Tom King followed five spirited, fast-moving horses into a dense line of trees seven miles outside the town of Fredonia, Kansas. It was a stifling-hot August day in 1894. Low-hanging branches on brown, thirsty trees slapped at the criminal and his horse as they sped by. Sweat foamed around the animal’s neck and hindquarters. Tom, dressed in worn trousers, chaps, a flannel shirt, a large-brimmed hat, and a tan duster, skillfully maneuvered his ride around fallen limbs in pursuit of his quarry.
Tom and his roan were directly beside the five horses as they broke through the other side of the grove of trees. His horse leapt over a cluster of large boulders; Tom leaned back in the saddle to let the wind strip off his coat as his horse jumped. In that moment Tom and the horse were in mid-air, and the coat trailed behind him like leather wings.
From a crude camp far in the distance, Fredonia Sheriff H. S. McCleary watched Tom and his mount keep pace with the horses. The lawman cast a glance at the deputies standing on either side of him. Their eyes were fixed on Tom. If not for the fact that the authorities were there to arrest Tom for stealing horses, they might have felt compelled to congratulate him on his equestrian skills. They had apprehended Tom’s partner, Ed Bullock, at the thieves’ camp, placed a gag around his mouth, and handcuffed him to the back of a wagon. Beside the wagon was a large trunk filled with an assortment of stolen jewelry.
Bullock tugged at the handcuffs in a desperate attempt to break free. He wanted, somehow, to warn Tom not to return to camp. It was too late. Tom led the ill-gotten horses into the camp, and right into the arms of the law. The sheriff leveled his gun at the bandit, and Tom slowly dismounted. He surrendered his weapon without having to be asked. The sheriff took a few steps toward Tom, studying his face as he walked. According to the San Antonio Daily Light on August 6, 1894, the sun and wind had darkened King’s complexion, and at first glance he appeared to be a mixed-blood Cherokee Indian. Sheriff McCleary asked him how old he was, and Tom told him his age was twenty-five. The sheriff scrutinized Tom’s face, then told him to remove his hat. In that moment it was clear that the notorious Tom King was no man at all. The outlaw that stood before him was a woman named Flora Mundis.
Ed Bullock wasn’t a man either. She was Jesse Whitewings. Both women were from the Cottonwood Creek bottoms of West Guthrie, Oklahoma. Flora had been arrested twice in the last two years but managed to escape before standing trial for her crimes. Knowing Flora’s history, Sheriff McCleary wasted no time taking the two women to his jail in Canadian County. He would not make the same mistake other lawmen had who were too intimidated by the fact that the wanted horse thieves were indeed ladies; he was determined to treat them like the criminals they were.
On August 17, 1892, the El Reno Democrat reported that once the women were locked up, the sheriff recognized how difficult it would be for his deputies to follow his example. “There is something ominous to the atmosphere of the jail here… . . . a death-like quietude and a tip-toe carefulness about the place not common of men used to handling hardened criminals. The officials appear awkward and confused, and the turnkey is beside himself. The famous woman, who has caused so much trouble in the past, is going to cause much more in the immediate future. The jailers have arranged it so that a physician is near at hand . . . although some believe the event will take place without accident.”
Flora Mundis was born Flora Quick in Johnson County, Missouri, in 1875. Her father, Daniel Quick, was a wealthy rancher and farmer. He was married twice and fathered fifteen children. Flora was the youngest daughter and his favorite child. She possessed considerable talent, and at fourteen Daniel enrolled her at Holden College, a school for the arts in Holden, Missouri. In less than a month, Flora left school and returned home. She didn’t like being confined to a classroom and preferred instead to ride her horse around the family estate.
Flora’s father died in 1880. The twenty-four acres of land he owned, as well as 13,000 dollars in personal property, was divided equally among his children. Daniel had named his oldest son executor of his holdings, and, in addition to taking charge of the finances, he assumed responsibility for his siblings. He decided to send his headstrong sister Flora to a school in nearby Sedalia. He hoped that while there she would settle down and marry a man of good, moral character. Flora did the exact opposite.
