Dora Hand was in a deep sleep. Her bare legs were draped across the thick blankets covering her delicate form and a mass of long, auburn hair stretched over the pillow under her head and dangled off the top of a flimsy mattress. Her breathing was slow and effortless. A framed, graphite- charcoal portrait of an elderly couple hung above her bed on faded, satin-ribbon wallpaper and kept company with her slumber.
The air outside the window next to the picture was still and cold. The distant sound of voices, back-slapping laughter, profanity, and a piano’s tinny, repetitious melody wafted down Dodge City, Kansas’s main thoroughfare and snuck into the small room where Dora was laying.
Dodge was an all-night town. Walkers and loungers kept the streets and saloons busy. Residents learned to sleep through the giggling, growling, and gunplay of the cowboy consumers and their paramours for hire. Dora was accustomed to the nightly frivolity and clatter. Her dreams were seldom disturbed by the commotion.
All at once the hard thud of a pair of bullets charging through the wall of the tiny room cut through the routine noises of the cattle town with an uneven, gusty violence. The first bullet was halted by the dense plaster partition leading into the bed chambers. The second struck Dora on the right side under her arm. There was no time for her to object to the injury, no moment for her to cry out or recoil in pain. The slug killed her instantly.
In the near distance a horse squealed and its’ galloping hooves echoed off the dusty street and faded away. A pool of blood poured out of Dora’s fatal wound, transforming the white sheets she rested on to crimson. A clock sitting on a nightstand next to the lifeless body ticked on steadily and mercilessly. It was 4:30 in the morning on October 4, 1878 and for the moment nothing but the persistent moonlight filtering into the scene through a closed window recognized the 34 year-old woman’s passing.
Twenty-four hours prior to Dora being gunned down in her sleep she had been on stage at the Alhambra Saloon and Gambling House. She was a stunning woman whose wholesome voice and exquisite features had charmed audiences from Abilene to Austin. She regaled love starved wranglers and rough riders at stage and railroad stops with her heartfelt rendition of the popular ballads Blessed Be the Ties That Bind and Because I Love You So.
Adoring fans referred to her as the “nightingale of the frontier” and admirers competed for her attention on a continual basis. More times than not pistols were used to settle arguments about who would be escorting Dora back to her place at the end of the evening. Local newspapers claimed her talent and beauty “caused more gunfights than any other woman in all the West.”
The gifted entertainer was born Isadore Addie May on August 23, 1844 in Lowell, Massachusetts. At an early age she showed signs of being a more than capable vocalist, prompting her parents to enroll her at the Boston Conservatory of Music. Impressed with her ability, instructors at the school helped the young ingénue complete her education at an academy in Germany. From there she made her stage debut as a member of a company of operatic singers touring Europe.
After a brief time abroad, Dora returned to America. By the age of twenty-four she had developed a fondness for the vagabond lifestyle of an entertainer and was not satisfied being at any one location for very long. The need for musical acts beyond the Mississippi River urged her west and appreciative show goers enticed her to remain there.
In 1868 the theatre troupe she was a part of was scheduled to appear on a handful of stages in the fastest growing railroad towns outside of Independence, Missouri. The first stop was Kansas City, Kansas. Settlers, trail- hands, and ranchers were enchanted by Dora. She was showered with applause and praise and sought after by eligible bachelors both young and old. Enamored suitors insisted they would “wade through hell for one of her smiles.”
Captain Theodore Hand, an attractive, athletically built Cavalryman in his mid-30s, was one such suitor. He called on Dora at the conclusion of one of her performances and something in his manner so appealed to her that she agreed to see him regularly. Theodore and Dora’s relationship quickly grew from infatuation to love. A proposal of marriage followed a confession of their mutual feelings.
In an attempt to further distance herself from her estranged spouse, Dora changed her name to Fannie Keenan and made her way to St. Louis where she found work singing and acting in the finest dance halls in the city. The gifted artist was just as well received by audiences then as she had been before her brief departure from the business. Critics said she brought “a sense of glamour and refinement” to the sometimes rustic venues where she performed. Men were enraptured by her voice and moved by the kindness she showed those who made a point of telling her how her smile and singing had won their hearts.
By 1876 the itinerate entertainer had drifted into Texas, bewitching audiences across the panhandle. An ambitious theatrical agent passing through the territory signed her to a performance troupe set to appear in the cattle communities of Abilene and Dodge City, Kansas. Both locations were “end of trail” towns for cowboys driving livestock north from San Antonio and points in between. Due in large part to its growing intolerance of the rowdy trail- hands and its desire to become a respectable hamlet, Abilene had less overnight visitors than Dodge City. As such, entertainers and their representatives preferred performing in the town some referred to as the “Queen of the Cowtowns.”
