THE AXE MURDERER OF TUCUMCARI

18 December 1947 was a cold winter’s morning like any other in Tucumcari. Bertha Eugene Wagnon Kappel had got up at 4.45am to prepare for her shift at the Home Café in the Vorenberg Hotel. (The Vorenberg was a grand hotel in downtown Tucumcari which boasted suites with private baths, a large lobby, dining room and barber shop as well as the Home Café. After the First World War it was owned by Floyd B Redman who built quite a property portfolio over the years. In the 1950s he bought another motel which was managed by a lady called Lillian Leigon; romance blossomed and he presented the motel to her as an engagement present. The motel was the famous Blue Swallow.)

The Vorenberg Hotel. The Home Cafe where Bertha Kappel was employed can be seen at the right.

Bertha had only been working at the Home Café for a couple of months while her husband Gus Adolph did various odd jobs. They had been married in Oklahoma in 1938 but several of the family – Bertha was one of 13 children – had moved to Tucumcari where Adolph also had links. They and their daughter were staying with Bertha’s brother, Roy, and his wife Catalina, in Roy’s home on North 1st Street, although the Kappels had purchased a lot nearby on which they intended to build a rudimentary house. To this end, Bertha had bought some lumber and, after finishing work on 17 December, she visited the lot to inspect progress. She found that the lumber was missing and this set into inexorable motion the events of the next few hours.

Bertha returned to her brother’s house and accused Adolph of selling the materials. He denied it but she discovered that he had, in fact, sold the lumber to a neighbour and, even worse, he hadn’t been paid for it. Bertha told him to get the lumber back within three days or “she would turn him in”. Now, the lumber may have been from a dubious source and Kappel did have a prior conviction for theft, so it might have been a well-aimed threat on her part. The quarrel continued into the evening although Adolph would later claim that the couple had been made up by the time they went to bed.

Even before the lumber incident it doesn’t appear to have been a happy marriage. Bertha had moved to Tucumcari some eight months before while her husband tried to find work in Oregon. When he returned to New Mexico she had sworn out a warrant on him for non-support of their 12-year-old daughter, Mary Frances.

Unsurprisingly next morning, the arguing flared up again when Adolph was slow to accompany Bertha on her walk to work. She left the house without him and when he called out to her to wait, she replied; “You dirty son-of-a-bitch, if you are going with me, come on.” It was an unfortunate choice of words and Bertha probably knew that it was a term that particularly offended her husband.

At around 6am, near an overpass, the body of Bertha Kappel was discovered just three blocks from her brother’s house. She lay in a pool of blood, her head cracked open by three blows from an axe and her left ear almost severed. When she was found, Kappel was taking a nap, having returned home, vomited and then taken two aspirins for a headache and then slept for an hour. When he woke up, he had a hearty breakfast and then went to the Home Café to say that his wife wouldn’t be coming to work that day. He was then arrested close to where Bertha’s body lay.

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Adolph Kappel had a limited mental capacity but he knew enough to get rid of the axe, tossing it onto the roof of a neighbour’s house where it was later found. He signed a confession, saying that he had no recollection of killing his wife but remembered “I was standing over her and I struck a match and seen what I had done.” At his trial, he was charged with first degree murder and the jury took less than an hour to find him guilty. He was sentenced to be executed in New Mexico’s electric chair.

Kappel appealed and was granted a second trial on the grounds that the jury had not been given the option of convicting him of second degree murder. This jury decided that the murder had been conducted in the heat of the moment and was not planned or deliberate. He was once again found guilty but this time the sentence was 90-99 years rather than death. Kappel proved to be a model prisoner – for at least a year…

Gus Adolph Kappel

Assigned to a prison work gang at the penitentiary’s clay pits, on the last day of October 1950, Adolph Kappel made his escape aboard a black mule called Pete (one newspaper reported the beast was called Pegasus which seems a little fanciful). For five days he managed to stay ahead of police and prison guards in freezing cold weather until he was finally captured 35 miles south east of Las Vegas, New Mexico. He gave various reasons for his escape, saying that he had wanted to find out why he hadn’t heard from his daughter and believed that his brother was preventing her from writing to him. He also said he wanted to see his sister-in-law who had been involved in a road accident and then intended on going to Oklahoma to visit his mother and other relatives. But he also told reporters that “I am not the man who killed my wife” and that had he been able to get to Tucumcari he “could have cleaned up the whole mess”. Given that he had signed a confession which formed the basis of his first trial and pleaded guilty to second degree murder at the second trial it’s difficult to see how anyone else might have killed Bertha.

In 1953, Governor Edwin Mechem commuted Kappel’s sentence to a flat 70 years while the Warden commented, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, that Kappel was “now a plumber. He does not have access to a mule”.

