‘Cattle Kate” was lynched for being smarter than the men

Time Before Now, July 1889 – Benjamin Harrison had begun his only term as president, more fortunate than his grandfather, William Henry Harrison, elected in 1841 and the first U.S. president to die in office.   The Eiffel Tower in Paris had opened to the public four months earlier and New Jersey farm equipment manufacturer, Samuel Leeds Allen, applied for a patent on a newfangled sled, the Flexible Flyer.

July 20, 1889

On this day, 29-year-old Ellen Liddy Watson, known posthumously as “Cattle Kate” was abducted and lynched in Sweetwater Canyon near Rawlins, Wyoming.  She was the only woman ever hanged in the state in one of the most brazen cases of murder to be labeled  “frontier justice.”

Branded an outlaw and a rustler, she and her partner, James Averell, were lynched, their only offenses stepping on the toes of the territory’s big ranching interests.  Newspapers in Cheyenne and Laramie rushed to print the lurid story told by her killers.  

“DOUBLE LYNCHING,” screamed the Cheyenne Daily Sun. Dubbing Watson “Cattle Kate,” she was described as a prostitute employed by Averell (right) at his“hog ranch,” slang for a rural brothel.  Local ranchers had no choice but to confront the thieves and end the lawless scurge, the newspaper told their readers.  The pair met their well- deserved fate on the branch of a convenient cottonwood tree after a brief shootout with some 20 righteous cattlemen.     

 It was an early example of obscuring the truth with a derogatory nickname.  Watson’s real identity was lost in the mists of history for decades while she was portrayed as a “hussy” who stole cattle and got caught. The fabricated story quickly landed in newspapers in Denver, Chicago and New York. 

To their credit, days later editors on the ground in Casper and Rawlins did mostly get the story straight, but it was too late.  Latter day authors and historians continued to repeat the fairy tale for nearly three quarters of a century.  The entire fable wasn’t actually laid to rest until the 1990s.

Clay County, Ontario Province

Watson’s  past was fraught with misfortunes.  Born in pictureseque Grey County, Ontario Province, her family moved to the flatlands of Kansas when she was teenager.  At 19 she married William A. Pickell.  An abusive husband who routinely horsewhipped her, she fled the marriage and eventually migrated to Denver.  She met the entrepreneurial Averell, ten years her senior, working in his general store in Rawlins. (Right, Watson and Pickell  wedding photo)

Whether she and Averell were legally married remains in question.  They reportedly applied for a marriage license but may not have lived to use it.  Some historians speculate they were married in secret to preserve Watson’s ability to file for a homestead as a single woman.  There is, however, no record of a legal divorce from Pickell.  Watson filed for her own 160-acre homestead and claimed squatters right on land adjacent to Averell’s.  


Front Street, Rawlins in the 1880s

Sturdy and ambitious, she earned extra money mending gear and clothing for the local cowboys, using the proceeds to buy cattle from emigrants passing through on the Oregon Trail less than a mile from her cabin. 

After three failed attempts to register a brand of their own, Watson and Averell outsmarted the Stockgrower’s Association, buying rights to a previously registered “L-U” brand.  Perhaps as payback for the repeated brand denials, Watson applied for a permit to build a “water ditch,” which would have no doubt reduced water to other area spreads.

Watson’s cabin on her homestead

Alas, the pair had picked a bad neighborhood. A leader in the fight to preserve open-range grazing, rancher Albert John Bothwell (right) had been running his cattle on the Watson-Averell homestead without benefit of ownership.  Unhappy with the potential  loss of grassland and water, he and five cohorts simply abducted their competition and hanged them.

Carbon County sheriff, Frank Hadsell, arrested Bothwell and five other co-conspirators and supposedly a trial date was set.  Two witnesses for the prosecution took flight, however, and another died mysteriously in protective custody.  One source reports the trial date came and went, while another indicates the six were actually tried and acquitted for lack of evidence.  

However it happened, Bothwell managed to skate and acquire the Watson-Averell properties.  Retiring rich to Los Angeles in the 1920s still avariciously buying up land, he is believed to have died there March 1, 1928 at age 74.

Popular culture helped perpetuate the phoney floozy story about Watson, most notably in the 1953 movie “The Redhead from Wyoming.”  Staring Maureen O’Hara as Kate Maxwell, (above) the movie once conflated Watson with the phantom hooker named by the Cheyenne Daily Sun more than 60 years earlier.  

Bothwell, however may have finally received some posthumous come up ins, at least at the hands of Hollywood.  Movie historians believe he was the prototype for Emile Meyer’s villainous Rufus Ryker character (left) in the classic Western, “Shane.” 

The Carbon County Museum, 904 West Walnut Street, Rawlins, Wyoming, in addition to local history, pays tribute to the women of Carbon County in the exhibit “Grace, Grit and Guts, as well as exhibits featuring the state’s Native Americans, its deep routes with the Union Pacific and the frontier military.  The “garage” gallery house the really big stuff including a sheep wagon, sleigh and snowshoes for horses. The Children’s Zone gives young visitors the chance to learn about the county’s early mining history. 

 Open year round, summer hours from April 1 through October 31 are 10 to 6, Tuesday through Saturday.  Winter hours, from November 1 to March 31 are 10 to 5, Tuesday through Saturday.  The museum is free and offers guided tours and street side parking.  For more information go to carboncountymuseum.org, call (307) 328-2740 or write Carbon County Museum, 904 West Walnut Street, Rawlins, WY 82301.

As an added bonus, the Wyoming Frontier Prison Museum, 500 West Walnut, is located just blocks away and offers an up-close look at crime and punishment at the turn of the 20th century.  Begun in 1888, the prison didn’t open until 1901 and closed 80 years later in 1981.  In all, 13,500 unfortunate souls endured incarceration there, including 11 women. Running water adequate heat didn’t arrive until 1950. 

On the National Register of Historic places, it became a museum in 1988.  Admission is $10 and tours are offered every hour on the half hour from Memorial Day to Labor Day 8 to 5 daily,  During winter,  tours morning and afternoon at 10:30 and 1:30 are available Monday through Thursday.  For more information go to wyomingfrontierprison.org, e-mail wyomingfrontierprison@gmail.com, or call (307) 324-4422.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*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.