Hear about a new work of fiction by author Jana Bommersbach, a story based on the only woman ever lynched as a cattle rustler. Bommersbach will discuss her book, “Cattle Kate.”
Ted Simons: Jana Bommersbach is out with a new book. This one is a novel, and it's based on the life of Ella Watson, a woman lynched for cattle rustling in the Wyoming territory in 1889. But Ella Watson was no cattle Rustler. Her only mistake was getting on the wrong side of powerful cattlemen over land and water rights. On the 125th anniversary of the lynching, Ella Watson's story gets another look by local writer Jana Bommersbach in the novel "cattle Kate," and joining us is Jana Bommersbach. I think we can call you jana. Who was cattle kate.
Jana Bommersbach: There never was a Cattle Kate. Cattle Kate was a fictitious person created by the cattlemen at the Cheyenne daily newspapers to cover up for a crime. No woman had been lynched in the nation as a cattle Rustler, and here they had lynched a woman and her husband, but because she was -- there was a woman lynched, they had to figure out a way to make her so detestable that nobody would care that they had killed a woman. So, they created the legend of cattle Kate. She was a dirty Rustler and filthy whore, and this was justice, and she was terrible and the queen of the Sweetwater had this huge range of rustling, all of which was fictitious, but for a century, history bought that story.
Ted Simons: If history bought that story because apparently, not long after this incident happened, the media, such as it was back in those days, very much in line with the power brokers.
Jana Bommersbach: Very much. The only information that came out of the territory, the Wyoming territory, 1889, the only information that ever came out of the territories, came from the major dailies, and in this case, it was Cheyenne, and it was the two major dailies there. That's when the upi and Associated Press ran stories around the nation and world, so the stories that these papers are feeding them with, the only version of the story they ever got. Now, interestingly we discovered that all of the frontier papers in the smaller towns were trying to tell the true story, but nobody was paying attention to them. So, the people in those little towns, they knew what was going on, but they had no power to do anything. Plus, the people who were involved in this, the witnesses and the people who were Ella and Jim's friends, they either died, were murdered, or disappeared, so people learned quickly, let's not get our feet -- we don't have a dog in this fight. We need to stay out of it.
Ted Simons: So what was Ella Watson, not cattle kate?
Jana Bommersbach: And that was something that I was after, who was this woman who was branded this way? Her name was Ella Watson, she was 29. She was a homesteader, one of the few female homesteaders in any of the territories in 1889. She had a homestead claim, a legitimate claim of 160 acres along a creek. She was -- she wanted to be a citizen, had applied for citizenship because she was Canadian born. She immigrated to Kansas with her family and came west by herself. That was another clue about what kind of woman this was because most women went west with their husbands or fathers or their brothers. She went west by herself and created her own life, worked for a while at a major hotel in Rollins, Wyoming territory, and met this Jim avril man, who she would eventually marry and got the claim. He had a claim next to hers. She got a branding iron by hook and crook because the cattlemen who controlled it didn't want her to have one but she figured out how to get one. She had cattle that she had bought and that she was keeping in a corral, trying to be a citizen. She was raising a young boy. She was creating a life, and that's the woman that I discovered that I found so amazing. At first I thought I would write about a great injustice, but I was not. I was writing about a true life woman who was one of those strong western pioneer women that history has, basically, ignored.
Ted Simons: She was a strong western pioneering woman who got this 160 acres, and she wasn't married, so they could get 160 acres for him and then combine them when they married, correct?
Jana Bommersbach: Well, after they were proved up. If they married it would go to the man. The way the laws were written, the head of household could have the claim so if she married this man publicly, then he would take the land. It would be his land. She wanted her own land, so they went away and got secretly married but didn't tell anybody, so after five years, when this is my legal land, then we can tell people that we're married.
Ted Simons: But that land is the sticking point here. Talk to me about who this A.J. Bothwell was.
Jana Bommersbach: The neighbor next door. He was the guy who was -- he thought that he was the King of the sweetwater valley, the best guy in the world. He could do whatever he wanted to do. This guy was notorious for breaking the law at any given time. He would put up fences where there could not be fences. He would claim land that he had no right to. He just thought that he owned the world, and when little Ella puts her claim down there on the horse creek, that was land that he had used as pasture land, and it was the land he used it to get to the creek, so all of a sudden, she and her husband owned the rights to the creek, and this guy is like getting like where's my water coming from? I need that water. He tried to scare them out and tries to burn them out and tries to romance her out of the land and tries to be sweet and say listen, why don't I just pay off -- I will buy the land outright, and you can pay me back. He tried every scam he could think of, and when he couldn't find any, he murdered her.
Ted Simons: He murders her but how does he justify this? I imagine that -- obviously, there was a story that she ruffled cattle. How did they work that out?