Governor Erwin L Mechem who commuted Adolph Kappel’s 90-99 sentence to 70 years.

Adolph Kappel applied for parole at every chance and was denied for many years. When was he released? The short answer; I don’t know. He died in 1978 at the age of 63 and is buried in the Santa Fe National Cemetery. However, he was also incarcerated in the Penitentiary of New Mexico which is just 15 miles from Santa Fe but I found that he had won a newspaper competition in 1976 when living in Ojo Caliente near Taos so it appeared he stayed in the area after his release. Perhaps he just had nowhere else to go.

John Frederick Kappel whose bound body was found in a Sayre lake in an unsolved homicide.

It is perhaps a little ironic that, with one brother behind bars for homicide, another brother should also meet his end by murder. In September 1963, the youngest Kappel son, John Frederick, was found floating in a pond in Sayre, Oklahoma. This was no natural drowning; John’s hands and feet were tied and he had also suffered a blow on the head before being thrown into the lake to drown. He had previously been working as a union picket for the International Hod Carriers, Building and Common Laborers Union protesting at the construction site for a grocery store in Elk City. Police stated that his job had nothing to do with his death, although they were bemused at the lack of signs of a struggle as John was a large man – 6’4” and 240lbs as well as being a karate expert – and throwing him in the pond had required lifting him over a barbed wire fence. The case was never solved.

The lower walls are all that remains of the Vorenberg Hotel after a fire in the 1970s. The house where Bertha and Adolph were living with her brother is also long gone.

THE FINAL MYSTERY OF ED’S CAMP

Ed’s Camp looks very much as it did when he passed away well over 40 years ago. That’s because it is clearly out of bounds, please respect that.

Ed’s Camp, east of Oatman, Arizona, at the foot of the Sitgreaves Pass, is fascinating for the man who was the only owner; Lowell ‘Ed’ Edgerton, a man of both enigma and mystery who has left behind him one final puzzle.

Edgerton was born in Michigan in 1894 and headed west as a young man on the advice of his doctor. Edgerton had suffered from tuberculosis which, at the turn of the 20th century, was the leading cause of death in the United States – he claimed exemption from the draft in World War I as a consumptive. Initially moving to southern California, he found the climate of Arizona more to his liking and he would spend the next sixty years of his life in Mohave County.

Little is known about Edgerton’s early years in the West and many of the stories he told throughout the years should probably be taken with a healthy dose of salt. Later he would claim that he had begun to train as a doctor (he did study for a short time at the University of Michigan although that was in engineering) and had, while working for a mining company in Mexico, amputated a man’s leg during the Mexico revolution of 1910-1920. He told stories of how he had owned a mansion in Los Angeles but had lost it in a property deal that went bad. He also claimed that, while tracking a mountain lion, he followed the beast into Nevada and became so engrossed in the hunt that he forgot about his wife and five children and figured there was no point in going back. There’s actually no record of Edgerton ever having been married, let alone having a brood of five children!

When he moved to the Oatman area, he was able to pick up the lease on the tailings dump of the Oatman works, tailings being the by-product of the mineral recovery process, the material left over after the valuable ore has been separated from the uneconomic material. Within months, his operation was making more money than the whole mine and he was then hired by the Tom Reed Mine as foreman of recovery. Around 1919, Edgerton bought a parcel of land at Little Meadows in the foothills of the Black Mountains in north west Arizona. The site had been known to Europeans since 1776 when Father Francisco Garcés, a Spanish missionary and explorer, paused here on his expedition across the south west of America, while it became a staging posting for future treks, including that of Lieutenant Beale. The attraction of Little Meadows was that it had that commodity which could be worth as much as gold: water.

The Kactus Kafe was the first building that Ed put up on the site.

Initially, like so many who rushed to the area at this time, Edgerton’s intention was to make his fortune through a gold strike. With his older brother, Tibor, he took on a number of mining jobs until he realised that he could make a steady (and easier) living catering to travellers and miners than digging into the mountains. His trading post was little more than an open space with a tin roof – he later said that, with the inauguration of Route 66 in 1926, traffic became so busy so quickly that he never had time to add walls! As Tibor returned to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to open a tea rooms, Edgerton added the Kactus Kafe (this time a proper building) and a gas station and called the place ‘Ed’s Camp’.

At first Ed’s Camp had no tourist cabins or rooms. Instead, travellers could pitch a tent or sleep in their cars. For those who wanted a little luxury and had a little more cash, there was a screened porch where they might sleep on a cot. Just as NR Dunton did at Cool Springs, Ed charged for water on a per bucket basis although that fee was waived if people paid to stay. As the place grew, a grocery store and souvenir shop were added and Ed’s Camp became a stop for Pickwick Stage Lines, a coach company that would become part of the Greyhound bus empire.