A hot wind ushered Dora into Dodge in June of 1878. The sun’s rays were like the flames of a furnace blasting down on the parched path leading into the city. Dust rose with each turn of the wheels of the stage she was aboard and sand swirled about the vehicle obscuring any view. Several of the city’s residents were eagerly anticipating Hand’s arrival. Among them was the mayor of Dodge City, James Kelley. Mayor Kelley had made Dora’s acquaintance at Camp Supply in Oklahoma.
Like everyone else who had the privilege of hearing her sing, he was inspired by her voice and intoxicated by her beauty. After becoming the proprietor of a local dance hall he began soliciting her talent. Dora accepted his invitation, agreeing to perform at his establishment provided she would be permitted to entertain at other resorts in town.
The performer arrived in Dodge City with her housekeeper and a good friend, well known entertainer Fannie Garrettson. When the three disembarked from the stage they found the cowtown a dizzying array of activity. Hack drivers spurred their vehicles up and down the street at a rapid pace, unconcerned with the pedestrians that were forced to jump out of their way. Harlots stood outside the doorways of their closet-sized dens, inviting passersby to step inside. Stray dogs wandered about barking and scrounging for food. Ranch hands led their balling livestock into corrals or train cars. Disorderly drifters made their way to lively saloons, firing their pistols in the air as they went.
Dodge City, Kansas was a community rooted in a military post. Fort Dodge, an Army camp five miles from Dodge City, was established in 1865 to protect wagon trains from warring Plains Indians and to furnish supplies to the soldiers fighting Native Americans. The town, which was named after the fort, was founded in 1872 and quickly became a trade center for travelers and buffalo hunters. Its popularity increased with the coming of the railroad. Texas cattlemen drove their tremendous herds into the thriving burg and loaded the animals onto the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe rail lines heading east.
The numerous, and often times wild residents that populated Dodge were from all walks of life. Ambitious businessmen, Indian scouts, soldiers, homesteaders, Chinese railroad workers, gamblers, and soiled doves added to the character of the whistle-stop. An eclectic array of nocturnal entertainment was always available to hardworking pleasure seekers in Dodge. Whether it was attending bull fights, visiting brothels owned by such renown madams as Squirrel Tooth Alice, or taking in a show at one of many varieties theatre, there was something for everyone.
In Dodge City’s early days law and order was an implied notion and seldom if ever enforced. Fights broke out and guns were pulled at the slightest provocation. For a short time a man could do as he pleased without fear of legal reprisals. Between the summer of 1872 and 1873, twenty-five people were shot and killed in Dodge and almost twice as many had been wounded in saloon brawls and gunfights. An east coast newspaper proclaimed the town to be as “rough a community as ever flourished under one flag.”
Part of the reason for its riotous reputation is that the majority of the businesses at the whistle-stop catered to the rowdy trail hands. The financial growth of Dodge City depended in large part on the cowboys and their immoral conduct. The so called respectable citizens of Ford County resented the violence and disorder, but were willing to subject themselves to the unrestrained actions of the men in favor of the fortunes to be made. Law enforcement officials were encouraged to overlook all but the most dangerous men and to essentially keep a lid on the most violent crimes. Mercantile owners, restaurant operators, proprietors of saddle and boot shops, saloon keepers, and gambling hall managers feared that if the atmosphere became too strict the ranch hands would take their business and money to a more hospitable town. In an effort to maintain a sense of order, the Sheriff and his deputies had to be part politician and part lawman.
Shortly after Dora and Fannie arrived at the raucous destination, they walked down the city’s main artery, known as Front Street, to the theatre district. The pair were to be playing an engagement at the Comique Theatre. The women were signed on to perform with a cast of entertainers that
included Can-Can dancers, jugglers, cloggers, and magicians. Variety shows at the Comique went on all-night, one act followed another in rapid succession. Restless audiences weren’t always quiet and attentive by the time the next performer took to the stage, however. Many times drunk and impatient patrons shouted over the entertainers and even shot at them if they were dissatisfied with their performance. The decorative setting the players performed in front of was filled with several bullet holes as was the ceiling above their heads.
