As Ella “Kate” Watson sashayed down the crude staircase of the Rawlins, Wyoming saloon and brothel where she worked she inspected the potential customers in the smoke-filled bar. Eager cowboys eyed her hourglass form as she brushed by them. They sniffed the air after her, breathing in the scent of jasmine she left behind. Kate looked past the scruffy wranglers vying for her attention and fixed her gaze on a tall, lean, well-dressed man sitting alone at a table, drinking.
“I’m Kate,” she purred to the handsome gentleman as she walked up to him. “Would you like some company?”
The man nodded, smoothed down his mustache, and slammed down another shot of whisky. “Jim Averill. I’m pleased to meet you.”
Kate had seen Jim Averill in the saloon before. He wasn’t like any of the other men who frequented the bordellos where she worked. Jim was a civil engineer and a gifted writer who had served in the army. His entrepreneurial spirit had driven him west to make his fortune in whatever venture presented itself. When Kate and Jim met on February 24, 1886, Jim was ranching. He owned a small spread along the Sweetwater River where the Rawlins-Lander stage line crossed the Oregon Trail. The supply store he had opened at the stage stop was very profitable. He sold groceries, whisky, and other items cowboys needed.
Kate had long since given up hope of ever meeting an accomplished man like Jim Averill. She was the daughter of a wealthy farmer in Smith County, Kansas and was accustomed to fine things. In her teens she married a man who promised to provide her with the lifestyle in which she was raised, but the marriage ended when she found him with another woman. By the time she was twenty Kate was divorced and earning a living as a prostitute in Wyoming. She preferred to work at houses in cow towns rather than bergs near army outposts because cowboys paid better.
Kate was too ambitious to remain a common percentage girl. She was always looking for new opportunities – opportunities that would lead her to a position of wealth and power. Jim Averill possessed the same drive and Kate fell in love with him. After the two enjoyed a few days of pleasure Jim rode back to his ranch. Kate was left alone in her room at the brothel praying he would return her feelings. But Jim Averill had other things on his mind for the time being.
The years between 1887 and 1892 were a time of tension between big ranchers and small operators like Jim. Larger ranchers used vast areas of government land for grazing their cattle, yet they actually owned only a small parcel of land on which to build their homes. Small ranchers could use only land that they owned to graze their cattle. The power in Wyoming counties naturally rested with the big ranchers who operated the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and who had substantial backing in the territorial legislature. Successful Jim Averill was a thorn in the association’s side, and he made their secret “hit” list after refusing to vacate his property and give up his land. He further fueled the rift when he agreed to become the spokesperson for the smaller ranching operations.
Jim brought the small rancher’s case into the public eye by writing numerous letters to the editors of Casper newspapers. He also used other tactics, such as forcing his opponents to prove their claim to the lands on which their ranches were located.
Kate had heard about the war between large ranch owners and small homesteaders. Not a night went by that there wasn’t a saloon fight over who had rights to various pieces of land. Kate’s business decreased as the trouble escalated. Her clients were preoccupied with the range war.
In May, 1886, Kate was staring out her window, drinking in the sun when the barkeep handed her a letter from Jim. A broad smile filled her face as she carefully opened the neatly penned, purple-prose letter. “My dearest Kate, I need you here with me. Please say you’ll come. Always, Jim.” Kate was thrilled. This was proof that Jim Averill had feelings for her. She sent word back to Jim that she was on her way and set her sights on the two of them getting married and amassing a cattle fortune.
Kate arrived at Jim’s homestead in late spring 1886. The cabin and general store on his property were rustic, but they were set against the backdrop of rolling hills and a sparkling river. The range that spread out before them was dotted with cattle. Jim had a good start on a heard and Kate was awash with enthusiasm imagining the possibilities for their future.
Jim had his sights set on the future as well. His position as spokesperson for the small ranchers served as the perfect entrée into politics. He had become postmaster and justice of the peace for his district and he believed these new positions would bring him credibility with the territorial legislature. He could state his case for homesteaders and force the government to enact laws to protect the landowners in Sweetwater Valley. Jim wanted one of those landowners to be Kate. Any idea she had about setting up house with him was quickly extinguished. Jim moved Kate onto her own ranch – a piece of land he had filed for under the Homestead Act using Kate’s name.