One of the surviving cabins.

But Ed Edgerton was far more than just a store and gas station attendant. Over the years, he studied the rocks of Arizona and became an expert geologist who could identify any Mohave County rock and say, to within a few miles, from where it had come. He proudly told people how he had met Marie Curie, the French-Polish physicist – a claim which is quite possible as Curie toured the United States in both 1921 and 1929.

Edgerton owned and mined a rare earth mine from which he extracted ore that was shipped to a variety of companies, providing some thirty different minerals that were used in alloy steels, electronic components, ceramics, plastics, atomic devices and even cosmetics. He even, if only briefly, had a mineral named after him, although Edgertonite, an oxide of oxide of iron, yttrium uranium, calcium, columbium, tantalum, zirconium, tin, and other minerals  was quickly renamed Yttrotantalite when it was realised it had already been discovered in Sweden in 1802. It is, however, quite likely that Edgerton was the first man to find Yttrotantalite in the United States and he would say that he had provided the material for the first atomic bomb. Truth or fiction? We shall probably never know.

Edgerton credited Yttrotantalite with saving his life. According to him, on 17th April 1957, doctors told him he had cancer. They gave him thirty days to live unless he had major surgery. Edgerton declined the operation and returned to Ed’s Camp where he decided he would treat himself. The story changed in some details on each retelling, but this is probably the most comprehensive description to survive: “I put on two suits of heavy woollen underclothes and put these swatches [of Yttrotantalite] in between, all around, and then I put three big electric pads around that. I cooked myself for about seventy-two hours at one hundred and thirty degrees. I didn’t eat anything, I drank warm water. At the end of seventy hours stuff began to loosen inside me … Rotten goddamn stuff, it couldn’t take the heat. I commenced to bleed internally and for up to ninety hours I bled inside – rotten blood first and then fresh blood – and then that quit.

After that, Ed Edgerton nursed himself back to health on a diet of goat’s milk, raw eggs and avocadoes. Two months later, his doctor declared there was no sign of cancer in his body and it was a miracle. Although it’s tempting to believe that it would be difficult for anyone to survive such extremes of temperature for so long, not to mention four days of internal bleeding, Edgerton believed that he had cured a cancer and instead of having just a month left on this planet, he lived for another thirty years. He claimed that he was studied intensively by the Veterans Administration Hospital in Fort Whipple, near Prescott, although there are no records of Edgerton having been a patient until he died there in 1978. He also told people he had worked with one of the foremost cancer experts in the world – although he declined to name the scientist – as well as claiming that he could predict where in a person’s body a cancer might be just by the colour of their hair.

It would be tempting to dismiss Ed Edgerton as a crazy old desert rat, telling tall tales in the best tradition of a hermit. But Edgerton was far from that. While some of his stories may have been embellished – and others, quite frankly, tongue-in-cheek fabrications created to entertain visitors – he was much respected in the fields of geology and mineralogy, despite his lack of formal training. He took on consultancy work for companies, taught in the local college and wrote and presented papers on minerals. Edgerton was certainly not a hermit although much about his life remained a mystery. In 1948 he ran for the office of state senator in Mohave County on a Republican ticket (although he was beaten by the Democratic candidate, C Clyde Bollinger) and he trained to be a census enumerator for the 1960 US Census, a job his father had also done in Michigan sixty years earlier.

Thanks in part to the natural springs and in part of the improvements that Edgerton made over the years to the water flow, Ed’s Camp truly became an oasis in the desert. Late into his seventies, Edgerton kept Kingman supplied with pears, as well as growing apricots, tomatoes, quinces, strawberries, peppers, corn and grapevines. His pomegranates were so good that they won four ribbons at the Arizona State Fair! He even managed to keep alive a huge saguaro cactus which stood for years just by the gas pumps. It eventually attained an impressive height and several arms before dying around thirty years ago.

On 7th September 1978 Ed Edgerton died at the age of 83, not as he would have surely wished at the place he had called home for most of his life, but in the VA Hospital in Fort Whipple. His obituary mentioned only that he was a ‘retired miner’ but Lowell Edgerton was so much more than that. Today Ed’s Camp is gently decaying although the rigid enforcement of those NO TRESPASSING signs mean that he would still recognise the place. The gas pumps and cactus are long gone but the makeshift trading post and the café remain, while you can catch a glimpse from Route 66 of the basic tourist cabins he built. Squint hard at the hillside opposite and you might just make out the few remaining white stones that once spelled out Ed’s Camp. Now it seems a bleak spot in the desert but for much of the last century it was paradise for Ed Edgerton.

