Calling outlaw Cullen Baker a gunfighter would be a promotion

Time Before Now – October 1868 Lincoln successor, Andrew Johnson, often deemed the country’s worst president, was in the White House.  The Reno Brothers held up the train in Marshfield, Indiana, in May, making off with an estimated $98,000, well over a million today.  Memorial Day, called “Decoration Day” at the time was first observed in a number of northern states for the first time and Republicans nominated Civil War hero, Ulysses S. Grant, to replace Johnson.  British railway manager John Peake Knight is credited with inventing the first traffic signal, (left) adapting railroad semaphores to London’s chaotic streets.  

October 7, 1868

On this day, Cullen Baker, one of the most vicious outlaws to come out of Texas, shot and killed Federal Freedman’s Bureau agent, William Kirkman.

Some sources attribute the Kirkman killing to an incident involving Baker’s sister and a group of Union soldiers she claimed had been “disrespectful.”  But it was likely brought on by the loathing Baker (right, reportedly Baker) felt for Reconstruction.  A former member of the renegade “Independent Rangers” who, while associated with the Confederate Home Guard, robbed, intimidated and murdered Southern soldiers accused of desertion. 

The Freedman’s Bureau, however was a special target for Baker’s anger. Established by Congress as a function of the Army, it was to assist freed slaves and others displaced by the war.  But like many of the era’s outlaws, Baker’s aim was an attempt to relitigate the Confederate loss.  

Youthful Confederate Guard intent on capturing deserters

Infuriated by the Union troopers who questioned his sister, Baker rode to nearby Boston and demanded the local garrison commander “surrender” the four soldiers.  When the commander appeared with 16 of his men, Baker opened fire with a shot gun, killing Kirkman and wounding several others.

To call Baker a gunfighter would actually be gilding the lily.  Born June 23, 1835 in Weakley County, Tennessee, once home to the folk hero, Davy Crockett, (right),  he became a Texas transplant as a youth.  He had a well deserved reputation for bar brawls and shotgun slayings from ambush.  

Working dutifully enough on his father’s farm at first, by age 19 he was drinking heavily and had developed a quick-silver temper.

In 1854, the 19-year-old married 17-year-old Martha Jane Petty and briefly appeared to mend his ways. Eight months after the wedding, however, he horse whipped a boy nearly to death while out drinking with his cronies. When a witness namedWesley Bailey came forward to testify against him, Baker confronted Bailey, shooting him in both legs with a shotgun.  Bailey died three days later and Baker fled to Arkansas.  While in Arkansas, Martha Jane gave birth to a daughter, Laura in 1857.  But Martha Jane died three years later and Baker went to Texas, bringing  his young daughter to Martha Jane’s family.  

Returning to Arkansas, a local woman named Beth Wharthom was openly critical of Baker.   Her criticism apparently went unrecorded but sufficient to threaten to beat her.  Wharthom’s husband came to her defense and fought with Baker and was stabbed to death.  He was on the lam to Texas again.

He married yet another unlucky Martha, Martha Foster, in 1862 before joining the Confederate Army.  By 1864 he had deserted.  Like the smart fly that hides on the fly swatter, he joined the rogue “Independent Rangers”that preyed on men like him.  When the war ended, however, Baker had to find a new avenue to pursue his criminal activity, co-founding a gang with fellow outlaw, Lee Rames, specializing in robbery and ambush slayings. 

Baker ran afoul of the Army in Boston in 1866 when he shot and killed four African-American soldiers.  He escaped back to Arkansas with a $1,000 price on his head.  But he failed to maintain a low profile.  Soon after arriving he took part in a mob in Bright Star, the populace was angry with a local farmer for hiring several former slaves.  One of the farmer’s daughters was stabbed, another clubbed and one of the former slaves shot and killed.

Not long after, in a fit of temper when asked to pay for merchandise at Rowdan’s General Store in Cass County, he shot and killed the owner.  

By this time even his gang was sick of him. When Rames challenged him for the position of top dog, Baker backed down and the gang dissolved.

How Baker finally met his maker has several scenarios.  One version is that Baker and his last friend on earth named Matthew “Dummy” Kirby, went to the home of his former in-laws, the Fosters, and demanded whisky and food.   After the death of the Foster’s older daughter, Martha, Baker reportedly proposed to his late wife’s 15-year-old sister, Belle.  She rejected him in favor of her current suitor, a school teacher name Thomas Orr.    

The Fosters had apparently had enough of Baker by then and  Belle’s father was believed to have laced Baker’s whisky with strychnine.  Both Baker and Kirby died, at which point, Belle’s beau, school teacher Orr, was summoned to the house and shot the dead outlaws in order to collect the reward.

Baker apologists, assuming there are still some, dispute this account claiming he was actually ambushed by Orr and associates.

In all, Baker’s victims number at least 30.  He died January 6, 1869 in Jefferson, Texas, at the age of 34 and  was buried in Jefferson’s Oakwood Cemetery.

Alas, his many misdeeds were quickly romanticized by East Coast reporters as the “Swamp Fox of the Sulphur.” He is also the subject of two biographies: “Cullen Baker: Premier Texas Gunfighter,” by Ed Bartholomew and The Borderlands and Cullen Baker,” by Yvonne Vestel.  

Even premier Western writer Louis L’Amour (above) recast Baker in his 1959 book, “The First Fast Draw,” merging Baker and fellow Texas desperado, Wild Bill Longley, into a single misunderstood hero of the Civil War.  Longley’s list of carnage topped Baker’s by two, having murdered 32 victims from the Rio Grande to the Rockies.  He also was glorified by the CBS series, “The Texan,” starring Rory Calhoun (left) playing an ex-Confederate officer who roams the West performing random acts of kindness.  Boy, did they all get it wrong.

The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum,WE 63rd Street, Oklahoma City, is one of the nation’s largest conservators of the American West. Exhibits include The Hall of Great Westerners, Rodeo Hall of Fame, Hall of Great Western Performers, the Outlaw Archives and nearly 30,000 works of art, collections of Native American art and artifacts and extensive exhibits on barbed wire, cowboy gear and rodeo trophies.   

Open 10 to 5, Monday through Saturday and noon to 5, Sunday .  The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years.  The Museum Grill, open Monday through Saturday, 11 to 2, serves up a variety of Southwestern-inspired and kid-friendly classics.  

Admission is $12.50 for adults, $9.75 for students with IDs, $5.75 for kids 6 to 12, kids under 5, free.   Admission is $9.50 during special Elder Hours for seniors 62 and older, 9 to 10 mornings, Monday through Friday.  For more information go to nationalcowboymuseum.org, call (405) 478-2250 or write 1700 NE 63rd St., Oklahoma, OK 73111.

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Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.