By Maggie Van Ostrand
Second only to becoming famous as one of Jack the Ripper’s victims would be gaining celebrity as one of Sally Skull’s husbands. A man would be joining the ranks of a now-defunct exclusive club of five once-frisky members. Some say Sally didn’t always wait to get a divorce and perhaps took the easy way out. She killed them.
“I don’t give a damn about the body, but I sure would like to have the $40 in that money belt around it,” muttered Sally, referring to the drowned remains of Husband #4.
Such acquisitive sentiments were not uncommon with Sally, known throughout Texas as a woman who could shoot, trade horses, ride, and lasso as well as any man. Better. We know she could shoot flawlessly, ride like a man, and cuss like a muleskinner. We also know that she loved dancing and draw poker.
Most of all, Sally loved men. She had five husband-notches in her gun belt, all of whom felt her dominance. “Dogmatic and determined, she possessed so much strength that none of her husbands could stand living with her for very long,” states the book, Outlaws in Petticoats.
She was born Sarah Jane Newman in Pennsylvania in about 1817 or 1818. Her grandfather, William Rabb, was one of Stephen F. Austin’s Old Three Hundred and was given virgin land in exchange for building a gristmill and sawmill in what is now Fayette County. The family had to learn survival tactics, as they were now in Comanche territory where something as simple as failing to extinguish a burning candle could result in death, if marauding savages, aided by the candlelight, shot their deadly arrows through cracks in the cabin walls.
One evening, Sally’s mother, Rachael Newman, spied a hostile Indian’s foot under the space between the bottom of the cabin door and the dirt floor, trying to raise the door off its hinges. Rachel reached for a double-bit ax, “raised it above her head, and chopped off the heathen’s toes with a quick, swift motion. When other Comanches tried to enter the cabin through the chimney, she set fire to a feather pillow and sent smoke up the chimney,” setting them ablaze. She was courageous, crafty, and audacious.
Sally inherited a strong constitution from her mother’s examples and showed great courage in the face of danger, even as a young girl. Reports Outlaws in Petticoats, “Once she watched as two Indians spied on them from the bushes. At the time, she, her sister, and her mother entertained a neighbor. When the visitor realized Indians were approaching, his nerve left him, and he pretended his gun was broken. ‘I wish I were two men,’ he said feebly, ‘then I would fight those Indians.’ ‘If you were one man,’ cried Sally, ‘you would fight them! Give me that gun!'”
Eventually, the Newmans moved to Egypt, Texas, a safer territory located upriver from present-day Wharton.
Sally lived the life of a gunslingin’, horsetradin’, hardened man, some of that talent having been learned from Husband #1, Jesse Robinson. He was born in Kentucky in 1800, and his father was a Revolutionary War soldiers. They say he came to Texas in 1827, and in 1831, he received title to one-fourth of a league of land in De Witt’s Colony in Gonzales County.
As a volunteer in a posse dedicated to the protection of Austin colonists, Jesse first met Sally, then still a little girl. The posse rescued the Newmans from 200 Waco and Tawakoni Indians, trying to burn them alive. Just imagine the heroic sight of Jesse driving off the marauding savages and coming to the rescue of the Newmans. That would have remained in the mind of any little girl, as it did in Sally’s. When she got older, she would marry her hero.
In 1839, Jesse received 640 acres of land for his participation in the Battle of San Jacinto, and he was present when Santa Anna surrendered to General Sam Houston. In addition, he received a certificate for 320 acres in 1838 for serving in the army from March to June 1836 but sold it for $50. That may have been the influence of his new wife, 16-year-old Sally, whom he had married in May of that year. Jesse and Sally subsequently had two living children, Nancy (more about her later) and Alfred, who became a Texas Ranger and fought in the Civil War.
No matter Mr. Robinson’s heroic deeds, he became famous more for being the first husband of Sally Scull than for any brave exploits in defense of his kin and country. Legend tells us he should have received much land just for putting up with Sally, who was not blessed with a kind, serene, wifely nature.