But Lowell Leighton Edgerton leaves behind one last mystery. Just where is his final resting place?

The Findagrave web site has him listed being buried in the Mountain View cemetery in Kingman, which would seem logical. So just a few weeks ago I took a walk around to see if I could find his grave. When I had no luck, I wondered whether it was unmarked, so I sought the assistance of the cemetery staff. They were very helpful and hauled out large leatherbound ledgers which list all of Mountain View’s ‘residents’. Finally they looked up and said, “He’s not here.”

As Ed died in a VA hospital I considered whether he would been buried by the Veterans Administration in Prescott. But, after combing through VA records for all of its Arizona cemeteries and burials, I drew a blank. I widened it to a nationwide search (although it seemed supremely unlikely he had been taken back to his home state of Michigan) and the end result? He wasn’t there.

Wherever Lowell Edgerton was laid to rest, he’s keeping it to himself – and I think he would rather have liked that.

These cabins were the height of luxury at Ed’s Camp!
In front of Ed’s Camp once stood the gas pumps and a saguaro cactus.

THE RAPID DECLINE OF THE MINNETONKA

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Of the many abandoned trading posts along the various alignments of Route 66, perhaps one of the most poignant is the Minnetonka Trading Post to the east of Winslow, Arizona, because its decline has been so rapid and so relatively recent.

Because it sits on a short piece of Route 66 that was dead ended when Interstate 40 bypassed Winslow in 1979, it’s frequently missed by tourists travelling the Mother Road and, even if they did stop by, they might well think “Just another old derelict building”. But little more than 15 years ago the Minnetonka was still a thriving place where cowboys drank their wages and wedding breakfasts and wakes were held. But that seems like a long time ago…

No-one is too sure when the Minnetonka was built. The Motley Design Group, in its Historic Resource Survey of Arizona, published in 2012, believes it to have been built in 1939 which seems quite a reasonable suggestion. Little is known about the early owners, but perhaps an advert that appeared in the Winslow Mail in February 1952 might give a clue to who was then running the Minnetonka.

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In its life, the Minnetonka has been trading post, post office, feed store, curio shop and bar.

It advertised for sale a ‘curio store, service station and café between Flagstaff and Winslow’, including 320 acres of land. Prospective buyers were to apply to the Minnetonka Trading Post where they would have found Phillip and Louise Hesch in residence. Mrs Hesch had been, in what she probably hoped was now a past life, Mrs Earl Marion Cundiff and, in 1926 she and her then husband had owned that barren 320 acres known as Two Guns when Cundiff was shot dead by Harry ‘Indian’ Miller. Her character was suggested to be less than pristine when, during the trial, it was alleged she had had affairs with several men and, indeed, it was reported that during the proceedings she had taken up with one of the defence witnesses who took poison over the whole sorry episode (he survived).

Phillip and Louise Hersh at Two Guns.

Louise Hesch (her real name was Mary Evelyn but she always used the name Louise) remarried, this time to a mechanic called Fred Hayes, but the marriage didn’t last and in December 1934 (still only 29) she married Phillip E Hesch, her third and final husband. Although the pair ran Two Guns and the second incarnation of its famous zoo for a number of years, perhaps they finally decided on a change due to the the rerouting of Route 66 and the place’s isolation and so, by 1951, they were running the Minnetonka. After an attempt to sell it in 1956, they leased it two years later to sisters Irene B Scott and Hazel Weaver Jordan who had also run a store close to Two Guns. Within a year the sisters had moved out of the Minnetonka to take over a florist in Winslow.

By now the Hesches had started a coffee shop called La Siesta on East 2nd Street in Winslow, so were still keen to sell the Minnetonka. This they did in the autumn of 1962, selling the place lock, stock and liquor license to Mr and Mrs Robert Shaw. The Shaws operated the Minnetonka until September 1971 when Bob Shaw died, aged just 49. His widow, Patricia, kept hold of the Minnetonka and, with her second husband, Harvey Rogers, they ran it through the 1980s.

In 1991, it was bought by Julia (‘Julie’) Johnson who brought new life to the old place. The roof was replaced and the interior remodelled, complete with a raunchy picture of a naked lady on the petrified wood wall! A small rodeo arena was carved out behind the building and the Minnetonka played host to a number of events, including the annual ‘Bull Sunday’, part of Winslow’s Heritage Days. Despite being on a cut off piece of road, its proximity to I-40, Highway 87 and many ranches made it a favourite of local cowboys. Occasionally it would be flooded when the Cottonwood Wash broke its banks, but even that never seemed to worry Julie.

