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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

Who Killed
Oliver Thornton?

by C. F. Eckhardt

Oliver Thornton is no more than a footnote in the history of Western outlawry—a man who wouldn’t be more than a name on a tombstone had he not chanced to get himself murdered. Even so, very few people, even serious students of outlaws, would know that name had not Eugene Cunningham, pioneer chronicler of sixshooterology, told about his death in TRIGGERNOMETRY. Thornton, Cunningham tells us, was a rancher near Eden, Concho County, Texas, the hometown of Ben Kilpatrick, The Tall Texan of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. After the Winnemucca bank job Ben, his pal Will Carver, and Will’s sweetheart Laura Bullion all came back to the Kilpatrick place to rest up until the heat faded. Thornton recognized Ben and knew he was on the dodge. He offered not to turn Ben into the law for a cut of the loot--$1000 has been mentioned. In yet another story, which comes from a source other than TRIGGERNOMETRY, Thornton threw down on Ben and Will and told them he was going to turn them in for the reward. Regardless of how he was foolish, it got him dead. Carver ‘rewarded’ him with about a nickel’s worth of hot lead. End of story. Oliver Thornton becomes footnote. Or is it?

I admire Eugene Cunningham as one of the pioneer researchers into Western Americana. When other writers were interested in what could be marketed to Hollywood’s Poverty Row or would sell to Spicy Western Stories (35¢, kept behind the counter, you hid it under your mattress so Mamma wouldn’t find it and see the might near nekkid gal on the front) Gene Cunningham was out talking to the folks who were there, trying to get the real story down on paper. I respect TRIGGERNOMETRY as perhaps the finest early effort at factual Western writing published in this country. Unfortunately, in this case all Cunningham got right was Ollie Thornton’s name.

In an obscure corner of a cemetery in Paint Rock, Texas, the county seat of Concho County, you will find a small stone marked:
OCTOBER 3, 1866
MARCH 27, 1901

Beneath that stone rest the mortal remains of Oliver G. Thornton, who never tried a citizen’s arrest, who was not a rancher, who never tried to blackmail anyone, and who was definitely murdered—but not by Will Carver.

I wasn’t always a Western writer, though I’ve been a writer of one sort or another all my adult life. Still, until you can all yourself an author—that means you make a living writing and don’t have to do anything else—you have to have a job or eating gets mighty slim. For a good portion of my adult life the job I held was that of law-enforcement officer. At one point I was considered a fair to middlin’ detective. I’m going to bring the two—writer and detective—together and piece together, if possible, from remaining information and clues, what really happened at Planche Spring Farm, seven miles north and a little west of Eden, Concho County, Texas, on the morning of March 27, 1901.

I’ll start with what I know or have found out about Oliver G. Thornton. He was born October 3, 1866, but I don’t know where. He married Mary J. ‘Mamie’ Steen in Concho County on April 27, 1900. Mamie was a schoolteacher. Ollie himself is said to have been a part-time teacher. He and Mamie had no children. The two lived on a leased quarter-section. He also worked part-time for Ed Dozier, an ex-sheriff of Concho County. The nature of Ollie’s employment with Dozier neither legend, records, nor local memory recalls.

The Kilpatrick place in Concho County was located at or near Planche Spring, not over a mile from the Thornton home. It, too, was a leased quarter-section. On it lived Edward or Edgar Kilpatrick, his wife Etta, their sons Daniel Boone (known as D. B. or Boone), George, Benjamin A., Felix, and Will and their daughters Ola and Alice. In 1901 George was described as being 26, Ben 24. Boone was the oldest. Felix was a young married man in 1912, so he was 12 or 13. The two girls were younger than Felix and Will was an infant. The family livelihood, earned mostly by Boone, was derived from farming and raising hogs and sheep.

