I’ve always enjoyed George Layman’s research and writing regarding Old West weaponry. His August 2015 Guns of the West article about the Bulldog revolver (originally made in the mid-1870s by Philip Webley in England) was an interesting study.
In May 1880 Union Pacific detective James L. “Whispering” Smith was in Sidney, Neb., investigating the theft of nearly 500 pounds of gold from the cargo depot. He egged suspected gang member Patrick H. Walters into going for his gun and then shot him with what the local press described as a “Webley,” undoubtedly meaning one of the several models of Webleys on the American market. Smith always bragged that when in a shootout he aimed for his opponent’s middle vest button. The detective pulled his shot a mite and hit Walters in the lower right abdomen. The wound was pronounced fatal, but Pat proved to be of stern New York Irish stock and survived only to be run out of town by vigilantes the following year.
In 1883 Walters had an altercation in Bozeman with Montana rancher Hugo Hoppy who shot the outlaw in the very same spot with a “Bull Dog.” This time it took, and Walters
was no more.
Editor’s note: James L. Smith was one of the railroad detectives who inspired the title character in Frank H. Spearman’s 1906 best seller Whispering Smith, and that novel in turn spun off at least a half-dozen films featuring a character with that nickname. Four silent films hit the screens before 20th Century Fox cast George O’Brien in 1935’s Whispering Smith Speaks. The best known of the bunch is Paramount’s 1948 Whispering Smith, starring Alan Ladd as Luke “Whispering” Smith. In 1961 the colorfully nicknamed Old West detective appeared in the short-lived NBC series Whispering Smith, starring Audie Murphy. But all that was fiction. For a close look at the real detective, see Allen P. Bristow’s 2007 biography Whispering Smith: His Life and Misadventures.
As you noted in the February 2016 Letters, the National Geographic Channel special last October partially verified the “croquet tintype” that purportedly was taken in front of a New Mexico Territory schoolhouse and includes, among others, Billy the Kid, Tom O’Folliard, Sallie Chisum, and Charlie and Manuela Bowdre. Provenance is a difficult path, and one question is how did the tintype [see the full image on P. 16 of the April 2015 issue] get into a storage unit sale in Fresno, Calif., after which a lucky gentleman, Randy Guijarro, plucked it out of a box? A number of Lincoln County War participants and associates, or their descendants, found their way to California, but which family passed down the croquet tintype?
I have been doing research on the Bowdre family, and I realized that the tintype was not taken to document the Kid playing croquet with his pals. The primary figures are on horseback slightly off to the right—Charles Bowdre (one of Billy’s closest friends) and Manuela Herrera Bowdre. Whether this was a wedding party or another special occasion, it was important enough to document in a tintype. Born to Albert Rees and Lucy Meriwether Bowdre in Neshoba, Miss., Charlie would soon have a younger brother, Thomas Benjamin “T.B.” Bowdre. T.B.’s daughter Esther Bowdre Newbern and her husband, Wyatt, ran a store in Russellville, Ark., for many years. Their adopted son Thomas worked for the railroad in California, and Thomas’ oldest son, Thomas Wyatt Newbern, was a Navy man who stayed in California for most of his life. In the late 1980s the divorced Newbern moved to Fresno and remarried; he died in 1994. At no time during my research on the Bowdre family did I hear about the tintype. But when I did see the image later, I realized I had information—a historical roadmap—that could help with the provenance. It is logical that T.B., as Charlie’s favorite brother, received the photo of Charlie’s marriage [there is no agreement on when the marriage occurred], and that the tintype was passed down to his descendants—including Thomas Wyatt Newbern who lived in Fresno. It is also logical that Billy the Kid would attend his close friend’s wedding. Sallie Chisum would have reason to be there as well; her family once employed Billy and Charlie.
The croquet tintype has the hallmarks of a legitimate find.
Not only has the supposed tintype [“Billy Tintype?” P. 8, February 2015 issue] of Billy the Kid not been authenticated, but also during the National Geographic Channel program the proponents own facial recognition expert, Kent Gibson, said if he were asked in court if there was a facial match between the authenticated Billy tintype and the croquet tintype image, he would deny it. “Deny” is the word he used.
Moreover, there is a serious chronological problem. Croquet tintype proponent Jeff Aiello, an executive producer of the Geographic program, argues the image was taken in 1878 in front of the Felix School on the John Tunstall ranch in the Felix River Valley in Chaves County, New Mexico Territory. There is no record of any school there while Billy the Kid was alive. Detailed 1884 survey maps of the area show no school. Roswell newspaper articles indicate the Felix School was built between July 1898 and December 1900, some 20 years after Billy’s July 1881 death. Finally, Ernestine Chesser Williams published a 1925 photo of the Felix School in her book Chaves County Schools, 1881–1968, and it looks nothing like the building in the croquet tintype. Williams also said the first public school in the county, near Roswell, was not opened until October 1881. Billy had been dead three months.
The calendar is the researcher’s best friend. All we can say for certain is the croquet tintype depicts unidentified people at an unknown location in the United States.
I am intrigued by the photo of Tombstone [above] on PP. 60 and 61 of your October 2015 issue [“Justice in Tombstone,” by Bob Palmquist]. The large collection of huge freight wagons center right on P. 60 is most interesting. Is this part of a freighting company servicing the area silver mines or possibly freight coming into Tombstone from Tucson? I noticed on P. 61 what looks to be stables for many horses and pens with large oxen. However, across the street is another structure of interest—maybe a wheelwright’s shop? There is a considerable stack of firewood out back and an oversized smokestack coming out of the roof. If this is so, then maybe the wagons, once fitted with wheels, are then parked across the street in the large lot. I’ve tried to locate other photos of Tombstone by C.S. Fly and have found nothing other than this very clear photo you selected for your “Justice in Tombstone” story. I’m always intrigued when I see large freight wagons. Do you have any other information about this photo? Interesting note: The wagon that has just turned the corner on P. 61 is only being pulled by two horses. It must not be as heavy as it looks.
Anyway, I’m enjoying your new look and, as always, your wonderful stories. Keep them coming.
Editor responds: We are intrigued by how closely you examined this circa 1883 photo. Unfortunately, we don’t have the answers you seek. The cabinet card photo sold for $3,586 at a Heritage Auctions event in January 2009. The description reads: “Has a cream-colored mount with title in negative, reading ‘98 tombsone, arizona with no back mark. Fantastic view includes the newly constructed Cochise County Courthouse, built in 1882.”
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