Chris Enss to dig into the correspondence and love letters of George and Elizabeth Custer. She chronicles their relationship in None Wounded, None Missing, All Dead: The Story of Elizabeth Bacon Custer. A desire to understand frontier justice intrigued Enss and led her to co-write (with Howard Kazanjian) Thunder Over the Prairie, a book about the Dora Hand case now in development for a film. Enss’ books about Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Happy Trails and The Cowboy and the Señorita, will soon translate to the Broadway stage in a play that casts country singer Clint Black as Roy. Her other recent titles include Object: Matrimony: The Risky Business of Mail-Order Matchmaking on the Frontier, Outlaw Tales of California and Bedside Book of Bad Girls: Outlaw Women of the Midwest. In addition to writing books and for television and film, Enss is a comedienne. Although she produces serious books, she doesn’t always take herself too seriously.A nagging little question about one of the greatest power couples of the 19th-century American West—Did they fight?—led California writer
‘I’m inspired to dig into the personal lives of the westbound folks I find ordinary because their drive to settle in a new land was so compelling’
Which “bad girl” most interests you?
Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell, also known as Kate Rockwell, Klondike Kate and the Flame of the Yukon. She was a talented singer and dancer in the mid-1870s who got her start in Alaska. She wore an elaborate red chiffon dress and hat and carried a jewel-encrusted cane in her stage act. When the music began, she would dance and twirl about. The 200 yards of red chiffon in her dress would fan out as she spun around, giving the audience the illusion that she was on fire—hence the name Flame of the Yukon. Her husband was her booking agent, and he had her performing all over the country. Her husband used the money she earned—approximately $2,300 a month—to invest in a chain of playhouses. He divorced her without telling her what he was doing and quickly married his mistress.
Few people remember Kate Rockwell, but everyone has heard of Alexander Pantages and the Pantages Theatres. Learning the backstory of the women of the Old West is fascinating to me. I feel like a frontier version of Paul Harvey. And now you know…the rest of the story, Pilgrim.
Which is the most notorious?
Juanita, the first woman lynched in California, is the most notorious woman I have had the privilege to write about. She stabbed a man named Fred Cannon. He was a well-liked figure in the mining community of Downieville, where this incident occurred. He had made one too many inappropriate advances on Juanita, and the two ended up in a heated argument. He called her several bad names, and she dared him to come inside her home and call her the names. He did, and she picked up a knife and stabbed him in the chest. Fred died. (When a thing like that happens, you’re probably better off.) Six hours after the murder Juanita was tried and hung for her misdeeds.
The jury selected to serve at the trial were all good friends of Fred Cannon’s, hung over from drinking the day before and angry that they had lost a friend. Rumor has it Fred was one of the funniest miners around. He could make hilarious sounds using his underarm pits and could play the harmonica with his nose. If you asked me, Juanita did the world a favor.
What makes Juanita’s story fascinating is the fact that the entire matter happened on July 5, 1851. The day before, the town had spent time celebrating the country’s independence and the right that everyone should have a fair trial.
Why do many of your books focus on ordinary Westerners?
I like to think that most of the people I write about are ordinary individuals who did extraordinary things. For example: Olive Mann Isbell, your ordinary, run-of-the mill teacher, came west to educate children. After she established a makeshift school, she attended class armed with weapons in order to keep the students safe from hostile natives. Eleanora Berry was an average mail-order bride who traveled west to marry a man she had been corresponding with for a year. Her coach was held up en route, and it wasn’t until she was standing at the altar that she learned the highwayman and the man she was about to wed were one in the same. Rosa May was an ordinary prostitute living in Bodie, Calif. What made her story intriguing was learning what the average prostitute did from day to day. The letters she exchanged with the man she was in love with are revealing in more ways than one.
I’ve written more than two-dozen books, and more than half of those are about your average Joes and Janes. Like I said, ordinary people doing extraordinary things. (It’s fair to say those brave souls set different goals for themselves than I have. My current goal is to purchase Season 3 of the FX Networks television show Justified.)
What about them inspires you?
