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10 Unsettling Unsolved Mysteries from the Old West
There’s a lot we don’t know about the Old West. Records were hit-or-miss when the frontier was being settled in the 19th century. We can’t exactly go back in time and ask then-residents of pioneer towns what their lives were like. And there’s certainly no video replay to roll back on how the West was won.
Of course, journalists of the era documented major events well, all things considered. In larger frontier settlements, it was common to see several competing newspapers pop up to track the town’s happenings. But plenty of things were still missed.
This list takes a deep dive into a few fascinating unsolved issues from the olden days of the Wild West. So here are ten confusing, unsettling, and unsolved mysteries from America’s frontier days. Considering these events all happened more than a century ago, it’s likely they will never be solved.
10 Belle Starr
Belle Starr was known during her life as the “Bandit Queen.” In the 1870s and 1880s, she was a renowned horse thief and highway robber operating across Oklahoma. During her heyday, she was linked romantically with a string of male bandits, too. Starr courted the likes of Jim Reed, Cole Younger, Jim July, and Sam Starr—from whom she took her memorable last name—during her fiery life.
In addition, she served several stints in prison for her thieving ways. And for much of her life, she was on the run from various law enforcement agencies. She even kept up her outlaw ways while bearing and raising children. It was very rare at the time for a woman to be so involved in crime. But Belle didn’t care much for gender roles; she just wanted the loot.
And then, on February 3, 1889, it all ended in a muzzle flash. On that day, Belle was gunned down in a tiny Oklahoma town by an unknown assailant. There were plenty of suspects. She had stolen horses, robbed wagon trains, and held up general stores throughout Oklahoma, North Texas, and Arkansas. So there was no shortage of people who might have it in for her.
But one, in particular, stood out: former lover Jim July. July was “particularly stormy,” as historians would later note. His relationship with Belle was nasty, too. The pair constantly fought while together and even sniped at each other after splitting up. Things got so bad that July supposedly once offered a man money to kill his nasty ex.
On the day of Belle’s death, she had been set to accompany July to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to face charges of horse stealing. The pair was supposed to turn themselves in to the authorities. But along the way, something happened. Belle supposedly turned back before the couple got to Fort Smith, apparently not wanting to go through with the deal. Then, on a rural road, with no witnesses around, she was shot and killed. One newspaper report claimed she was “shot in the back over 60 times.” That’s almost certainly not true, but the vicious death was notable nonetheless.
After being shot, some reports claim Belle made it back to a farmhouse. She was too far gone to be saved, though, and she died soon after. Starr’s death was big news in the region. She was a well-known and unpredictable miscreant. She made plenty of enemies around town, too, from all her neighbors to the local sheriff.
Almost immediately, July was suspected of the crime. But then another possible assailant came forward: a neighbor named Watson with whom Belle had been in a long dispute. The sheriff liked Watson for the crime and put him on trial, but the charges didn’t stick. He was acquitted, July was never tried, and Starr’s murder has never been solved.
9 Etta Place
One of the more popular unsolved legends of the Old West is the question of what happened to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Did their lives really end as the tale goes? Did they die in Bolivia? But there’s another mystery related to them that doesn’t get covered: whatever happened to Etta Place?
She was the pair’s longtime companion and shrouded in her own mystique. Etta Place was almost certainly not her real name, in fact. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was the era’s smartest law enforcement organization, and even they were clueless about her true identity. “Classic good looks, 27 or 28 years old, 5’4″ to 5’5″ in height, weighing between 110 and 115 pounds, with a medium build and brown hair,” was how they once described her. That’s not exactly a detailed (or unique) characterization.
In life, Place—or whatever her name was—loved the Sundance Kid. She loved him so much that she supposedly went with him to South America, as legend would have it. And she certainly accompanied them during their years of highway robberies and stick-ups. While Cassidy and Sundance terrorized the West, Place was right there for the bank robberies and armed confrontations.