Sometime prior to March 27, 1901, Ben, who had been riding with the Cassidy-Longabaugh bunch, came home to let the world cool off. With him he brought two men. They were introduced in the neighborhood as Bob McDonald and Charles Walker. Both men were described as 5’5” to 5’6”, 135 to 140 lbs, 35 to 40 years old. Walker was further described a having a heavy, dark-brown moustache and a bald or balding head. No further description was given of McDonald, so I’ll assume he was clean-shaven and had most of his hair on the grounds that had he looked like a cueball or Santa Claus somebody would have mentioned it.

Please note there is no mention anywhere of an extra woman. The only known females at Planche Spring were Etta Kilpatrick and her two daughters, all well known in the area. If Laura Bullion came to Concho County she didn’t impress anyone enough to mention the fact. Laura Bullion was a woman who would have left an impression on Concho County in 1901. Concho County has been home to some mighty rugged men from both sides of the law—besides Ben Kilpatrick, it claims Earl Rudder, who as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1944 led a battalion of Rangers up the Pointe du Hoc cliffs on D-Day, and General Ira Eaker, who commanded the 8th Air Force in Britain during WW II—but it’s never been noted for glamorous female outlaws.

So far as I can tell things weren’t very exciting in the little box house at Planche Spring on the morning of March 27. Boone and Mamma Etta were at a sheep camp several miles away. Ed, George, Ben, Felix, baby Will, the two strangers, and the girls were at home. Evidence seen later indicated that at least some of them were playing croquet in the yard, but it’s not known for certain who was in the game. Nobody was forted up and looking for war. The place wasn’t bristling with Winchester barrels. In other words, nobody was looking for anything unusual to happen.

Sometime around 9:30 that morning Ollie Thornton went for a walk in the direction of the Kilpatrick place. Why he did I don’t know for sure, but I can make an educated guess. I also don’t know for sure why he was carrying a .22 rifle, but I can make an educated guess on that, as well.

Not that there aren’t all sorts of accounts. He was going over to protest to Boone about laying proprietary hands on hogs belonging to Ed Dozier. He was going over to make a citizen’s arrest of a houseful of hardcases (the schoolteacher with his .22 was going to do this!). He was going over to blackmail the outlaws out of a thousand bucks. There are probably a dozen more.

None of them make much sense. If Ed Dozier wanted to say something to Boone about the hogs, Boone wasn’t hard to find and there’s no suggestion, locally, that he was a violent man. Ollie Thornton was pushing 35—certainly at an age of discretion. Even a 1901 schoolteacher had—or should have had—better sense than to try and brace four outlaws, three of whom (Ben and the strangers) might well be killers, with a .22. Sure, there are people that dumb, but most of them don’t live to see 30, let alone 34.

Was he snooping on behalf of his ex-sheriff boss? Depends on how expendable Ed Dozier considered him. He certainly had no qualifications as a snooper, and there’s no suggestion, locally, that Ed made up to Mamie after Ollie was killed.

Let’s look at another possibility. It was pretty much an open secret in Concho County that Ben was a badman. There was no particular mystery about the fact that he was home with a couple of strangers who were probably as well-wanted as he was. Texas, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, had a way of dealing with that—“You don’t foul the nest, we don’t make trouble.” Ben and his pals kept their noses clean in and around Concho County. No saddle horses turned up missing. No banks or stores got robbed. Local law didn’t worry too much about the fact that some Yankee bankers and the Pinkertons were after the boys. Texas was Rebel to the core and would remain so for years. Very few people in Texas had any love for Yankee bankers or Pinkertons.

There is a deep human urge which can best be described as the yen to stick one’s nose in where it doesn’t really belong in order to see something one can tell one’s grandchildren about. Ollie Thornton wasn’t a particularly prominent person. He wouldn’t be able to bounce grandchildren on his knee and tell them about the cattle empire he built—but he could, if he went sneaking through the brush, tell his grandchildren about the time he actually saw Ben Kilpatrick, the notorious outlaw, in the flesh. If you think that’s not a natural human urge, try passing an accident scene on the highway without slowing down to look.