But, on 23 June 2007, aged only 56 years, Julie passed away and the Minnetonka Trading Post died with her. The place was put up for sale and, back in 2009, someone could have acquired quite the going concern for $100,000, complete with its unique petrified wood façade, all of the bar appliances (including the original plank-cedar bar top), handmade southwestern furniture and an Arizona Series 6 liquor license allowing it to sell liquor, beer and wine both in the bar and to take away.

There were no takers. Perhaps anyone interested was scared off by the rumours of pollutions from the elderly underground fuel tanks out front. Those were removed in 2010 and replaced by compacted soil. A year later, the Minnetonka was back on the market but at a reduced price. It still stands empty.

Now the Minnetonka doesn’t look like quite such a promising concern. The glass behind the security grills is long gone and two large holes disfigure the façade, perhaps vandalism, perhaps deterioration, perhaps to liberate some of the petrified wood. Who knows? If anyone knows what happened to the big wooden bar and the handmade furniture, they’re not saying even. In fact, no-one is saying anything any more at the Minnetonka Trading Post.

The door to the bar.
The Minnetonka when it was up for sale in 2010. Back there it would have taken little work to open the doors again.
The interior, all the bar fixings gone.
The rear of the trading post.
One of the ornamental grilles, almost hanging in midair.
The petrified wood wall.

THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE APACHE DEATH CAVE

Gladwell Grady ‘Toney’ Richardson. Everything we know about the Apache Death Cave comes from this man.

In 1926 the tiny settlement of Two Guns, Arizona, was rocked by the killing of Earl Cundiff by Harry ‘Indian’ Miller. That episode is well documented but an enduring myth associated with Two Guns is far more nebulous and less easy to prove. That legend concerns the so-called Apache Death Cave.

As the story goes, in 1878, Apaches had raided two Navajo camps, killing everyone but three girls who were kidnapped. Other Navajo warriors attempted to follow the Apaches but were mystified when they appeared to vanish into thin air. Then, while scouting along the edge of Canyon Diablo, they noticed voices from beneath them and warm air coming up from a fissure in the ground. They quickly realised they were above a cave in which the Apaches, their horses and possibly the three Navajo girls were hidden.

Looking across to the famous cave.

They found the mouth of the cave and lit a fire intending to smoke out their enemies. Those who tried to escape were killed and when it was found that the Navajo girls were already dead, it was decided to kill all the Apaches in the cave in revenge. After those trapped in the cave had used all their water in an attempt to put out the flames, they cut the throats of their horses to use the blood to douse the fire. But, as the corpses of their horses piled up against the opening and the Navajo continued to fuel the flames with sagebrush, some forty-two Apaches are said to have died in the cave.

Harry ‘Indian’ Miller – unfairly blamed for the Apache Death Cave story?

Did it happen? At this length of time there is really no way of telling and there is considerable doubt as to how much the tale has been rewritten, exaggerated and embellished. What is clear is that Harry Indian Miller has been unfairly tarnished in many accounts and histories of Route 66 with starting and promulgating the myth of the ‘Apache Death Cave’. While it is true that Miller used the cave as a tourist attraction, he advertised it as ‘Underground Dwellings’ and probably fitted out the cave with suitable stage dressings to entertain visitors. However, there’s no evidence that the cave was ever used as a dwelling, which casts doubt on the idea of it being regular living quarters for the Apache.

A postcard of the Apache caves from the 1930s. Note no mention of death.

All photographs that exist of Two Guns during Miller’s tenure show the attraction advertised as the APACHE CAVES or the MYSTERY CAVE. Many accounts accuse Miller of clearing out the caves and selling Apache skulls but there is one fact which goes against this idea; Miller claimed to have Apache blood (whether full blood or half blood depends on which account you read) and while that claim is perhaps a little tenuous, as such he would have been unlikely to sell the bones of his ancestors. In late 1926, he and his friend and fellow trader Joe Secakuku announced a plan to build a dance floor in the cave, although this never came to pass. It would be forty feet by fifteen feet and for the use and entertainment of not only tourists but local Winslow residents. Had Miller believed – or even known – of the existence of the Death Cave story would he have turned the cave into first a tacky tourist attraction and secondly a dance hall? And even if he had been prepared to compromise his claimed heritage, would Chief Joe, a full blood Hopi, have gone along with the plan?

A later postcard, also with no mention of any death caves.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence towards the story of the Apache Death Cave being an exaggerated and embroidered (if not invented) story is that the facts emanate from one source; Gladwell Grady Richardson.

Thanks to the work of Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s state historian, one Richardson tale has already been debunked. For years, people have spoken in awe of Canyon Diablo, a town on the edge of the canyon from which it took its name and a mile or so from Two Guns.

