After a quarter century with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, R. Michael Wilson turned his investigative skills to the Old West, culling information about train and stagecoach robberies, murder and executions. Wilson has written numerous books and articles for Wild West, given radio interviews and appeared as a talking head on History Channel’s Wild West Tech series. His books include Great Stagecoach Robberies of the Old West (2006); Great Train Robberies of the Old West (2006); Tragic Jack: The True Story of Arizona Pioneer John William Swilling (2007); Frontier Justice in the Wild West (2007); Massacre at Wickenburg: Arizona’s Greatest Mystery (2007); Outlaw Tales of Wyoming (2008); Wells, Fargo & Co. Report of Losses from Stagecoach and Train Robbers, 1870–1884 (2008); Legal Executions in the Western Territories, 1847–1911 (2010); Legal Executions After Statehood in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon (2010); and Legal Executions After Statehood in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah (2011). His most recent release is Stagecoach Robbery in Arizona and Nevada (2012). In addition to his writing ventures, Wilson maintains a Web site. He is an active member of Western Writers of America and the Wild West History Association. Wild West recently spoke to Wilson at home in Las Vegas, Nevada.
‘Researching legal executions, stagecoach robberies or train robberies provides something new at every turn of the page’
What intrigues you about crime and punishment in the Old West?
In researching events like the Wickenburg massacre or the demise of John William Swilling, it brings to mind the comment of John Bernard Books (John Wayne) in The Shootist that he would read every word and line in his newspaper until he knew everything that happened on that date. And researching legal executions, stagecoach robberies or train robberies provides something new at every turn of the page. Every case history is unique, and it is engrossing to see the differences and similarities of each event slowly emerge as the research progresses.
I was an avid bass fisherman for more than two decades, and I enjoyed the long hours on the water searching for just the right solution to hook a big fish and savored the excitement when the line finally drew taut. I find research a similar experience, planning and digging for hours only to discover some tidbit of information that fills a gap in the historical record, possibly never noticed by anyone previously.
To mark the 2012 centennial of New Mexico’s statehood, would you share a Land of Enchantment tale from your latest Legal Executions book?
I would direct the reader to the case of Francisco Alvarez, et al. (P. 291), which contains a variety of twists and turns such as a government conspiracy, famous names like Pancho Villa and historic events like the Mexican raid on Columbus, N.M., on March 9, 1916.
How about an Arizona subject, as that state also celebrates its centennial?
In Arizona I would direct the reader to the story of Eva Dugan, a housekeeper and caregiver for an elderly man in Tucson, who murdered him for his property. The body could not be found by normal searches, but fate took a hand, and a wayward camper stepped through the flaps of his tent, after a horrendous windstorm, into the grave of old man Mathis. The body could never have been identified but for Dugan’s haste in ridding herself of the remains, as she had forgotten to remove his false teeth. In February 1930, when Dugan was hanged at the prison in Florence, she fell through the trapdoor and was decapitated. Two more men were hanged, without incident, before Dugan’s bungled execution led the legislature to replace hanging with lethal gas as the means of execution.
Any other interesting execution stories?
When Earl Gardner, an Apache Indian, was sentenced to hang by a federal court (P. 45), a gallows could not be found in Arizona, so a makeshift gallows was constructed from an old rock crusher at the Coolidge Dam project. Threats of rescue led the U.S. marshal to keep the time and place of the execution as secret as possible and to take the prisoner to the place of execution the previous night. Throughout the hours of darkness federal officers stood watch armed with submachine guns and tear gas bombs, but there was no effort to rescue the condemned man.
How do you manage all the data?
I found early on that the easiest way to manage data for any large accumulation of case histories was to establish the manner in which it was to be presented, create a list of each subject heading with research hints and then prepare a manila folder by listing the pertinent finding aid on the tab—and then the folder was ready to receive the data in the form of photocopies. When I undertook the task of documenting every legal execution west of the 98th meridian, much of the early research was conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas microfilm archive, and when several or more folders were completed, I began writing the individual case histories. In this way each manuscript was slowly built over many months.
In addition to archival institutions where else did you find material?
When I researched stagecoach robberies, I began a systematic search through every newspaper in Arizona and Nevada, always looking for some clue in a current article that I had missed a previous event. I eventually pieced together a list from the reports of these thrilling events and later reorganized the robberies chronologically by county.
Do you have a favorite research subject?
It would be difficult to choose one subject over another, as they are so different, but I have invested by far more time in researching capital punishment than in any other subject. When I first began researching executions, I limited my research to the 10 jurisdictions I felt represented the heart of the Wild West and set a closing date of February 1912, when Arizona became the 48th state. The common denominator, with only one exception, was that the crime was always first-degree murder, hence the title Murder and Execution in the Wild West (2006). My new publisher, McFarland & Co., wanted me to extend my perspective to include all continental jurisdictions west of the 98th meridian and extend the date to the present, which was then December 31, 2010 [and to consider crimes other than murder]. When I began researching legal executions in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma (formerly Indian Territory), I saw the wisdom in that broader perspective. Crimes in those jurisdictions included desertion during the Civil War, second or more offenses of horse theft in Indian Territory and rape.
