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The Lynching of "Cattle Kate"
Cheyenne, Wyoming 1896
The lynching of Ellen Watson and Jim Averell by six prominent and politically powerful Wyoming cattlemen shocked the country in July 1889. Watson, dubbed by local newspapers of the time, as "Cattle Kate,” and Averall were hanged by vigilantes near the Sweetwater River in Wyoming on July 20, 1889. They were accused of cattle rustling.
Newspapers immediately proclaimed Watson and Averell as rustlers and also maliciously asserted Watson had been a prostitute and Averell, a pimp. However, after the real story was revealed, it appears their deaths were the result of greed on the part of powerful land and cattle barons.
Ellen Liddy Watson was born on July 2, 1861 to Thomas Lewis Watson and Frances Close Watson in Bruce County, Ontario, Canada. Ella, as she was called and her family moved to Kansas in 1877 and became homesteaders near Lebanon in Smith County.
There, the 18-year-old Ella met a young man by the name of William A. Pickell. Shortly thereafter, she and 21-year-old William married. Unfortunately, her new husband was both a heavy drinker and abusive. By January 1883, she could take it no longer and returned to her parents’ home. But still fearing her husband she put more distance between him by moving to Red Cloud, Nebraska 14 miles further north. On February 14, 1884, after filing for divorce she moved on to Denver, Colorado seeking better opportunities.
However, not satisfied there she drifted on to Rawlins, Wyoming. She found employment at a boarding house called the "Rawlins House” and worked as a cook and domestic for about two years. On February 24, 1886, she met handsome young Averall who was in Rawlins to file a claim on his homestead 60 miles east of Rawlins near the Sweetwater River. Immediately, the two fell for each other and began courting.
Averall eventually convinced Ella to move to his homestead where she could work fixing meals for customers at his general store and tavern. The businesses did well, perhaps due to the close proximity of his land to the Oregon and Mormon trails. He also suggested she might homestead herself on a tract adjacent to his own. She took him up on his offer and was soon living in the Sweetwater Valley.
Ella saved her money and purchased some cattle. In August 1886, she built a two-room log house and began digging irrigation ditches. She tried to get a brand registered for her cattle but was refused due to the unfair Maverick Law, passed in 1884. In essence, the law locked out small ranchers and homesteaders from competing with the large Stock Growers Association.
About the same time, big cattle barons began illegally filing claims to much of the area land. By placing movable cabins on their claims, they could claim the property had been "improved,” a requirement of the Homestead Act. They would move these cabins from one property to another repeating the process over and over again. Averall, as the new Justice of the Peace, began writing letters to local newspapers which infuriated the cattlemen.
On March 16, 1889, Ella bought a brand from a neighboring rancher and since it was already registered with the Brand Committee, they were forced to accept her reapplication. By the middle of July 1889, she had 41 head of cattle, branded with her new LU brand.
However, Ella was about to embark on a long trail of problems with local wealthy cattleman Albert John Bothwell. Bothwell, also a member of the powerful Stock Association, lived about a mile from Averall and Ella. Bothwell had previously used their property, as well as other large sections of open range, as pastureland for his cattle. In fact, Bothwell, in his self assumed importance, brashly figured he could run his cattle through the entire Sweetwater Valley without fear of reprisal.
The feared cattleman didn’t own all of the property, but basically considered it all his…and Averall and Ella had homesteaded the best prime pastureland. By hook or crook he was determined to get it. Several times Bothwell had attempted to buy their properties, but was refused.
On several occasions Averal had threatened to cut off Bothwells’ and written letters of protest to the Casper Newspaper, which further infuriated the cattleman. Bothwell sent his cowhands to harass the couple. At times, the cowhands placed skulls and crossbones on their doorways. Bothwell also fenced in areas of land not belonging to him.
On July 20, 1889, one of Bothwells’ stock detectives rode through Ella’s pasture and found cattle with fresh LU brands. It was quickly suggested Ella might be illegally branding cattle, although Bothwell knew full well knew she had owned the cattle for almost a year. No Doubt Bothwell was using the accusation to rid himself of the two bothersome competitors and gain their property.
An urgent impromptu meeting was hurriedly convened. By the time the meeting was over the cattlemen were convinced the two were in possession of stolen cattle. Some of the cattlemen decided to take matters into their own hands and formed a vigilante group. Several however, wanted no part of it and left, but six remained.
The vigilantes decided to ride over and see the evidence first hand. They found the newly branded cattle and the verdict was in. They forced Ella into a wagon and started toward Averalls’ place.
Averall watched as the men approached. Stating they had a warrant for his arrest, he demanded to see it, at which time several members of the group drew their guns. Averall was forced to climb in the wagon along with Ella. The group headed southwest across the sagebrush toward Sweetwater River and Independence Rock. Finally, the vigilantes stopped at a gulch on the south side of the river. A rope was tossed over a tree branch and a noose put around Averalls’ neck. Another one was prepared for Ella. An investigation into the hangings began almost immediately.
However, the bodies were left to hang in the July heat for 2 ½ days. A reporter, who talked to members of the posse, wrote: "Hanging from the limb of a stunted pine growing on the summit of a cliff fronting the Sweetwater River, were the bodies of James Averall and Ella Watson. Side by side they swing, their arms touching each other, their tongues protruding and their faces swollen and discolored almost beyond recognition. Common cowboy lariats had been used, and both had died by strangulation, neither fallen over two feet. Judging from signs too plain to be mistaken a desperate struggle had taken place on the cliff, and both man and woman had fought for their lives until the last.”
Their bodies were cut down and Justice of the Peace B.F. Emery, a Casper attorney, swore in those present and held an official coroner’s inquest. It was decided the vigilantes had wrongfully hung the couple. At the time of their deaths, Averall was 38 and Ella 27.
The six vigilantes were arrested and taken to Carbon County, and turned over to the Sheriff. The next 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.”
A Grand Jury was scheduled for August 25, 1889, but before witnesses could testify, they begin to die or mysteriously disappear. Ralph Cole, Averalls’ nephew, mysteriously died the very day of the hearing, possibly from poisoning.
With no witnesses to testify, all charges were dropped against the vigilantes. No attempts were ever made to investigate the death of Ralph Cole, nor the disappearances of the primary witnesses. It was rumored Bothwell threatened other potential witnesses.
There were witnesses who actually saw their abduction but were afraid to come forward. Two were from a local newspaper, the Sweetwater Chief. The newspapers’ editor and his assistant were watching with a pair of field glasses from the rooftop of their newspaper building.
A few years after Ella’s death, Bothwell finally acquired both homesteads and moved his house onto what had been Ella’s property. The pair’s death was one of many events contributing to the infamous Johnson County War of Wyoming in 1892.