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Bill Cook Gang

Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka
Bill Cook, leader of the Bill Cook gang, who was finally run to earth near Fort Sumner, in the old Billy the Kid country.

Though it is largely unknown, the Bill Cook Gang played an important role in the history of horseback outlawry in what is now eastern Oklahoma. If its life as an organized gang under the leadership of Bill Cook was brief, it was spectacular. In one week short of three months, they successfully committed ten assorted stagecoach, store, bank and railroad holdups. It is a record unmatched by the James-Younger Gang or any other. In the course of it, they killed only one man, which is another record.

The robbery of the John Schufeldt store and post office at Lenapah, in which a house painter by the name of Ernest Melton was killed, without cause, is often charged to the Bill Cook Gang. It was committed by former members of the gang, but the Cook Gang had previously disintegrated. Even when it was flourishing, it grabbed very few headlines, principally because it was running in competition with the Bill Doolin Gang, which was operating in the wetsern part of the Territory. Doolin, in his own right, and because of his connection with the Dalton brothers, was known to newspaper readers the country over; few people had ever heard of Bill Cook.

Ironically enough, two members of his gang were destined to become far better known in their time than he. One was Henry Starr, the gentleman bandit and bank robber, by marriage the nephew of Belle Starr. The other was Crawford Goldsby, alias Cherokee Bill, the bloodthirsty mad dog who killed for the love of killing and was accounted the most vicious of all Indian Territory-Oklahoma outlaws. Both organized gangs of their own when the U.S. deputy marshals and Indian police scattered and destroyed the Cook Gang. That was normal gang procedure. They were constantly being broken up and re-forming. That was as true of the Doolins as of the lesser gangs. As a consequence the work of the marshals was never finished.

The record on Bill Cook is fairly complete. He was the son of Jim Cook, a Southerner from Tennessee who had fought in the Union army. Like so many others, he drifted into Indian Territory after the war and married a quarter-blood Cherokee woman, which enabled him to acquire a headright near Fort Gibson. They had two sons, Bill, who was born in 1873, and James in 1877. The boys were orphaned when they were in their teens. They were placed in an Indian orphanage, from which Bill ran away in 1887. He was then barely fourteen. Though it was all the schooling he ever had, he was far above average in intelligence for his years. For four years he drifted from job to job on Cherokee farms and ranches. He began calling himself a cowboy. In a free use of the word, he was, but he was a farm hand, too.

Whisky got him into trouble. Among the men with whom he fraternized, there was a queer sort of glory in being able to take drink after drink with them. It called for more money than he could earn by honest labor. It was only a short step into bootlegging liquor to the Indians. He took it. It was not long before he was in jail. When he was put away a second time, he seemed to get hold of himself.

For a time he worked as posseman for Judge Parker's deputies. His brother Jim, then only seventeen, got into trouble in the Cherokee Nation, being charged with unlawful entry of a crossroads store. He fled to the Creek country, and Bill joined him. In short order, he gathered about him a choice gang of desperadoes, and on July 14, 1894, they held up and robbed the Fort Gibson-Muskogee stage.

Two days later, on July 16, in typical James-Younger style, they stopped a Frisco train at Red Forks, looted the express car and went through the coaches with the hungry grain sack. Two weeks later, on July 31, they stuck up the Lincoln County bank at Chandler. As they walked into the bank, J. M. Mitchell, the proprietor of the barbershop next door, ran out to arouse the town. Cherokee Bill, one of the gang, shot him dead.

Bank robbery had become so commonplace that no one, save the owners, got unduly excited about it. It was a different matter when an innocent citizen was killed. Heck Thomas and a group of fellow deputy marshals and Indian police descended on Chandler, swore in a posse and began an intensive hunt for the Cook Gang. The latter took the hint and lit out for the San Boise Mountains. Nothing more was heard of them until September 21, when they robbed the Parkinson general store at Okmulgee. Two weeks later they struck again. On October 5, they waylaid a wealthy Choctaw farmer returning home from Fort Gibson. The following day, October 6, they relieved another Indian of several hundred dollars almost within shooting distance of Fort Smith. They moved north then into country with which all were familiar.

