On this date in 1889, Ella Watson, a homesteader with a small ranch, was demonstratively lynched by vigilantes of Wyoming’s powerful cattlemen.
In the Western frontier amidst the rapine of the Gilded Age, ranching oligopolists had Wyoming by the throat.
Ellen Watson was a late-30’s escapee of an abusive marriage in Kansas who had homesteaded her own land and set up shop as an independent proprietor.
This put her in a class of people soon to be pitted in a resource war against the big ranchers — the Johnson County War, to erupt in 1892.
Watson was a casualty of the increasingly violent run-up to open “war”, a period when the catchall “cattle rustling” charge did the dirty work of licensing arrests and property seizures (and worse) deemed convenient for Big Cattle. When the latter decided that Watson’s stock was stolen, they seized her and partner James Averell and strung them up.
Hanging from the limb of a stunted pine growing on the summit of a cliff fronting the Sweetwater River, were the bodies of James Averell and Ella Watson. Side by side they swing, their arms touching each other, their tongues protruding and their faces swollen and discolored almost beyond recognition. Common cowboy lariats had been used, and both had died by strangulation, neither fallen over two feet. Judging from signs too plain to be mistaken a desperate struggle had taken place on the cliff, and both man and woman had fought for their lives until the last.
The subsequent trial of the paramilitaries ended in acquittal when potential witnesses were bought off or intimidated into silence, leaving “Cattle Kate” a legendary figure most defined by cattlemen-controlled Cheyenne newspapers. These made her out to be not only a thief but a (literal) whore, an image sharply contested by George Hufsmith’s The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate.
Michael Cimino’s legendary cinematic Hindenburg Heaven’s Gate is about the Johnson County War, and features Isabelle Huppert as Watson, opposite Kris Kristofferson as Jim Averell. The film treats her sympathetically … but she’s also a madam who accepts payment for her cathouse’s services in the form of rustled cattle.