After a brief stay in school, she dropped out and married an older, disreputable man named Ora Mundis. Family and friends warned Flora that he was untrustworthy and only after her share of her father’s estate. She didn’t believe them. She thought Ora was exciting. The couple spent their evenings in Holden visiting the saloons along the main thoroughfare of town, drinking and gambling. Quickly bored with the nightly routine, the newlyweds decided to take off on a hunting expedition. The Mundises returned to Holden one year later. They boasted to anyone they met about their encounters with the law and how the Indian Nation [the Pawnee, Osage, Kiowaand Arapaho] feared them. They warned Holden residents that they were “bad, bad people that were not to be trifled with.” Holden’s city marshal was not intimidated by the pair. He relieved them of their guns and strongly suggested they leave town.
Shortly after Flora sold her share of the family estate she and her husband left Holden and headed for Guthrie. They arrived at the growing Oklahoma rail town in November 1892. Flora was seventeen years old and Ora was thirty.
The two lived a fast lifestyle, gambling, drinking, purchasing fine clothing and fine horses, until Flora’s money ran out. Ora left her soon after that. Desperate and penniless, Flora turned to prostitution. During the day she could often be seen riding her horse through town dressed in an equestrian costume she had purchased with her inheritance. According to an Iowa paper, the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, in the edition on September 26, 1893, she dressed in green and black gowns and “wore upon her head a black turban trimmed with a gold braid, which glistened brightly in the sun or under the electric lights.” A curious reporter for the Guthrie Daily Leader sat down with Flora at the saloon where she worked and dared to ask her what had become of her husband. “I don’t know,” she told him. “We didn’t get along well and fought everyday. I suspect he’s better company now,” she offered solemnly.
During Flora’s time in Guthrie, she became good friends with a madam and gambler named Jesse Whitewings and the pair began to steal horses. When they weren’t stealing, they were trading their services for horses or money to acquire a place to keep their stolen livestock.
Flora’s first tussle with the law did not involve stolen horses or prostitution but a claim of assault she made against a prominent physician in the area. Frustrated that he spurned her advances, on May 11, 1892, the Guthrie Daily Leader reported that she falsely charged Doctor Jordan with attacking and trying to rape her. Convinced a jury would believe the teary-eyed, tawny, complected beauty, Doctor Jordan decided to flee the territory rather than go to court. The allegation caused irreparable harm to Flora’s business. Clients stopped visiting her because they feared similar accusations. Faced with being a pauper, Flora decided to pursue stealing horses full time. She traded in her fancy clothes for cowboy gear and set off to solidify her position in outlaw history.
During the spring of 1893, she brazenly stole numerous horses from hitching posts outside stores, and from family farms and ranches. She then took the stolen animals to her hideout, and any animal that was carrying a brand was quickly re-branded and sold in an area called Hell’s Fringe. Two well-known lawmen from Oklahoma City named Chris Madsen and Heck Thomas tracked a few hundred stolen animals to the outlaw’s hideout in Canadian County, and Flora was subsequently arrested. Given her rough, dusty appearance and the men’s clothing she was wearing, the lawmen did not suspect she was a woman. When she was apprehended she told them her name was Tom King.
In June 1893, Tom King was thrown in jail alongside Ernest Lewis. Lewis, nicknamed “the Killer,” was incarcerated for murder and suspicion of robbing a train. Tom and Ernest became fast friends, and Ernest convinced the horse thief that train robbery was the better venture. Tom agreed to help his new partner escape the Oklahoma City jail and start formulating a plan to hold-up a train.
On June 27, 1893, Tom revealed her true self to an impressionable guard. She seduced him and locked him in her cell. Tom then let Ernest out of his cell, and the two fled that area on a pair of stolen horses. The criminals made their way to a place called the Outlet (a sixty-eight-mile-wide strip of land south of the Oklahoma/Kansas border) and immediately set their sights on robbing the Santa Fe Railway train. Tom hired a friend named Manvel to help them get the job done. At 3:30 in the afternoon on June 29, 1893, the trio went into action.
Carrying a rifle in his coat, Manvel boarded the train in Oklahoma City and hid himself in the smoking car. When the train reached Black Bear Creek between Red Rock and Wharton, Manvel was supposed to overpower the conductor and order him to stop the train. Tom and Ernest were waiting there to board the locomotive and rob it. The conductor did not let the outlaw get the upper hand. He wrested Manvel’s gun from him, knocking him out in the process. Manvel was arrested—but not before divulging the whereabouts of Tom and Ernest.