Sometime around 10 AM Thornton approached the house from beyond the hogpen, going—as Eden lawyer John Harrod expressed it to me—“from agarita-berry bush to agarita-berry bush,” trying to sneak a peek at the outlaws. When he reached a point about 50 yards from the house, pretty much alongside the hogpen, a single shot was fired. Oliver G. Thornton, aged 34 years, 5 months, and 23 days, would never get any older. He’d also never see the first wedding anniversary he and Mamie had coming up in exactly one month.

Simultaneously, the Kilpatricks had a problem on their hands. Ben was enthusiastically wanted by a number of folks including the Pinks for his participation in various felonies. ‘McDonald’ and ‘Walker’ were aliases for men traveling with a known felon and fugitive. What are the odds they, too, were fugitives, so well known that their real names would be instantly recognizable? George Kilpatrick may not have been as enthusiastically wanted as his younger brother, but there’s little question some law somewhere wanted to discuss more than shoes, ships, and sealing wax with him.

A dead man, particularly a local man who would be quickly missed, about whom questions would be asked immediately—most particularly a man nobody had any reason to consider other than harmless—was the last thing the Kilpatricks wanted or needed on their place. That’s why the Kilpatricks—and anyone else with an iota of common sense—can be considered innocent of the actual shooting of Oliver Thornton, though certainly not innocent of the aftermath. The suggestion one writer made—that George Kilpatrick killed Thornton as a sort of initiation into big-time outlawry—is patently absurd. Above all, you didn’t foul the nest. There was—and is—nothing so dear to a fugitive as a safe home base. The Planche Spring place was the only thing in that line available to George, Ben, ‘Walker,’ and ‘McDonald.’ Anyone who wasn’t a mad-dog killer certainly should have had better sense than to plug a local boy.

It’s impossible to fix either a timetable or a proper sequence to what happened over the next 8 hours or so, but certain things happened. These are those things, in no particular order.

The girls were sent to the sheep camp to be with Boone and their mother. I know this because they first claimed to have been at the sheep camp all along and to know nothing about the shooting. In later years at least Ola admitted to having been at the house, but claimed not to know who fired the shot other than it wasn’t one of her brothers. Ed, Felix, and Will remained at the house. George, Ben, ‘Walker,’ and ‘McDonald’ saddled up and made tracks. It’s known for sure that George and ‘McDonald’ went southwest because of what happened later. Several folks say Ben and ‘Walker’ went with them. However, there’s very strong circumstantial evidence to tell us that one party, probably Ben and his companion, went north first, and no good reason to believe they’d sacrifice a 30 mile ride to the north and a two-day head start to swing back to the south.

Along about dark, when Ollie didn’t show up for supper, Mamie went looking for him. She and her little dog headed toward the Kilpatrick place, which tells us she had an idea where he’d gone. It’s highly unlikely, given the state of male-female relationships in the era, that had Ollie gone over to do something stupid like try to blackmail the outlaws or make a citizen’s arrest, or even to snoop on them for the law, he’d have told Mamie what he was up to. Women, in 1901, were not even supposed to know things like that went on, much less know where and when they happened.

Mamie got to the Kilpatrick place a little after dark, and—being nearsighted—missed the body twice. She wasn’t, after all, looking for a corpse. Her little dog found Ollie next to the hogpen, his .22 alongside him.

That .22 has caused a lot of fiction. Yes, Oliver Thornton was armed. He had a .22. Nobody but a would-be suicide goes out to brace possible killers with a .22, and Ollie had a lot to live for. Yes, it’s possible he got overconfident and popped off to a pack of wolves—such things do happen, but they don’t happen often. In reconstructing what happened I think I can ignore that possibility as entirely too far-fetched.