The Comique had the least number of incidents of violence against performers of all the theatres in Dodge City. That was due in large part to the caliber of entertainers that appeared there. According to the July 30, 1878 edition of the Ford County Globe newspaper, the Comique was the “favorite place of resort – offering its patrons the best show or entertainment ever given in Dodge.” Among the outstanding acts the paper listed that were appearing at the theatre were “ballad and variety performers Fannie Garrettson and Fannie Keenan, (better known as Dora Hand) transformation dancer M’lle Cerito, and the musical comedy team of Foy and Thompson. The article also added that “all the members of this troupe are up in their parts and considerably above the average ability.”
Dora followed her run at the Comique Theatre with a two week benefit at Ham Bell’s Varieties. Bell, who knew the songstress used both the name of Dora Hand and Fannie Keenan on stage, asked her how she wanted her name listed for the playbill. “What is your real name,” he inquired? “Well, Mister Bell,” she said, “Take your pick, one’s just as good as the other.” The August 10, 1878 edition of the Dodge City Times listed Dora Hand as one of the performers set to appear on stage along with celebrated actress Hattie Smith. The Times noted that the two women were “general favorites in Dodge and were sure to play to a full house.”
During the day Dora served the community helping to take care of the homeless and sick. Her benevolence extended to cowboys who had lost everything at the faro or poker tables as well. More than once she grubstaked a destitute trail hand’s way home and out of debt. At night the dance hall singer thrilled audiences over and over again at a variety of venues. Engagements outside of town periodically took Dora away from the area for short segments of time, but the adoration of loyal bullwhackers and cowpunchers kept her coming back to the rough and tumble burg.
On September 24, 1878, after more than six years separation from Theodore Hand, Dora filed for divorce.
The Ford County, Kansas petition read that “during the marriage and even since she has conducted herself as a true and faithful wife fulfilling and performing all her duties as per the marriage contract.” The decree claimed that Captain Hand had “deserted and abandoned Dora for Gizzie Gataun, a woman residing in Cincinnati, Ohio.”
News of the impending dissolution of Dora’s marriage filled the heart of would be suitors with hope. James Kenedy, the handsome, overly indulgent son of Texas cattle baron, Milton Kenedy, was arrogant enough to believe he could make Dora his own. He had never met her, but rumors that circulated about her eloquence and favor had captured his fancy and he was determined to sweep her off her feet.
James Kenedy was a tall man with a strong build and he was accustomed to getting his own way. He wore tailor made clothes and carried himself with confidence derived mostly from his family’s sizeable bank account and land holdings. When he strutted into the Alhambra Saloon and Gambling House in September 1878, it was with the intention of introducing himself to Dora, marrying her, and escorting her back to his ranch.
A mesmerized crowd surrounded the stage where she stood serenading them with touching tunes. Lost in delivering a moving performance, she barely noticed James pushing his way through the audience to find a seat near the front. Grateful regulars rose to their feet at the end of her song. James followed suit.
Dora graciously took a bow and surrendered the stage to Fannie Garrettson. A bartender served Dora a cold drink as she settled herself at a table alone in the back of the room. While she was listening to the music James strolled over to her and without invitation pulled up a chair and sat down. He set a bottle of whisky in front of her and two glasses. His aggressive stance was met with polite indifference and in spite of his attempts to engage her in conversation Dora kept her focus on Fannie’s song.
“My name is James Kenedy,” the persistent man offered as he poured himself a drink. “My friends call me Spike.” “I know who you are, Mister Kenedy,” Dora responded coolly. A broad smiled filled his face as he studied her hair, her face, her clothes, the way she held her hands. She didn’t dignify his boorish behavior with so much as a glance. Preoccupied with Dora’s delicate features, James did not see Mayor James Kelley walk up behind them and place his hand lovingly on the songstresses’ shoulder. Kelley was a formidable man in his mid-forties with a thick, droopy mustache and sparse, unkempt hair of indeterminate color. He was a former Army scout who had worked with George Custer while they were stationed at Fort Dodge. When Custer left the area in 1872, he gave Mayor Kelley a number of his hunting dogs. The animals seldom if ever left Kelley’s side. His entourage of prized greyhounds had earned him the nickname “Dog.”
James and the mayor eyed one another carefully. Dora ever so slightly shifted her body towards Kelley and he smiled a satisfied smile. James expression was grim. His history with the mayor was troubled. His family had sold Kelley a stolen horse some months back and news of the sale had besmirched the Kenedy name. James was certain Kelley had told Dora that the Kenedys were a family not to be associated with and that that was the reason she was ignoring him.
