By James M. Enochs in the 1800s
The mystery of the disappearance of Bill Booth, a notorious character who loafed about the Pawnee Indian agency many years ago, has been solved by ex-sheriff Frank M. Canton, adjutant general of the National Guard of Oklahoma.
While Sheriff of Johnson County, Wyoming, Canton hanged Booth for murder in 1886. Since Canton’s return to Oklahoma, he learned that Booth lived in the territory and was charged with the murder of his wife and child. Booth left a trail of blood from Tippecanoe, Ohio, to Johnson County, Wyoming, traveling through Oklahoma, Colorado, and other states where crimes were charged against him.
The nature of the charges preferred in Ohio was never known to us. After living for a time among the Pawnee Indians, Booth’s wife and child were murdered and he was charged with the crime. The search for him was made over the west.
Later he was heard of in Colorado, where a charge of killing a black man was made against him but, he evaded interception by the authorities. His next field of operations was Wyoming where he murdered a German Trapper named Jake Cameron. [Editors note: other accounts indicate the trappers’ name was Jacob Schmerer. A criminal Warrant dated May of 1885 indicates Schmerer as well.]
On reaching Wyoming, Booth engaged in trapping and made considerable money selling scalps of wolves on which a bounty was placed by the territory. His operations were in the same vicinity as that of Cameron. After a short time, the two formed a partnership, the German teaching Booth many secrets of catching wild animals. A report circulated that Cameron had mysteriously disappeared and his herd of horses gone. The disappearance followed closely the sale of some land that the German had occupied and he was known to have had several hundred dollars in his possession. This fact coupled with the general demeanor of Booth made Sheriff Canton suspicious of the man and he fancied that Booth had murdered the German. Canton sent a description of Booth to practically all officials of the States of the Northwest and for several months a search was made offering a reward of $500 for Booth’s arrest and conviction. Meantime, a Negro found the body of Cameron buried beneath a pile of brush and dirt in a recess of a canyon a few miles from Cameron’s cabin. His skull had been crushed with an ax and three bullet holes were found in his body.
Booth was arrested in Miles City, Montana, having in his possession stolen horses and was being held on charges of horse stealing. The Sheriff did not know who he was. W C Smith, Deputy Sheriff, and stock inspector happened to visit the jail, recognized Booth as the man we wanted, so had a picture taken of the suspect and forwarded it to Canton and staff. Not a man of our staff knew Booth well enough to be sure so we quietly passed the picture to Old Burr, the Negro who found the German. He recognized Booth at once.
We were sure of our man but how about extradition. Not a single scintilla of proof. We could not prove Booth had anything to do with the killing of Cameron but we wanted to give him a real sweating, hoping he might tell something. Put the situation to the Miles City boys and Billy Smith, the man who recognized Booth, offered to bring him to the Montana line near Parkman and give him a heave of strong arm on the Wyoming side to reach for him. That method of extradition is known in Sheriff parlance as “Rio Grande” extradition. I doubt if the boys knew in miles of where the state line was but it beat kidnapping and worked.
Sheriff Canton and his Lieutenant, The Skripe, met the stage at Sheridan to double the guard as threats of lynching had been heard. The deputies told us Booth would talk. As soon as the overland stage pulled out from Sheridan all the staff pretended to know a great deal about the killing and to our utter astonishment, Booth opened up and told the whole story before we reached Big Horn. In his recital of this heinous crime, my hair simply pushed my Stetson off my head for I realized he was breaking his neck. He could not justify packing the corpse on a horse and burying it as he did. We were all mighty glad when we landed him in jail.
Booth was the only prisoner we ever had to contend with that caused Sheriff Canton extreme anxiety. Sheriff Canton was one of the craftiest of officers. Booth was equally crafty. We never knew what to expect next. He continually tried to escape. He systematically worked us for stub pens and cut the rivets in his shackles, waiting a chance to brain someone when detected. His work in attempting to saw through the floor is still in evidence in the Buffalo jail today or was a few years ago.
Booth was duly tried and convicted of the charge of murder and was sentenced to be hanged. A short time before the date of execution, he called for a Minister. Canton asked a Methodist preacher, who had been a detective in the West, to call on the prisoner and find out what he could. When the preacher entered the cell, he said, “Booth, I have come to offer a prayer for your soul, but before it is done, I want to know whether I am to pray for a guilty man or an innocent man?”
Booth bowed his head, lost his former stoical demeanor and said, “For a guilty man.”
Booth was the only legally hanged man in Northern Wyoming.
This story is excerpted and adapted from a handwritten tale by James Monroe Enochs transcribed more than a century ago. The original article, called Bill Booth Hanged; Notorious Slayer has been slightly changed for the ease of today’s reader.
James Munroe Enochs (1854-1936) was born in Austin, Texas. As a young man, he served with the Texas Rangers, later moving longhorns up the Chisholm Trail to Dodge City and Abilene. In 1886, Enochs was appointed Deputy Sheriff of Johnson County, Wyoming, by Sheriff Frank M. Canton. Three years later, he became the first sheriff of the newly-formed Sheridan County. He later served on the Sheridan City Council and as a member of the Wyoming State Legislature. When telling the following story, Enochs would always make the comment, “Bill Booth was the best looking man at the hanging.”