What’s a .22 good for? If you and your wife are living on her 1901 schoolmarm’s salary and what you can pick up at odd jobs, a .22’s a right handy piece of household equipment. It puts meat in the pot—rabbits, squirrels, and the like—and that saves grocery money. Ollie Thornton didn’t carry the gun because he wanted to shoot somebody with it or even for self-defense. He carried it for the same reason country people keep a .22 in the pickup today—it’s right handy for putting a rabbit in the stewpot. In all probability he never thought of what his appearance at the Kilpatrick place, rifle in hand, would cause a wanted outlaw to think. He’d never been around wanted outlaws.

Mamie couldn’t get Ollie home in the dark, and the Kilpatricks were very little help. She had to find her way home, crying her eyes out.

Come sunup the next morning Mamie went to Paint Rock and reported the murder. I don’t know what time she arrived, but I know that Sheriff Jim Howze and his deputy, together with John Waide, the local barber who filled in as an undertaker when one was needed, didn’t get to the scene until nearly dark on the 28th. I can speculate, based on known facts and what’s known about how rural communities operate even today, on what happened.

It’s nearly 14 miles from Planche Spring to Paint Rock. In all likelihood Ollie and Mamie had only one horse, a plow plug that doubled on the buggy on Saturday and Sunday. At first light—she probably didn’t sleep much that night—Mamie went out and caught up the horse. That took anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour or so, depending on the horse’s mood that morning. She had to hitch him to the rig, something Ollie usually did and she didn’t know how to do very well. That probably took the better part of an hour. The 14 miles took another 3 to 4 hours, considering the state of most rural roads in West Texas in 1901. I’ll let her arrive in Paint Rock about noon.

She went directly to the courthouse and reported the killing to Jim Howze. The first thing he did, of course, was pick up the telephone to call the central operator in Ballinger and get the word out. Unfortunately, someone else had also thought about the telephone. The line had been cut twice, once in the Malloy pasture not far south of the Kilpatrick place, and again north of town. Paint Rock was cut off from any outside communication any faster than a horse could carry a man. The only telephone line in Concho County came south from Ballinger, through Paint Rock, and on to Eden. It might have been the first year of the 20th century, but Jim Howze was back to 1870 as far as communication went.

He did what any good lawman would do under the circumstances. He found two trustworthy men with fast horses and sent one north, the other south, to spread the word of the murder together with the names and descriptions Mamie was busy giving to his deputy and the county clerk. They were told to ride the telephone line and spot the breaks so the line could be repaired. Then he had to go hunt up John Waide, get him to shut down the barber shop, and find a wagon and team to bring the body back. Then he had to find someone dependable to hold down the sheriff’s office while he and his deputy were gone. Once everything else was gathered, he had to find someone to look after Mamie. All this took time, and—coupled with another 3 or 4 hours back to Planche Spring in the wagon—it took all day. The sheriff and his party didn’t arrive at the Kilpatrick place until nearly dark on the 28th.

When the law finally did get there, the only people on hand were Ed, Felix, and Will. The little boy was in the house, asleep. Mamma Etta, the girls, and Boone were at the sheep camp. George, Ben, and the two strangers had taken to the brush.

Ed Kilpatrick was questioned by the law. He told Jim Howze that Thornton came prowling around with a rifle in his hand, Charles Walker saw him, and shot him on the assumption that he was law or snooping for the law. That’s probably as close to the truth as ever came out. The San Angelo Standard embroidered it considerably, reporting that Thorton came, rifle in hand, to the Kilpatrick place and accused the Kilpatricks of causing damage to Ed Dozier’s land by allowing their hogs to run on it. He then threw down (with his .22) on at least three heavily armed men. Walker shot him, he tried to run, and Walker shot him again. Other accounts have him shot three or four times, all but once in the back.

John Waide, in his capacity as make-do undertaker, washed, shaved, and dressed the body. In an interview with John Eaton of Sonora in 1963, the year before Waide died, he said there was only one wound in the body, in the chest, from the front. Since Mr. Waide said ‘one wound’ very specifically and did not mention an exit wound in the back, I’ll proceed from this point on the assumption that the weapon used in the murder, while of sufficient power to kill a man with a single shot to the chest at 50 yards, was of a nature that the bullet could not be expected to penetrate a human body completely at that range.

