Hard case pals Cherokee Bob and Billy Mayfield both had an interest in ‘Red-haired Cynth,’ but the real trouble came because of one Jakey Williams…the lady’s husband.
April 1862 did not seem at all like springtime. The winter of 1861-62 had been the worst in the recorded history of the Pacific Northwest. Snow 10 feet deep remained in the high mountains while ice still choked parts of the Columbia River. Riverboat traffic that normally would have begun in March could get no farther upriver than the port of Wallula. The would-be miners who had heard of the rich placer finds in the mountains east of the Salmon River were mostly still waiting to get passage up to Ragtown (Lewiston). Once they got there, they could head overland to Mount Idaho and the diggings around the new town of Florence. The Civil War was raging east of the Mississippi, but even in the remote Northwest, Unionists and Secessionists were confronting each other with words, fists and sometimes guns. In Walla Walla, emotions were running high, and fights were aplenty in the streets and saloons. The little Washington Territory town was gaining a reputation as a hotbed of secessionism, and the newly arrived California Volunteers stationed at Fort Walla Walla raised the ire of many of the town’s Southern sympathizers to a fever pitch.
Finally a diversion arrived for the frustrated, winter-bound population of Walla Walla in the form of a traveling acting troupe. The members of Forbes Troupe, fresh off a successful engagement in Portland, had stepped off the steamer Tenino at Wallula and taken a stagecoach to Walla Walla. The troupe counted plays by William Shakespeare and many popular American playwrights in its repertoire. Performing with the troupe was the Robinson family, most notably the lovely Sue Robinson, who had made quite a name for herself in San Francisco and Portland as a child actor, or “fairy star” (as they were then called). Young Sue had recently married a local boy, Charley Gestler, and all of Walla Walla was in a congratulatory mood. The troupe scheduled a performance for Thursday, April 10, 1862, as a benefit for the town’s fledgling fire department, with a fireman’s ball arranged for afterward to honor the marriage of Sue and Charley.
By the time the curtain rose for the first act of the show, an appreciative but rowdy crowd was overflowing the “theater”—most likely a music hall attached to one of the local saloons, since Walla Walla’s first real theater, the Gaiety, would not be built until 17 years later. Many soldiers from Fort Walla Walla had joined the locals, including the town marshal and a few of his deputies, in the audience, and they all cheered loudly when the play began. Liquor was smuggled in and consumed in large quantities while the actors performed. Marshal James Buckley, Deputy Marshal George Porter and others who were considered staunch “Dixie Men” were seen indulging freely and fully.
When the first act ended, the patrons applauded more loudly than ever and then filed outside to renew their libations and light their cigars. The trouble started as the crowd returned for the second act. Deputy Porter was not only a rabid supporter of the Southern cause but also a bully. His liquid courage took effect when he saw the soldiers walking back inside. He took particular offense at a sergeant and a lieutenant who were laughing; they had clearly enjoyed the first act and were ready for more. “Dry up there, you brass-mounted hirelings, or I’ll snatch you bald headed,” Porter called to them.
The sergeant, named Latzenheiser, replied that he and the lieutenant weren’t being louder than anyone else in the audience. Then Latzenheiser demanded to know why the deputy marshal had singled them out. Not liking the back talk, Porter drew a pistol and waved it in Latzenheiser’s face. Undaunted by the threat, the sergeant slapped the gun from the deputy’s hand. Several of Latzenheiser’s fellow California Volunteers quickly gathered around to back him up.
One of the Southern sympathizers in the crowd fired a shot. Although the bullet didn’t hit anyone, it raised the tension in the room. Marshal Buckley and several of his other deputies and friends pulled out their side arms. The next shot came from the marshal. He walked up to Latzenheiser, stuck his gun in the sergeant’s face and yelled, “Take that, you Union son of a bitch!” The shot blew some of the sergeant’s brains out. Other shots followed as patrons scurried for safety. When the short but deadly gun battle was over, one of the deputies also lay on the floor dead and several others—soldiers and civilians—had been wounded. Deputy Porter, who had started the riot, was shot through both legs but survived.