Initially, historians believed she was killed alongside them in Bolivia by armed soldiers. But that may not be the case. Etta was undoubtedly seen in San Francisco in 1905 alongside Sundance. But while it was his final time there, it apparently wasn’t hers. Historians now think Place was back in San Francisco four years later, in 1909—a year after the Sundance Kid was killed.
Supposedly, Place was there trying to find “documents declaring Sundance dead.” She wasn’t successful in the endeavor, and then she slipped out of sight. Nothing is known about Place’s true identity or the rest of her life beyond that final observation.
8 The Servant Girl Annihilator
It seems like most serial killers came about in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. California was filled with them at the time. But, of course, serial murder had taken place long before that. Just ask London’s East Enders how they felt about Jack the Ripper in the 1880s. The Old West had a handful of serial killers operating with impunity, too.
In 1885 and 1886, the city of Austin, Texas, was paralyzed with fear as a repeat killer went uncaught. Eight different girls and young women were brutally murdered in those two years. Six of the victims were African American, and most were “servant girls” working domestic labor jobs for rich families. Soon, local newspaper reporters came up with a grisly and memorable name for the killer: the Servant Girl Annihilator.
The murders started as violent attacks. In July, August, and November of 1885, three women were gravely assaulted—but survived. Then, in December, a woman named Mollie Smith was murdered. Her body was horrifically mutilated and left next to an outhouse. Then other girls and women started turning up.
One victim named Eliza Shelly was found dead with her “head almost completely split.” Others were felled by knives and rocks, and one even died after being beaten with an iron. The attacks and deaths were piling up, and it was impossible for the media not to take notice. A reporter at the local newspaper, the Austin-American Statesman, lamented how “the heart sickens at these repeated details of horrid, merciless crime.”
Through the tumultuous period, other women were killed in servants’ quarters and back alleys across town. One 11-year-old girl named Mary Ramey was brutally murdered, prompting a massive public outcry. By the end of 1885, the killer had moved on from targeting only domestic servants. Two other women—Sue Hancock and Eula Phillips—were killed on Christmas Eve.
Then, a (potential) break in the case. In February of 1886, Austin cops killed a man named Nathan Elgin. They had been responding to reports of an assault when they found him beating a barmaid to death. In the course of his attack, cops killed him, too. Elgin was never definitively linked to the Servant Girl Annihilator murders. But after his death, the attacks completely stopped. Could he have been the infamous killer?
Surprised to see Bigfoot on this list? He (or she) is not just a phenomenon of the modern wilderness, after all. Tales about the supposed hairy ape-man roaming through the forests of the American West have been around for hundreds of years. Native tribes from across the Pacific Northwest have handed down stories of a supposed “Sasquatch” beast for centuries. Even before settlers moved west to lay claim to land, Bigfoot was a known entity apparently living outside of human contact.
By the 1800s, there were semi-regular reports of Bigfoot in frontier newspapers. One newspaper boldly claimed the unexplored forests of the Pacific Northwest were “brimming with giant wild men, and wood apes.” Accounts documented his supposed size, the (alleged) fact that he was known to walk upright, and even a detail about how he supposedly smelled awful. One old report from Spokane called him the “Bad Smelling Tree Man.”
In Oregon, Bigfoot was becoming a big story by the end of the 19th century. In 1865, a man named George Gibbs began recording Native American tales about the beast. Some settlers discounted the stories as mere myths from indigenous groups. But at the turn of the 20th century, “official” sightings of the hairy man-beast started to come up, too.
Ever since, Bigfoot’s legend has grown to become what it is today. It may very well be a tall tale, of course. But the conspiracy certainly isn’t some modern-day creation. Bigfoot was known to natives and settlers alike in the days of the Wild West.
6 Kate Arnold
It was a big deal when the Sheridan Inn opened for business in 1893. The hotel, which was opened in the frontier town of Sheridan, Wyoming, boasted that they actually offered electricity! In the West before the turn of the 20th century, that was a major move. The inn spared no expense to promote it, either.