They had given the marshals the slip this time, the hunt for them being centered below the South Canadian. They laid low until October 10, when they stopped a Missouri Pacific train at Claremore (the old Iron Mountain), forced the messenger to open the express safe and then went through the passengers. Cutting across country to the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad at Chouteau, twenty miles away, they made it a full day by sticking up the agent and making off with the contents of his safe.

They were riding high. Money was rolling in. The Katy and the Missouri Pacific had posted rewards on them, dead or alive. Reward posters began to appear, tacked to tree trunks and fence corners. Instead of tearing them down, the gang scrawled derisive and insulting messages on them for the marshals to read. They were doing all the laughing now. In their exuberance, on October 20, they first wrecked and then robbed another Missouri Pacific train between Wagoner and Fort Gibson, piling ties on the tracks and derailing the locomotive. For the pure hell of it, they fired a flurry of shots at the passenger coaches after they were back in the saddle and dashing away. Up near Vinita on October 25, they waylaid three travelers in the course of the day, which could have netted them very little. The real purpose of the robberies was to throw dust in the marshals' eyes and lead them to believe that the Bill Cooks meant to spend the winter in the northeastern corner of the Territory, when, in fact, they were bound for the Choctaw country and Texas, it being Bill Cook's idea to give things a few months in which to cool off before the gang struck again.

With the exception of Cherokee Bill, the members of Cook's band have been put down by some commentators as cowboys. They were at best only part-time cowboys, working on and off for small outfits, and should not be confused with the traditional Texas cowboy, who lived his life on the open range. Henry Starr was a member of the Cook Gang only in its infancy and can not be connected with the rash of robberies and holdups they commited in 1891. Cherokee Bill broke away when Cook and his followers headed for Texas.

Among those whom the law tabbed as members of the Cook Gang were the Cook brothers, Sam McWilliams, alias the Verdigris Kid, Lon Gordon, Thurtnan Baldwin, alias Skeeter Baldwin, Elmer Lucas, alias Chicken Lucas, Curt Dayson, Hank Munson, Jim French (the same Jim French who had held Belle Starr's interest so briefly), George Sanders, Will Farris and Jess Snyder. Eventually, Judge Parker got some of them. The Creek and Cherokee police and U.S. marshals snuffed out the rest.

In the exchange of shots that occurred when the gang robbed the Chandler bank, Chicken Lucas was struck in the hip by a slug from the rifle of a Creek policeman and was captured. A posse of police and deputy marshals located Henry Munson, Lon Gordon and Curt Dayson in a farmhouse west of Sapulpa. In the fierce gun battle that took place, Gordon and Munson were killed. Dayson threw out his rifle and surrendered. Subsequently, he and Lucas came up before judge Parker. Lucas was sent away for ten years and Dayson for fifteen.

When Bill Cook lit out for Texas, Skeeter Baldwin, Jess Snyder and Will Farrs went with him. Texas Rangers were waiting for them, and in a brief battle at Wichita Falls, Texas, Snyder and Farris were captured. Bill Cook and Skeeter Baldwin escaped and separated. The law was after Cook in earnest now, and he was trailed halfwayacross New Mexico before he was run to earth near old Fort Sumner, in Billy the Kid country.

Skeeter Baldwin was still running free. He was apparently quitting Texas and heading back into the Territory when he ran afoul of Texas Rangers in Clay County, on Red River. Snyder and Farris had been returned to Fort Smith, promptly convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. It was now Bill Cook's and Skeeter Baldwin's turn. Parker sentenced Cook to forty-five years in a New York State penitentiary. Skeeter Baldwin received a sentence of thirty years in the same institution.

Of the original Cook Gang, only three remained at liberty: Jim French, the Verdigris Kid and George Sanders. Henry Starr and Cherokee Bill were at this time under sentence of death and languishing in the Fort Smith jail, though not for crimes committed while rnembers of the Cook Gang.

French had been hiding out in the Cookson Hills, not far from Catoosa, which in the spring of 1895 was the terminus of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad and almost completely lawless. Early on the night of February 7, French, accompanied by a young Creek named Jess Cochran, slipped into Catoosa and at gunpoint forced two citizens to break open a window in the general store of Patton and Company, Catoosa's leading mercantile establishment, and enter the store. Using the two men as a shield, French and young Cochran followed them through the shattered window, according to the Reed-Harman account. What they call the "office" was in a small building in the back, detached from the store, and appears to have been a combination office and bedroom of Sam Irwin, the manager. A light burned within.