An excerpt from the memoirs of legendary Texas Ranger Colonel John S. “Rip” Ford lends credence to the legend that she would soon become:
“The last incident attracting the writer’s attention occurred while he was at Kinney’s Tank, wending his way homewards from Corpus Christi Fair, 1852. He heard the report of a pistol, raised his eyes, saw a man falling to the ground and a woman not far from him in the act of lowering a six-shooter. She was a noted character named Sally Scull. She was famed as a rough fighter, and prudent men did not willingly provoke her into a row. It was understood that she was justifiable in what she did on this occasion, having acted in self-defense.”
It wasn’t only self-defense that got Sally riled up enough to shoot. She was described as “a merciless killer when aroused,” Some said it didn’t take much to arouse her. She decided who needed killing and obliged those hapless men who fell into that unfortunate category. Occasionally, she just had a little gunslingin’ fun as word got back to her of nasty remarks a stranger had made behind her back. She found the man and menacingly snarled, “So you been talkin’ about me? Well, dance, you son of a bitch!” and began blasting away at his boots with her six-shooters sounding like a Gatling gun and aiming at his fast-moving feet like they were a pair of glass bottles standing still on a stone wall. This caused him to do a mighty fast dance in the dusty street. It sure couldn’t have been a waltz. Nobody knows the original remark that set Sally off, but it must’ve been awful insulting.
Another time, Sally ran into a freighter who owed her money. She grabbed an ax and said, “If you don’t pay me right now, you son-of-a-bitch, I’ll chop the Goddam front wheels off every Goddam wagon you’ve got.” He did the only thing possible — he came up with the money, paid Sally, and lived to tell the tale. Presumably.
She could shoot equally skillfully left- or right-handed and carried a black leather-handled, tooled whip with which she could snap the heads off innocent flowers, or the skin off the back of a man she believed did her wrong. Not only was she adept at using the six-shooters in the cartridge belt on her hips (French pistols hidden beneath her skirts, when she wore skirts), she carried a rifle and was as good a sharpshooter as Annie Oakley long before Annie was born.
Jesse divorced Sally in 1843, calling her “a great scold, a termagant, and an adulterer,” naming as her lover a man called Brown, a fellow who, according to court records, Sally had been harboring in an outbuilding. Gossip suggests “Brown” might have been Sally’s next husband, George Scull.
Jesse also claimed Sally abandoned him in December 1841, and Sally countersued, charging that she was the victim of his excessively cruel treatment, claiming he wasted her inheritance and demanding he pay back her dowry. Eventually, she left town with her two kids in tow, planning to earn her living by trading horses, leaving Jesse to continue raising racehorses in Live Oak County. (By some accounts, Sally was able to leave with only one child, six-year-old Alfred, after a bitter, unresolved custody battle with Jesse.)
That same year, 1843, Sally married George H. Scull (the ubiquitous Mr. Brown?), a mild-mannered gunsmith known for his “gentle nature.” Poor George was a law enforcement volunteer serving residents of Austin County, and the Sculls lived on land near Egypt that Sally had inherited from her father. A year and a half later, George and Sally left town in a hurry, reportedly due to rising heated hostilities between Jesse and Sally concerning custody of the children.
When they moved, George and Sally sold the last 400 acres of her inheritance, George’s prized gun maker’s tools, and all the farm equipment. On December 30, 1844, she petitioned for custody of 9-year-old Nancy. Custody was refused, so George and Sally did what they thought best at the time. They kidnapped Nancy and headed for New Orleans. There, Sally placed both children in a convent.
“In a rage, Jesse sniffed out their trail and followed their tracks…” He pulled them out of the convent and placed them in a different New Orleans convent but he didn’t reckon on Sally’s tenacity. She abducted them yet again and placed them in a third school.