I’m inspired to dig into the personal lives of the westbound folks I find ordinary because their drive to settle in a new land was so compelling. Whether they were actresses, teachers, hopeful gold miners or journalists, they wanted to go west and struggled to get there. I admire the whole camping out thing they had to do as well. (I fell asleep at my desk once, and that’s the closest I’ll ever come to camping out.) And if anyone had the right to say, “I don’t think it’s fair to bring a child into this world,” it was the women homesteaders. They could have told their husbands, “Look, Bob, no more kids! We have six already and we’re living in a wagon! Times are hard, Bob!”
If you could travel back through time, who would you most want to meet?
I would like to meet author, illustrator and novelist Mary Hallock Foote. She was a talent, and I think she should have won a Pulitzer Prize over Wallace Stegner. After all, he did use some of her material in his book Angle of Repose. I would like to meet Nellie Bly, too. She was a journalist who really knew how to track a story and made history doing so. I would also like to meet Zoe Tilghman. She wrote extensively about the Old West and was married to Bill Tilghman—the greatest lawman ever.
Why drew you to research Libbie Custer?
I wanted to know why Elizabeth Custer loved George, and if they fought and about what. I believe that elephants don’t marry giraffes, and I wanted to know what the similarities were in this husband-and-wife team. Did she ever have a hard time, after his passing, distinguishing the man from the myth she helped create? I wrote about their courtship and marriage because that approach to this well-known couple had never been tackled. I was criticized because I didn’t include all of Custer’s battles in the book. The title itself clearly states what the material was about, but that didn’t seem to matter to a few folks who posted their irritation on Amazon.com.
I had a wonderful opportunity to go through many of Elizabeth Custer’s personal items—one of which was a love letter to George from another woman. I was hooked from that moment and knew I wanted to write about the devotion Libbie had for George.
Who among the women of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West do you find most fascinating?
May Manning Lillie. She and husband Pawnee Bill lost a child early in their marriage, and May fell into a deep depression. For a long while it didn’t seem as though she would recover. She learned to ride as a way of coping with her sadness and eventually became an exceptional equestrian. She taught herself how to rope as well, and when she combined those skills, she became an entertainment powerhouse. She was one of the favorite attractions in Cody’s show. The image of her pointing a gun at a photographer who was taking her picture for a publicity packet for Cody’s show became one the most popular posters in the show’s history.
What was it about places like Dodge City and Tombstone that gave rise to such legendary Western figures as the Earps, Bat Masterson and Bill Hickok?
Dodge City was at the end of what was known as the Great Western Cattle Trail. It was lawless and lusty. Tombstone was the sin city of the Old West. It too was lawless and lusty. Both locations hoped to be better than that, but citizens shunned reform and refinement. Western legends like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson went to towns of action—places where there was too much money, too much growth and not enough law. It took the cockiness of a gunfighter or thief but someone also with an appreciation for the law to take on the job of sheriff or deputy of those towns.
What drew you to Dora Hand’s story?
The fact that the bad guy who murdered her got away with it. Even in the Old West the color of justice was green. Spike Kenedy eventually got what was coming to him, but not because he shot an innocent soul as she was sleeping. Until I researched the story of Dora Hand, I didn’t realize the influence wealthy cattle ranchers had over legal matters at that time in history. Walter Hill is directing and writing the screenplay. I think Howard Kazanjian, co-author of the book and a gifted producer, should have a copy of the finished product by the fall.
Of the posse men in pursuit of Kenedy—Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Charlie Bassett, Bill Tilghman, William Duffy—which would you most like to have met?
I would have liked to have met Bill Tilghman. I’d ask him the names of every member of the posse. History is not consistent with regards to that. Bat Masterson noted in his writings that Tilghman was “the best of all of us.” I’d like to know who Tilghman considered the best.
When can we expect the film version of Thunder Over the Prairie?
Walter Hill is directing and writing the screenplay. I think Howard Kazanjian, co-author of the book and a gifted producer, should have a copy of the finished product by the fall. Once that is completed, Howard and Walter will consider casting and everything else that goes into getting a film made. One the proudest times in my life was when Walter Hill told me he liked the book and the writing. I’ve been a fan of his for many years. One of my favorite films is The Long Riders, which he directed. He is a gifted filmmaker and has a heart for Westerns.