The phone lines were spliced and the word went out. The only description of McDonald was the one we already have, but Walker was described as ‘a shade shorter’ than McDonald. McDonald’s horse was not described. Walker was described as previously mentioned, and was said to be riding a dun horse branded ‘b’ on the left shoulder and jaw. Ben was described as 24, 6’ tall (other descriptions have him as much as 6’6”) 180 to 200 lbs, dark complected and dark haired, wearing a ¾” beard, riding a big, unbranded bay gelding. George was described as 26, the same height and weight as Ben, light complected with sandy hair, riding a brown or dark bay horse branded EL on the shoulder.

On the evening of Tuesday, April 1, 1901, two hard-looking men entered the Castillo store at the southwest corner of Plum Street and Tom Green Avenue in Sonora, the county seat of Sutton County, about 70 miles west by south of Eden. They bought baking powder and flour. They asked about grain for their horses, and Victor Castillo, who was a child in his father’s store at the time, told John Eaton that the men were more concerned about getting some fresh chewing tobacco than about horse feed. His dad didn’t have any eatin’ tobacker on hand. Some accounts put two more men in the darkness outside, who split off and went west while the other two rode north into town, but a cut phone line between Paint Rock and Ballinger argues heavily against them being Ben and ‘Charles Walker.’

The two men left the Castillo store and made at least one more stop in search of horse feed and chaw. Finally they rode directly down Main Street from the courthouse to Concho Avenue, turned west on Concho, and stopped at the Ogden store on the north side of the street, just half a block west of Main. Their progress was not unobserved.

Some weeks earlier several men, well dressed and driving a buggy with rubber tires, had been in Sutton County claiming to be horse buyers from Fort Worth. When word got out of the Thornton murder and descriptions of the suspects followed—they got out of Ballinger by phone on the 28th—Sutton County lawmen immediately noted that the descriptions fit the ‘rubber-tired buggy men.’ Word went out to the citizens to be on the lookout. Boosie Sharp, brother of Sutton County Deputy Sheriff Henry Sharp, spotted the strangers and recognized them as two of the ‘rubber-tired buggy men’ the sheriff was looking for. He contacted his brother.

Henry Sharp went to his boss, Sheriff Elijah S. ‘Lige’ Briant, at his drugstore barely two blocks away on Main. Briant summoned Deputy J. L. Davis and Constable W. D. Thomason. All four officers armed themselves with sixshooters and proceeded to the Ogden store, where someone—later said to be Boosie Sharp, though Boosie, being unarmed, stayed behind—struck a match to examine the brands on the horses. The flare of the match should have alerted the men inside, but apparently it didn’t. The four officers stepped into the store and ordered the two men bending over grain sacks to put up their hands.

Somebody moved wrong, but who moved first and wrongest remains speculative. Some sources say the tall man made a fumbling grab for his pistol, others say the shorter man made a first-rate snatch at his but wasn’t fast enough to beat the drop. Lige Briant had recently recovered from being seriously wounded by a felon during an arrest and was in no mood to take chances. All four officers emptied their guns.

The shorter man was hit six times, once in the right chest, the bullet lodging next to his spine, twice each in the right arm and leg, and once in the temple. The tall man was hit solidly once in the left chest, the bullet exiting behind his left shoulder, and grazed or skinned four times, twice on the left arm, once on the left knee, and once when a bullet struck his skull at an extreme angle, penetrating skin but not bone, and traveled between skin and skull. It finally lodged above his ear, from where it was removed when a doctor slit the skin and allowed it to pop out. The wounds of both were considered mortal.