Originally a railroad camp, Canyon Diablo had a main street called Hell Street, fourteen saloons, ten gambling houses, four brothels and two dance halls, many of which stayed open twenty-four hours a day. It was said to be a lawless and dangerous place with a Boot Hill cemetery which was filled within a year with those who had suffered a violent demise. Six town marshals died in quick succession, the first lasting just four hours, the longest serving surviving a month. It was a place that made Tombstone seem like the most sedentary of suburbs.

There’s only one problem with this picture of Canyon Diablo: It never existed.

It was virtually all the imagination of Gladwell Richardson. In a time where very few documents existed – there is, for example, no record of a Canyon Diablo newspaper in the railroad camp – Richardson somehow magically managed to not only know how many saloons and brothels there were in the town, but was able to name them, too. “Nearly everything you’ve read is fiction,” says George Shaw, an archivist at the Arizona State Railroad Museum. “Never happened.” Richardson was a prolific author of Western stories which he penned under a variety of pseudonyms and it’s all too likely that his ability for conjuring up stories spilled over into his so-called narrative of Canyon Diablo.

Richardson also had a personal connection with Two Guns. He had worked in trading posts since he was a young boy and, in 1950, when his father SI Richardson, bought Two Guns, Gladwell and his wife Millie ran the place for several years and it was while living and working at the trading post that Richardson began writing a small book called Two Guns, Arizona. Published in 1968 and long out of print, this small tome appears to be from where the legend of Canyon Diablo and the embellished story of the cave originate. In his book, Richardson writes of Canyon Diablo; ‘For the brief span of its vicious life, more famous places like Abilene, Virginia City and Tombstone could not hold a candle to the evil of this end-of-the-railroad’s depravity. Murder on the street was common. Holdups were almost hourly occurrences, newcomers being slugged on mere suspicion that they carried valuables.’

The truth was that the town, like most railroad camps, was a place where people worked hard, perhaps had a little too much to drink on a Saturday night, but were too careful of their jobs to participate in much mayhem or murder. However, that doesn’t make for quite such an exciting story! By the time that Richardson wrote his version of history, the town had been gone for almost eighty years, meaning that there would have been very few people who had experienced Canyon Diablo first-hand, and so his account became universally accepted.

Richardson’s book also appears to be the source for the much-repeated story that, during the winter of 1879, the canyon was a hideout for Billy the Kid and his gang. Once again, it’s a great tale but the likelihood of it being true is extremely low. Robert M Uttley in his definitive biography of William H Bonney has The Kid in his home territory of Fort Sumner, New Mexico, throughout the time that Richardson claimed he was hiding stolen horses in the canyon.

Two Guns, Arizona also provides an exciting and entertaining narrative of the events of the Apache Death Cave, containing facts that can be found nowhere else. Indeed, it appears to be the sole history of the events of June 1878 for every subsequent retelling has drawn upon either the facts published in this book or in a longer article which appeared in Big West Magazine in 1967. The author of this piece was Maurice Kildare – and Maurice Kildare was one of Richardson’s many pseudonyms.

Although he was regarded as an expert on Western history – a notion promulgated by his many Western novels and by Richardson himself – Two Guns, Arizona was only one of two works of non-fiction that he wrote in his lifetime. The other was a work which Richardson clearly preferred to forget.

On 23rd April 1923, special officer JS Sullivan of the Arizona Eastern railroad arrested a young man in a boxcar at the Phoenix railroad yards early in the morning. It was a common enough incident and Sullivan had no cause to suspect the man of anything other than vagrancy. But a search at the police station of the man’s meagre possessions uncovered a diary in which the vagrant, who was identified as Gladwell Grady Richardson, had written a vivid first hand narrative of how he had killed a rabbi in a San Francisco hotel and then deserted the navy.

Richardson claimed it was simply a story he had been writing to keep himself amused which might have been more believable had Phoenix officers, upon investigation, not discovered that, on 3rd April 1923, a Rabbi Alfred G Lafee had indeed been beaten to death in the Gates Hotel on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. The details of the slaying corresponded to Richardson’s account in every way.

The Gates Hotel where Richardson killed Rabbi Lafee.

Nonetheless, Phoenix officers appear to have believed Richardson’s explanation that the diary was just a story. He stuck so consistently to this that Phoenix Chief of Police, Oscar Roberts, publicly stated that he felt the diary was a figment of the nineteen-year-old deserter’s imagination and he was an unfortunate victim of circumstance. It must have been embarrassing for the police chief when, the following day after this statement, Richardson changed his tune and made a full confession, waiving his right to be extradited to California.

