Of all the bad guys who walked or rode into the San Luis valley, and with the possible exceptions of Soapy Smith and Bat Masterson (yep, that Bat Masterson), certainly the most famous was Bob Ford.
He might have ridden in, but rode out in a coffin, and that makes him one of the more famous Old West outlaws to die in the Valley.
Robert Newton Ford (better known as Bob Ford) is damned for eternity as “That dirty little coward, who shot Mr. Howard, and laid poor old Jessie in his grave.” Whenever discussions of traitors comes up, his name is almost always mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Judas Iscariot. But the man he betrayed may have heard of Jesus, but was nothing like him.
Detective Will Diaz, the central character in my Lawman novels, references Bob Ford in one of the chapters in the second novel, and thus, my interest in him as one of the bad guys of the San Luis Valley.
The man Bob Ford killed was none other that one of the greatest outlaws of all times, Jessie James.
Bob Ford was born in 1862 in Ray County, Missouri. As a young man, he became enthralled by the Civil War daring, and later the outlaw exploits of Jessie James. In 1880, at the age of 18, he finally met his hero. His future was now set.
To say things had gone bad for Jessie would have been an understatement. A number of his more recent jobs had been botched. The gang numbers had dropped with members either fleeing into hiding, dead, or in prison following what would be known as the Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. Jessie’s own brother, Frank, had left for Virginia, vowing he was giving up a life of crime.
Worse, even stalwart members of the former Confederacy had stopped viewing him as some kind of Robin Hood like figure and began seeing him for what he was. Not a freedom fighter or avenger, but a common crook. He could no longer count on people watching his back or providing safe haven.
Jessie moved his family to St. Joseph, Missouri in November of 1881. He wanted to give up a life a crime, but the allure of one more job and money enticed him. Feeling abandoned and alone, Jessie made an attempt to keep the old gang together. He invited two of his gang members, Bob Ford and his brother Charles, to help him rob the Platte City Bank.
The two brothers already had other ideas. Bob had killed and confessed to the authorities that he’d murdered Jessie’s cousin, Wood Hite. It would seem the authorities played what we call “Let’s make a Deal.” Kill Jessie, and you get a full pardon and $5000.00.Being broke and on the lamb, killing Jessie would solve a lot of their problems.
Decades after Jessie’s killing, a writer would pen the words “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” Jessie was starting to get paranoid, and a paranoia rightfully aimed at Bob and his brother. Maybe on some level he knew they after him.
One day after breakfast, and while they were getting ready to go out, Jessie looked up at a crooked picture on the wall. He left his gun on the living room table, got a chair.
He had his back to Bob.
There’s been a lot of speculation as to why Jessie did what he did. After all, Jessie knew about his cousin. He’d never really trusted Bob or his brother, but with few people in his ranks, he’d allowed them into his inner circle.
What Jessie had done was an insanely stupid thing to do in front of a man he didn’t completely trust.
Jessie stepped up on the chair to straighten the picture. He had seconds to live.
Some folks think Jessie turned his back on Bob in a moment of sheer carelessness. Other think maybe Jessie was tired of running and was secretly wishing Bob would end it for him. Others speculate that he did it as an act to show Bob that he trusted him.
If the later was the case, it didn’t work.
Bob drew his weapon, aimed it, and shot Jessie in the back of the head. Jessie James was dead before he hit the floor.
Bob and his brother quickly went to the authorities and told them what they’d done with Bob exclaiming “I killed him. I shot Jessie James!”
If Bob and his brother thought they’d be treated as heroes, they had another think coming.
They were arrested for murder, tried, and sentenced to hang. But before sentence could be carried out, the promised pardon from the governor came through.
Bob Ford was a free man.
For several years, he and his brother toured the southwest doing reenactments of the killing of Jessie James. They were received with, shall we say, a less than lukewarm reception. Despite the public agreement that Jessie needed to be stopped by any means, it was also felt that Bob was a coward for having done things the way he did.