Depending on whether the sixshooters were loaded five beans in the wheel or six around, a total of from 20 to 24 shots were fired at a range of no more than 10 feet. Since there were only 11 hits, there were 9 or 13 clean misses. This sounds like some pretty poor shooting, but it likely wasn’t. If the room was lit with an oil lamp or gaslight rather than electricity, the concussion of the first shot blew the flame out, leaving everybody in the dark. Even if it was lit with electricity, the officers were likely loaded with black powder or Lesmok, a mixture of black and ‘smokeless’ powder widely used at the time since it didn’t overpressure weapons not proofed for smokeless powder. In either case, the first 3 or 4 shots put so much smoke in the room that the officers were simply firing into the cloud.

The two presumed outlaws were taken to the Sutton County jail, where they were given opium to ease their pain. The short man began to rave, shouting “Shell ‘em, boys, shell ‘em,” “You’ll stick by me, old pal,” and several other things, but naming no names. When the raving finally stopped, he was asked his own name. He first said it was ‘Off,’ but later said he was “one of the Carver boys—Will Carver.” He was later identified as Will Carver, who had cowboyed on the ‘Sixes’ ranch of Stilson, Cave, Tharpe, Ryburn, & Co. in Irion and Sutton Counties between 1889 and the winter layoff of ’91. Ben Binyon of Sonora, who had known him well then, made the identification. He acknowledged knowing Binyon and admitted his own identity to his old acquaintance. Lee Aldwell, who had also known him, identified him and commented that he had been highly regarded and had many friends. Several other ex-‘Sixes’ cowboys also identified Carver.

George Kilpatrick admitted his own identity. He claimed to know the man as ‘Bill,’ and said he had only known him a few weeks. George claimed he hadn’t been at the house when the shooting took place—if he’d said he was he would have put his head in a noose—but that he’d heard Bob McDonald did it. Carver was not McDonald. McDonald was a little shorter, with a big dark moustache and a balding head.

This probably isn’t a contradiction. Carver and ‘Walker’ would have used their own first names at the farm, with the aliases being reserved for nosey-parkers. George had a slug through his chest and a pretty nasty headache from the slug that hit his head. He can probably be excused for being unsure who was ‘McDonald’ and who was ‘Walker.’

Will Carver, who’d ridden away from the ‘Sixes’ back in ’91, telling his pals “Next time you see me I’ll be wearing diamonds or a pine box,” died in the Sutton County jail on April 2, 1901. His belongings were inventoried: one Colt .45 caliber revolver, ‘silver’ plated (probably nickel) with ivory grips, serial #20916; one Smith & Wesson hammerless revolver, caliber .38 (probably the S&W ‘lemonsqueezer’ in .38 S&W), one gold Elgin watch, one compass in a silver case, one diamond ring (it later auctioned for $200, so it wasn’t small), one thin gold band ring very like a woman’s wedding ring, which it probably was, $45 in currency, and a cartridge belt containing both .45 Colt cartridges and a quantity of ‘.30 US Army’ cartridges with full metal jacketed bullets. In 1901 that would have been the .30-40 Krag round. There was also a photo of a young woman, later identified as the niece of the late Vivian or Viana Byler of Tom Green County. Carver’s horse was an unbranded sorrel with a light, cheap, new saddle. There was no rifle on the saddle.

The marriage of William R. Carver and ‘Vivian’ Byler was registered at the Tom Green County Courthouse on February 10, 1892. The records of Sherwood Cemetery in Tom Green County list the burial of ‘Viana E.’ Byler, born July 24, 1874, died July 22, 1892. Local gossip holds she died in childbirth. Grocery store arithmetic tells us Viana was two days short of her 18th birthday, and—if Vivian and Viana E. were the same person--she and Carver had been married five months and twelve days. Draw your own conclusions.

Will Carver is buried in the Sonora Cemetery, where he rests today under a small stone bearing the date April 2, 1901, and no name. There are several stories about how the stone came to be—and, of course, several which say “It ain’t Will, it’s gotta be somebody else, ‘cause I done seen Will down in Mexico in ’12 an’ he looked plumb healthy to me,” but they do not bear on the Thornton murder case.

