Cattle Kate – Mystery of a Lynching

Albert John Bothwell

Albert John Bothwell

Albert John Bothwell, a wealthy cattleman and member of the Stock Association, lived about a mile from Jim and Ellen. Prior to Ellen homesteading her piece of land, Bothwell had used the property, as well as other large sections of open range, as pastureland for his cattle. In fact, Bothwell was in the habit of running his cattle through the entire Sweetwater Valley, spreading out some twenty miles.

Though he didn’t own all of the land, he acted as though he did. Bothwell was one of the most dreaded cattlemen that lived in the area, his main focus to get the homesteaders off of “his” land. He was furious when Jim and Ellen homesteaded the property that he considered his best pastureland. Approaching Ellen several times, he tried to buy her property but she refused him.

Jim Averell had given Bothwell a right of way through his property so that Bothwell could irrigate his pastureland, but on a few occasions, Jim had threatened to cut off his water supply, which further infuriated the cattleman. Bothwell was determined to run Jim and Ellen off their property.

Cattle Roundup

Cattle Roundup

When Jim wrote the letters to the Casper Newspaper, Bothwell sent his cowhands to harass the couple. The men would often just watch the couple to make sure they didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. At other times, the cowhands placed skulls and crossbones on their doorways. Bothwell also had the men fence in areas of land that did not belong to him.

On July 20, 1889, a stock detective named George Henderson rode through Ellen’s pasture in the early morning, finding the cattle with their fresh LU brands. Henderson, a member of the Stock Association, quickly suggested that Ellen might be illegally branding cattle. Though Bothwell no doubt knew that Ellen had had the cattle for almost a year, he saw this as his long sought after opportunity to rid himself of Jim Averell and Ellen Watson.

Bothwell sent for other cattlemen in the immediate area to meet him for an urgent meeting. Who knows what he actually told them, but by the time the meeting was over the cattlemen were convinced that Jim and Ellen had stolen the newly branded cattle. One of the men rode over to Ellen’s pasture to verify the new brands, returning to tell the others about it. The men then decided to take matters into their own hands. Several of the cattlemen wanted no part of the vigilante’s plans and left, but six cattlemen remained. These six ranchers included Bothwell, the ringleader, M. Earnest McLean, Robert “Captain” M. Galbraith, John Henry Durbin, Robert Conner, and Tom Sun.

After the meeting, they all decided to ride over to Ellen’s homestead and see the evidence for themselves. Arriving in the early afternoon, they found the newly branded cattle and their suspicions were confirmed. John Durbin lost his temper and began tearing down the barbed wire fence and driving the cattle out. Gene Crowder, the boy who Ellen had unofficially adopted, watched as McLain and Conners detained Ella outside, keeping her from returning to her house. Forcing her into the wagon, they explained to her that they were going to Rawlins. Then they started toward Jim Averell’s place. Crowder tried to go around them, but Bothwell detained him and he was forced to stay with Durbin.

Jim, who was starting to Casper, was just inside the gate when the men approached. Stating they had a warrant for his arrest, Jim demanded to see the document, at which time Durbin and Bothwell drew their guns. Jim was made to unhitch his team and climb in the wagon along with Ella, and then the group began to travel north. Crowder was allowed to leave and made tracks back to Jim’s house where he explained to the others what was going on. Frank Buchanan quickly got on his horse and began to follow the vigilantes.

Buchanan followed the group for about two miles as they traveled up the east side of Averell Mountain, then headed southwest across the sagebrush toward Sweetwater River and Independence Rock. Finally, the vigilantes stopped at a gulch on the south side of the river. As Buchanan watched, Bothwell tied a rope to a tree, wrapping the other end around Jim’s neck, while McLain was attempting to put a rope around Ella’s dodging neck. At the sight of this, Buchanan opened fire on the vigilantes, but when the group returned fire, he fled for his life. Returning to the ranch, he told Gene Crowder, John L. DeCorey, and Ralph Coe about the hangings.

Though an investigation into the hangings began almost immediately, the bodies were left to hang in the July heat for 2 ½ days. A reporter, who was the first to talk to members of the posse, described it as thus:

“Hanging from the limb of a stunted pine growing on the summit of a cliff fronting the Sweetwater River, were the bodies of James Averell and Ella Watson. Side by side they swing, their arms touching each other, their tongues protruding and their faces swollen and discolored almost beyond recognition. Common cowboy lariats had been used, and both had died by strangulation, neither fallen over two feet. Judging from signs too plain to be mistaken a desperate struggle had taken place on the cliff, and both man and woman had fought for their lives until the last.”

Sweetwater River Rocks

Their bodies were cut down and taken to Averell’s roadhouse, where Justice of the Peace B.F. Emery, a Casper attorney, solemnly swore in those present and held an official coroner’s inquest over their bodies. Further, he made the resulting verdict to the effect that the deceased met their death at the hands of John Durbin, Tom Sun, A.J. Bothwell, Robert Conner, Robert Galbraith and a man named Earnest McLean.

