by Neva Bodin
Recently Dr. Oz talked about fake news stories posted on the internet. It seems back in 1889 the fake or questionable news stories in local papers reached near and far also, lasting into this century. Take Cattle Kate for instance: was she or wasn’t she a rustler and prostitute? The papers said so; the instructor I had recently doesn’t believe so.
I (last week) completed an OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) class on Cattle Kate and the Myth of the West. Let me introduce Cattle Kate.
Born Ellen Watson in Canada in 1861, she died at the end of a rope on a tree SW of Casper, WY in 1889. One of possibly only two women ever hanged in America, and the only in Wyoming.
Ellen, eldest of ten, at sixteen was told to go to work. At eighteen she married an abusive husband who beat her with a buggy whip according to our lecturer.
I’m guessing, after she bravely divorced the man later, she decided to become an independent entrepreneur and choose her own path. Her parents had moved to Kansas in 1877 to take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862. Having knowledge of how that’s done, Ellen after working as a cook, housekeeper and at a hotel in Wyoming meeting Averell, a widower whose wife and child had died from a fever, became a homesteader.
After meeting James Averell, she joined him in 1886 in the venture of ranching, filing for a homestead back to back to his own filing. They also filed for a marriage license, although the marriage certificate part was never completed.
Averell, living not far from Independence Rock, the landmark signature rock of the immigrants on the Sweetwater River, was a man of many talents. Rancher, postmaster, justice of the peace and starting a road house on his place being some of them. The road house was a country store of sorts. Tom Rea, a Wyoming historian, surmises Averell sold socks, bacon, coffee, flour, cartridges and whiskey. There was no nearby town.
By the time of Ellen’s (now also known as Ella) death , she owned about 50 head of cattle, had a bill of sale for some, buying some from a man headed to Washington territory, and perhaps from local ranchers. Probably some were born on her ranch. Her list of personal effects after her death did not list a gun.
She had adopted a young boy age 11. She had a young cowhand aged 14. Both were there the day the lynchers took her and Averell away. She also had an adult ranch hand.
One day six cattlemen, well known, well heeled, and laying claim to the open range, some of which Averell and Kate had fenced on their homesteads, gave Averell and Watson their last ride in a buggy—out to a hanging tree.
There was a prostitute in a small settlement known as Bessemer Bend maybe 30 miles east who accepted cattle for payment. She was known as Cattle Kate.
The story circulated by the accused said Cattle Kate ran a hog ranch (brothel), (the real one did) and that Ella Watson was known as Cattle Kate and Averell and she were cattle thieves. The Cheyenne Newspaper branded Ella as Cattle Kate and the name stuck, as did the sordid reputation. Newspapers across the nation carried that story. By the time local newspapers had a more correct version, as with our modern day fake stories and Facebook posts, the damage was done.
“Witnesses were murdered or disappeared mysteriously or were bought off. The three Cheyenne papers, dominated by incredibly wealthy cattle interests, trumped up the ridiculous stories everyone knows today about Ellen being a dirty whore and rustler, and Jim her accomplice, pimp and murderous paramour.”
— George W. Hufsmith in The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate, 1889 http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-cattlekate.html (March 7, 2017 website)
I recently read a story of the horrible rape and murder crimes against two young women in our community in the 70’s, and the author referred to Watson and Averell in the guilty terms of thieves and her as a prostitute.
There are numerous stories on the web about this incident, many setting the story straight. But dime novels, movies made about her, and word of mouth have obviously held more weight. The movies had her smoking cigarettes, wielding a six shooter and branding calves in a short skirt. The dime novels pictured her hanging from a rope wearing high heels. (I believe she had moccasins on in actuality.)
A lesson for all of us: just because it’s in print somewhere, doesn’t make it true, but it usually makes it sensational.