The man who fired the first shot in the fight turned out to be Henry J. Talbotte, a recent arrival from California. Talbotte was originally from Georgia, the son of a white man and a half-Cherokee mother. He was known by most everyone as Cherokee Bob, a moniker he had adopted while in prison in California. “This ruffian,” wrote one-time Montana Vigilante Nathaniel P. Langford in the 1890 book Vigilante Days and Ways, “was nearly a maniac in his adherence to the cause of secession.” Cherokee Bob was known to delight in tormenting the soldiers he ran into by referring to them as “hirelings of Abe Lincoln.”
After the fracas at the theater, Marshal Buckley and Cherokee Bob grabbed fast horses and galloped away into the darkness. They rode all the way to Lewiston (in present-day western Idaho), about 75 miles to the west. While the pair skeddadled, the agitated soldiers plotted retribution.
The next morning, not realizing that Buckley had already fled, about 50 soldiers came into Walla Walla looking for the marshal and Cherokee Bob Talbotte, both of whom they blamed for Sergeant Latzenheiser’s death. The soldiers surrounded Buckley’s house and called for his surrender. After getting no response, they finally entered the home and found it deserted. Some talked of razing the town for hiring such a man as marshal. The town mayor and the commander of the Volunteers eventually quieted the talk. But a small group of soldiers rode toward Lewiston to find Buckley and his accomplice. The bluecoats reached Fort Lapwai, but did not proceed on to nearby Lewiston, perhaps because they were not granted permission to go there. Buckley and
Cherokee Bob hid out somewhere near Lewiston until they were sure the soldiers weren’t coming for them, and then they went into the town, where they lived for several months. Cherokee Bob stayed in Lewiston into early summer, working in one of the local saloons. While in town, he renewed his acquaintance with another hard case, gambler Billy Mayfield, and perhaps Henry Plummer, who was known to be there in the summer of ’62. Plummer (actually his name was Plumer; he spelled it with one “m”) had been a merchant and lawman in Nevada City, Calif., but had fled there after killing a man in October 1861. He later earned greater notoriety in what would become Montana by allegedly leading a gang of road agents while serving as sheriff in Bannack and then being hanged by vigilantes there on January 10, 1864. Today, Plummer is far better known than his two pals, Talbotte and Mayfield.
Henry Talbotte had left home in the East when he was only 15 and joined the great Western migration of fortune hunters known as the Forty-Niners. He became one of the many hangers-on who frequented the California gold camps, but he might not have actually mined any gold himself. Instead, he became a gambler, saloonkeeper and occasional bandit. He was convicted of helping to steal a horse in Mariposa County in 1854 and spent six years in prison before being pardoned by the governor. Sporting the new moniker, Cherokee Bob, he went to Nevada City in May 1860. He then made his presence felt in Truckee, Calif., where he killed a man sometime in late 1861. Broke and hunted, but apparently a very likable fellow, Cherokee Bob was befriended by a group of California Volunteers, who were about to be sent to Fort Walla Walla to replace troops sent east to fight in the Civil War. Not suspecting his secessionist tendencies, these soldiers fed him and hid him from the authorities until he arrived safely in Washington Territory. In Walla Walla, he quickly made his Southern leanings known and turned against the very men who had saved him from jail and, quite possibly, the noose.
Bill Mayfield also spent time in the gold camps of California and Nevada. In 1861 he was living in Carson City, Nev., and it was there that he helped his friend Henry Plummer hide out while recovering from a knife wound. That October, across the Sierra Nevada in Nevada City, Plummer had argued with a Southern sympathizer, William Riley, in a tenement building known to the locals as a notorious house of ill-repute. One of the residents called herself Mrs. Plummer, though she was not married to Henry. The argument had escalated, and Riley had knifed Plummer before Plummer pulled his six-shooter and killed him.
The wounded Plummer was thrown in jail, but, as a former lawman there, he had many friends on the police force, and one of them then turned his back to allow Plummer to escape. Riley was the second man Plummer had killed in California, so Plummer fled over the mountains to Nevada, where he stayed in the Carson City cabin of Mayfield and later in the house of one of Mayfield’s friends, Jack Harris. Plummer was weak from the head wound he had suffered in his fight with Riley, so he lay hidden in Harris’ attic until he recuperated.
Sheriff John Blackburn of Carson City knew that Bill Mayfield was a close friend of Plummer, so he confronted the gambler. Blackburn was convinced that Mayfield had helped Plummer escape the jail in Nevada City, but Mayfield refused to provide any information. The sheriff’s continued badgering infuriated Bill, and the two eventually got into a free-for-all in a Carson City saloon on November 18, 1861. Mayfield very obligingly ended it by burying his large “Arkansas toothpick” in Sheriff Blackburn’s chest.
