Old West Legend of Sally Skull
A Female Frontier Desperado
The old West didn’t produce many women outlaws, but Sally Skull would certainly fit the description in any age. Sally was a horse trader, horse thief and rancher as well as a dangerous killer. She was also famous for being able to out swear and out cuss any man.
She dressed like a man, carrying a rifle, a pair of pistols and a whip. It was said she was so adept with a whip she could snap the heads off of flowers. Her only socially redeeming value seemed to be her love of dancing.
Sally Skull was born to Rachel and Joseph Newman in 1817. They arrived in Texas with the first settlers at Stephen F. Austin’scolony. There are no known photographs of her and the first known record of her life is a divorce decree. She was born Sarah Jane Newman,the middle child out of ten siblings, but will forever be known as Sally Skull.
At the age of 16 Sally married Jesse Robinson in 1833, who was twice her age. He had served in the first Texas Ranger Company ten years earlier and also fought in several Indian campaigns. But the marriage was rocky and short lived. Eleven days after the divorce she married a gunsmith named George H. Scull. Apparently, she changed the surname spelling to something more befitting her outlaw image.
Sally was married three more times: on October 17, 1852, to John Doyle; on December 20, 1855, to Isaiah Wadkins; and by 1860 to Christoff Horsdorff, who was eighteen years her junior. Hordsdorff was nicknamed "Horse Trough." He was described by one old-timer who knew him as being "... not much good, mostly just stood around."
Kept the Skull Surname
She continued using the Skull name even after George’s death and marriage to third husband, Bill Hornsdorf. This marriage didn’t fare well either. Sally fired several shots at Bill during one of their many heated spats. She probably did not intend to kill him, for she was a crack shot, but Bill filed for divorce.
Sally had two children, Nancy and Alfred It’s believed they were placed in a New Orleans covenant to be educated. Both children became estranged from their mother and rarely visited the ranch where she lived.
Sally learned about horses from her first husband Jesse Robinson. After the divorce, she went into business for herself on the Texas-Mexican border. She bought and stole horses which she then sold for a profit. She also rounded up wild horses and stray cattle.
Sally had a reputation as a cold blooded killer and is believed to have killed over 30 men. These men were probably her competitors since horse traders often fought over territory and wild horses. Undoubtedly she was a killer but, her victims are unknown, and there are no records of her ever going to prison for murder.
Some say she shot and killed one of her spouses, either George Scull or John Doyle. It’s not certain which. Both simply disappear from the record. Many versions of the tale have been rendered. One tale is the husband in question ambushed her, but his first shot missed… and he lost his life.
Another version says the couple spent the night at a Corpus Christi hotel after a night on the town. When he couldn‘t awaken her the next morning, he doused her with a pitcher of water. Surprised, she came up shooting and when the smoke cleared, she was widowed again.
Others say it was an accidental drowning during a river crossing. While on a freighting trip, the husband walked onto the ferry to stop the ox team and wagon. However, the team came down the steep bank so forcibly that he could not control them and all went into the swollen river and drowned.
When theCivil War broke outshe quit dealing in livestock to haul Confederate cotton to Mexico for shipment to Europe.
In the mid-1850s a European tourist wrote what he had heard about Sally. "… a female character of the Texas frontier life, and, on inquiry, I heard the following particulars. They were speaking of a North American Amazon, a perfect female desperado, who from inclination has chosen for her residence the wild border-country on the Rio Grande. She can handle a revolver and bowie-knife like the most reckless and skillful man; she appears at dances thus armed, and has even shot several men at merry-makings. She carries on the trade of a cattle-dealer, and common carrier. She drives wild horses from the prairie to market, and takes her oxen-wagon, along through the ill-reputed country between Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande."
When and how she died is unknown. As with many legends, controversy exists concerning how many times Sally was married, how many children she had and even when and where she died. Some accounts say Sally was married six times.
One story in several versions is her last husband killed her for her gold and buried her in a shallow grave. The story goes, Horse Trough and Sally rode out of town together one day and only one returned. "She simply disappeared," was all her husband said.
A drifter later reported he stumbled across the body of a woman buried in a shallow grave. He first spotted it when he saw a boot sticking out of the ground. The body was never identified however and it’s assumed Horse Trough inherited her entire estate.
Another is she moved to a relative's home near El Paso. But according to Roberta Mueller, a Skull descendant and researcher, she was last seen by two Texas Rangers in West Texas during the late 1800s.
A historical marker was erected in 1966 at the junction of State Highways 202 and 183, where the road forks to Beeville and Goliad. The marker disappeared, as did the next three.
Further attempts at replacing the marker were abandoned for a more conspicuous setting on the courthouse lawn. It was thought this would deter thieves from stealing the memorial to one of the Old West's most notorious figures.
The last written document concerning her is in the Goliad District Court minutes, indicating she was indicted for perjury on May 4, 1866, and acquitted May 11.