Bill Cook was the leader of a large band of mostly mixed-blood marauders— including Cherokee Bill, Skeeter Baldwin, Chicken Lucas, Buck Snyder, Jim French and the Verdigris Kid— that ran wild in the mid-1890s.
They never won the notoriety of the James- Younger Gang, certainly not the reams of florid prose that glorified the overrated Dalton Gang, but while they lasted, they were a stench in the nostrils of honest men. The newspapers of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) wrote about them in the 1890s as they might have Attila the Hun, and they made the papers of adjoining states as well. At one point, they were such a pest that the United States considered using the Army to reinforce the deputy U.S. marshals and Indian Lighthorse that were chasing them. In time even the Texas Rangers got into the hunt.
They operated in small groups as well as a large band, and at one time or another were a plague to the whole eastern Indian Territory. Men named them the Cook Gang after their leader, William Tuttle Cook. Although the personnel of the gang changed from crime to crime, its members shared one nasty attribute—they were arrogant bullies. The gang flourished, if that’s the word, in the mid-1890s, and for a period were a serious trial for the honest people of the territory. Like their counterparts in other outlaw gangs of the time, however, they came to a uniformly satisfying bad end. This is how it happened.
Bill Cook, an eighth-part Cherokee born about 1873, grew up mostly on the Neosho River north of Fort Gibson. He apparently lost his mother or father, or both, rather early in life. He first got into trouble with the law in 1892 over selling whiskey, a federal offense in Indian Territory. As he got older, he punched cattle and later worked as a posseman for federal Deputy U.S. Marshal Will Smith. When his kid brother Jim was charged with larceny and jumped bail in 1894, however, Bill joined him, leaving the right side of the law for all time. Before long the brothers joined forces with a long-time acquaintance, one Crawford Goldsby, much better known to the dark side of outlaw history as Cherokee Bill.
Cherokee Bill, born at Fort Concho, Texas, on February 8, 1876, was a handsome young man of mixed blood (mostly black). Deserted by his father (10th Cavalry buffalo soldier George Goldsby), ignored by a stepfather (William Lynch), cordially disliked by his elder sister’s husband (Mose Brown), he grew up wild. He adopted his handle early on, though nobody knows just when or why. In 1892 he began to hang out around the town of Catoosa, laboring in a livery stable and otherwise working at whatever came along.
In those days Catoosa was as wild a settlement as you could find in the West, a railhead town that received the Texas trail herds and shipped the cattle farther north and east by train. With the cattle came the cowboys, starved for whiskey and other more sensual pleasures, “ready for a fight or a frolic,” as the saying went. There was plenty of both in Catoosa. Cherokee Bill fit right in. It was there that he met a couple of charter members of the gang—Thurman (“Skeeter”) Baldwin, a cowboy in his mid-20s, and Sam McWilliams, a 17-year-old rustler-in-training who called himself the Verdigris Kid (see “Gunfighter and Lawmen” in this issue).
Late in 1893, Goldsby had his first major trouble with the law at a dance down in Fort Gibson. It began with a quarrel over a girl with whom Goldsby was enamored, and ended with a fistfight in which Cherokee Bill was badly battered. It was not in Bill’s nature to turn the other cheek, and so the next day he renewed the fight. Only this time there was no challenge or struggle and there were no fists; he simply stepped out of hiding and drove two bullets into his rival. Though the man did not die, Cherokee Bill did not wait to explain. Instead he began running with Bill Cook, Jim Brook, the Verdigris Kid, Skeeter Baldwin and others, stealing horses and staying out ahead of the law.
In the spring of 1894 came the “Strip Money,” almost $7 million of it, compensation for tribal land to be paid to members of the Cherokee Nation at Tahlequah, Indian Territory. The gathering to receive these payments naturally attracted all sorts of people— legitimate businessmen, sharpers, gamblers, thieves and an assortment of feather merchants offering all manner of desirable items on credit. Violence inevitably followed, including a stage holdup and hoodlum Eli Sanders’ murder of a woman, whose son promptly killed Sanders.