On its opening day, its owners brought Buffalo Bill Cody out for a special appearance. He liked the place so much that he bought it a year later. Then, in 1901, Cody sold the inn to another new owner. That new stakeholder hired a desk clerk named Catherine “Miss Kate” Arnold to help run the hotel. Kate did a little bit of everything, along with clerking. She was a talented seamstress, helped with housekeeping, and even babysat children for guests. By all accounts, she loved her job.
The Sheridan Inn was well-known at the time as one of the last Old West-style establishments available to American tourists. Wyoming was being pushed quickly into modernity, but the hotel resisted as well as it could. For the next half-century, a host of celebrities stayed on the old-school property. Kate met the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Will Rogers, and even President Herbert Hoover as part of her gig.
Unbelievably, she worked for the Sheridan Inn all the way until 1965, when it was shuttered. Developers wanted to tear the building down and put up new housing. Thankfully, Arnold and others were able to resist them. The inn was backed by the Sheridan Historical Society, restored, and returned to its Wild West glory.
But here’s where things get really weird. When Kate Arnold died three years later, in 1968, she had one request: to have her ashes interred inside the wall of her room. For decades, she had lived in room 306 while working at the inn. And her request was honored upon her passing.
The inn still stands now, and visitors can still spend the night. You can even stay in room 306, where—it is claimed—Arnold’s spirit still resides. Her body may have left this earth nearly sixty years ago, but her benevolent ghost may still be in the Sheridan Inn. Considering how long she worked at the Old West property, her departed soul remains the last connection Sheridan has to its frontier founding. If you believe in ghost stories, that is!
5 Black Jack Ketchum
Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum was involved in all kinds of shady dealings in his violent life. His brother Sam Ketchum was an Old West outlaw, too, and once claimed he and Black Jack killed multiple men across New Mexico. Black Jack was a bit quieter about his alleged involvement in robbery and murder. But the court records of the day indicate he was a very violent man.
During the late 1890s, he was found guilty of several murders from his days on the road. He was sentenced to hang in 1901 and died at the hands of the law that year in a small New Mexico town. But Black Jack’s murder spree isn’t really the focus here; his guilt is unquestionable—at least far as the courts are concerned.
Instead, Black Jack’s unsolved angle centers on allegedly lost loot. A few years before he died, the criminal was said to have “buried a large treasure” in the rural Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona. One historian claims the outlaw “stashed several thousand dollars” in a cave high up in a remote mountain pass. Several thousand bucks was a nearly inconceivable amount of money back then.
Even today, it’s quite a bit! So it shouldn’t surprise you to learn treasure hunters throughout the years have gone out in the desert looking for caves and crannies. The trek is so popular now that fortune seekers refer to the cave where Black Jack hid his alleged riches as “Room Forty-Four.”
There’s a second tall tale about Black Jack, too. Ketchum and his brother had allegedly robbed a group of travelers in Gila County one day in the late 1890s. They stole thousands more dollars in that raid, prompting a sheriff’s posse to form. When the cops started tracking the proverbial robbers, Black Jack got a crazy idea. Instead of running away and hoping the posse wouldn’t catch up, he’d hide out. Uh, up, I mean.
Ketchum got himself a rope and tied $4,000 in cash to various parts of his body. Then, he lassoed the rope to a high tree branch and pulled himself upward. For four days, he supposedly hid out high in the tree while the posse ran by underneath him. When he felt they had gotten far enough away, he came back down with the money in hand. Knowing he didn’t have long before they’d be back, Black Jack again stashed the stolen loot—this time in a second mountain gap. To this day, neither ill-gotten fortune has ever been found.
4 The Crater Lake Cabin
In 1853, a pair of brothers named James and Henry Wilson were part of a prospecting group in the gold rush town of Jacksonville, Oregon. One of the prospectors was killed by Native Americans during a raid, forcing the brothers to move camp. They trudged high into the mountains outside Jacksonville, looking for a place to settle.
After a few weeks, they came to a valley surrounded by steep, high cliffs. They built a cabin and dug in for the long haul. Soon, the Wilson boys discovered gold nuggets in a tiny creek bed. They thought they hit it big with the find, but they were still worried about Indian raiders. So, as they came upon even more gold, they started hoarding it in the makeshift cabin. They dug a deep hole inside the floor, lined it with rocks, stashed all their gold, and re-buried the loot.
