I’ve said it over and over again, that what really happened in history is very often even more bizarre and dramatic than any fictional account of events, either written or cinematic. A book or a movie has to make sense, after all – and have some kind of logic and believability about it, whereas in reality chance and coincidence do not have to make logical sense in the real world. To put it in short; reality frequently trumps imagination. Going back to contemporary accounts, records and memoirs often turn up all kinds of interesting nuggets, which very often contradict conventional wisdom.
This is what late amateur historian George W. Hufsmith did with a very readable account of a lynching in the Sweetwater River Valley of Wyoming over a hundred and twenty years ago. Hufsmith originally came to the project as a composer, commissioned to write an opera about it all. But what he found in various dusty public records was sufficient to overturn what had been put out as the conventional wisdom in the wider world beyond Wyoming … and demonstrates very well what happens when an overwhelming interest in a particular subject takes hold of a person. Just so, the topic of the only woman ever lynched in Wyoming gripped Hufsmith, and he was determined to get to the bottom of it – or as close as one could, given the decades that had passed.
Initially, that 1889 lynching of Ellen Watson and her business partner and common-law husband James Averell – by a party of wealthy local cattlemen was advertised immediately as a wholly justifiable reaction. The cattle barons and their friends claimed that Watson was a prostitute, paid for her favors with stolen cattle, and James Averell was her pimp – among other unsavory things. Such was the song that the wealthy stockmen of Wyoming sang to local and national newspapers, and because money talks – especially to the owners of newspapers – the friends and family of Watson and Averell were as powerless in setting the story straight as they eventually were in getting justice done for the murders of the young couple. Ellen Watson’s reputation continued to take a beating through the decades – including in the movie Heaven’s Gate, the mega-flopperoo retelling of the Johnson County War.
What emerged from Hufsmith’s exacting research and retelling of the story is that Watson and Averell were hard-working, respectable and well-thought of, among the townsfolk and small ranchers in that part of the world. Averell was an honorably discharged Army veteran, a widower whose wife had died in childbirth. He kept a store and saloon, was postmaster as well as a Justice of the Peace. Watson was separated from and soon to be divorced from an abusive husband. She had worked as a cook and housekeeper at a boarding house in Rawlins, Wyoming. There she met Averell; they set up on adjacent homestead claims and perhaps delayed marrying so that they could each prove up on separate adjacent claims, instead of the single claim allowed per family. They had taken out a license to marry, but it is unknown if they had gone through with it by the time of their deaths. In any case, they were in business together and as they began to prosper, Ellen Watson bought a legitimate cattle brand. She began to purchase cattle – all legally … but such small homestead operations as hers were viewed as a grave threat to the large established cattle ranchers of the district. Worse yet for the couple – both hers and Averell’s claims lay right in the middle of a well-watered tract of pastureland which one of the big ranchers had used for years as his own, although having no legal claim to it. Her having the temerity to compete with the large ranchers of the area was seen as the last straw. Six of them paid a visit to Ellen Watson’s ranch and James Averell’s store on a morning in July, 1889, wholly convinced that Watson and Averell had been illegally branding stolen cattle. They were taken away and brutally hung side by side from the branch of a tree on the edge of a ravine on the south bank of the Sweetwater River. If the murderous indignity of dying by slow strangulation was not sufficient, their personal reputations were lynched again in the popular press for years afterwards.
Several friends and employees of Watson and Averell witnessed them being taken away by the six ranchers, and the hanging and gave alarm, but too late to save the couple. A coroner’s inquest was held almost at once, and the six ranchers were arrested and charged with murder. Alas – it never came to a trial. The key eyewitnesses all vanished mysteriously, others were intimidated with threats of the same happening to them if they testified, and Averell’s nephew, who worked as one of Watson’s ranch hands, died suddenly on the very day that the grand jury was supposed to begin hearings into the matter. With no witnesses available or willing to testify, charges against the six were dropped. They did not get off scot-free however; local feeling was very much against them in the Sweetwater Valley, and they all seem to have been socially ostracized.
And two years later the conflict between small rancher/homesteaders and the wealthy and well-connected big ranchers would erupt in the Johnson County War.