Goldsby and the two Cook boys were entitled to payments at Tahlequah, but being on the scout, they decided to give written permission to one Effie Crittenden to collect their shares. Learning of this, a Cherokee posse rode to Effie’s home on Fourteen Mile Creek (near present-day Hulbert, Okla.) to collect the outlaws. The posse included Effie’s husband, Dick Crittenden, and his brother Zeke Crittenden. In the gunfight that followed on June 17, Effie wisely crawled behind the cook stove and either Goldsby or one of the Cooks killed Sequoyah Houston, a respected full-blooded member of the Cherokee police, the Lighthorse. The three outlaws managed to escape, although Jim Cook carried eight buckshot in his body, and here legend first rears its head. The story goes that Effie, asked if Goldsby had been part of the outlaw band, responded: “No. It was Cherokee Bill.” It’s a nice story and oft-repeated, but in fact Goldsby had probably carried his famous handle for some time before this bloody day.
The posse’s pursuit intensified, reinforced by a band of Houston’s relatives and friends. Jim Cook had his wounds patched up at gunpoint. The other outlaws threatened the doctor with death if he revealed that they had visited him, but the three were spotted crossing the Arkansas River on a ferry. A gunfight followed between Cherokee Bill and Deputy Marshal John McGill near the house of a man called Capps. Neither man was injured, and the two unwounded outlaws fled when reinforcements arrived for McGill. Not so the badly wounded Jim Cook, who was captured and later tried for murder by the Cherokee tribal court at Tahlequah.
Now Bill Cook and Cherokee Bill were very much wanted men, and they turned to outlawry as a full-time business. Setting out to make a career of oppressing the righteous, they attracted others as worthless as themselves. In addition to the Verdigris Kid and Skeeter Baldwin, the hard cases included Lon Gordon, Jess (“Buck”) Snyder, Elmer (“Chicken”) Lucas, Curt Dayson, Jim French, Buss (or Buz) Luckey, George Sanders and Henry Munson, a penitentiary alumnus who dubbed himself “Texas Jack Starr.” Sanders, brother to the late, unlamented Eli, was as nasty a piece of work as his brother, for he had reportedly robbed a man by “holding a revolver at his baby’s head and threatening to kill it if he did not give up his money.” French, who had already tried to kill a couple of people, was wanted for mail robbery as well.
The newspapers were soon calling this gaggle of hoodlums the “Cook Gang,” although it appears that its members operated in pairs and small bunches as often as they did en masse. In July 1894, for example, Cherokee Bill teamed up with French to strike the general store in little Wetumka, and then with Munson to rob Dick Richards, the railroad station agent at Nowata. Richards went for his pistol, and Cherokee Bill shot him in the neck, killing him.
Less than a day later, six outlaws stopped the Muskogee– Fort Gibson stage and robbed the passengers. Though the holdup men were masked, the press concluded—probably correctly—that the evildoers were some part of the Cook Gang. About an hour later, the same bunch robbed a well-known Cherokee man.
Still in July, the train depot at Illinois, Indian Territory, was robbed once, the Fort Gibson depot twice and a Muldrow man murdered while being robbed of $1,000. At midmonth the gang—it was certainly Cook et al. this time—held up a Frisco (St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad) train at a wide spot in the road called Red Fork. The gang got only a few dollars, plus a box of cigars and a jug of whiskey, ignoring the express agent’s receipt book, into which much cash had been stuffed.
So far the gang’s holdups had been easy, but all of that was about to change. On July 31, 1894, they hit the Lincoln County Bank in Chandler (Oklahoma Territory), but found the time-lock on the bank’s safe was still set. They killed one citizen—the popular town barber—simply for shouting that the bank was being robbed, but then they ran into Sheriff Claude Parker. The tough sheriff stood boldly in the middle of the street and emptied his pistol at them, hitting one horse and one man. Parker then quickly raised a small posse and pursued.