Their remains were then returned to Jim’s Ranch about 3:00 a.m. on July 23, 1889, by E. Joseph Healy, who was a juror on the inquest panel.  Ralph Coe, along with another man by the name of Jess Lockwood, buried the pair on Jim’s Ranch. At the time of their deaths, Jim was 38 and Ella was 27.

Deputy Philip Watson arrested the six vigilantes, took them to Carbon County, and turned them over to Sheriff Frank Hadsell. The following day, on July 26, 1889, the Cheyenne Daily Leader reported:

“A Rawlins telegram says that all the men were arrested by Sheriff Hadsell of Carbon County and given a preliminary hearing yesterday afternoon. Bail was fixed at a $5,000 bond. Each lyncher was allowed to post each others bond.”

The Grand Jury was convened for August 25, 1889, but before the witnesses could testify, they begin to mysteriously die or disappear. Shortly after the hangings, Gene Crowder disappeared, never to be seen again. Some said that his father heard of the affair and took him away to protect him from the powerful members of the Stock Association. John DeCorey, the boy who worked for Ellen, allegedly went to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, but was never summoned for the hearing.

Then Frank Buchanan also disappeared before the hearing. He was reportedly last seen in protective custody in Cheyenne, Wyoming. However, a year or so later, W.R. Hunt, a reporter working for the Chicago Inter-Ocean reported seeing him.  A notebook by Hunt, found years later in the attic of a Kansas City home, tells where Buchanan wandered all over the country for the next year or two, hiding from the powerful cattlemen and fearing for his life.

Ralph Cole, Jim Averell’s nephew, mysteriously died on the very day of the scheduled hearing, possibly from poisoning.

With no witnesses to testify, all charges were dropped against the six cattlemen. No attempts were ever made to investigate the death of Ralph Cole, nor the three disappearances of the primary witnesses against the six ranchers.

Rumors abounded that Bothwell had some of his cowboys ride to the different homesteaders and small ranchers telling them if they testified against the ranchers that they would be burned out or worse – end up like Jim and Ella.

A neighbor by the name of Tex would later say that the whole affair grew out of land troubles. Averell had contested the land Conner was trying to hold, had made Durbin some trouble on a final proof, and kept Bothwell from fencing the whole Sweetwater Valley. He also stated that Ella Watson had a small bunch of cattle and had come by them honestly – freshly branded because she had only recently recorded her brand. Nevertheless, Tex did not come forward for the hearing.

There were others too, who did not come forward – two from the local newspaper, the Sweetwater Chief. Having been alerted by two unnamed cattlemen, H.B. Fetz, the newspaper editor and his assistant J.N. Speer witnessed the abduction with field glasses from the rooftop of the newspaper building. Watching the angry procession file very near, they first saw the procession as they made their way to examine Ellen’s calves and again later when they had abducted Ella and Jim. Neither volunteered to give testimony at the grand jury hearings that were later held in Rawlings.

Cattle on the Range

Cattle on the Range

Another witness to the abduction was a man by the name of Dan Fitger. While Fitger was plowing a hay meadow, he could clearly see the lynching party down in the river bottom, with Buchanan following far behind. Fitger never came forward at the hearings, but years later told this story to his family.

After their deaths, George W. Durant was appointed administrator of their estates. The land, which was not yet legally theirs, would have to be turned back over to the government. Ella’s property, with the exception of a few personal items, was sold at auction for $322.75. Jim’s property netted $657.90. Durant also filed a lawsuit against A.J. Bothwell and John Durbin for the return of 41 head of cattle, but the lawsuit was never ruled upon.

In the same year as the lynching, both Albert Bothwell and Tom Sun were made members of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association Executive Committee and Captain Galbraith was elected to the legislature. John Durbin served one year on the committee with his two neighbors in 1894.

A few years after Ella’s death, Bothwell finally acquired both Watson’s and Averell’s homesteads and moved his house onto what had been Ella’s homestead claim.

Much of the confusion surrounding this entire affair, as well as the apparently inaccurate information about the victims, resulted from the abundance of bad press that “Cattle Kate” and Jim Averell received from the Wyoming newspapers following their deaths. It appears that the press was also in the “pockets” of the powerful Stock Growers Association. The three Cheyenne papers trumped up the stories that everyone knows today about Ellen being a whore and rustler, and Jim her accomplice, pimp and murderous paramour.

The pair’s death was just one of the many events which effectively started the infamous Johnson County War in Wyoming in 1892. The Johnson County War began when a small group of ranchers in Johnson County formed the upstart Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers Association in direct opposition to the powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated January 2020.

Also See:

Johnson County War

James Averell – Unjustly Hanged

Frontier Feuds & Range Wars

Nate Champion – Killed in the Johnson County War

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