Jana Bommersbach: They just declared it. They said she was the cattle Rustler, and we need to take care of these rustlers because we are getting ruffled to death. This whole -- we cannot -- the judges won't convict people who are Rustlers, and those homesteaders are moving in. And the thing was, that the cattlemen were making up these incredible rustling stories because the cattle industry was dying. And they were losing -- they were losing lots of money. Their investors back East, they wanted to know why they were losing money. We're being ruffled to death. So, a lot of what their claim of the great rustling of the western cattle was fictitious. But they used that excuse that she was a Rustler. They hated the homesteaders. This was a time when the open range, the cattlemen, is disappearing and the hopes they are moving in with their plots of land and breaking up the big expanses of land that they needed for their cattle to run all over the place and eat free. So that whole conflict, Ella and Jim were in the middle of that.
Ted Simons: And they wind up lynched, and we wind up hearing the story from the cattlemen's side for a long time. So, what happened to that land? Did Bothwell get it?
Jana Bommersbach: Yes.
Ted Simons: So the bad guy won?
Jana Bommersbach: Yes! The bad guy won. He stayed in that valley for the next 26 years. He took over their property. He used Ella's house that she had built as his ice house. He became the postmaster instead of the man that he had lynched, who was the postmaster at a road house. He took over that job. That, and he never once ever showed any remorse for what had happened. Most of the others, there were six lynchers, and most of the others moved away because they were so chagrined at how the public treated them because they were absolutely shunned, and they were -- the public reacted to those murders by, by calling them names, and being mean, and, you know and trying to disgrace them, except him. He did not care. He just carried on his own way.
Ted Simons: You are doing research, you are in Wyoming for a spell here. How did they look at this story now in Wyoming, and are there bothwells roaming around who not too happy about you resurrecting this story?
Jana Bommersbach: He would die in L.A., and I don't know, there are people around in that valley who, in fact, were part of the whole lynching situation. They don't like this story at all. They would like to believe that she really was a Rustler and that she really was a bad person and that there was some justification. But, virtually, every historian who has looked at this case, and there are plenty from Wyoming, and that's where you look. You look to the people who understand that culture. You look to the people who live there, who have a stake there, you know. They do have a dog in this fight. They want to know what really happened, and there are still those in Wyoming who want to believe that Ella Watson was a terrible woman and deserved what she got, but leadership every historian there living now is saying to them, this was a total horrible miscarriage of Justice.
Ted Simons: Hearing the story, I think, Al creek bridge, I think of the big bomb, the characters were in. The story has been out there in so many different ways. You have taken a story and written it as a novel. Why a novel?
Jana Bommersbach: Because I wanted Ella to tell her story. The way this whole thing happened is I had known about this. I write for the magazine, as you know. I'd been writing about the women of the west, and one of the profiles I did when I realized there was problems with the way that this history had told the story, was about Ella Watson, and ever since then, I have been wanting to know more and more about it. I was reading a historical novel on my mother's patio in 2009, and all of a sudden I thought I heard the words, I never thought I would die like that, and I went, that's what Ella would have said. She needs to tell the story. She's the person that they erased. This is the person, the human blood person that was erased. She needs to be able to stand up straight and tall and tell her story on what happened to her, and so, it seemed that doing it historical novel would give me a chance to bring life and breathe to this legend.
Ted Simons: You have written books, obviously, when you were a judge, the non fiction books, and you now have this novel, compare and contrast?
Jana Bommersbach: I love historical novels because it satisfies my journalistic credentials for all the research, and what I did in this book, is that this is really in three parts. The first part Ella tells her story, the second partis a third person how they create the legend, and the third part is the facts of the matter, where every chapter there is end notes that tells you what happened. The real story, and the chapter and verse of where I got information from. So you can track the accuracy and the historical truth of the story. So, that part of my journalistic thing is satisfied with that, but being able to bring breath and life to the characters. You are not just reading facts and figures but personalities, and you deduce what you can from the evidence that you can find.
Ted Simons: And yet, my last question here, as far as you know, a lot of novel writers, fiction writers will say the character surprised me. The character is doing things that I did not expect. How can you have her surprise you? You know it will happen.
Jana Bommersbach: You know it will happen, and from the beginning of the book, you know what will happen. This woman will be lynched. The fact it starts off as she has a rope around her neck, and she talks about this can't be happening. How can I be hanged? This is wrong. And you go through her life. The thing that was so amazing, I love the line when you said 125 years of her anniversary of her murder, now, we get to hear her story. Well, I wrote that -- a sentence like that in a promotion piece I did, and I put period, and I would be done, and then my fingers typed, if Ella could, she would have said, it's about time.
Ted Simons: It is about time. Great effort. Congratulations on this, and thank you very much for stopping by. We appreciate it.
Jana Bommersbach: Thank you.
Jana Bommersbach:Author, "Cattle Kate";