wrecked in the spring of '88, and others were left only a shadow of their large herds which had been turned out after the fall roundups to rustle their feed and find shelter from the winter's storms.
But the rigorous winters and hot, dry summers were not the only menace that confronted the cattlemen and which bid fair to diminish their herds. The cattle thieves, or "rustlers," so called in those days, were now boldly making their presence felt more than ever before, by blotching the brands of the estray cattle they could find and putting their irons on the calves they could pick up. The thieves had steadily increased in numbers year after year until the cattle owners were in the minority, and the rustlers' influence, or rather, their means of intimidation, was much greater on the range than that of the "cattle kings."
The cattle owners, after seeing their large herds nearly wiped out by the elements, were forcibly impressed with the fact that the laws of our statutes did not protect them from the now strong band of rustlers, and they must organize and adopt and enforce a law of self-preservation, or go out of business entirely. The man who owned a great number of cattle and large tracts of land was looked upon by the rustlers as a prey, and the brand on his stock was blotched and the animals were driven off from their range with impunity, hence the organization of the cattle owners, who declared that "an injury to one is a concern to all," and it did not take them long to adopt their own methods of protecting their property and set up their own laws as punishment for the transgressor.
The rustlers had friends in nearly every settlement, and sometimes even among the cowboys working for the large outfits they found sympathizers. On account of their reckless unlawfulness there were many people who protected them through fear, and it is said that in some cases men who served as jurors, and some of the judges on the bench failed to do their sworn duty, either through fear or actually favoring the thieves; and up to this day there are some people who contend that these men were justified in their depredations, because the big cattle outfits many times exceeded their rights in taking up large tracts of land and monopolized thousands of acres of the open range, thus starving and driving out the settlers and owners of small bunches of cattle. Courts had become a farce. There was no chance of securing a conviction upon a charge of cattle stealing in those days, and because of their security from the law some of the rustlers oftentimes committed crimes greater than stealing cattle, and little was said and nothing was done about it.
The first case, in what is now Natrona county, to require the cattle owners to apply the law of "self-preservation," occurred in the present peaceful and prosperous Sweetwater country. The day and date was Saturday, July 20, 1889, when James Averell, a man who conducted a saloon and small store in that part of the country, and Ella Watson, who ran a "hog ranch," and who adopted the name of Kate Maxwell, but who was dubbed by her friends "Cattle Kate," and was a consort of Averell, were hanged to the limb of a tree, in Spring canyon, near the Sweetwater river, about five miles west from the Averell ranch, and their bodies were left dangling side by side for more than thirty hours, until the authorities from Casper went out, let them down, held an inquest, and then buried them side by side on the ranch in close proximity to the saloon where they had carried on their nefarious business.
Averell's place of business was a "hang-out" for the rustlers, but many of the cowboys came there for a night's carousal, and before they left the place Averell generally had all their money and "Cattle Kate" had the promise of her brand on from one to half a dozen calves. Kate had taken up a homestead about a mile northwest from the Averell ranch, near "Steamboat" rock, where she built a cabin and had a pasture fenced in, and in a very few months had accumulated a very nice herd of cattle. When questioned as to how she acquired the stock, she simply said she "bought" them, and there was no law to disprove that she was not the rightful owner of them.
Both Averell and the Watson woman were avowed and open enemies of the large cattle and land owners, and on April 7, 1889, Averell wrote a letter for publication to the Casper Weekly Mail condemning the cattlemen who were operating in the Sweetwater country, and among other things he said:
"They are land-grabbers, who are only camped here as speculators in land under the desert land act. They are opposed to anything that would settle and improve the country or make it anything but a cow pasture for eastern speculators. It is wonderful how much land some of these land sharks own–in their minds–and how firmly they are organized to keep Wyoming from being settled up. They advance the idea that a poor man has nothing to say in the affairs of his country, in which they are wrong, as the future land owner in Wyoming will be the people to come, as most of these large tracts are so fraudulently entered now that it must ultimately change hands and give the public domain to the honest settler. Is it not enough to excite one's prejudice to see the Sweetwater river owned, or claimed, for a distance of seventy-five miles from its mouth, by three or four men? Change the irrigation laws so that every bona fide settler can have his share of the water; and as soon as possible cancel the desert land act, and then you will see orchards and farms in Wyoming. Who was it that in the year 1884 tried to have an act passed in the territorial legislature to bond each county in the territory to the amount of $300,000 to run a railroad tunnel through the Seminoe mountains? It was one of the Sweetwater land grabbers."