Mayfield was arrested, and while he was awaiting trial, his pal Plummer hightailed it out of Carson City. Mayfield was found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged, but like Plummer, he had friends who helped him escape jail. Eventually, both Mayfield and Plummer showed up in Walla Walla. By chance or by plan, and because of their mutual desires to make it to the gold fields in what would become Idaho Territory on March 4, 1863, Cherokee Bob, Bill Mayfield and Henry Plummer apparently had a reunion of sorts in Lewiston (or perhaps Elk City) in the summer of 1862. In late July, Plummer stayed at the Luna Hotel in Lewiston and signed the register.
Cherokee Bob and Mayfield stayed only about three months in Lewiston. As soon as the deep snows of the mountains had abated enough to allow free travel, they drifted on to Florence, in the Salmon River area. They took with them a woman friend of Mayfield’s who he had met in Lewiston. She had been working in the LaFrance Hotel and was ready to leave for better prospects elsewhere. It turned out that both men were interested in this fiery redhead, Cynthia Williams.
The small creeks and gulches around Florence produced incredible amounts of gold dust, and a stampede of miners swelled the little camp into a boomtown of more than 9,000 people. By the summer of 1862, Florence was said to be the largest city between Seattle and Chicago. The gold dust didn’t hold out for long; by early 1863 the town was already dying. While it boomed, however, men were gaining and losing fortunes almost overnight.
When the two ne’er-do-wells and their lady friend, known as “Red-haired Cynth,” reached Florence in July 1862, Cherokee Bob decided to go into business—not the mining business, of course, but the saloon business. He entered a saloon on the main street of town to look up a friend from his Walla Walla days. Cherokee Bob had loaned $500 to the friend, who had become co-owner of a saloon doing a booming business. Upon learning that the poor fellow had been killed in a recent scrape, Cherokee Bob promptly presented his IOU to the surviving partner. Due to the changing economic climate, the interest and principal (which, coincidentally, were just about equal to what the saloon and all its stock were worth) were now due in full, Cherokee Bob informed the man. Since the partner could not pay up, Cherokee Bob gave him 24 hours to pack up and get out of town. The next morning, Bob showed up with his friends, including Bill Mayfield, and took possession of the place. He was not completely heartless, however, for he provided the frightened saloonkeeper with several hundred dollars “traveling money.” The highly leveraged “buyout” allowed Cherokee Bob to settle in as a businessman in Florence. For considerations not specified, Mayfield also became part owner of the popular saloon.
For a time, life went well for Cherokee Bob, who was making plenty of money honestly. Plummer and his road agents made frequent stops at the saloon, according to several accounts, but there is no evidence that Cherokee Bob was involved in any of their shady deeds. He was merely offering the gentlemen a place to gather, plan and drink. Trouble never stayed away from Bob for too long, however, and it returned to him in the fine form of Cynthia Williams.
By all accounts, Red-haired Cynth was a singularly attractive woman. One writer noted that she was the “fallen wife of a worthy man she left to become the stewardess in a hotel at Lewiston.” According to Byron Defenbach’s 1933 book Idaho: The Place and Its People, Red-haired Cynth was the estranged wife of Jacob (“Jakey”) Williams, who also owned a saloon in Florence. With her bright red hair piled high on her head and with her voluptuous body showcased seductively in fancy dresses, she was the gossamer stuff of lonely miners’ dreams. Hers was not a beauty that drew men together, however; it inspired jealousy and worse. Defenbach wrote that “she was the cause of more separations, more quarrels, and more deaths than any other woman that had ever lived in the Rocky Mountains.” Exaggeration or not, the woman could be trouble.
That Cherokee Bob and Bill Mayfield would face down each other over the red-haired beauty seemed inevitable. Defenbach gave this account of their edgy discussion:
Standing face to face, each man kept his hand on his pistol, just in case, while they talked the matter of Cynth over. “You know me Bob,” began Mayfield, “If she likes you better than she does me, I don’t want her. But, if she’s fondest of me, you ain’t a goin’ to come between us.”
Bob replied that he thought an awful lot about Cynthia, but she wasn’t Bill’s wife, so Bill had no real claim on her.