It didn’t take long for Jim to convince Kate that two homesteads meant the chance for financial security. According to the Homestead Act the two merely had to live on the land for five years and it would then belong to them. Jim promised to marry Kate when they had made final proof on their homesteads. Kate agreed and moved her things into the ranch house Jim had built for her, a log structure with a pale green door and shutters to match.
Kate proved to be a drawing card at Jim’s store. Men would come from miles around just to look at her. Women were revered in Wyoming. The October 12, 1917 edition of The Wyoming State Journal reported that in Wyoming there was one woman for every one hundred men. Jim installed a bar in the back of his establishment and it was frequented by cowhands from every big and small ranch in the valley.
Jim considered Kate to be a good investment. Kate was eager to please him, not only because she loved Jim, but because she loved money and everything that went along with it.
Jim and his men rounded up range strays, branded them with Jim’s own brand, and shipped them off to eastern markets. Kate and Jim quickly became two of the richest ranchers in the area. Jim bought expensive clothes, gold cufflinks, and watch chains, and even sent away for imported cigars. He took Kate on shopping trips to Denver where she bought new dresses by the dozen. All the while Jim kept up his barrage against the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Members of the association, upset with Jim’s ever-increasing wealth continued to issue warnings to him to vacate his property or be killed. Jim refused to be scared off.
Jim became preoccupied with planning the demise of the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association and started to ignore Kate. In retaliation Kate kept company with some of the cowboys who came into the store. She accepted stolen cattle from the men in return for her favors thus earning her the nickname “Cattle Kate.” Stories soon spread that stolen yearlings could be found among Kate’s cattle. If they could not be seen in her pasture it was alleged it was because she was passing them on to Jim.
The Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association accused Jim of being the head of a gigantic rustling ring. No evidence was produced that he was a rustler, but the association was intent on blackening his reputation and driving him out of the valley.
Jim was always quick to come to Kate’s defense. He didn’t believe the rumors he felt were perpetrated by the association. He chose instead to believe that Kate had bought the yearlings outright with money he had given her. In early July 1889, an article championing both Jim and Kate’s actions appeared in the newspaper Bill Barlow’s Budget. Jim’s hired hands later told historians that he was humiliated by the piece. It read: “Averill is not a rustler, and while his woman, Watson did have stolen stock in her possession it is a fact that she, herself, did not steal, or illegally brand a single calf. She bought them as any other prostitute buys.”
Kate and Jim never discussed the stolen cattle. The pair continued on as though the entire event had never happened. Jim’s loyalty to Kate, in spite of her infidelity caused her to feel more for him. She vowed to stand by him forever and help him win his fight against the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association.
On July 20, 1889, a hot sun beat down on the ranch of cattle king Albert J. Bothwell. Members of the association had converged at his place for an emergency meeting. Albert convinced the members that in order to maintain control of the range they needed to take immediate action against their most staunch opponents, Jim Averill and Kate Watson. He believed if the two were out of the way the other landowners wouldn’t dare stay on.
The association agreed to ride out to Jim Averill’s place that afternoon and deliver one last ultimatum to the couple. They would give them a choice between leaving Sweetwater Valley while they still had their health or be forcibly ejected. The men knew Jim was a proud, fearless man who would choose the latter. Thus, Albert Bothwell threw a pair of ropes over his saddle and led the party on their way.
Meanwhile, Kate strutted proudly over the flower-covered-hillside near her ranch, stopping occasionally to admire the beaded moccasins she had just bought from the Shoshone Indians encamped by the river. Ranch hands John DeCorey and Gene Crowder were with her when the association members rode quickly past them. No words were exchanged.
When Kate, Crowder, and DeCorey reached her cabin they found the association men waiting for them. Albert Bothwell leveled his gun at the three while one of the other men took down the gate around Kate’s cattle and drove them out to the pasture.
“Get in the wagon, Kate,” Albert was heard demanding.
“Where we going?” Kate asked.
“Rawlins,” he said with a wry smile.
Kate studied the faces of the angry men. “I’ll need to change first. I can’t go to Rawlins looking like this,” she told them.
“Get in the wagon now or I’ll throw a rope around you and drag you the whole way!” Albert barked.
“What have you done with Jim?” Kate asked.
“Nothing…yet,” Albert laughed.
