I had a college professor who had a poster that had a guy peeking around the corner, and a quote from the book Catch-22 that goes “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”
If you happened to Bob Ford, the killer of famed outlaw Jesse James, then you could probably relate.
For my readers unfamiliar with the American west, James was one of the best known outlaws of all times. Bob Ford was a member of his gang. One day, after breakfast, Jesse went to straighten a picture and while his back was turned, Ford shot and killed him.
While most agree that Jesse needed being dealt with, it was the way Ford did it that upset people. Instead of doing it face to face, Ford took the cowards way out and shot Jesse in the back. Jesse had no chance to defend himself.
The event was immortalized in lyrics that proclaimed Bob Ford as “The dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard (an alias James took), and laid poor old Jesse in his grave.”
Bob found himself elevated to superstar status. Trouble was he was in the same orbit as Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus almost nineteen hundred years before.
This isn’t the kind of fame a person wants.
Now, Bob always claimed that there were people who wanted him dead, and we know of at least one attempt to kill him in Kansas City. In the course of my research for my book, “The Bad Guys of the San Luis Valley,” I found a blurb in the San Luis Valley Journal in a section called Telegraph that mentions this. Backtracking a little, this is in reference to the attempt in Kansas City.
The Hinsdale Phonograph, in an article dated 11 Jan 1890, tells a more complete story. Here it is:
It becomes clear that had Ford turned up dead, the cops in KC, and for that matter, the world, could have cared less.
Bob began to move west. We know he was in Walsenburg, Colorado in January of 1891where he got in a gunfight with a man named J. D. Hardin over a game of craps. This fight was at point blank range, so close that Ford got powder burns on his face. Both men tried knocking the others gun out of the way while firing, and the fight resulted in only minor injuries to both. They ended up being arrested.
So, let’s flash forward a little over a year to June 8, 1892. This is the day Bob Ford is killed. In the course of my research, I found a newspaper article that details the shooting. From what I can gather in the articles (which are sometimes confusing in that there seems to be two, maybe three stories run together) the events initially reported don’t always jive with the stories we’ve heard.
History says Bob was shot in the back of the head, just like Jesse. The newspaper accounts, which I tend to believe since they’re closer in time to the event, tell a slightly different story.
Let me set the stage a little better here. The Great Creede Fire had already occurred. The majority of Creede was burnt down, to include Fords Saloon. Bob simply pitched a tent, and went right back into business. So, this didn’t happen in a building, but a tent big enough to have some dancing.
Here’s what the article tells. Bob was in his Saloon talking with a woman. Some articles say this was his wife, Dot. Others don’t ID her at all.
Gambling was going on, and so was drinking. One person the paper placed there is Deputy Sheriff Plunket of Rio Grande County. What he was doing there is unknown, but apparently he saw the whole thing.
Another who may have been there is a woman called Poker Alice. I’ve written a lot about her. According to a statement she gave years after, she worked dealing cards in the saloon and saw it happen.
According to reports, a man named Ed O’Kelley was standing outside the saloon talking with a woman when a wagon pulled up. A then unidentified man handed O’Kelley a double-barreled shotgun. Taking it, O’Kelley walked right into the saloon with it.
One of the odd things about O’Kelley is that many of the papers state he was a town marshal for the nearby community of Bachelor City. Others ID him as a Deputy Sheriff. If he still held either post when the incident occurred is unknown.
As he came in, he raised the weapon, and said, “Ho, Bob.”
Ford must have recognized the voice because he reached into his pocket where he kept a pistol. It seems he and O’Kelley had a run-in not long before, so we know there was there was some bad blood between them. Ford started to turn and O’Kelley fired.
The blast came from less than five feet. The report says at that range, the buckshot tore Fords neck out, demolishing his windpipe and jugular veins. Ford dropped to the floor, his hand still in his pocket. It would take five minutes for him to bleed out.
O’Kelley, after grabbing Bob’s gun, turned to leave the bar. But Deputy Plunkett stopped and apprehended him for the murder of Ford. As Plunkett stepped out with O’Kelley, they encountered Town Marshal Rossen. The two lawmen took O’Kelley and placed him under heavy guard in a log house.
A day or two later, the paper details the arrest of the man who gave O’Kelley the shotgun. He’s identified only as “French Joe.” He admitted to giving O’Kelley the weapon, and even went so far as to state there would be a double hanging and he and O’Kelley would be guests of honor. That’s about as close to an admission that they planned the killing as we’re ever likely to get.
French Joe then vanishes from history.
A few days later, an article appeared in the Aspen Daily Leader. It was a reprint of an open letter received by the paper in St. Paul. Here’s it is to the right:
Bob did manage to elude death by a mere two months and a few days after the date mentioned.
If O’Kelley had anything to do with “Mysterious Ike,” we’ll never know.
So what do we have?
When trying to sort something out, we try to pay attention to “Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why.”
When it comes to killing Bob Ford, we’ve answered everything except the “Why.” As a mystery writer, the “Why” is important. In the case of history, it’s a point that vexes us.
So, here’s a couple of possible “Whys.”
The closest we have to a potential motive is an article printed in the June 17, 1882 edition of the West Side citizen. In it, several people from Missouri who knew both Ford and O’Kelley weren’t surprised at the killing. According to the article, O’Kelley had married Cole Younger’s sister. We know that the Youngers and James were thick, and things went south for them when the tried to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota.
But Bob came into the picture after the raid, And killing the man who killed a friend of the family is kind of thin as a motive. I also haven’t been able to prove O’Kelley married into the Younger family.
Many also feel that Frank James might have something to do with the killing.
But according to Bob’s own statement in an article, there was little love lost between Jesse and Frank, and he and Frank got along. By all accounts, Frank was doing his best to live down his past and live a quiet life when this occurred.
Another person who might have had a motive was a man history calls Soapy Smith. Soapy was King of the old west conmen. When it came to how to buy influence and corrupt Government Officials, he could have given lessons to the Mafia.
Some feel that Soapy saw Bob as a competitor to his business and needed taking care of.
But history shows Soapy had or was getting ready to move on. The silver was running out in Creede, and who wants to be the boss of a ghost town. So blaming Soapy doesn’t make a lot of sense.
So, what we have is no answers to the “why” of the event.
O’Kelley was convicted of the murder, and spent nine years in the Colorado State Prison system. Years later he’d be killed in a shootout with police in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Today, his grave has a nice headstone, and it calls him out as the man who killed Bob Ford.
O’Kelley never said why he killed Ford.
That leaves us with a mystery for the ages.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Like my blog and stories? Check out my novels available on Amazon. I have two out right now, The Cross and the Badge, and Against Flesh and Blood. A third novel, The Judas Tree will be coming out soon. Click on the novel names to be taken straight to them.
As always, thanks for dropping by and for your support. God Bless.
RESEARCH: I’ve copied and posted most of the research for this article into my blog site, and placed links here. reading through it, it becomes clear that some of it was sensationalized, and some of it merely copied from other reports. Some of the reports and newspaper accounts differ from what history records. They make for interesting reading.