Any difficulties with the writing?
I found that when the victim was a child, or children, of a young and tender age it could take me days, sometimes up to a week, to write a single case history. Even then I had to force myself to return to the keyboard to put that event behind me so I could continue on.
Which case in Legal Executions After Statehood in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah compelled you the most?
I would choose the 1886 execution of Andrew Green (P. 115) as one of the most interesting. Green, a black man, was sufficiently educated and talented to pen his autobiography of 14 brief chapters as he sat on death row. In his work he outlines the evolution of his criminal career from the 1870s through the mid-1880s and even illustrated the work with sketches. His life of crime culminates with the murder of streetcar driver Joseph C. Witnah. The investigation of the murder led to the arrest of Green and his partner in crime, who informed, or “peached,” on Green in return for a reduction of his sentence to life in prison. When it came time for the execution, a “twitch-up” gallows was used, a gallows where a heavy weight drops and jerks the condemned upward, and 20,000 spectators who made a picnic affair of the execution surrounded him. As a result of this spectacle, executions were eventually made private affairs, conducted within the walls of the Colorado Penitentiary.
Which are some of the more reprehensible crimes you’ve written about?
I would have to say the crimes most reprehensible were those against children under 10 years of age, which invariably involved rape, sometimes torture, and ended in murders often brutal. In Arizona, Daren Lee Bolton (P. 77) raped and murdered a 2-year-old and a 7-year-old girl. In Colorado Frank H. Martz (P. 182) lured a 3-year-old girl to his apartment and raped and murdered her. In Utah, Arthur G. Bishop (P. 368) kidnapped, raped and murdered four young boys before he was captured. In North Dakota, Albert F. Bomberger (P. 96) murdered a mother, father and four children ages 7, 9, 11 and 13 so he could rape the 15-year-old sister. In Washington, Joe Bill (P. 345) raped and murdered a 5-year-old girl; Westley A. Dodd (P. 359) raped and murdered four boys aged 4, 5, 10 and 11 years; and Jeremy V. Sagastegui (P. 361) raped and murdered a 3-year-old boy. In Wyoming, Andrew Pixley (P. 384) raped and murdered two girls aged 6 and 8 years.
Any other crimes of note?
The November 1, 1955 bombing of United Flight 629 in Colorado by John G. Graham (P. 187). The bomb exploded and the plane crashed to the ground killing 39 passengers and five crewmembers. There was no federal law regarding this crime, so Graham had to be tried by the state for murdering his mother—one of the passengers and his target. In Idaho, Raymond A. Snowden (P. 23) murdered 48-year-old Cora Lucyle Dean, then cut flesh from her body and ate it.
What are some of your primary source materials?
I use primarily contemporary newspaper accounts, but I make every effort to find at least two or more accounts, which are not reprints of an original article, to balance, clarify and confirm the details of each case history. When researching in a particular jurisdiction, I quickly discover that I can have greater confidence in certain sources. I have also relied upon personal journals, accounts and diaries as well as trial and appeal records. I sometimes find the occasional Internet account of some event and make comparisons to the information I have confirmed, to rate veracity, and then see if there is anything new to give some direction for further research, but generally I do not rely upon Internet accounts.
How do you keep from diving into one of the tangential stories that you uncover in your research?
When I began researching historical events in 1998, I would find unrelated or tangential matters and pass them by, only to spend hours searching for them later. What I found to be the best strategy was to start two folders: one titled “Book Ideas” and the other “Interesting Oddities.” In this way I did not ignore those pesky distractions but collected them and set them aside for future consideration and treatment.
Did your career in law enforcement help with your writing career?
Many years of college classes, through a Juris Doctor degree, prepared me for managing my time to achieve the best results for the particular project in front of me. Law enforcement, at least in the movies, is depicted as one dangerous and exciting event after another, often in a single workday. In reality officers spend most of their time collecting information for routine reports on events long ended, then writing the report for some detective to manage. Police reports are highly focused, and any tangential information would be immediately struck. This early training gave me a sound foundation for, as Detective Friday (Jack Webb) put it, “just the facts, ma’am.”
What topics do you want to turn to next?
As in all cases, accessibility is the key to my research, and I have been trying to do for the Wells, Fargo & Co. train robbery ledger what I did for the 1885 Wells, Fargo & Co. Report of Losses from stagecoach robberies and burglaries—report the details of each event. However, only a partial list is now available. While I search for the right historical subject, I have returned to several historical fiction works, including the Wickenburg massacre. A fictional approach will allow me to fill in gaps with the most reasonable explanation of missing data. As a result of my first book on the massacre (2000) a great deal of effort has been put into clarifying many of the unresolved issues, especially the location of the victims’ remains. An archeological dig at the massacre site is currently being considered.
Which case would you like to revisit or know more about?
I realize that any of my cases might be enhanced by someone willing to spend a great deal of time focused upon a single event, but I am confident that I have covered all the important and pertinent information available on every case history. I couldn’t pick a single case that I would want to revisit but am always on the alert for someone to point out a new perspective on an existing case history. Instead, I would prefer to move onto a new subject that demands the attention of a dogged researcher.