On April 3 Mamie swore out a warrant charging Ed and George Kilpatrick as accessories in the murder of her husband, Oliver G. Thornton, by Bob McDonald and Charles Walker. Ed and George both immediately claimed they were nowhere around when it happened and sued for habeas corpus. Ed then changed his story. It was not Walker who shot Thornton, it was McDonald. McDonald was the man killed in Sonora. George held out a couple of days and then joined the chorus. Carver wasn’t McDonald, he was Walker, or maybe he was McDonald after all, but whatever, he’d shaved his moustache, he’s the one who shot Thornton, he did it all on his own, none of the Kilpatricks or anyone else had anything to do with it.

Why the sudden change? How did Will Carver, who had never been known to wear a moustache and had a full head of hair, suddenly become the moustachioed, balding feller who nailed Ollie? Pretty simple, really. Will was dead. No matter how many murders get blamed on a dead man, the law can’t hang him. The bald, moustachioed man wasn’t dead yet. He could be hanged if caught and convicted—unless the murder was blamed on a dead man. Will Carver as the man who shot Ollie Thornton went into the records.

Did Will shoot him? Carver’d killed his man, no doubt of that. Still, is there anything known, from legend, rumor, history, or Pinkerton files (which are often made up largely of the first two, with a little out-and-out fiction thrown in) that would lead one to believe the formerly well-liked, happy-go-lucky cowboy would shoot an unsuspecting man in cold blood? Ollie Thornton was shot once, in the chest, from in front. He obviously wasn’t running or dodging, so he was either shot from ambush or it happened almighty fast.

If Will did shoot Thornton, what did he shoot him with? He didn’t have a rifle with him when he was killed, but he did have rifle cartridges in his belt. Those cartridges were high-velocity, full-metal-jacketed-bullet 30-40 Krag loads. In the US only three weapons were factory-chambered for .30-40. They were the Army’s bolt-action rifle, a Winchester high-wall single-shot with a very heavy, round barrel, for long-range target shooting—and the Winchester Model 1895 rifle and carbine. Carver is known to have had—and used, in a New Mexico shootout with the law—a Winchester M1895.

The .30-40 had a muzzle velocity of over 2,000 fps. A full metal jacketed bullet at that velocity would not only penetrate a human body, it would penetrate several and retain enough energy to do damage on exiting about the fourth. At 50 yards it might not penetrate four men, but it would certainly penetrate one and go whanging off through the trees afterwards. John Waide said “One wound, in the chest.” He said nothing about an exit wound

The Smith & Wesson? The .38 S&W is an accurate little load, but neither long-ranged nor powerful. A good many pocket revolvers chambered for it were also equipped with switchblade ‘bayonets’ under the barrels in case the five or six rounds in the cylinder didn’t do the job. Besides, the one taken off Will was a hammerless double-action. Unless Will mastered two-stage double-action shooting—which wasn’t developed until well into the 20th century—he probably couldn’t have hit a man-sized target with the thing at more than about 20 yards.

The Colt? Well, maybe—but just barely maybe. Will’s Colt was a black powder model. Colts weren’t proofed for smokeless powder until after serial #196,000. Will probably shot black powder loads in it. Off-the-shelf black powder ammo for the .45 Colt wasn’t noted for pinpoint accuracy—and neither was the thumbuster Colt. Besides, Will’s gun was bright plated. The sights on a Colt single-action are nothing to write home about in any case, and when you plate them with bright metal it doesn’t make them any easier to use.

I’m considered a better than average pistol shot. I shot, when I was shooting competitively, in the mid-700s on the 900-point NRA leg match, using a GI-issue M1911A1 automatic pistol, which has sights even less useful than those on a single-action. I can hit a man-sized target consistently at either 50 or 75 yards with any pistol I own, including a single-action Colt. I own two bright-plated pistols, both Smith & Wessons, in .38 Special and .44 Special. Both have the old ‘notch and half moon’ sights out of the 1920s. Yes, I could hit a man-sized target with either at 50 yards—but note the emphasis on target. Man-sized silhouette targets are dead black and they don’t move. The bright-plated sights on either gun will show up clearly against the dead–black surface of a silhouette target. That is, if it’s cloudy. If the sun is shining on the gun all you see is a ball of glare. Yes, an expert pistol shot, under ideal conditions, could have shot Ollie Thornton at 50 yards with a pistol like Will’s—but he would have been an idiot to try it.