Scull vanished around 1849 and when asked about him, Sally answered tersely, “He’s dead.” People were more afraid of Sally than inquisitive about George and stopped asking. However, records in northeast Texas indicate that around 1853, someone made George’s mark on legal papers, leaving a question about his death. We can speculate that he possibly ran off as far as he could from his screaming spouse or that he was six feet under and that the mark was a forgery. If Jesse were pushing up daisies, we can rest assured that they would’ve had their sweet little daisy heads snapped off by a black widow wielding a long black-handled whip. In 1852, Sally Skull (Sally herself changed the spelling from Scull to Skull because she liked it better) bought a 150-acre ranch in Banquete, Nueces County, and married John Doyle, who helped her turn Banquete into a trade and ranching center. One of their friends was a practical joker, W.W. Wright, who loved engaging Sally in a one-upmanship game. The following excerpt is from Outlaws in Petticoats:
“Once Sally sold WW a horse with a blind eye, a feature John missed when examining the animal. That afternoon, the nag was meandering behind Wright’s house when the poor creature stumbled on the underground cistern. The horse plummeted headfirst into he ranch drinking water, where it met a watery death. Wright was left with the huge task of trying to remove the carcass that lay deep down in the cistern, out of reach of normal ranch equipment.’
Wright thirsted for revenge. He challenged Sally to a race, a favorite diversion in Banquete. In clear view, Wright paraded his newly acquired horse, Lunanca. Sally knew that the name was Spanish for a horse that is “hipped,” or with one hip raised above the other. No fool, she saw this as a chance to take her friend once again. She knew there was no way Lunanca could outrun her mare. She laid down $500, high stakes at the time, and Wright eagerly covered. The town watched as the sad-looking horse hobbled to the starting line. When the shot fired, Lunanca, crazy with excitement, took off like a bullet, leaving Sally’s horse in a cloud of dust. A seasoned horse trader, Sally had been taken by a mischievous cohort and a second-rate horse with bad hips who loved to run.”
Like husband Scull, husband Doyle disappeared, leaving two speculative and colorful versions of his demise. 1) He ambushed and tried to kill his viper-tongued wife but she got to him first. 2) Sally and Doyle were doing a drunken fandango in Corpus Christi and stayed overnight in a hotel. Unable to awaken her next morning, Doyle resorted to pouring a pitcher of cold water on her head. Waking up instantly but still hungover, she grabbed a pistol and plugged him deader’n a doornail. By accident, she said.
Yet a third version for those who don’t believe either of the aforementioned is that one night, Sally caught her drunken husband swilling whiskey from an open barrel; she pushed his head down and shouted, “There! Drink your fill!” This, it is said, is how he really died.
If you don’t like any of those theories, how about the one where Sally, Doyle, and a group of vaqueros on a freighting trip came upon a swollen river. Doyle walked down to stop the oxen and wagon from sliding down the deep bank and into the surging water, except the team could not stop, and slid down, taking Doyle with them. They fought a losing battle with the raging river, and all drowned. In this story, Sally allegedly said “I would rather have seen my best yoke of oxen lost than my man.” Some say Doyle could have swum free but was too frightened of arousing his wife’s ire at his having lost the team of oxen.
In the mid-1850s, a European tourist recorded her activities and reputation.
“The conversation of these bravos drew my attention to a female character of the Texas frontier life, and, on inquiry, I heard the following particulars. They were speaking of a North American amazon, a perfect female desperado, who from inclination has chosen for her residence the wild border-country on the Rio Grande. She can handle a revolver and bowie-knife like the most reckless and skillful man; she appears at dances (fandangos) thus armed, and has even shot several men at merry-makings. She carries on the trade of a cattle-dealer, and common carrier. She drives wild horses from the prairie to market, and takes her oxen-wagon, along through the ill-reputed country between Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande.”
