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Death came for Tom Waggoner at the end of a rope strung from a cottonwood tree in Wyoming on June 4, 1891. More than two weeks passed from the time of the lynching before anyone found his body, its feet resting on the ground and legs bent, as the rope had stretched before rigor mortis set in. “The rope had cut through the flesh after it became rotten, and maggots held high carnival over the lifeless body,” The Newcastle Journal reported. His face had turned black, half his mustache had sloughed off, and his eyes had swollen and burst. According to the June 10 Journal, public opinion handled Waggoner’s name “rather recklessly in connection with the disappearance of livestock.”

The hanging was one in a series of violent acts orchestrated by Wyoming’s “cattle barons” in the lead-up to the 1892 Johnson County War. Notable incidents included the double lynching of Ellen Liddy “Cattle Kate” Watson and Jim Averill in 1889, and the attempted murder of Nathan D. “Nate” Champion and Ross Gilbertson just five months after the Waggoner lynching.

At the time of his death Waggoner was in his early 30s, of medium height and build, with a swarthy complexion and dark, beady eyes. He was not known for being particularly sociable or hospitable, which left locals in the dark about his doings. The cattlemen and their range detectives said Waggoner was an abominable thief and middleman who simply stole any horses he could catch, changed their brands and branded their colts.

The district court had recently indicted Waggoner for living with a woman named Rosa Chuler. That in turn prompted a follow-up visit by local “authorities,” including Joe Elliott, a range detective for the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association who was developing a reputation as a ruthless enforcer. The men compelled Tom to marry Rosa, who some said was mentally deficient. She had borne two children by Waggoner and was expecting a third when he was lynched in June.

The family lived a wretched existence. “ Everything was squalor and misery and filth,” the Journal reported on what investigators found that summer. Their log hovel comprised two rooms separated by a covered way in which a buggy was stored. One room was a stable. The living space held scarcely a stick of furniture, not even a bed. There was nothing but a bench, a few boxes and short logs turned on end as seats.

According to reports in The Buffalo Bulletin, Waggoner worked as a criminal middleman, selling off horses other parties had stolen from as far away as Idaho. Range detective William C. “Billy” Lykins shared a telling story with Elliott about Waggoner’s doings, an account that has the ring of authority. Elliott related the story to interviewer B.W. Hope in the early 1940s. Lykins claimed Waggoner had stolen several fine horses from a group of passing emigrants, and once the pilgrims had “soaked long enough,” he paid them a neighborly visit. When they told him their horses had been stolen, Waggoner, feigning ignorance, said the “big cattlemen” had stolen stock from him, too. He told them he knew where their horses were, who had them, and offered to get them back. Thanking Waggoner, the unwitting group wrote out a bill of sale to cover him if confronted while bringing in their horses. Waggoner then brought in a bunch of cayuses he’d found in the hills and wished the emigrants well in their travels. As soon as they’d moved on, he took the horses he’d stolen down to Lincoln, Neb., and, with bill of sale in hand, sold them.

Elliott claimed Waggoner had also stolen a team of good horses from him and changed their brands. The horses, however, got away and came straight back to Elliott. He learned the nature of their disappearance when a pair of Waggoner’s hired hands informed on their boss. Sometime later Elliott entered a liquor store in Merino (present-day Upton, Wyo.) to find Waggoner perched on a barrel. When Elliott confronted him about stealing the horses and doctoring the brands, Waggoner replied, “What the hell are you going to do about it?” At that Elliott took off his hat and smacked Waggoner across the face with it.

To Elliott’s surprise Waggoner did nothing. “I thought he’d get up, but he didn’t,” the cattleman recalled. “I threatened then to get him, and when he turned up missing, everybody put two and two together and knew that I was the man who had done that job. ‘Elliott said he’d get him—and he’s done it.’” Yet even as he seemed to admit his own guilt, Elliott claimed to have learned of the killing through Waggoner’s wife, Rosa.

About an hour after sunrise on June 4 three riders showed up at Waggoner’s ranch with a bay packhorse in tow. Rosa thought they were dressed suspiciously, as if to avoid recognition. They asked for directions and left, then returned two hours later. Rosa said one of the men had red hair and a red mustache, which she thought looked false. He was wearing a cap with fur earflaps, goggles, blue overalls and a black leather coat. That man stood 6 or 8 inches taller than her husband. Another she described as heavyset and wearing a full-length slicker. The third, she said, was middle-sized.

Rosa said the bigger man walked up to Tom and said, “We want to get rid of you.” That should have been warning enough for the couple, but Tom continued to chat calmly with Rosa, telling her he thought the men were “cow owners,” though he didn’t recognize any of them.

But then one of the bigger men drew a gun, while the middle-sized man took Waggoner’s revolver and handcuffed him. The trio took him to the corral, retrieved a saddle from the stable and readied Waggoner’s horse. After hoisting Waggoner into the saddle, the men tied his feet beneath the horse.

John Waggoner, Tom’s brother, lived on the ranch and was present that morning. He claimed to have recognized one of the trio as a former hand with the Hash Knife outfit, and that two of the men had taken part in a recent local roundup. The men, however, claimed to be sheriffs from Sundance and rode off with their captive.

When Tom’s riderless horse arrived back on the ranch nearly two weeks later, an alarmed John Waggoner headed into Merino to find Ed Fitch, a local who might know something about his brother’s arrest. Fitch suggested they ask Elliott, who had been riding that country and would know of any outstanding warrants.

“I had a good idea what must have happened,” Elliott recalled of his reaction to the news of Tom’s disappearance. “I said, ‘He’s been hung.’ ”

According to Elliott, the men then rode out to search the ranch. “They [Fitch and Waggoner] went down one gulch,” Elliott said, “and I went down another, and I found him.” To avoid any suspicion of involvement in the crime, however, he said nothing of finding the body and instead returned to the ranch. He wanted the other two to find it. In time they did, then the three men “lit out for Merino.”

Returning to the ranch with a party of men, they lowered the body into a crude coffin and buried Tom near the cottonwood tree, wearing the clothes, boots and spurs he’d had on when found.

News of the lynching caused a stir in the region. On June 26 the Omaha World-Herald—noting that Waggoner’s reach had extended from Montana to Nebraska—speculated that “stockmen” from the Big Horn Basin had hanged him, as rustlers and middlemen like Waggoner had plagued them “severely” for years. “More of such work is to follow,” the paper added. “It was frequently repeated that Waggoner was to go by the necktie route.” In a strange twist, the paper reported, Deputy Sheriff Fred Coates, though “suspicioned” as one of the hangmen, was appointed administrator of Waggoner’s estate.

At the time Elliott denied having had any part in the lynching, claiming instead to have been on the Rosebud River with one “Sheriff Willy,” pursuing a prisoner for Johnson County Sheriff William “Red” Angus. That may be true, but Elliott also made many self-incriminating remarks. “I know that for lots of people in that country there never was any mystery about who hung [sic] Waggoner,” he told interviewer Hope in the early 1940s. “They know and always have known that I did it.”

That wasn’t the end of Joe Elliott’s shady doings in Wyoming. By year’s end he and Sheriff Coates were rumored suspects in the attempted murder of Champion and Gilbertson in a line shack on the Powder River. The lynching of Cattle Kate and Jim Averill two years earlier, the Waggoner lynching and the attempt on Nate Champion and Ross Gilbertson were all precursors of the Johnson County War, which broke out in April 1892 (see “Champion of the Johnson County War,” by Ron Soodalter, in the April 2011 Wild West) and required the intervention of the U.S. Cavalry before.


Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.