Through a window, French saw Irwin seated at his desk, his account books spread out before him, his back to the door. French started to raise his rifle, when he saw the muzzle of a doublebarreled shotgun pointed at him. The gun was in the hands of the store's watchman, a man named Wilkins, who was seated in a rocking chair facing the door.

For some reason that must go unexplained, unless it was panic caused by seeing French pull back from the window, the young Indian sent a slug crashing through the door. Irwin leaped to his feet and flung the door open. The watchman's shotgun spurted flame and Jess Cochran went down with the top of his head blown off. With surprising coolness for him, French smashed the window with the butt of his rifle and sent a slug tearing through the manager's bowels. As he sank to the floor, mortally wounded, the watchman emptied the second barrel of his shotgun at French. He had aimed too high and the blast did no damage.

French was now momentarily in command. Charitably, he ordered Wilkins, the watchman, to help him lift Irwin off the floor and place him on his bed. It was a mistake. He then made Wilkins bring the young Indian's body into the office and place it on the floor. Why this was done, Reed-Harman fail to say. It could have had nothing to do with robbery, which French seems to have completely forgotten. And one wonders what the two "citizens" who had been forced to break into the store were doing all this time.

If we are to believe the Reed-Harman account, French now drew his pistol to kill the unarmed watchman, who fell to his knees, begging for his life. French took dead aim on him and was about to fire, when Sam Irwin, with a last effort, drew a revolver that was concealed under his pillow and fired twice, both bullets "tearing through French's neck just below the ears. After staggering about drunkenly for a moment, French bolted through the open door and with blood spurting from his wounds ran toward the Spunky River. He crawled into an abandoned Indian cabin, where his pursuers, led by Wilkins, found him. He was dying, but Wilkins finished him with a blast from his reloaded shotgun."

That left only the Verdigris Kid and George Sanders at large. On March 28, only a few weeks after Jim French came to the end of his tether, the Verdigris Kid, George Sanders and a young thug named Sam Butler ran out of luck as they were robbing a store at the little Arkansas River town of Braggs, eight miles down river from Fort Gibson. The Verdigris Kid and Sanders were shot to death. Sam Butler, the amateur badman, killed a store clerk named Morris. It took the marshals six months to catch up with him. On August 1, Deputy John Davis surprised him as he was taking his ease under an apple tree at his mother's cabin on the Verdigris River. He was armed, and his first shot knocked Davis out of the saddle, fatally wounded. But Deputy Marshal Davis, one of Judge Parker's bravest men, lurched to his feet and put a bullet through Butler's heart.

The law could now write finis to the Gook Gang. Not one had escaped. The guns of the U.S. marshals and the Indian police had snuffed out the lives of Lon Gordon, Hank Munson, George Sanders, the Verdigris Kid and Sam Butler. Bill and Jim Cook, Jess Snyder, Will Farris, Chicken Lucas, Curt Dayson and Skeeter Baldwin were behind bars. Though it came late in judge Parker's career, it was, in many ways, his greatest victory. His "certainty of punishment" had never been so potently expressed.

One thing remains to be said about the Cooks and that concerns the circumstances that put young Jim Cook into the Cherokee prison for eight years. So turn back to the spring of 1894, when after endless negotiations, the federal government purchased the so-called Cherokee Strip from the Cherokee Nation. When the Cherokees were forcibly removed to Indian Territory, in addition to their immense reservation, an expansion "outlet" was held in trust for them, a big slice of today's northern Oklahoma, running west from the original Cherokee reservation to the Oklahoma Panhandle. While title to it remained with the government, the Cherokee Nation had definite treaty rights to the "outlet," which, as usual where Indians were concerned, had been ignored when it was thrown open to white settlement on September 16 of the previous year, resulting in the sensational Cherokee Strip "run" that brought thousands of whites racing across the Kansas line to claim free land and make new homes in today's Oklahoma. It was to "quiet" all Cherokee claims to it that the purchase was made. Of the total amount paid, a third went into the Cherokee National Treasury. It left $6,640,000 to be divided individually among all who could make legitimate claim to being at least one-eighth Cherokee. After a lengthy checking of the tribal roles, the figure arrived at was $265.70 per person.