Two days later he told his story before a grand jury. On 3rd April, Richardson had gone ashore from the USS Vigilant to Golden Gate Park where he had met a stranger to whom he referred to his diary as “the Jew”. His diary spoke of the man as “kind of nervous for some unknown cause”; the young Richardson may have been very naïve – or wished to appear so – for he accepted the stranger’s invite to take in a show and then spend the night at a local hotel.

The Gates Hotel today, renamed as the Fusion although basically unchanged on the exterior.

Richardson wrote in his account: “After the show we went to the Gates Hotel but he registered as Mr Lane. About 3.30am I was suddenly awakened by the Jew, my hand fell off the bed coming into contact with a cuspidor. I turned it on its side and emptied it. I swung the cuspidor and struck the Jew on the head. The Jew swung with his fist and hit me on the jaw. I then swung the cuspidor twice in rapid succession. The blood on my hands was bloody. I got up and turned the lights on. As I did my left hand left a print on a wall. The Jew was unconscious. At first I thought he was dead. He was breathing heavily and his head was between the bars of the head of the bedstead. I washed the blood from my arms and hands, put on my clothes, opened the door and walked out. The clerk was there so I lit a cigarette and asked him something about the weather. My voice sounded kind of queer, that was the only emotion I had

Back on the USS Vigilant, Richardson learned two days later that not only was the man a rabbi, but he was now a dead rabbi. He told a couple of people what he had done, a friend called Frank and a woman called Alice with whom he had had dinner two nights later and then he decided to go on the run from Goat Island Naval Training Station. As his diary relates, this action caused him more angst than the murder. In the entry of April 7th, he wrote: “The rabbi is dead. So now in the eyes of the law I am a murderer. Can’t say I feel like one. I’m also a deserter from the navy, that’s what I’m worried about. Wired dad to send $75. Discarded my bright, new uniform yesterday for a pair of overalls, shirt and sweater. I look like a bum now.”

Pleading self-defence as the victim of an ‘unnatural attack’, Richardson went through his story again in front of the grand jury and, on 15th May 1923, that grand jury refused to indict him on a charge of murder, holding that he was justified in defending himself under the circumstances. This should have automatically closed the case but Richardson was referred to the Superior Court which, on 29th June 1923, confirmed the grand jury’s decision and dismissed the charge of murder on the grounds, quite amazingly, of insufficient evidence.

As a deserter, Richardson should have been placed under immediate arrest by a naval guard but, according to contemporary newspaper reports he was allowed to leave the court on his own and voluntarily surrender to a naval assembling station on Yerba Buena island. It’s to be presumed that he did this; although that naval career appears to have ended a few months later, the foreword of Navajo Trader stating that he remained on active duty until 1924 and then was recalled into military service after Pearl Harbour, serving in Arizona, Indiana and the South Pacific. Then again, that same foreword also contains no whisper of his troubles in San Francisco in 1923.

In fact, Richardson appears to have successfully expunged any mention of the murder of Rabbi Lafee from his subsequent life, going on to be an organiser of the Flagstaff Indian Pow Wow and author of almost three hundred works of fiction. The tourists that he did welcome to Two Guns were generally those who were seeking out their favourite author and he continued to run the trading post until 1962 when he sold the business to Ida Ferne Jacobs Rawlinson who, just a year later, sold up to Benjamin F Dreher. Richardson dedicated his book to Dreher; it may have been a genuine desire on Richardson’s part to record the history of the place as he saw it, or it may have been commissioned by Dreher as publicity for the redevelopment of Two Guns. The fact is that book published in 1968 and an article written under one of his many pseudonyms, are the sole source of information on the now much-repeated story. And the first time that anyone had heard of the Apache Death Cave…

Gladwell Grady ‘Toney’ Richardson. Unreliable witness?

THE LITTLE ORPHANS OF ROUTE 66

The Welch boys. L-R: Tommy, Billy, Jimmy, Johnny.

There are many stories born on Route 66 that tug at the heart, but perhaps one more than any other when, in June 1961, the lives of four little boys were changed forever.

James Dolphus (‘JD’) and Utha Marie Welch were a typical American couple in their early thirties. JD, a burly six-footer and 200lbs, was a truck driver for Trans-Con, while Utha was a housewife and stay at home mother for their four sons. Jimmy, 12; Billy, 9: Tommy, 8 and 5-year-old Johnny. (There had been another son, born between Jimmy and Billy, but Noble – named after Utha’s father – was a sickly child from birth and died in infancy.) This, however, didn’t stop both parents being involved in many local activities in their hometown of Spencer, Oklahoma.

JD and Utha Marie Welch.