“That don’t make no difference. If she wants to live with me, there ain’t nobody goin’ to interfere.”
“What do you say, Cynthy?” asked Bill to the nearby woman.
“Well, William,” she answered, “it seems to me that Robert is kind of set up in business now; don’t you think he is better able to take care of me than you are?”
Completely crestfallen, Mayfield told Bob he could have the woman and everything else, too, for that matter. He left Florence the next day and never returned.
Cherokee Bob was delighted, but not for long. Rival saloon owner Jakey Williams was indeed the lawful husband of Redhaired Cynth, a fact that surely galled Bob to no end. Relations between the two men became increasingly strained and eventually flared into open hostility. According to miner T.W. Owsley, who lived in Florence during the winter of 1862-63 and was acquainted with Mrs. Williams, Cherokee Bob vowed to end Jakey Williams’ life at the earliest possible moment.
The feud was temporarily set aside as January 1, 1863, neared, for excitement ran high in Florence over the prospect of a New Year’s Day ball at the dance hall below the Masonic Lodge. The organizers of the ball were Jakey Williams and his friend Orlando (“Rube”) Robbins, who would later become an Idaho lawman sometimes labeled the “Wyatt Earp of the Boise Basin.” During the long, cold winter months in a mining town more than 6,000 feet above sea level, any diversion was welcomed by the miners. It was no wonder that much of the town was abuzz at the prospect of dancing, fiddle music and fine-dressed women.
On the last day of 1862, Red-haired Cynth told Cherokee Bob that she couldn’t possibly miss the big event at the dance hall. Bob took the running of his saloon very seriously, and he informed her that he would not be attending. He would, however, provide her with a suitable escort. As a saloonkeeper, Bob was looking forward to the thousands of dollars in gold dust the miners would spend in celebrating the New Year. He knew that plenty of them would be more interested in getting drunk and playing games of chance than getting bathed and dressed for some fancy dance party.
For Cynth’s escort, Cherokee Bob chose his best friend, Bill Willoughby. Unlike the departed Bill Mayfield, this Bill was completely devoted to the outlaw and was no great threat for Cynthia’s affections. He was a homely man who some folks referred to as “Old Red-faced Bill.” “If things don’t go right, just report to me,” Cherokee Bob told him before the ball.
Red-faced Bill and Red-haired Cynth made quite a splash when they arrived at the New Year’s ball, but it proved to be more of a belly flop than a swan dive. As soon as the temporary couple stepped into the dance hall, they heard whispers and saw angry faces. Even the less-than-blue-blooded citizens of Florence objected to having such a tainted woman in their midst. Some of the partygoers took their complaint to the ball’s organizers, Jakey Williams and Rube Robbins. Sympathizing with the offended sensibilities of the patrons, Williams asked his estranged wife and her date to leave the premises. Of course, the bad blood between him and Cherokee Bob might have had something to do with his request.
Naturally, Cherokee Bob could not let Jakey Williams get away with such rudeness. On January 2, 1863, Bob left his saloon with Red-faced Bill, both men “loaded for bear.” Each carried two six-shooters and a long, sharp fighting knife as they stormed down to Jakey’s saloon. They chased Williams out into the street and then pursued him from building to building. After dodging a few bullets, Williams knew his only chance was to fight back. Stealthily, he made his way back to his saloon to fetch his guns. As he sprinted inside, a bullet from Bill Willoughby’s revolver whizzed past his head.
Acting fast, Williams tucked a six-shooter into his waistband, then reached beneath the bar to grab his shotgun. After checking to make sure both barrels were loaded, he walked out into the street to confront his tormenters. To his amazement, he was joined outside by Rube Robbins and perhaps 20 or 30 other supporters. He now held the upper hand.
Cherokee Bob and Willoughby saw the crowd approaching and began to back down the street toward Bob’s saloon. The odds were horrible, and Red-faced Bill became frantic. He fired wildly as he ran, soon running out of bullets. Many in the crowd fired back, and not all of them could miss. In fact, Willoughby went down hard, with some 16 bullets in his body. He managed to cry out to the mob: “For God’s sake don’t shoot anymore. I’m dying now!” And then he was dead, red-faced no longer. His one date with Red-haired Cynth had come at no small price.
