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Outlaws: The Williams' Brothers

Updated on December 22, 2015

Ed Maxwell

During the very early 1880s, two young outlaw brothers terrorized the Northwest. For a short while they managed to steal the spotlight from the likes of Frank and Jesse James but then slowly faded into the background of history. They were Ed and Alonzo Maxwell, originally from a small town in Arkansas. Shortly after the Civil War the family moved to Illinois.

Ed, the oldest, and Alonzo, nicknamed “Lon,” frequently used the surname Williams as an alias and thus, were mostly known by that name. At first the brothers were only involved in horse theft, operating in Illinois and surrounding states, but later graduated to daring armed robberies and murder. Although they were known to have been in the company of the James Gang they never joined up with them. The brothers preferred working alone.

Dime novel writers of the day quickly picked up on the brother’s exploits and their notoriety spread, not that they needed any help. The two were already feared far and wide as fast, deadly gunslingers. Rewards were offered, but they always managed to stay one jump ahead of the law. Eventually, the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency was called in to assist in tracking them down.

Tired of running from the law they decided to take a short sabbatical and stopped at a hotel in Minnesota. While there they made ample use of local saloons and dancing halls. Unfortunately, during their revelry they let their guard down. The pair were recognized and arrested by local authorities. Ed escaped briefly, but was recaptured shortly afterwards in Illinois. Both were sent to Joliet Prison. Ed was sentenced to five years and Lon, three.

Lon Maxwell

After his release, Lon got a job as a general store clerk in Knapp, Wisconsin and married a local girl. The newlyweds lived with her parent’s. The entire family later moved to a farm near Durand, Wisconsin and Lon found work at a local lumber yard.

He had only worked there a short time before he severely injured his foot with an axe and lost a toe. It also put him out of a job. Meanwhile, his brother Ed had been released from prison. Ed showed up at Lon’s place late one night and moved in. After learning his brother was in dire financial straits, Lon returned to thieving and helped pay off Ed’s mounting bills. However, Lon refused to participate as he was trying to turn over a new leaf.

Ed later moved out but returned often with stolen horses which he would leave at their farm. But, as soon as his brother left Lon would turn them loose. Even so, he was still suspected of taking part in the thefts when the law began closing in on his older brother. The brother’s fled leaving Lon’s wife at her parent’s home. Since the law already thought Lon had taken part in Ed's crimes he felt he might as well go back in business with Ed.

By this time their descriptions were circulating throughout a five state area and the reward for their capture rose still higher.

Sheriff Miletus Knight of Durand was one lawman who had received descriptions of the outlaws. Knight decided to search the nearby residence where Lon's wife was living. She became so upset over the search she died in childbirth shortly afterward.

Ed and Lon returned home about two weeks later. Lon was extremely grieved to learn his wife had died. At first he blamed Ed for her death and in a fit of fury tried to kill him. However Ed, the stronger of the two, managed to subdue his brother and eventually convince him Sheriff Knight was to blame. The two set out to find the lawman.

On July 10th they came to the Chippewa River and Ferryman Frank Goodrich took them across. While crossing they asked where Knight could be found. After they disembarked Goodrich scurried off to spread the word the Williams’ boys were headed into town, armed to the teeth and aiming to settle up with Sheriff Knight.

Deputy Milton Coleman of Menomonie and former Deputy Charles Coleman of Durand, also brothers, grabbed their shotguns and went after the Williams Brothers. Milton spotted their quarry hiding in some underbrush and raised his shotgun. He was half way through his sentence telling the two they were under arrest when Lon shot and killed him. At the same time Ed had wounded Charles in his arm. Charles managed to reciprocate winging Lon before sprawling into the dirt dead from two bullets fired from Ed’s rifle.

The brothers slipped across the river in a stolen boat and went into hiding in the Eau Galle woods to lick their wounds. Authorities lost no time in rounding up posses across several surrounding counties. More than 500 men scoured the woods for the fugitives.

They were seen several times but due to the thick underbrush they managed to avoid capture. It is believed they also had friends in the area who also gave them assistance. The search continued for over a month. The two outlaws, who now had a collective reward of $1,700 on their heads, finally made it out of the area and into Illinois. In Pike County they killed the sheriff while resisting arrest.

The two desperados were finally captured in November near Grand Island, Nebraska. A German farmer had seen their description in a newspaper and notified the local sheriff. The sheriff, along with two deputies, dropped by the farmer’s house early the next morning posing as hunters. They were invited in to have breakfast.

When the sheriff spotted Lon’s missing toe as he was pulling his boots on he was positive they were the Williams’ brothers, but resisted the temptation to arrest them on the spot. He knew their deadly reputation when they became cornered. He decided to bide his time and wait a more opportune moment.

It came as Lon got up from the breakfast table and headed for the door. Ed was seized by the lawmen. Lon attempted to help his brother, but couldn’t as a volley of shots were fired in his direction. He had no choice but to run.

Word quickly spread Ed Williams had been captured. Hundreds of people were on hand at the river to get a glimpse of the notorious outlaw as he stepped off the skiff that brought him back to Durand for trial. On November 19th approximately 500 people milled outside the courthouse while inside there was standing room only.

The crowd hurled threats and obscenities as the prisoner entered the courtroom. But Ed seemed not to notice or care. He pleaded not guilty claiming the Coleman brothers had been killed in self defense. But the mob in the courtroom didn’t want to hear it and about a dozen lumberjacks who had come down from the hills grabbed him, put a noose around his neck and dragged him out the door and into the street. There would be no trial. Vigilante justice was about to commence. The rope was tossed over a tree limb and Ed, still in handcuffs and shackles, was unceremoniously hung.

Ed was buried in the Potter's field section of the Durand cemetery. Lon was never heard from again.

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