Thursday, April 18, 2019

Aftermath of Ella Watson/James Averell lynching

Both Ella Watson and James Averell were left to hang for two and a half days in the July heat. When their bodies were cut down, they were 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.

Ella and James's remains were then returned to Averell'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 couple. With the formation of the Pathfinder Reservoir, Ella Watson's and James Averell's graves were covered with several feet of water. 
At the time of their deaths, Jim was 38 and Ella was 27.

Deputy Philip Watson arrested the six vigilantes: Albert Bothwell, M. Earnest McLean, Robert “Captain” M. Galbraith, John Henry Durbin, Robert Conner, and Tom Sun, and took them to Carbon County, where they were turned 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 Ella, 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 Coe, 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 Coe, 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 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, this unnamed neighbor did not come forward for the hearing.

There were others too, who did not come forward, either because they feared retribution from the powerful forces of Bothwell and his cadre or because they sided with the cattlemen – two from the local newspaper, the Sweetwater Chief. H.B. Fetz, editor of the Sweetwater Chief and his assistant J.N. Speer witnessed the abduction with field glasses from the rooftop of the newspaper building. Both men claim they were tipped off about the events by unnamed cattlemen. 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.

 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.

George W. Durant was appointed administrator of Ella's and James's estates. The land, which was not yet legally theirs as the length of residing on the property as per the terms of the homesteading act had not been fulfilled, 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. Averell’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 with the LU brand, 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 Stock growers Association Executive Committee and Captain Galbraith were 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. In order to protect themselves against the public outcry, the Stock Growers Association used the power of the press. The three newspapers in Cheyenne trumped up the backstory that Ella was a prostitute and a rustler, while Averell was accused of being not only her pimp, but a murderer--that accusation resulting from the death of the man Averell shot and killed in Buffalo, WY, some years prior. 

The death of Ella Watson and Jim Averell prompted the organization of the Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers Association in direct opposition to the very powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association. The formation of the NWFSGA ignited the cattle wars in Johnson County in the early 1890s.


  1. Quite a tale of avarice, corruption and murder! Thanks, Lynda.

  2. Chilling story! Seems like the big boys always win, doesn't it. Very sad.

  3. Oh my! That's quite a tale. I'm going to have to start digging because Wyoming and that time frame is when many of my stories take place. It's quite possible that this information will influence my stories, yet I've never heard of the hanging, nor did I know what sparked the wars. Thanks for your research.


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