This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
The sole survivor of the most famous outlaw photo shoot in the history of the Old West was killed during the robbery of a West Texas train on Mar. 12, 1912.
In September 1900, “The Wild Bunch” made off with $32,000 in gold coins from a Nevada bank. Five members of the gang decided to vacation in Texas, where few lawmen knew them on sight and their ill-gotten gains could buy a cozy sanctuary in Fort Worth’s red-light district.
It was in Hell’s Half Acre on Nov. 21, 1900 that the quintet with a price on each of their heads did an incredibly stupid thing. Dressed in formal gentleman’s attire complete with coat, tie, vest and hat, they had a group photo taken at John Swartz’s portrait studio.
Seated from left to right were Harry “The Sundance Kid” Longabaugh, Ben “The Tall Texan” Kilpatrick and Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as “Butch Cassidy. Standing behind them with their left hand on a fellow fugitive’s shoulder were Will “News” Carver and Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan.
There are conflicting accounts on how the photograph wound up in the public domain, but there is no disputing the fact that this lapse in judgment brought the curtain down on The Wild Bunch. With their pictures plastered on wanted posters and the front page of most newspapers, the five left Fort Worth never to ride and rob together again.
With a nickname like “The Tall Texan,” it comes as no surprise that Ben Kilpatrick hailed from Coleman County southeast of Abilene. With a moniker born of the pleasure he took in seeing his name in print, “News” Carver was a Texan too from Coryell County.
Kilpatrick and Carver may not have been the best of friends, but they were longtime business associates who trusted each other. The two learned the bandit trade with the Ketchum Gang, the scourge of New Mexico from 1896 until the summer of 1899.
Carver survived the shootout that sent Sam Ketchum to prison, where he soon succumbed to his wounds, and set the stage for brother “Black Jack” to become the only man ever hanged for train robbery in New Mexico. Realizing it was just a matter of time until they were behind bars or dead, Carver and Kilpatrick headed for the Hole in the Wall, the impregnable Wyoming stronghold of The Wild Bunch.
The Texans’ timing could not have been better. Under the clever and charismatic leadership of Butch Cassidy, the gang looted trains and the occasional bank throughout the wide-open spaces of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming while inflicting few casualties in the process.
Forced the live by their own wits, Kilpatrick and Carver threw in together and accompanied by “Kid Curry” returned to Texas. Kilpatrick’s little brother George made four, the magic number required for a planned bank robbery in Sonora.
But on Apr. 2, 1901, the night before the scheduled withdrawal, Carver insisted upon sneaking into town for a few provisions. Taking the younger Kilpatrick along for company, he promised Ben and The Kid he would stay out of trouble.
Carver did not count on a nosey private citizen, who alerted the local law to the “suspicious strangers.” The sheriff and upwards of half a dozen deputies confronted the pair in a bakery and opened fire the instant Carver reached for his gun.
George Kilpatrick took five slugs and lived to tell about it. Will Carver took two more pieces of lead and did not. He was buried in the Sonora cemetery beneath a no-name marker with nothing more than the date of his demise.
Ben Kilpatrick could take no credit for being the last of Fort Worth Five still above ground in June 1911. He had spent the past decade in the federal penitentiary at Atlanta, Georgia atoning for a Missouri robbery.
Thirty-seven might have been a good age for “The Tall Texan” to straighten up and fly right, but that was not how he saw it. So he went back to doing what he knew best – robbing trains.
With a single accomplice recruited from the federal pen, Kilpatrick climbed aboard the locomotive of a westbound train when it stopped for water at Dryden on a March night in 1912. At gunpoint he ordered the engineer to proceed to a point half the distance to Sanderson, where the outlaws’ horses were waiting, and en route forced the crew to uncouple the passenger car and caboose.
While the second gunman kept an eye on the engineer, Kilpatrick escorted Wells Fargo express agent David Trousdale to the baggage car. As the pair walked past an open box of fresh oysters, Trousdale slipped an ice mallet under his coat.
And that was how an unarmed man killed Ben Kilpatrick – with three blows to the head from an ice crusher. Trousdale then lured the other train robber into the baggage car and shot him to death with Kilpatrick’s rifle.
The bodies were taken off the train at Sanderson, propped up for the traditional “dead man standing” picture and dumped into one grave. To add insult to injury, “The Tall Texan” had to share eternity with a roommate.
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