Averell had homesteaded at the foot of the hills along the Sweetwater upon land that he mentioned in his communication as being claimed by these "three or four men," and the Watson woman put up her shack and fenced in a pasture not much more than a mile distant from Averell, and the two places were the incentive for many a hideous carousal and disregard for decency, where unlawful contracts were entered into for mavericks that were to be turned into the "Cattle Kate" pasture where her brand could be put on them. They were so open in their dealings that the cattle owners in the neighborhood decided that drastic measures must be adopted, and the man and woman must be dealt with severely, and the sentence of death was accordingly carried out with dispatch.
The first news of the hanging to reach Casper was on Sunday morning, July 21, at about eleven o'clock, nearly a whole day after the tragedy occurred, when E. J. Healy rode hurriedly into the village on horseback and told the authorities that Averell and the Watson woman had been taken by a mob and hanged side by side to a tree near Averell's ranch. The people of Casper were aware that trouble had been brewing in that neighborhood for a considerable length of time, and Phil Watson, the deputy sheriff, whose headquarters were in Casper, immediately started out with a posse of men to make an investigation. Upon arriving at the Averell ranch the deputy sheriff and his men ascertained that the facts were as represented by Healy, and the bodies had not yet been taken down.
The deputy sheriff and several men were guided from the Averell ranch by Frank Buchanan about five miles up the Sweetwater river, and turning to the south, following up the gulch leading into the rocks, in the darkness of the night, they found the bodies hanging close together, each at the end of a rope, which had been thrown over the limb of a scrub pine tree. The authorities cut the ropes and let down the bodies and carried them to the Averell ranch where an inquest was held by Esquire Emery, Dr. Joe Benson, Tom Denson, Jess Lockwood, E. J. Healy, Jud Brazil and Frank Denson.
From the evidence given by Frank Buchanan, Ralph Cole, 'Gene Crowder, and John DeCory, the coroner's jury returned a verdict that "the deceased man and woman, James Averell and Ella Watson, came to their deaths by being hanged by the neck at the hands of A. J. Bothwell, Tom Sun, John Durbin, R. M. Galbraith, Bob Connor, E. McLain and an unknown man. The unknown man is said to have been George B. Henderson, who was shot and killed about a year later, an account of which is published elsewhere in this volume. The next morning two graves were dug a short distance east from the Averell building and the bodies were buried by the deputy sheriff and the other men who were there at the time, and although the graves were quite shallow, it is said there was at least twelve inches of water in them when the bodies were interred, the water having seeped through from the river, which was about on a level with the burial spot.
'Gene Crowder, a lad about fourteen years of age, who was at the Watson woman's cabin when the men drove up, gave his version of the taking away of the man and woman as follows: "I was at Ella's house trying to catch a pony when the men drove up. John Durbin took down the wire fence and drove the cattle out of the pasture, while McLain and Connor kept Ella from going to the house. After a while they told her to get into the wagon, and she asked them where they were going to take her. They told her to Rawlins. She said she wanted to go into the house to change her clothing, but the men would not permit her to do so, and they made her get into the wagon. Bothwell told her that he would rope and drag her if she did not get in. She got in and then we all started for Jim Averell's place. I tried to ride around the cattle and get ahead of them, but Bothwell took hold of my pony's bridle and made me stay with them. I then stayed with Durbin and helped him drive the cattle, while the others went ahead and met Jim, who was just inside his second gate, and who was just starting to go to Casper. They made him throw up his hands, and they told him they had a warrant for his arrest, and after they made him unhitch his team, they all came up where the cattle were and Jim asked Durbin where the warrant was. Durbin and Bothwell both threw their guns on Jim and told him that was warrant enough. They then made Jim get into the wagon and drove back a way and around on the north side of the rocks. John DeCory and I hurried down to Jim's house and told the folks there that they had taken Jim and Ella and were driving around the rocks with them. Frank Buchanan got on a horse and followed them, and he was gone several hours. When he came back he told us they had hanged Jim and Ella."