More shooting followed, and four miles or so out of town the posse collected Chicken Lucas, shot in both legs. Yes, said he, it was the Cook Gang, and the others had taken his horse and abandoned him. Exit Chicken, who was moved hurriedly to the lockup in Guthrie, where he would be safe from angry Chandler citizens. Chicken said the other robbers had been Bill Cook, Cherokee Bill, Gordon and Munson and helpfully admitted that he’d been part of the Red Fork train robbery.
The outlaws next appeared on August 2, when a band of Euchee Indians jumped the gang at the home of Munson’s uncle. Warned of the Euchees’ approach, Cherokee Bill and Cook reportedly said they “didn’t care a damn for all the Indians in the Territory.” They should have, for in the battle that followed Munson was killed and Curtis Dayson captured. Lon Gordon took a fatal round through the lungs. Cook, Snyder, Baldwin and Cherokee Bill got away.
In early September, Jim French and a young ne’er-do-well named Meigs tried to hold up Robert Bean at his home near Tahlequah. They halted outside and called to Bean. Bean obliged by coming out, but he came smokin’, shooting Meigs in the chest. The outlaws fled empty-handed. Then, on the night of the 14th, Cook led Snyder, Baldwin and Cherokee Bill into Okmulgee. While many of the townsfolk were attending a ball game, Cook and friends made off with $600 from the local store.
The gang next hit the depot at Fort Gibson, collecting $300 and then spraying bullets on the ride out of town. There were six of them that time, including French and the Verdigris Kid. The next day, they robbed a single traveler and later split up. Cook and two others held up a group of coal miners, but missed a payday in Claremore, when the station agent, warned that suspicious-looking riders were coming, astutely evacuated his funds on the outbound train. Twenty miles away, at Choteau, the gang robbed a railroad employee of a measly $35, then stole a sack of silver and gold and silver certificates from the American Express agent.
As the Cook Gang’s crime wave burgeoned, Deputy U.S. Marshal Will Smith even managed a conference with Cook, trying to get him to come in and surrender. It was too late, said Cook, and he and the others would be “in the robbing business for keeps.” Things were approaching the crisis point in eastern Indian Territory, and one politician told the Kansas City Times, “People are afraid to travel”—understandable in view of the gang’s propensity for robbing anybody and anything. Even the towns lived in some fear. One Muskogee resident remembered a friend placing a six-shooter on the table and commenting, “I understand the Cook gang is coming in tonight.” Muskogee merchants organized a home guard, installing an alarm system to rally the town’s defenders.
Now it got even worse. On October 20, the gang wrecked a Katy (Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway) train at Coretta by throwing a switch and sending the train smashing into a line of boxcars on the siding. Firing their weapons, presumably to cow the passengers, the gang took some $500 from the express car and also went through the train robbing individual passengers. However, they failed to get into the through safe, which the express agent was unable to open, the keys being available only at the safe’s final destination. As another train approached, the outlaws fired more shots before disappearing into the darkness. Two passengers had been wounded, one of them seriously, and the train had been riddled with bullets. Every window was broken, and both the steam gauge and the gauge lamp had been shot up.
Late in October, a couple of gang members stopped a series of drummers on the road between Fort Gibson and Vinita, according to the Vinita Indian Chieftain, “roundly reprimanding” two of their victims for leaving their watches and most of their money elsewhere. The gang thoroughly sacked the hamlet of Watova, robbing two stores and the post office. As a grand finale they decided to stop a passing passenger train, but managed to throw the switch lever the wrong way, allowing the train to go charging past them. The next day the whole gang passed the time holding up travelers on the Tahlequah–Fort Gibson road.
By this time, the gang was badly hurting the economy of the region. Travelers left their money and watches at home when they could. Bankers were charging a premium for issuing sight drafts, Pacific Express suspended its money order business, businesses were closing up at nightfall and businessmen moved hard money hidden in various ingenious disguises. The Oklahoma State Capital reported, “One traveling man brought $3,000 out sealed in a horse collar; another drummer brought out $1,500 in the bottom of a sack of oats.”
