He was the state’s most notorious since the James-Younger Gang.
When authorities arrested 20-year-old William Rudolph and sidekick George Collins in March 1903 for killing a Pinkerton detective in Missouri, newspapers started calling Rudolph the “Missouri Kid.” The New York Times claimed he and his partner had “started in to make dime-novel records in Missouri.” A bit of exaggeration perhaps, but Rudolph and Collins had, in fact, created the biggest criminal sensation in that state since the exploits of the notorious James-Younger Gang a quarter-century earlier.
Willie was born out of wedlock in 1883 to Nancy Jane Armistead of Stanton, Mo. Three years later Nancy married Frank Rudolph, and her son adopted his stepfather’s surname. The boy grew up in Franklin County, keeping close to Stanton. As a 15-year-old he helped rob and torture a local elderly couple named Schwartz and skipped town rather than face charges. Willie was not heard from again for almost four years.
On December 18, 1902, Rudolph arrived at his parents’ home with 23-year-old Collins, and the pair hatched a plan to rob the bank in neighboring Union, Mo. About midnight on the 26th they broke a window of the bank to gain entrance. Rudolph entered with nitroglycerin while Collins stood guard. When Rudolph blew the vault door, Collins randomly fired his gun in the air to cloak the explosion. Many townspeople mistook the noise as fireworks from revelers belatedly celebrating Christmas, but a few living near the bank suspected what was happening. Collins, however, warned them off by directing his fire at any residence with a light switched on or a face in a window.
It took Rudolph 15 minutes to fix a second charge and blow open the safe. The second explosion confirmed the suspicions of the curious, but by then it was too late. Rudolph emerged from the bank toting a sack containing some $12,000 in cash and securities. He and Collins started east on foot and made their circuitous way back to the Rudolph home. A day or two later they went to Hot Springs, Ark., for two weeks before returning to Stanton in mid-January 1903.
Meanwhile, Pinkerton agent Charles J. Schumacher of St. Louis arrived in Franklin County to investigate the bank robbery. Schumacher’s inquiries led him to Stanton, where he learned that Rudolph had recently returned to the area after a long absence and that lately his stepfather had been spending money freely. On January 22 the detective and a companion, masquerading as rabbit hunters, called at the Rudolph residence about four miles north of Stanton and asked for something to eat. Mrs. Rudolph invited them in, and her son calmly told the men to set their guns in a corner. Willie, with two pistols strapped to his waist, positioned himself between his guests and their weapons as his mother served them dinner.
Schumacher left the home convinced young Rudolph had participated in the bank robbery, and upon his return to Stanton he promptly telephoned the county sheriff’s office at Union. Deputy Sheriff Louis Vedder met Schumacher that afternoon in Stanton with a warrant for Rudolph’s arrest for his participation in the earlier Schwartz robbery.
About 8 o’clock the next morning Schumacher set out on foot with Vedder and two other men, arriving at the Rudolph home a little after 10. Vedder knocked at one of the two front doors with Schumacher close behind him and the other two deputies farther back. Willie Rudolph and George Collins sprang from the other door, both with a revolver in each hand, and opened fire. Schumacher, their primary target, was killed instantly, a bullet through his brain.
His companions retreated and briefly exchanged shots with the desperadoes before withdrawing to Stanton. When news of Schumacher’s killing reached Union, a sheriff’s posse headed toward the crime scene and split up to scour the immediate area. The fugitives spent several hours trying to obtain horses to make a getaway before an Armistead kinsman sold Rudolph two ponies late in the afternoon. As the outlaws rode southwest, they happened upon two posse members. After another exchange of gunfire, the fugitives made their escape.
At the Rudolph home later that day the posse found Schumacher’s body still lying where it had fallen and returned the corpse to Stanton. The next day law men searched the Rudolph property and found a sack of silver that had been taken in the Union bank robbery. The entire Rudolph family was arrested and taken to Union for questioning.
Rudolph and Collins, meanwhile, abandoned their horses and hopped a freight train bound for Memphis. There they boarded another train to Collins’ hometown of Hartford, Conn., where they felt they would be safe. However, detectives searching a stove at the Rudolph home found a charred scrap of paper bearing the words GEORGE COLLINS, HARTFORD, CONN. Pinkerton agents arrested the fugitives there on March 1, 1903.
Returned to Union, the two outlaws faced indictment for first-degree murder in Schumacher’s death. Authorities took them to St. Louis for safekeeping, as the Franklin County jail was not considered secure enough. A large crowd outside the Four Courts jail in St. Louis greeted Rudolph and Collins as if they were returning heroes, with the handsome Rudolph, in particular, drawing the attention of several young women in the crowd.
The St. Louis facility, though, was apparently not particularly secure either. On July 6, 1903, Rudolph escaped by breaking through the skylight of the facility’s central hall. Lawmen picked up his trail three days later in northwest Missouri but lost all trace of the fugitive soon after. Upon learning of the escape, William Pinkerton declared the world was not big enough to hide Rudolph, but a massive manhunt turned up no sign of him for more than six months.
Then, on the night of January 16, 1904, Rudolph and a young man named Rogers were thwarted in Cleveland, Mo., while preparing to blow open a bank safe in that small town. Fleeing across the nearby state line to Louisburg, Kan., they botched an attempt to blow open a safe at a train depot and were apprehended early the next morning by the local order of the Anti Horse Thief Association.
Rogers was turned over to Missouri authorities on a charge of horse stealing, while Rudolph, who gave his name as Albert Gorney, was charged with attempting to rob the safe at Louisburg. He pled guilty, hoping that under an assumed name in the Kansas State Penitentiary he would be safe from discovery by authorities in Missouri.
About the time Rudolph arrived at the Lansing, Kan., prison on February 10, the Pinkerton agency received a copy of the mug shot taken after his recent arrest. William Pinkerton recognized it and sent a detective to Lansing to make a positive identification. When the inmate was brought to the warden’s office on February 15, the detective said, “Hi, Bill,” and the startled “Al Gorney” knew he had been found out.
After other evidence confirmed the identification, the governor of Kansas pardoned Rudolph on the burglary conviction so he could stand trial in Missouri for the murder of Detective Schumacher. Rudolph’s recapture and extradition made headlines across the country. Seemingly suggesting that his primitive upbringing might have contributed to his criminal behavior, The New York Times observed that Rudolph came from a family of “crackers” living “in one of the wildest sections of Missouri.” But Rudolph’s hometown Franklin County Tribune noted that his mother and stepfather, although poor, were considered honest. What everyone, even the lad’s own mother, seemed to agree on was that Willie Rudolph was “always a bad boy.”
Rudolph’s trial began at Union in late March 1904. He was in the courthouse on Saturday, March 26, when Collins was hanged from a gallows in the adjoining jail yard for the same crime for which Rudolph was being tried. Within hours a jury returned a verdict of guilty in Rudolph’s own case.
A series of appeals held up Rudolph’s execution for more than a year. As his date with death approached, Rudolph wrote two letters from his jail cell to William Pinkerton, pleading with the detective chief to please use his “powerful influence with the governor to have my sentence commuted,” but the Missouri Kid’s time ran out on May 8, 1905. He bade goodbye to his mother from his jail cell and then was led to the gal lows. A crowd of more than 200 people, including many female admirers, gathered to witness the spectacle. Hanged with a short rope, Rudolph writhed in agony for several minutes before dying of strangulation.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.