Most of JD’s family lived in California and, in June 1961, the family set out from Oklahoma to drive to Tulare, California to see JD’s mother before she went in for surgery. Then they intended to return to Oklahoma via Colorado Springs. The boys were keen to camp during the trip and JD and Utha agreed they could take their Boy Scouts pup tent. On Thursday 8th June, a day into the trip, the family left Amarillo in the morning. It was late at night by the time they stopped for gas in Ash Fork, Arizona and enquired about a motel room. The owner would tell police that JD had thought the room too expensive and left. As the motel owner never spoke about the incident publicly (despite being the last person outside of the family and their murderer to see the Welches alive), one wonders whether, glancing at the family’s shiny two-year-old Oldsmobile – JD had only bought it two weeks earlier – and calculating the lateness of the hour and the small boys, quoted a price higher than normal.

Looking north-east across the Aubrey valley, close to where the Welch family made camp. [Image courtesy of Google Maps]

No-one will ever know why the family didn’t then stop in Seligman where there were more motels. It may have been cost or it may have been that the boys were nagging their parents to camp. But eventually, around midnight, JD pulled into the side of the road around 13 miles west of Seligman. Even now, it’s a bleak and barren stretch of road, the plain of the Aubrey Valley stretching for miles around. The only cover were two large piles of rubble and it was beside one of these that JD pitched his sons’ tent while he and his wife slept in the Oldsmobile.

The next morning, little Johnny was the first boy awake. He went over to the car where his parents were sleeping and tried to wake them. Confused, he ran back to his brothers, saying there was something on mommy’s face. Going to check, Jimmy found his mother’s face covered with blood. He lifted his father’s head and found that he too had been shot several times in the head. The little boys tried desperately to flag down help, but several cars would speed past before salesmen and race drivers, Jere Eagle and Dan Cramer from California, stopped and realised the horror of the situation.

The boys’ pup tent beside the Oldsmobile. Despite being so close, none of the boys heard the shots that killed their parents.

Highway Patrolman Dan Birdino and Deputy Sheriff Perry Blankenship were first to arrive on the scene, Blankenship having been notified by his wife, Bertie Lee, after a driver stopped at Johnson’s Café on the east end of Seligman where she worked as a waitress. Bertie would have a bigger role in this story than she could have imagined at the time. 

Although around $60 had been taken from JD’s wallet, Utha’s purse, which contained $147, and her expensive jewellery was untouched. Despite a few promising leads – a Greyhound bus had stopped at the same place although this turned out to be some hours after the murders – clues quickly dried up. The best that the local police had was a statement from Bertie Blankenship about a young man she had served late the previous night. He only had a nickel on him, not enough for a cup of coffee, but there was something about him that spooked Bertie so much she gave him the coffee for free. A few hours later, the same man returned to the all-night diner and this time ordered a full meal with tomato juice, paying for it with a $20 note and professing not to recognise Bertie.

However, a suspect did flag up on the law enforcement radar almost immediately. James Abner Bentley lived in Gilbert, Arizona. However, his mother and estranged wife claimed that he had been in Fresno, California, with them on the night of the murders. Arrested for the robbery and attempted murder of a Phoenix gas station attendant in late June, it transpired that Bentley had been in Fresno – but a month earlier, when he had killed the owner of a liquor store.

Shown a photo of Bentley by Sheriff Jim Cramer, Bertie Blankenship identifies him as the man who visited the diner twice. [Photo by Bill Nixon, Arizona Republic]

So, James Abner Bentley was already suspected of the Welches’ murders just days after they happened and local Seligman police had a mug shot of Bentley. For whatever reason, no-one thought to show that photo to Bertie Blankenship. Bertie didn’t see a photo of Bentley until a year later after a cellmate of the condemned prisoner had revealed that Bentley alluded to the murders, proudly saying he’d left the children alive. When Bertie was shown an image of Bentley, she immediately identified him as the stranger who had come to the diner – once poor and once with money in his pocket – the night of the murders.

James Abner Bentley. he would be described as a ‘mad dog’ by a boy who witnessed his attempted murder of a Phoenix gas station worker.

James Abner Bentley was charged with the murders of JD and Utha Welch while on death row in San Quentin, convicted of the murder of the Fresno liquor store owner. Had his death sentence been commuted – and that was a definite possibility at the time as Pat Brown, then Governor of California, was a firm opponent of the death penalty – then Arizona would have proceeded with the prosecution for both the Welch murders and the robbery and attempted murder charge in Phoenix. But, on 23rd January 1963, just after 10am, Bentley went to the gas chamber. It was little consolation to the four small boys (although Jim was, unsurprisingly, a lifelong supporter of the death penalty) whose childhood ended so brutally on the side of Route 66.