When the train didn’t stop, Tom and Ernest realized something had gone wrong. They decided to separate and leave the area before law enforcement arrived. Ernest headed to Colorado and Tom remained in Oklahoma. One attempt at train robbery seemed enough; she returned to stealing horses.
Authorities searched the Oklahoma Territory looking for Tom King. On July 12, 1893, Deputy Robacker of Guthrie spotted the wanted horse thief at a livery stable in town. She was sitting atop her ride talking with a few men, completely unaware she had been recognized by the law. She was arrested and returned to the same Oklahoma jail from which she had escaped once before.
By August 8, 1893, Tom had broken out of jail again and fled to a town twenty miles west of Oklahoma City called Yukon. As reported by the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette on September 26, 1893, “the chase after King was marked by two incidents, one tragic and the other sensational. In the darkness two parties of searchers mistook each other for horse thieves and opened fire with Winchesters,” the article read. “Will Fightmaster, son of the sheriff, was killed. Another party of deputies discovered a young woman in male attire in company with a young man in a secluded spot in the woods. They thought of course they had caught Tom King but this young woman turned out to be a well-known railroad man’s wife out for a lark.”
Tom was recaptured and hauled back to Oklahoma City. This time the jailer locked her in a steel cage. Her stay at the facility was brief, however. Law enforcement agents in Canadian County demanded the outlaw be turned over to them to be tried for the horse theft.
Deputy Marshals Chris Madsen and Heck Thomas loaded Tom and several other prisoners onto a wagon and transported them across Oklahoma to El Reno, another town in the central portion of the territory. The crafty horse thief managed to break out of that jail, too, on December 5, 1893. The headline across the top of the December 8, 1893, Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette read, “Tom King, the Romantic Horse Thief, Breaks El Reno Jail in her Third Escape; She is Bound to Make a Record!” The article read:
It seems there is no jail that can hold her. Even the Oklahoma City jail, which is considered the strongest in the Territory, yielded before her magic art. . . . She is very cunning and clever. The vigilant officers usually get her, but getting her does not seem to be of much effect in curing the mania with which she is afflicted. She finds the same delight in horse stealing as other women would in reading novels or playing croquet. It is her ambition to be the most famous horse thief of her generation, and already she has taken more of them than any man in the history of the Southwest.
Included in the search team to recapture Tom in the winter of 1893 was a pack of bloodhounds. Tom managed to elude all but one of the dogs. He followed her across southern Canadian and Wichita Counties to a point near the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache reservation line. At some point Tom was able to subdue the animal and prevent it from coming after her again. On December 17, 1893, the Guthrie Daily Leader reported that the hound had been shot at close range. “He evidently had caught her trouser leg,” the article explained, “for beside where the dog lay was a piece of Scotch-Tweed of irregular form and about the size of the sole of a man’s shoe, which is said to be a piece of the suit of men’s clothes which Missus King was allowed to wear in jail.”
Between January and August 1894 Tom kept a very low profile. Rumors that she had formed her own gang and was crisscrossing Oklahoma carrying out various crimes circulated among law enforcement officers in Guthrie and Oklahoma City. One of the men suspected of partnering with Tom in a series of horse thefts around Tecumseh, Oklahoma, was Bill Dalton. Bill was a bank robber and the brother of Gratton, Bob, and Emmett, of the famous Dalton Gang.
According to the San Antonio Daily Light on August 6, 1894, Bill Dalton participated in a poker game in which he put up Tom’s prized horse as a bet. The incident reportedly went as follows: “Flora Mundis, alias Tom King’s career as a horse thief ended with her arrest on August 7, 1894 in Fredonia, Kansas. She was extradited to Canadian County, Oklahoma, and a trial was set. She was visibly pregnant when she went before the judge and although convicted of stealing horses he did not sentence her to serve any time in jail. King was released on bail and left the Territory.”
Oklahoma lawman Heck Thomas believed King was killed in an attempted bank robbery in southern Arizona. Thomas told a reporter for the Guthrie Daily Leader that the description and measurements of the outlaw shot at the scene of the crime matched those of the infamous King.
The last anyone heard from Tom King was late April 1896. Oklahoma City attorney D. C. Lewis, one of King’s friends, received a letter from her that stated she was headed West by train. She promised to visit Lewis around Christmas but never showed. What really happened to Tom King and her child is a mystery.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.