Frank Buchanan testified before the coroner's jury to the effect that "when the boy told him Jim and Ella were being taken away by the mob, he got his six-shooter and a horse and went around to the west end of the rocks and saw them going toward the river. They drove into the ford and followed up the bed of the stream for about two miles, once stopping a long time in the water and arguing loudly, but he could not understand what they said. After they came out of the river, on the south side, they went toward the mountains and pulled up a gulch leading into the timber and among the rocks." He, the witness, then said he "rode around on the south side of the rocky hills, tied his horse and crawled over close to where they were. Bothwell had the rope around Jim's neck and had it tied to a limb. He told Jim to be game and jump off. McLain was trying to put a rope around Ella's neck, but she was dodging her head so that he did not succeed at the time. I opened fire on them, but do not know whether I hit anyone or not. They turned and began shooting at me. I unloaded my six-shooter twice, but finally had to run, for they were shooting at me with Winchesters. I ran to my horse and rode back to the ranch and told them that Jim and Ella had been hanged, and then I started for Casper. I got lost and pulled up at 'Tex's' ranch about 3 o'clock next morning. The hanging took place about twelve hours before."
"Tex" is E. J. Healy, who brought the news to Casper, and whose homestead shack was not far from where the government bridge now crosses the Platte river, about twenty-five miles south-west from Casper.
Buchanan further said: "Averell never owned any cattle and there were none in his pasture at the time of the trouble; the whole affair grew out of land troubles. Averell had contested the land that Connor was trying to hold and he had made Durbin some trouble on a final proof, and he had kept Bothwell from fencing in the whole of the Sweetwater valley. Ella Watson had a small bunch of cattle, nearly all of which were freshly branded, as she only recently got her brand recorded."
Bob Connor, who, it is said, never denied that he was with the party that did the hanging, told some of his friends that when they started out to get Averell and the Watson woman, they had no intention of hanging them, but they did intend to scare them and force them to leave the country. After forcing them to get into the wagon they took them to the Sweetwater river and told them that they would drown them if they did not promise to go away. Instead of promising to leave the country the man and woman laughed at them, and told them there was not water enough in the stream to give them a decent bath. Some bitter words were passed by both sides, and then they came out of the stream and the victims were taken up into the gulch known as Spring canyon, among the timber and rocks, and ropes were thrown over the limb of a small tree and nooses were placed about the necks of the man and woman. They were once more told that if they would agree to leave the country they would be turned loose, but they again laughed at them and said that they did not dare to hang them, and then, it is said, Bothwell gave Averell a push and Henderson pushed the woman, and they both swung out between heaven and earth, and the two souls were sent into eternity. In contradiction of this, it was said at the time that Ella Watson, while struggling to keep the rope from being placed around her neck, begged the men in the name of God to spare her life, imploring them as they loved their mother and revered their sisters, not to send a help- less and erring woman thus unprepared before her Maker, but as no one was present except those who participated in the hanging and the victims, this statement cannot be verified.
TOP: Spring Crekk Canyon. This is where Ella Watson and James Averell were taken to be hanged. "The way of the transgressor is hard," and the road to the place of execution was rough. + indicates tree where they were hanged. INSET: Ella Watson's cabin, near Steamboat rock, in the Sweetwater country.
BOTTOM: The Tree Upon Which Ella Watson and James Averell were Hanged by Catttlemen, July 20, 1889.