Still, the ravages of the gang went on unabated. Another depot was robbed after a noisy demonstration in Fort Gibson, where, it is said, the Cooks’ stepsister Lou galloped into town and shot up the depot with her six-shooter. Lou— known as attractive and given, like Belle Starr, to posturing with big horses and big pistols—was apparently trying to draw attention away from the gang. At least Lou was pinched on a charge of harboring outlaws, and Curtis Dayson (15 years) and Chicken Lucas (10 years) were sent to prison for their parts in the Red Fork attack.
With all the illegal alarums and excursions, the Indian agent at Muskogee wired Washington, asking for military help to break what he called a “state of siege,” and newspapers in and out of the territory clamored for statehood as the sovereign cure for all this lawlessness. For a while, however, the plague increased, for now the gang split up again. Cook, Skeeter, Snyder and newcomer William Farris robbed a trading post on November 2, and two days later held up an emigrant family on the road. The Verdigris Kid and Cherokee Bill rode into Lenapah and went into the Shufeldt & Son store, where they forced Shufeldt to open the safe. They cleaned it out and robbed the owner as well, stole some merchandise and ammunition and hit the post office for good measure. When Ernest Melton, who was working next door, looked into the store through a window, Cherokee Bill wantonly killed him with a single rifle round.
The outlaws made a clean getaway, but deputy marshals used an informant to locate the pair, and a posse led by the formidable Heck Bruner and Heck Thomas found them at a house owned by one Frank Daniels, up on the Caney River. In the inevitable firefight that followed, somebody shot Cherokee Bill in the leg and another bullet killed the Verdigris Kid’s horse. Deputy Marshal Jim Carson was shot in the foot, and the outlaws managed to get away. A traveler who met the pair on the road told a newspaper that Cherokee Bill “says that he will die with his boots on and that some of the marshals will bite the dust too, when he does.”
Anxiety mounted in Indian Territory, and petitions were sent to President Grover Cleveland asking for help, appeals supposedly signed by 5,000 people. Reports of the gang abounded, one of which said Cook’s outfit had “thirteen heavily armed men.” More counties began to form their own home guards. The perpetual pursuit by Lighthorse and deputy marshals did at last drive Cook and four other outlaws out of Indian Territory. They crossed the Red River into Texas, where they intended to pass their time usefully, robbing trains.
A suspicious rancher spotted the gang and wired Company B of the Texas Rangers at Amarillo. Sergeant W.J.L. Sullivan, inevitably called “John L,” collected five other Rangers and responded. They surrounded the building where the bandits were hiding, and shooting broke out. When a silence followed, the Rangers broke down the door and found that the bandits had fled to the attic. One of the outlaws announced that he wanted to surrender, but another threatened to kill him if he did. Sullivan then told the rats in the attic that he would burn the house down and the gang with it. Surrender followed, but Bill Cook had somehow managed to get away.
The Rangers took their four prisoners— Skeeter, Snyder, Farris and a local recruit, Charles Turner—to Fort Smith. Skeeter got 30 years, and Farris and Snyder each got 20, which, it is said, prompted Skeeter to comment somewhat bitterly, “What a hell of a court for a man to plead guilty in.” Turner was acquitted.
The rest of the gang learned absolutely nothing from their comrades’ departure for prison. Jim French led three others into Checotah, where they robbed the Lafayette Brothers’ store of merchandise and small change. On December 17, 1894, French tried to rob a store at Texana but was driven off when the two clerks opened fire. Then, on Christmas Eve, Cherokee Bill led French, Sanders and the Verdigris Kid into the depot at Nowata, where they got almost $200. The next day the gang stopped the stage between Muskogee and Tahlequah and robbed the passengers. The papers reported that “all passengers were ruthlessly robbed, the ladies being even compelled to remove their shoes and turn their hose.” One female passenger reported, “If there was any chivalry about the highwaymen, the ladies did not discover it.”
