Candy Moulton: Reading the West 3-12-12
Retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, R. Michael Wilson turned his investigative skills to the Old West seeking out information about train and stagecoach robberies, murder and executions. He has had articles in national magazines and he has been featured in radio interviews and on the History Channel’s “Wild West Tech” series.
His books include “Great Stagecoach Robberies of the Old West,” “Outlaw Tales of Wyoming,” “Frontier Justice in the Wild West,” “Great Train Robberies of the Old West,” “Wells Fargo & Co. Report of Losses from Stagecoach and Train Robbers, 1870-1884,” “Massacre at Wickenburg: Arizona’s Greatest Mystery,” “Tragic Jack: The True Story of Arizona Pioneer John William Swilling” and “Legal Executions After Statehood in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.”
Most recently released is “Legal Executions after Statehood in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.” This is an encyclopedia of executions told in a direct manner … almost as if you were laying out the case in a courtroom.
Among the interesting cases is that of Francisco Alvarez, in New Mexico, 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, New Mexico on March 9, 1916. This is a tale of ammunition-running, and is every bit as exciting as any modern-day movie script.
In an Arizona case we learn about Eva Dugan, a housekeeper and caregiver for an elderly man in Tucson who murdered the man for his property. Although authorities could not locate the body, fate played a role when a camper fell into the grave of the man following a heavy rainstorm. The identification of the body came because Dugan failed to remove the elderly man’s false teeth. Dugan was convicted and sentenced to hang. Even that had a twist. In February 1930 her body fell through the hangman’s trap door with such force she was decapitated.
One of the most interesting cases Wilson researched and wrote about led to the execution of Andrew Green, a Negro, who wrote his autobiography while on death row. In the autobiography, Green lays out the evolution of his criminal career during the 1870s and 1880s complete with sketches. His final conviction came for the murder of Denver streetcar driver Joseph C. Witnah. Green’s execution was to take place using a “twitch-up” gallows (where a heavy weight drops and jerks the condemned upward). This became a spectator sport with thousands of people bringing picnics to the site at the bend of Cherry Creek to await the final “twitch-up” of Green.
Writing of these crimes and the executions that followed them may become a bit mundane to a man who had a career in law enforcement, but Wilson says the stories of the children are never easy to chronicle. In a recent interview he told me, “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.”
The level of detail in this new book, is nothing short of incredible as Wilson has deeply researched each of the criminals included and tells their stories in great detail.