Ella Watson was wearing a pair of Indian moccasins at the time the men forced her to get into the wagon, and after she was hanged the moccasins dropped from her feet, but they were not picked up by the men who cut the ropes and let the bodies down. Two days after the hanging Mr. and Mrs. E. C. Jameson went to the scene of the tragedy for the purpose of securing some photographs, and they found the moccasins under the tree, and Mrs. Jameson still has them in her possession. Mrs. Jameson took a photograph of the scrub pine tree which served as a scaffold upon which the victims met their doom, and the accompanying half-tones were made from the original photographs which were taken July 22, 1889.
Six of the men accused of the crime were in time arrested by Sheriff Frank Hadsell of Rawlins and given a preliminary hearing, and each of them was placed under bond of $5,000, which was furnished and the men were allowed to go their way until they might be summoned to the district court or before a grand jury. George B. Henderson's name was not among those on the warrant.
A brother of Averell from Tacoma, Washington, came to Wyoming as soon as he heard of the tragedy. He was very quiet in his dealings, and succeeded in working up a very strong feeling against the men accused of committing the act, and for a number of weeks a subscription paper was circulated and a large fund was raised to carry on the prosecution. The county attorney was to be aided by some of the best criminal lawyers obtainable, and the feeling became so intense that no one in the Sweetwater country ventured from his premises without being well armed.
Ella Watson's father came from his home near Lebanon, Kansas, and made his headquarters at Rock Springs, where he remained until after the case against the men was disposed of by the grand jury. Mr. Watson said that Ella was his oldest daughter, and she was twenty-eight years of age at the time of her death.
The grand jury of Carbon county convened in Rawlins on Monday, October 14, 1889, with John Milliken, Alfred Crove, H. A. Andrews, James Candlish, John C. Dyer, W. B. Hughes, John Mahoney, W. L. Evans, Charles Hardin, F. M. Baker, I. C. Miller, J. H. Mulhson, C. W. Burdick, T. J. Dickinson, Harry Haines and George Mitchell as grand jurors. On Tuesday, the 15th, the case of the Territory of Wyoming vs. Albert J. Bothwell, Earnest McLain, Robert B. Con- nor, Tom Sun, Robert M. Galbraith and John Durbin came before the court, and in his charge to the men who were to decide whether or not a true bill should be returned against the accused. Judge Corn said:
"It is not ordinarily necessary to charge a grand jury with reference to special crimes, but it has come to my ears and is the subject of much conversation in this community and has been widely published in the newspapers that certain persons are charged with the hanging of a certain man and woman by lynch law in this county, and it is evident that there is great feeling and excitement in the community in regard to it. In such matters you are pre-eminently the guardians of the safety of the people and the good order of society. You have sworn to present none through malice or ill, and to leave none unpresented through fear, favor or affection. It becomes you in connection with this matter to be especially regardful of this oath. Some of the ancients portrayed Justice as a goddess blindfolded. Her eyes were hood-winked, that she might not know even the persons upon whom she was called to pass judgment. In one hand she held the balances to weigh the evidence with impartiality, and in the other a sword with which to execute her decrees. This idea of 'Justice blind' should be your guide in this matter. Weigh the evidence with absolute impartiality and without regard to persons, and then strike, no matter where the blow may fall."
The accused were represented by Attorneys Corlett, Lacey and Riner and J. R. Dixon, and the state was represented by David H. Craig, the prosecuting attorney for Carbon county, and he was assisted by D. A. Preston. A challenge of the array of the grand jury was made by the attorneys for the accused, but the challenge was denied by the court, and after due deliberation by the grand jury it reported as follows:
"Territory of Wyoming vs. Albert J. Bothwell, Earnest McLain, Robert B. Connor, Tom Sun, Robert M. Galbraith and John Durbin. Not a true bill." The records then follow: "The grand jury at the present term of this court, having failed to find a true bill of indictment against the above-named defendants, or either of them, it is ordered by the court that the above-named defendants and each of them, and their bonds be discharged. Samuel T. Corn, Judge."