In about 1855, Sally married husband #4, Isaiah Wadkins, but left him after only five months because, according to court records, he beat and dragged her nearly 200 yards. He must’ve been pretty darned strong, or else maybe he had her tied to the leg of a horse. The records don’t say. Sally also proved he was living with a woman named Juanita. Her divorce was granted on the grounds of cruelty and adultery.
Some of her neighbors suspected she was (gasp) a horse thief and did the dastardly deed of stealing stock from her friends. Her method allegedly began with a friendly visit and while Sally talked amiably with her host, her vaqueros were casing the ranch, cutting barbed wire and running the neighbor’s horses off. Indians took the fall for this treachery. Some even said bands of Comanche were on Sally’s payroll, so she got the stolen horses every which way she could, and they were promptly given her Bow and Arrow brand, though some sources have her brand as Circle S. It was also said that her brands might not stand close inspection. However, entered in the Records of Marks and Brands of DeWitt’s Colony at Gonzales on September 25, 1833, we find the following:
Sarah Newman, wife of Jesse Robinson, requests to have her stock mark and brand recorded which she says is as follows, Ear mark a swallowfork in the left and an underslope in the right and her brand the letters, J N which she declares to be her true mark and brand and that she hath no other. Sarah (herXmark) Newman [Records of Marks and Brands in the District of Gonzales for 1829, DeWitt’s Colony” (County Clerk’s Office). Gonzales, Texas, p. 51.]
(The instrument makes clear that the brand is hers and appears on her livestock. Since her father died only two-and-a-half years before that time, it is obvious that the brand, her father’s initials, as well as the cattle which bore it, was hers by inheritance).
Sally began to make the dangerous journey across the border into Mexico for horses. Usually alone, carrying large sums of gold in a nosebag hanging over her saddle horn, she bought herds of wild mustangs, which she frequently sold in New Orleans.
Most women would not have dared to do anything so fraught with peril, but Sally was not most women. She encountered a problem only once, in the territory of Cortina, when a bandit and self-proclaimed governor jailed her for a few days. Sally seemed to regard it as a sort of vacation and just sat and waited for her vaqueros to arrive.
When the Civil War broke out, Sally saw a surefire way to make even more money: Texas cotton, sorely needed by European manufacturers, through Mexico to Europe and, on the way back, arms and other military supplies from Europe through Mexico to the south by rail. The Camino Real north from Matamoros to Alleyton, where the Houston railroad line ended, formed what became known as The Cotton Road. Banquete was the midway point.
When Sally was traversing The Cotton Road with her teamsters, her favorite outfit was a buckskin shirt, jacket, and chibarros, long rawhide or coarse cotton bloomers tied at the ankles with drawstrings. During winter, she often wore chibarros of bright red flannel. Her grandchildren later remembered that she sometimes “sported a fancy wrap-around riding skirt. Her two ever-present French pistols were always hidden in her skirt when she wasn’t sporting her holstered six-shooters.”
Unlike Lottie Deno, Sally was no fashion figure. Old newspapers report her as dressing solely in rawhide bloomers, making it easier for her to ride astride Redbuck like a man. Others say she rode sidesaddle and wore a long skirt, dress, and bonnet. John Warren Hunter wrote, “I met Sally at Rancho Las Animas near Brownsville … Superbly mounted, wearing a black dress and sunbonnet, sitting as erect as a cavalry officer, with a six-shooter hanging at her belt, complexion once fair but now swarthy from exposure to the sun and weather, with steel-blue eyes that seemed to penetrate the innermost recesses of the soul — this, in brief, is a hasty outline of my visitor — Sally Skull!”
Sally spoke fluent Spanish, had a fondness for Mexicans and hired them to work in her business of freighting cotton by wagon train to Mexico in exchange for guns, ammunition, medicines, coffee, shoes, clothing, and other goods vital to the Confederacy. She had a reputation of ruthlessness and of ruling the armed trail hands with the crack of her whip, fueled by a hasty and nasty temper. Nonetheless, the trail hands (teamsters) developed a healthy respect for such a woman who knew so many cuss words, the type of words that would “scald the hide off a dog.” They were also impressed with her prowess with pistols. Her expert cussing also impressed a preacher Sally met on the trail.