It is remarkable that in outlaw-infested Indian Territory six million dollars could be distributed without a major robbery taking place. This was accomplished, however. Thousands of Cherokee were begowked, robbed, cheated, but only after they had received their share of the "Strip" money. The distribution was the business of the Cherokee National Council, but the federal government could have exercised some supervision, which it completely failed to do. A blind man could have foreseen that putting such a Iarge sum of money in the hands of largely ignorant Indians was bound to result in their being ruthlessly exploited by white sharpers. Nothing was done to prevent it. The results were often tragic and often ludicrous.

In the weeks before the distribution was made, a horde of unscrupulous agents and racketeers crisscrossed the Cherokee country, selling the Indians things they did not need and did not know how to operate, all at extravagant prices, and on credit against their Strip money, taking notes in payment. A carload of cheap sewing machines and washing machines was unloaded at Gibson Station. On the "luxury" side came musical instruments, which the Cherokees could not play, and an endless variety of feminine finery.

When a distribution point was set up, the Cherokees flocked in by the hundreds to find a carnival atmosphere prevailing. Gamblers and bootleggers operated openly, along with thugs and pickpockets. At Tahlequah, the Cherokee capital, there were tent shows, a merry-go-round, every device for extracting money from the Indians. And the agents with their notes were there, too. They got their money before the man who had bought on credit got his.

Young Jim Cook had the necessary Cherokee blood in his veins to qualify for his $265.70, and he wanted it, as did his brother Bill and Cherokee Bill. Their names were on the Tahlequah roles, but since they were wanted by both the Indian police and the U.S. deputy marshals, they knew it would not be safe for them to appear in Tahlequah. To get their money, they hit upon the device of getting someone to go in and collect it for them. The person they chose was Effie Grittenden, Dick Crittenden's ex-wife. Dick Crittenden and his brother Zeke both held deputy marshal commissions at the time. They were the same Crittendens that Eddie Reed was to kill at wagoner some time later.

Fifteen miles out of Tahlequah on the Fort Gibson road, Effie Crittenden conducted a place known as the Halfway House, where travelers could get lodgings and meals. What financial arrangement they made with her is not known, but she agreed to get their Strip money for them. She had no difficulty getting it, but when Ellis Rattling Gourd, chief of the Cherokee police, read the names on the letter she presented to the treasurer, he realized at once that the three men were in the neighborhood and very likely at the Halfway House. He was acquainted with all three. Spying on the place for several hours that afternoon, he saw Cherokee Bill come out and walk back to the privy. A little later, Bill Cook made the same journey, and finally young Jim Cook.

Ellis Rattling Gourd was back in the morning with a posse of seven men, including Sequoyah Houston, Dick and Zeke Crittenden, Bill Nickel and three others. Chief Rattling Gourd called on the outlaws to surrender, but their answer was a blast of gunfire. It was returned by the posse. Jim Cook, peering around a corner of the building, was seriously wounded by a sIug from Dick Crittenden's rifle. He tossed away his Winchester as he went down and lying on the ground was struck several times more. A few moments later, Cherokee Bill stepped out boldly and killed Sequoyah Houston.

Though Rattling Gourd still had the odds heavily in his favor, he withdrew from the fight soon after Houston fell, taking all but the Crittendens with him. The latter had no choice about remaining, for they had found cover behind an old log smokehouse and were afraid to leave lest they be cut down before they reached the scrub timber seventy-five yards away. They kept up a desultory fight throughout the afternoon, but when darkness fell, they beat a retreat.

Jim Cook's condition was grave. Desperate as the chance was, his brother insisted on getting him to a doctor at Fort Gibson. The hazardous nature of the venture appealed to Cherokee Bill. Together, he and Bill Cook got Jim into the saddle, tied him down and went to Fort Gibson, leaving him there under the care of a physician and making good their escape. When Jim recovered from his wounds he was convicted of being a party to the killing of Sequoyah Houston and sentenced to eight years in the Cherokee prison. He escaped once, but was recaptured and served his full sentence. When he came out it was to find that life in the Territory had changed drastically; the Cook Gang was just a fading memory.

Harry Sinclair Drago. Outlaws on Horseback: The History of the Organized Bands of Bank and Train Robbers Who Terrorized the Prairie Towns of Missouri, Kansas, Indian Territory, and Oklahoma for Half a Century. Bramhall House, New York, 1964.

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