It was claimed by the friends of Averell and Ella Watson that no bills were returned because of the lack of witnesses; that Buchanan, the material witness for the prosecution, who was under a five- hundred-dollar bond to appear, was "induced" to leave the country. He came to Casper in September and slept in a livery stable for two nights, then mysteriously disappeared and has never again been seen by anyone here. His bonds were forfeited and suit ordered against his bondsmen to recover the amount. John DeCory and Ralph Cole also mysteriously disappeared, and 'Gene Crowder, the fourteen-year-old boy, died of Bright's disease, before the case came to a hearing, and thus the case ended, until each individual should be taken and tried before that Higher Court, where no guilty man escapes.
The story is told that Ralph Cole left the Averell ranch the night after the hanging, and he was followed by George B. Henderson. Cole reached a surveyor's camp late at night and remained there until morning. The next day, while trying to make his way to a station on the Union Pacific railroad, he was overtaken by Henderson, who shot him, and the body of the victim was burned to ashes. Whether or not this is true can not be verified, but the fact remains that Cole has not since been seen, although every effort was made by friends to find him.
Regarding the disappearance of Cole, Dr. Mercer in his "Banditti of the Plains," written in 1894, says that "he was hunted like a wild beast, and the supposition is that he sleeps beneath the sod in some lonely mountain gorge, where naught but the yelp of the passing wolf disturbs the solemnity of his last resting place. Or, perchance, this same howling beast picked the bones and left them to bleach on the barren hillside."
On January 21, 1891, the lands filed upon by Ella Watson and James Averell were contested by Henry H. Wilson. The Averell homestead was filed upon February 24, 1886, in the Cheyenne land office, and was described as follows: West half of the northwest quarter, section 26, and north half northeast quarter, section 27, township 80, range 85 west. The Ella Watson homestead was filed upon March 24, 1888, the description of her land being the west half, southwest quarter, section 23, and south half, southeast quarter, section 22, township 30, range 85 west. The contestee stated that Averell and Watson "died in July, 1889, without legitimate issue of their bodies, being each a single person, and that the improvements on the said lands had been sold by the administrators of the estates of the said persons, and since their death the said premises have been entirely abandoned." At the same time that the contest notices were being published, there appeared in the delinquent tax list at the county treasurer's office of Carbon county the information that the Averell estate, with G. W. Durant of Rawlins as administrator, owed the county $12.44 for taxes, and that the Ella Watson estate was indebted to the county for taxes to the amount of $2.49. Wilson in due time filed on the land above described and after proving up he sold the tracts to A. J. Bothwell.
The little shack owned by the woman, in which high carnival was held many a night by men crazy with drink, was moved by Bothwell from its original location, near Steamboat rock, to the bank of a small stream known as Horse creek, a couple of hundred yards east of the buildings on the Bothwell ranch, where it served the purpose of an ice house for thirty years after the tragedy, but in 1921 it was torn down.
The Averell buildings have long since been torn down and moved away. The two unmarked graves cannot be found, and even the trees among the crags where the tragedy was enacted have nearly all disappeared, and only the rugged rocks remain unchanged by time.
Today, a little more than thirty-three years from the time of the tragedy, four of the men who are said to have participated in this hanging, have been called hence, "where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary shall find rest." Whether or not they were justified in their acts they have already answered before the spirits of the two poor creatures they sent before them, and judgment has long since been pronounced upon them by the Judge on High. At this time, 1923, three are still living: A. J. Bothwell retired from the stock-raising business in 1915 and moved to Los Angeles, California, where he has since made his home; R. B. Connor went back to his old eastern home at Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, shortly after the tragedy, but returned to Central Wyoming several times on visits; R. M. Galbraith went to Little Rock, Arkansas, and engaged in the banking business, became wealthy and retired. He has visited this part of the country several times in recent years. Earnest McLain, who, with several of the others, claimed to be an unwilling member of the party, left the country a few years after the unfortunate affair and has not since been heard from and it is supposed that he is dead.
Time has to some extent healed the bitter feeling that existed between the friends of the men who set themselves up as judge, jury, and executioner, and the friends of the two unfortunates who were sent out of this world and before their Maker without being given time or opportunity to ask forgiveness for the wrongs they had committed or to repent of their sins.