Kate climbed into the wagon and the group started for Jim’s place. They caught up with Jim as he was hitching a team to drive to Casper for supplies and told him they had a warrant for his arrest. When he asked to see it they patted their rifles and told him the guns were warrant enough. They made him get in the wagon with Kate and then drove off in the direction of Independence Rock.
Kate tried to move close to Jim but Albert wouldn’t allow it. The association members drove their horses to Spring Creek Canyon. Frank Buchanan, one of Jim’s ranch hands followed along behind the party, careful to keep a safe distance back and out of sight.
Spring Creek Canyon was dry and the creek bed was clogged with high brush and gigantic boulders. Frank Buchanan stepped off his horse and continued up the canyon on foot. Using the boulders and brush for cover he advanced until he caught sight of the lynch party and its victims. Lariats had been thrown over the limb of a scrub pine that projected out over the floor of the canyon from a limestone ledge. Frank opened fire on the mob and they began shooting back. Seriously outnumbered, Frank decided to start out for Casper to get the sheriff.
“You’re going to hang us, are you,” Kate snapped.
“Maybe we’ll drown you,” Albert huffed.
Kate looked down at the shallow river below and chuckled. “Hell, there ain’t enough water in there to give you boys a bath,” she quipped.
Albert gave the noose a hard tug. The bough above him bent under the strain. “How much you weigh, Cattle Kate?” he asked.
“You want to hold me in your lap and find out?” she snorted.
“Are you gents trying to make yourselves a rep? Are you respectable cowmen ganging up and lynching poor little Kate?” she sneered. The barb of contempt bit into the conscience of her audience. Frowns deepened on tanned faces.
“I think the branch will do,” Albert said.
A couple of association members led the wagon to the canyon ledge, yanked Jim over to the rope and slipped the noose around his neck. “Don’t worry, Kate. They aren’t really going to hang us,” Jim assured her.
Albert threw a rope around Kate’s neck and jerked it tight. “You’re wrong, Averill. You’re both nothing but cattle thieves,” he snarled.
Kate cursed Albert and called the other men cowards. She looked over at Jim and blinked away a tear. Jim nodded to her as the association members pushed the two off the wagon. The pair didn’t fall far enough to break their necks; they strangled to death while the mob watched. The angry ranchers left the scene each going in a different direction after vowing never to say a word about what they had done.
By the time Frank Buchanan returned to the site with the lawmen, Kate and Jim’s lifeless bodies were swaying to and fro in the breeze. Unbeknownst to the association, Kate’s ranch hand Gene Crowder had also followed the men to the canyon and witnessed the lynching. He came forward and told the sheriff what he had seen and heard. Warrants were issued and news of the hangings spread quickly throughout the West.
Newspaper readers were outraged that anyone would have hanged a woman. The Salt Lake Tribune commented, “The men of Wyoming will not be proud of the fact that a woman – albeit unsexed and totally depraved – had been hanged within their territory. That is the poorest use that a woman can be put to.” The Cheyenne Daily Leader had a different take on the hangings. “Let justice be done,” the article read. “All resorts to lynch law are deplorable in a country governed by laws, but when the law shows itself powerless and inactive, when justice is lame and halting, when there is failure to convict on down-right proofs, it is not in the nature of enterprising western men to sit idly by and have their cattle stolen from under their very noses.”
Two days after Kate and Jim were hanged, their bodies were cut down. Kate’s father arrived in Rawlins to claim his daughter’s body telling newspaper reporters that the cattlemen who accused his child of rustling were liars. “She never branded a hoof or threw a rope,” he insisted.
Six men were eventually arrested. Albert Bothwell was among them, but the legal process was a farce from the beginning. Rawlins authorities were “in the pockets” of the association and the six defendants were permitted to sign one another’s bail bonds. The witnesses against the guilty association members, including Frank Buchanan, began to disappear one by one. By the time the trial began, there was no one left to testify against the mob, and the defendants were discharged.
Jim’s ranch house and store were torn down and the lumber was carted away to be used a second time. Cattle Kate’s small cabin was sold at auction for $14.19. The purchaser was Albert Bothwell. He had the building dragged to his ranch where he used it for an icehouse.
A curious Rawlins citizen who visited the site where the couple was hanged retrieved the moccasins Kate had on when she died. They had fallen off her feet during the hanging. The moccasins are now on display at the Wyoming State Museum.
Kate and Jim were laid to rest in shallow graves on Jim’s land. A few years later their remains were moved to a cemetery in Casper.