Taking advantage of the crowd’s fascination with Willoughby’s dramatic death scene, Cherokee Bob rushed around the corner of a building to find temporary safety. Williams and Robbins kept coming, though, and they caught him before he could find refuge in his saloon. There, in the middle of the street, the three armed men stood, staring each other down, seemingly waiting for someone else to start the ball rolling.
Just as at the theater in Walla Walla the previous year, it was Cherokee Bob who made the first move. He had one revolver that he had not yet called into service, and he pointed it at Jakey Williams’ chest. When Bob pulled the trigger, however, an amazing thing happened—rather, nothing happened. The hammer fell on a dead cylinder. His two adversaries shot back without any malfunctions, and Cherokee Bob went down. Other sources suggest a shot fired from a window was the one that mortally wounded Bob. In any case, Cherokee Bob didn’t have much of a chance. The story goes that Red-haired Cynth had not wanted Cherokee Bob, her current man, to murder her legal husband, Jakey Williams, and thus had removed the percussion caps from the rounds in Bob’s revolvers. The net result was that she had saved her husband but had lost her lover. It has been suggested that perhaps she had grown tired of Cherokee Bob’s jealous fits. Not that she intended to be reunited with Jakey. According to one hypothesis, she wanted to get rid of Cherokee Bob so that she could go back to the man she really loved, none other than Bill Mayfield.
Two men picked up Cherokee Bob from the icy street and carried him into his saloon. He did not die immediately but lingered for three agonizing days. On January 5, 1863, according to Defenbach, Bob went to “face the judgment bar of God.” Before he perished, he offered no last words for Redhaired Cynth; instead, he paid tribute to the men who had killed him. “They are both brave men, but with a difference,” Bob supposedly stated on his deathbed. “Jakey always steps aside to get clear of the smoke of his revolver, while Rube walks through it and keeps on coming.”
On January 6, the day after Henry Talbotte, better known as Cherokee Bob, died, the marshal of Florence arrested Jakey Williams and Rube Robbins and brought them to the justice of the peace, Jasper Rand. A brief investigation followed. Rand called several witnesses and later that day ordered the prisoners released after determining that they had acted in self-defense in the shooting deaths of Cherokee Bob and Bill Willoughby.
At age 29, Cherokee Bob was laid to rest in Florence’s boot hill. The marker over his grave identifies him simply as H.J. Talbotte from Georgia. A 1933 photograph of the marker appeared in the 1947 book River of No Return, by Robert G. Bailey. The National Forest Service, which maintains the Florence cemetery as a historic site, put up a new marker in the 1980s that can still be seen today. Almost all traces of Old Florence have vanished. Nearby are remnants of New Florence, which was founded in 1896 during a second mining boom.
If Red-haired Cynth mourned Bob it wasn’t for very long. She soon traveled to Boise and then to Placerville (near Idaho City and not to be confused with Placerville, Calif.) to be with her old friend and lover Bill Mayfield. Placerville’s gaming tables were where Mayfield spent most of his time. One evening, in the spring of 1863, he got into an argument with another gambler, “Slicker” Evans, and pulled a gun on him. The following conversation, according to Langford, ensued:
“I’m not heeled!” protested Evans.
“Then go and heel yourself,” charged Mayfield. “And look out the next time you meet me, for I’m bound to kill you at sight. One of us must die!”
Being a careful and conscienceless man, Evans decided to take no chances. The very next day, from the safety of his cabin, Slicker shoved a rifle through his window and shot Mayfield dead as he was walking down Granite Street. Evans fled the area and was never prosecuted for the murder. Five months after Cherokee Bob’s demise, Bill Mayfield had joined him in eternity.
After Bill’s Mayfield’s murder, Red-haired Cynth moved to the red-light district of Placerville and, according to one account, “entered a career of promiscuous infamy.” Beyond this brief epilogue, nothing more is known of her. The auburn beauty who had been the cause of so much scandal and bloodshed just seems to have vanished without a trace.
Maurice E. Smith writes from Thornton,Wash. Suggested for further reading: Idaho: The Place and Its People, by Byron Defenbach; River of No Return, by Robert G. Bailey; Vigilante Days and Ways, by Nathaniel P. Langford; Hanging the Sheriff: A Biography of Henry Plummer, by R.E. Mather and F.E. Boswell; and Ghost Towns of Idaho, by Donald C. Miller
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.