Legends has it that “Cattle Kate” (Ella Watson), who was twenty-seven and beginning to show a few signs of wear and tear, told friends she was going to pull up stakes and set up a crib in another town, since Cheyenne was no longer easy pickings. “There’s no use pulling the wool over my own eyes, for the sad fate is, I’m not a young chicken anymore,” she is supposed to have said. Her customers were beginning to throw their business to floozies who had come into the wide-open railroad town. So Cattle Kate moved to Rawlings, a cow town in the Haystack Hills where, except for a few chorus girls who also showed mileage, a favor-selling lady on the decline might still have a chance. Soon Kate, who was a bosomy brunette with a handsome face, quickly had all the customers she could manage.
There was a hitch, for the cattle market was in a slump and cash money was scarce as hen’s teeth. But this did not worry Kate. She would simply homestead a grassland quarter-section, and stock it with mavericks which she would accept from her men in place of cash. “When those little critters fatten up, I’ll get a nice price for them, you can bet on that,” she is reported to have said. It was a sound idea, though in the end Kate paid for her actions with her life.
But the legend of Cattle Kate was created in the editorial room of the Cheyenne Leader for the benefit of the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association. Almost overnight, they transformed the real Ella Watson into the infamous woman bandit who killed one husband plus various other men, and had stolen more cattle than any man in the West.
Ella Watson was just one of the many girls who became harlots to escape poverty in the 1880’s. At the age of twenty-seven, she was indeed nearly finished after yeas of being a soiled dove in towns like Dodge City, Ogallala, and Cheyenne. In another year or two, even the men of Rawlins would find her too old for their tastes. So when Ella was invited to join Jim Averill at his combination saloon, grocery store, and post office in Sweetwater, she accepted. The cowhands in the area welcomed her to the desolate country, even though she was no longer young and beautiful. To the contrary, she was short and inclined to weight. Ella was also reported to be handy with a six-shooter and a Winchester, as well as with a branding iron.
In the spring of 1888, Ella filed on the land which adjoined Averill’s, brought her meager belongings along, and set up shop in a one-room cabin about a mile from the combination saloon-store. She had a small corral where she kept a few head of cattle. Jim was an enterprising sort, so in addition to his store and Ella’s place he most likely dealt in stolen cattle. Hard feelings had already developed between the big owners and the small rancher. The Stock Growers’ Association was powerful, and had passed through the Legislature the Maverick Bill, which decreed that all unbranded cattle were the property of the Association. Averill wrote many letters to the Casper paper decrying the injustice of the cattle barons, hurling insults, and incurring their anger. He was rapidly becoming the spokesman for the small ranchers of the area.
Ella, reared on a dirt-scrabble farm near Lebanon, Kansas, was the oldest of nine children of a strict Bible Belt family. She fled from the rigidity and poverty and her parents’ miserable farm at a tender age, finding employment as a domestic for the town banker. When she discovered that she could earn a week’s pay in a single evening out tumbling in the grass, she quit her job and left Lebanon for Concordia, Kansas, a small city but a comparative metropolis. As time went on, Ella plied her trade in St. Joseph, Missouri; Dodge City, Kansas; Ogallala and Omaha, Nebraska; Cheyenne and Rawlins, Wyoming. Then, at Averill’s invitation, she opened up shop in Wyoming’s Sweetwater Valley.
The big stockmen called Ella’s place a “hog ranch.” The first hog ranchers were associated with Western military operations, for the hog raisers who supplied pork for the post were forced to set up their pigpens at a distance, so that the strong smell would not reach camp. When any camp follower was not allowed to stay on the post, she would go to the hog ranch to set up her house of prostitution. Sometimes the hog ranchers included a saloon and tables for gambling.
Ella’s “hog ranch” did not house pigs, but she did have a few head of cattle on the place. Cowpunchers would ride a considerable distance for the company of a woman, and when they were low on cash, Ella would take a steer or two in trade for her favors. Averill and his new neighbor got on well, as Ella fixed his meals, and came over to sleep with him after her customers were satisfied. He pimped for her in his store-saloon, making sure that everyone who was interested in fleshly delights knew that Ella were for sale.
Averill was obviously fond of Ella, but had no qualms about other men enjoying her body. This seemed somewhat unusual to the community, but they passed it off by saying Averill was an educated dude from the East, which explained away everything. Within a few months, the combined homesteads of Averill and Ella became a ranch on which many yearlings were fattening. Around this time, someone referred to the hard-working soiled dove as “Cattle Kate,” and soon everyone was calling her that name.
Averill would take her cattle and ship them to market; from time to time, he would add a few extra mavericks, burning Kate’s brand on their hides. Kate kept only a few head in her corral at any one time – too many would look very suspicious. So as the cattle were gathered at the relay point, a man named Frank Buchanan helped out in various ways.
The blizzards of 1888 were hard on the cattlemen. When spring came and the new calves arrived, Averill and Buchanan rounded up any unbranded strays and ran them through Kate’s corral. The cattlemen suspected the operation at Kate’s corral, and began to keep closer watch. In July of 1889, Averill and Buchanan were weeding out unbranded calves, and supposedly shot the mother cows to keep them from following the calves. Times were bad, and Averill was not a popular man among the cattle owners. When they found out that their calves were in Kate’s corral, they organized a posse to take care of the problem.
Kate was captured first, for she was outside when the posse pulled up to her cabin. The men were going to take her in to Rawlins, they said. Kate wanted to change her dress, but they refused to let her near the house for fear she would get her rifle. She was forced into a wagon, and the party drove over to Averill’s place. He was also told the posse was going to take him to Rawlins, and the men even claimed they held a warrant for his arrest. They did not show him the warrant, but persuaded him with their rifles that he ought to get in the wagon with Kate. The posse drove off with the pair, but a fourteen-year-old boy name Gene Crowder saw the capture, then ran off to find Frank Buchanan.
Buchanan headed out after the posse which by now had unloaded Jim and Kate in a canyon. When he saw the group, they were standing near some scrub trees. Ropes had been wound around the limb and the nooses were on Averill’s and Kate’s necks. Buchanan could hear the man trying to get Jim to jump off a boulder, so he fired at the posse. They returned the fire, but he was completely outmatched and forced to retreat for help. Jim would not jump from the boulder, so he was pushed. Poor Kate got the same treatment. The drop was too short to break their necks and they struggled through a dance of death at the end of their ropes until they finally choked to death. As soon as the bodies had stopped moving, the posse left, leaving them to hang in the sun.
Help arrived from Casper three days later in the form of the sheriff. He cut down the bodies and buried them. The men who had hung Kate and Averill were arrested and a preliminary hearing was held in Rawlins a short time later. Each of the men was freed on $5,000 bail; they were allowed to sign each other’s bail bonds. Before the trial in October, Frank Buchanan disappeared mysteriously, and the boy, Gene Crowder, was taken into “protective custody” by the cattlemen. He died before the trial date. There was some evidence he was poisoned.
At the trial, no witnesses came forward to testify against the men, so they were released as not guilty. The powerful Stock Growers’ Association triumphed; justice had lost. But several months after the trial, one of the men involved in the lynching was mysteriously shot and killed. Most people felt the score was evened up a little by his death.