James had doubled his alcohol intake and was feeling no pain when he started cursing at his rival. The whiskey made him bold and loud. He accused Kelley of ruining his chance to woo Dora. He vowed to have her regardless of what she or anyone else thought. Assuming some of James’s riding buddies would escort their friend out of the saloon once his behavior became too obnoxious, Mayor Kelley tolerated the cowhand. When it was clear James would not be leaving, either on his own steam or with the help of his associates, Kelley jerked the man out of his seat and tossed him out of the tavern.
Once James sobered up the memory of the humiliating events sparked his desire for revenge. Armed with dangerously wounded pride, a .45 caliber pistol, and the financial backing that would deliver him from any illegal act, James vowed that Kelley would pay for his offenses.
The following morning a relentless sun peered through a partly cloudy sky and revealed the carnage left by the wild Dodge City inhabitants like James, who had been celebrating the previous evening. Broken glass, beer bottles, human waste, and the occasional drunken cowboy lay in the streets and alleyways. The smell of cattle, gunpowder, straw, manure, and cheap perfume mixed with the scent of fresh baked bread from the bakeries, and ham and eggs from the various eateries from either the side of the railroad tracks that ran down the center of town. Dora maneuvered around the hurried and aromatic scene, chaperoned by the mayor. Her hand tucked in the crook of his arm.
James stood outside one of the town’s numerous hotels, watching the pair interact. He was hung over and seething with anger. Disgusted and dejected, he turned away from the couple and took off in the opposite direction the two were headed. Several loyal hands from his father’s ranch followed after him.
Dora and Mayor Kelley eventually concluded their outing and went their separate ways. The pack of dogs at Kelley’s heels happily paraded behind him as he walked towards his home, situated behind the Great Western Hotel. Once inside the modest house the mayor eased his frame into his comfortable bed in the front bedroom and attempted to take a nap. After a few moments he was roused out of his thin sleep by a noise in his yard. He listened, braced on one elbow. Glancing out the window and over the tops of the cannas and yucca plants that surround his residence, he spotted James coming up the gravel path leading to his front door.
Mayor Kelley jumped out of bed and grabbed his six-shooter laying on the nightstand. When he heard James’s boots on the porch he flung the door open and raised his gun level with the cattleman’s chest. James was taken aback and for a quick second the two men stood staring at each other. Kelley was ready to fire if forced and James, backed up by a handful of armed men, was ready to draw if the mood and nerve struck him.
Tense silence gave way to a barrage of profanity. The pair exchanged insults and threats. Kelley ordered James off his property and persuaded by his hired hands, the hot-headed cattleman eventually gave in. He backed up the walkway, surveying Kelley’s place as he went. His face was savage with violent thoughts that he knew he would act on later. Before he turned to leave the wind stirred the curtains on the window in the front bedroom and he caught a glimpse of the mayor’s unmade bed. He paused for a moment to think then grinned tolerantly at Kelley as he left.
On October 3, 1878, Dora Hand entertained another standing room only crowd at the Alhambra Saloon and Gambling House. She courteously accepted the enthusiastic applause, thanked the piano player for accompanying her, said goodnight to the audience, and exited the tavern to retire for the evening. Men milling around the streets playfully whistled and called after her as she walked by them. She hurried along undisturbed to Mayor Kelley’s and entered the home as though she was expected.
Mayor Kelley was out of town and had invited Dora and her friend, Fannie to stay at his place during his absence. The accommodations were infinitely more quiet and private than a hotel. The performer tip-toed through the house making sure not to wake Fannie. After slipping into her bed clothes she crawled under the covers and drifted off to sleep.
The shots that pierced the walls of Kelley’s home long before the sun arose the next morning rousted Fannie Garrettson from her bed shortly after she heard them fired. An eerie stillness hung in the air. A quiet that begged her not to trust it. Fannie glanced down at the quilt across the bed and noticed a burn hole in the fabric. She knew it had been made by a bullet. Slipping her finger into the frayed material she traced the path of the pistol ball to the wall opposite the bed.
Fannie raced out of the house, her eyes wide with terror, screaming. Shaking and hysterical she sat down in the alleyway between Mayor Kelley’s home and a row of saloons that bordered the building in the back. When the law arrived moments later to investigate, they found Fannie Garrettson in her nightgown sobbing and rocking back and forth. Too upset to speak, she merely pointed at the house and shook her head. “Poor Dora,” she later told authorities, “She never spoke but died unconscious. She was so when she was struck and so she died.”