Sally was hauling freight to Mexico when she came upon the preacher who had inadvertently mired himself and his two-horse buggy down in the muddy road. All he could do was shake the lines up and down on the horses’ backs, to no avail. They refused to pull. Suddenly Sally rode forward and yelled loudly as only she could, “Get the hell out of there you sons of bitches!!! Get the hell out!!!” whereupon the horses bolted, freeing themselves, the buggy and the preacher. They were seen running on down the road. The preacher managed to get himself and the buggy entrapped in the muck a second time, ran back to get Sally, and said, “Lady, will you please come and speak to my horses again?”
Sally’s magnificent Spanish pony, named Redbuck, was almost as famous as she was. Gifted with legendary endurance, a necessary quality for a horse who wanted to please his tempestuous owner, Redbuck was blanketed in bright colors and ridden under a fine Mexican silver-trimmed saddle. Sally failed to understand that she had passed on her affection for Redbuck to her daughter, who felt the same way about a pet dog. Nancy had been sent off to New Orleans to become a lady, and it was said that Nancy became so refined that she valued her dog above people. One day when Sally was visiting, she became enraged when the dog tried to bite her, drew her gun and blew him to smithereens. Nancy never spoke to her mother again.
Sally was at her “peak of notoriety” when she met and married husband #5, a man half her age named Christoph Hordsdorff, nicknamed “Horse Trough.” One old-timer who knew 21-year-old Horse Trough described him as being “… not much good, mostly just stood around.”
As the story goes, Horse Trough and Sally rode out of town together one day. Only one rode back.
Horse Trough returned alone to Banquete. “She simply disappeared,” was all he said, which probably aroused more gossip than if he had admitted outright that he plugged her. Speculation abounded that he “blew off the top of her head with a shotgun” for the gold in her saddlebag. Let’s face it though if he was 21 to her 43, and good-looking enough to just have to “stand around,” chances are she would’ve willingly handed the gold over.
A drifter later reported that as he was traveling over the prairie, he came across the body of a woman buried in a shallow grave. He first spotted it when he saw a boot sticking out of the ground, with only circling buzzards marking the spot. There was no evidence that the boot was on a foot connected to the body of Sally Skull. Presumably, Horse Trough inherited her entire estate.
What if he didn’t do old Sally in after all? Records indicate that she faced perjury charges and was a defendant in a lawsuit brought by Jose Maria Garcia. Even though the San Patricio County Courthouse burned down and official reports on the case were lost forever, one form relating to the lawsuit survived. Written across the bottom was the mysterious notation “death of Defendant suggested.”
The infamous Sally Skull was portrayed in the 1989 mini-series “Lonesome Dove” by O-Lan Jones.
In 1964 a historical marker in her honor was erected two miles north of Refugio, Texas, at the intersection of U.S. Highway 138 and State Highway 202. It reads:
Woman rancher, horse trader, champion “Cusser.” Ranched NW of here. In Civil War Texas, Sally Scull (or Skull) freight wagons took cotton to Mexico to swap for guns, ammunition, medicines, coffee, shoes, clothing and other goods vital to the Confederacy. Dressed in trousers, Mrs. Scull bossed armed employees. Was sure shot with the rifle, carried on her saddle or the two pistols strapped to her waist. Of good family, she had children cared for in New Orleans school. Often visited them. Loved dancing. Yet during the war, did extremely hazardous “man’s work.”
© Maggie Van Ostrand, August 2007, updated March 2023.
About the Author: Maggie Van Ostrand’s articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, and various magazines; monthly in the Mexican publication El Ojo Del Lago and mexconnect.com, and numerous contributions to Texas Escapes Online Magazine, from which this article was provided.