Conclusion? Oliver Thornton wasn’t shot with any of the weapons Will Carver had on him or had ammo for when he died. Did he swap guns? With whom and where? It’s far more likely that ‘Charles Walker,’ the moustachioed gent with the chrome dome, found a Winchester rifle or carbine in .44-40 caliber and nailed Ollie with that. Winchester ‘73s and ‘92’s were about as common as fleas on a dog in West Texas in the late 19th century and up to the mid-20th century, and the .44 WCF round—the .44-40—was by far the most common caliber.

That load, in a rifle or carbine, is dead accurate at 50 yards, but it isn’t powerful as we think of power today. It would knock a man flat and kill him at 50 or even 100 yards, but it would be unlikely to penetrate a human body fully at either range. The 200-grain flat-nosed bullet that gave it the knockdown power was not designed to go completely through a living target, it was designed to get inside and do damage.

Absolutely nothing about Will Carver save for height, weight, and age agrees with the description of Charles Walker given by Ed Kilpatrick before Will was killed. We know why it was laid on Will—you can’t hang a dead man—but who was, in fact, this mysterious Charles Walker. Did he really exist, or was he, as Jim Howze was later to suggest, a myth?

Take a look at the famous N. H. Rose photo of the Wild Bunch, the one taken in Fort Worth late in 1900. In the front row, seated on the left as you see the picture, there’s a short, sort of rat-faced fellow with a light moustache, who looks very little like Robert Redford. That’s Harry Longabaugh, the Sundance Kid. In the middle we find the clean-shaven face of Ben ‘Blackie’ Kilpatrick, The Tall Texan. On the right there’s a square-jawed man who looks more like Brian Donlevy than Paul Newman—Robert Leroy Parker alias Butch Cassidy.

Now look at the standing men. On the left, between Sundance and Ben, there’s Will Carver himself. He’s cleanshaven, he’s got about a half-grin on his face, and that hard hat is tipped at a gotohell angle. His fancy watch chain is across his belly, and his left hand, resting on Ben’s shoulder, has the little finger slightly separated and elevated so you can’t miss the diamond ring on it. He told ‘em he’d be wearing diamonds.

Now look at the man on the right, standing between Ben and Butch. He’s got his hard hat pushed back and you can see a tuft of hair over his forehead, but his temples are bare. This man’s going bald. He’s got a heavy, dark moustache and he’s slightly shorter than Will. Does the description ring a bell? It should, because it fits ‘Charles Walker’ to a T. That’s Harvey Logan, AKA Kid Curry. He had a reputation as a man who enjoyed killing. The Pinkerton files say he “has no redeeming characteristics.”

There is no direct, eyewitness evidence from someone who knew Harvey Logan and was at Planche Spring at the time of the Thornton murder to put Kid Curry on the scene. However, as Henry David Thoreau was wont to write, there are times when circumstantial evidence is very strong—such as when you find a trout in the milk. Kid Curry was a wanton killer, we know that to be a fact. He was also a dead shot. He was known to be jumpy—just the sort who’d shoot a rubbernecking neighbor on the off chance he was eyeballing for the law. The description given of ‘Charles Walker,’ the killer of Oliver Thornton, before Will Carver was killed, fits Harvey Logan to a T. None of the circumstantial evidence surrounding the death of Oliver G. Thornton points in Will Carver’s direction. Who killed Ollie Thornton? We need to take this one off Will Carver’s shoulders and add one more to Kid Curry’s score.

© C. F. Eckhardt April 16, 2012 column
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