Meanwhile, Cherokee Bill had gone to see his stepsister Maude Brown at Talala, and while there he got crossways with her husband, Mose, with whom he had always had difficulty. When Mose threatened to talk to the law about Cherokee Bill—or Bill thought he was going to— Bill put seven Winchester bullets into Mose, whereof he died. Instead of running, Bill celebrated his latest murder by robbing the Kansas & Arkansas Valley Railway depot at Nowata.
Bill Cook was on the run after evading Sergeant Sullivan, but Sullivan wasn’t giving up. The Ranger followed reports of Cook’s appearance all over west Texas and followed his tracks clear into New Mexico Territory. Cook kept moving, however, and one sheriff after another got involved in the chase. Cook reached Roswell, but the law at last ran him down at a ranch on January 11, 1895, and took him without a fight. Returned to Fort Smith, he learned on February 12 that he would spend the next 45 years in the prison at Albany, N.Y., courtesy of tough Judge Isaac Parker.
While Cook was getting his just deserts, on March 28 Jim French and the Verdigris Kid struck a store in Fort Gibson, helping themselves not only to the available cash but also to suits and a variety of other pieces of clothing. As for Cherokee Bill, he allowed love to interfere with his criminal career.
Deeply enamored of a young lady named Maggie Glass, he was determined to see her. Maggie’s older cousin, Ike Rogers, was a one-time deputy marshal who had been discharged from the service for conniving with outlaws. The grass had been pretty short for him since, and he earnestly wished reinstatement. United States Marshal George Crump promised Rogers that he would consider exactly that, if Rogers would help bring in Cherokee Bill. Rogers would.
After getting neighbor Clint Scales to help him, Rogers arranged for Maggie and Cherokee Bill to come to his house on January 29, 1895. Cherokee Bill was alert and wary; he did not trust Rogers at all. Neither, it turned out, did Maggie, who urged Bill to leave Rogers’ home. Cherokee Bill would not leave, telling her, “If Rogers makes a play, I’ll show him how long it takes to commit murder.”
Bill kept his Winchester constantly on his knees. He refused a drink of whiskey—which Rogers had spiked with morphine—and the three men played cards most of the night. When they finally turned in at about 4 a.m., Scales lay down on the floor to sleep while Rogers shared a bed with Bill. Each time Rogers moved, Bill did also, and it was not until after breakfast that Rogers got his chance. When Bill rolled a cigarette and reached down to the fireplace for a coal to light it with, Rogers bashed him in the head with the fire poker. A wild wrestling match followed, before Rogers and Scales finally subdued Cherokee Bill. Taken to Fort Smith, Bill told the deputy marshals that if they would just put him back on the prairie, he would “whip any ten of them in the Territory.” On February 26, 1895, Judge Parker sentenced him to be hanged for the murder of Ernest Melton.
While Cherokee Bill was behind bars in early February 1895, Jim French suffered a worse fate. He met his end on a bitterly cold day in Catoosa, where he had gone with a new partner, one Jess Cochran, also called Kid Swanson. Their target was the Reynolds general store, and neophyte Cochran jumped the gun by firing through the office door to gain admission and charging through to get at the money.
What he got instead was a point-blank shotgun charge from clerk Tommy Watkins, who had been seated inside. Separated from most of his head, Cochran expired forthwith. Meanwhile, French fired through the window, mortally wounding the store manager, Sam Irwin, who was lying on a cot in the office. Watkins missed French with his second barrel, leaving him at the bandit’s mercy. Enraged at the shooting of Cochran, French was preparing to kill Watkins when the dying Irwin pulled a pistol from beneath his pillow. He drilled French twice in the neck, and the outlaw lost all interest in shooting anybody.