There are stories of incidents where the crowd would chant, “That dirty little coward, who shot Mr. Howard. And laid poor old Jessie in his grave.” Tomatoes and rocks were often thrown at them.
The public perception wasn’t that Bob was a hero, but a a back shooter, a coward on an epic scale.
In May of 1884, his brother Charlie, terminally ill, addicted to morphine, and paranoid because he feared Frank James would show up to avenge his brother, killed himself.
After Charlie’s death, Bob linked up with a dancer/singer (some use the term prostitute associated with her) by the name of of Nellie Waterson who ran by the nickname of “Dottie.” Together they toured with the Barnum freak show for several years.
Tiring of show business, Bob and Dottie went down to the Las Vegas, New Mexico area and opened a saloon. According to legend, he got into a shooting contests with Jose Chavez y Chavez, a former associate of Billy the Kid. Ford, lost, and left town. Makes you wonder what the stakes were in that contest.
There was an attempt on his life in Kansas City, Kansas.
A few years later he was running a saloon in Walsenberg, Colorado. The home he and Dottie lived in is still there.
When silver was discovered in Creede, Colorado, he closed his doors and they left for Creede.
Following an incident where a drunken Bob shot out the street lights, he and Dottie were asked to leave town, but were later invited back.
The curtain was about to ring down on his short life.
He hooked up with several associates of another old west legend by the name of “Soapy Smith.” We’ll be looking at Soapy later in this series, but at the time, Soapy seemed to be involved in making making money and running Creede.
We now enter into an area best described as speculation.
Bob Ford would be killed in Creede. That much is fact. What remains is the “Why?”
Some theorize that his murder was much darker than just a simple murder. Some believe he was a competitor to Soapy. Bob had opened the Ford’s Exchange, a place that is largely believed to have been a saloon/dancehall (though some mention the word brothel in conjunction with it, with Dottie playing the Madame). That was on May 29, 1892.
Some see this as cutting in on Soapy’s business, and since Soapy subscribed to the dope dealers business school of thought (eliminate the competition), it’s a good theory.
We’ll come back to this in just a second.
Six days after opening his exchange, the majority of the businesses in Creede were destroyed in a large fire that gutted the town, and destroyed Bob’s place of business as well.
Bob pitched a tent, and reopened his saloon. He vowed he would rebuild.
In that small tent, the final act of his life was about to play out.
Three days after the fire, a man by the name of Edward O’Kelley entered Bob’s tent saloon. There were several witnesses to the event, to include another Old West legend, Poker Alice. She was dealing cards when O’Kelly came in.
We’ll talk about Poker Alice later, she was interesting to say the least.
The story told by witnesses was that O’Kelley had a shotgun with him. This wasn’t unusual for the time period or the location. Even today, the locals often carry firearms because Creede is in bear country, and to this day, bears are often seen in town. It’s a sure bet they were worse back then.
Ford had his back to the door when O’Kelly came in. O’Kelley greeted Ford, and as Ford turned, O’Kelley shot him, using both barrels of the shotgun.
Bob Ford was dead at the age of 30.
He was buried in Creede, but his body was exhumed and moved back to his home in Missouri. His tombstone identifies him was the man who killed Jessie James.
As mystery shows are so fond of asking, “What was the motive?”
Well, as I mentioned earlier, some think he was getting into the way of Soapy Smith, and Soapy contracted O’Kelly to kill him. But the silver was running out in Creede and all indication are that rather than fight for control of a soon to be ghost town, Soapy was already getting ready to leave for greener pastures.
Others speculate that O’Kelly was a James sympathizer and was going to avenge him.
Others site a more pedestrian motive, and that there was a woman involved.
So, pick your favorite theory and run with it, because O’Kelley never said why he killed Ford. He took that one to the grave.
But then, that’s another story we’ll tackle later in this series.