Leaving his guns behind, French managed to mount and ride to an old cabin the better part of a mile away. As he staggered in the door, the residents vamoosed out the back, and it wasn’t long until a posse arrived, led by the redoubtable Watkins and his shotgun. The clerk didn’t need to use it, however, for French was already permanently dead, one leg fallen in the fireplace and partially burned. Or, in another version reported by the Muskogee Phoenix, “A crowd followed to a cabin a half mile distant and filled him full of lead and laid him out and next day turned him under.” Or, as the Cherokee Advocate reported, French lived long enough to look out the window of the shack at the approaching citizens, only to absorb a shotgun blast with his face.
However French departed this earth, he was surely gone for good, and Deputy Marshal Heck Thomas and a couple of citizens delivered what was left of French to Fort Smith. His corpse was exhibited for several hours after the custom of the time, viewed by thousands of the curious. Learning of French’s death from his jail cell, Bill Cook made a prophetic comment: “He’s better off than we are.”
Sam McWilliams, the Verdigris Kid, was still at large, as was George Sanders. With most of their criminal comrades 6 feet under, or headed there, or viewing the world through iron bars, they might have learned some sort of lesson and at least left Indian Territory. Being as much dim bulbs as their outlaw friends, they did not. Instead, on March 28, 1895, they resolved to hurrah Braggs, a little town on the railroad near Fort Gibson. With the Verdigris Kid and Sanders was a wannabe hard case called Sam Butler. These three the newspaper reports were certain of, but at least a couple of local people thought there were other outlaws in the band as well.
The bandits took some captives, including lawman Ed Barbee, on their way to Tom Madden’s general store. Butler held the captives at gunpoint while the other two outlaws helped themselves to Madden’s merchandise and waited for Madden to arrive and open the safe. When Madden finally showed up, he brought along Cherokee Deputy Sheriff Johnson Manning and Hiram Stephens. A ferocious close-range gunfight followed, early in which the Verdigris Kid stopped a bullet with his chest and expired. Barbee and a collection of armed and angry citizens joined in the fight. Sanders went down full of holes trying to reach his horse; Butler got away but was killed by a deputy marshal who followed him to his home on the Verdigris River.
The good citizens of Indian Territory now rejoiced at the passing of the last of the Cook Gang. The celebration was only a little premature. Cherokee Bill, though behind bars and sentenced to hang, was not quite done. Because of appeals, Cherokee Bill was not executed on the scheduled date, June 25, 1895. Friends of his then smuggled a six-shooter into the jail, and on July 26, 1895, the outlaw killed guard Larry Keating in an attempt to break out. A shooting affair followed inside the jail, with Cherokee Bill firing at anything that moved and screeching an unearthly war cry (“gobbling,” men called it), until outlaw Henry Starr, also an inmate, finally talked him out of his revolver. He had appealed to Bill’s love of his mother, Starr said afterward. The killing of Keating again sent Cherokee Bill before Judge Parker. On December 2, 1895, for the second time, the “Hanging Judge” sentenced Bill to be hanged. After several unsuccessful appeals, the execution took place on March 17, 1896. Legend suggests that he spoke at the end, saying either “I came here to die, not to make a speech” or “This is about as good a day to die as any.” In fact, Cherokee Bill had no last words.
The rest of the Cook Gang’s brief history is largely sordid anticlimax. In the spring of 1897, Cherokee Bill’s brother Clarence Goldsby murdered Ike Rogers (who had captured Bill), got away and, much later, died of tuberculosis in St. Louis. Jim Cook escaped from the Cherokee National Prison in December 1896 and recruited a couple of helpers, forming a pale imitation of the old, bad Cook Gang. He died with his boots on, too, coming in second in 1900 in a gunfight over, of all things, ownership of a steer. That same year his brother Bill Cook, who started the whole nefarious mess and gave the gang his name, died in prison.
Frequent contributor Robert Barr Smith, a former U.S. Army colonel, teaches law at the University of Oklahoma. Suggested for further reading: Marauders of the Indian Nations: The Bill Cook Gang and Cherokee Bill, by Glenn Shirley; and Black, Red, and Deadly, by Art Burton.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.