By then, it was time to go back to civilization and alert others. There was just one problem: the Native Americans were still looking to forcibly remove the brothers from their land. Before James and Henry could go back down the mountain, Henry was killed. James managed to escape, and he eventually made his way into California. However, he was very sick by that point.
On his deathbed, he told his cousin Ted Harper about the hidden gold. The area near Jacksonville was still full of hostile tribes, so Harper chose to bide his time. He knew if he waited long enough, he could go up there safely and track down all the gold stores.
Fifteen years later, Harper did just that. He brought along a friend named Sam Simpson on the trip. The pair found the cabin exactly where James told him it would be. Inside the cabin—which had been burned out by a local tribe—they came across Henry’s grisly remains.
But before they could dig for the gold down below, tragedy struck once more. Harper slipped while holding his gun and accidentally shot himself. He died instantly, leaving a now-shaken Simpson alone in the wilderness. Simpson was too distraught to dig, and he went home without ever finding the treasure.
But the mystery doesn’t even end there! A few months after Harper and Simpson’s ill-fated treasure trip, another group of men tried to find the hidden stash. They couldn’t relocate the cabin during their trip into the wilderness. But they did find something else: Crater Lake. The deepest lake in America had been completely unknown to settlers until that unexpected discovery.
Today, it’s one of Oregon’s most unique and beautiful tourist destinations. And it was found because of the unsuccessful efforts of three different groups of gold hounds. All that treasure is still said to be out there, too…
3 May Prescott
Residents in Flagstaff, Arizona, called the police one day in 1916 after an awful odor started wafting down their street. Cops responded and found the cause: two bodies decomposing in a home. The pair was madam May Prescott and her husband, Fred. They were both in the same bedroom and had been dead for days.
Fred’s throat had been slashed so thoroughly that he was nearly decapitated. He had also been stabbed several times and shot in the head. May’s throat was slashed, too, and she had two bullet holes in her lifeless body. The bedroom had been set on fire after the murders as well.
In his hand, Fred held a gun. There was one bullet in the chamber. A note had been left at the scene. It was supposedly from Fred. It claimed he’d been arguing with May before shooting her and then himself. Murder-suicides have been known to happen, of course, so cops weren’t unprepared for the claim. But the facts didn’t make sense. After all, how could Fred’s throat have been slashed clean off along with bullet wounds? And who would have set the bedroom on fire after the killings if the two supposedly involved in the domestic dispute were already dead?
Police were skeptical that the note was written by Fred, but they had little else to go on. May’s job as a madam presiding over a den of working girls didn’t help matters. When accounting for the rogue western town’s shady underworld, nearly anything could have happened. For more than a month, the case sat unsolved as the coroner tried to crack it.
After poring over mountains of evidence over several weeks, he took the case before a grand jury. That body had little more to offer than what was already suspected by police. Ultimately, the conclusion came back that the pair were murdered by “knife and gunshot wounds caused by the hands of unknown party or parties.” The case has never been solved.
2 Al Schlesinger
Colorado became a state in 1876. Just months into its official entry into statehood, it offered up one of the Old West’s most bizarre still-unsolved capers. It was September of that year when a well-known doctor in Colorado Springs named S.E. Sally started receiving strange letters. The letters were from a man who signed his name as Alfred Schlesinger. He identified himself as the office secretary for William Jackson Palmer—the mega-rich founder of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad.
Schlesinger, who was from Britain, had worked as Palmer’s assistant for much of the year. But something happened, the letters explained, and young Al had to travel to a ranch outside Colorado Springs to settle a dispute. In the letters, the 19-year-old asked Dr. Sally to find his body if he didn’t return by a certain day.
When Schlesinger didn’t turn up at the appointed time, Dr. Sally and some others did exactly that. At the ranch roughly 15 miles outside town, they found Schlesinger lying face down in a pool of blood. There was a pistol next to his body and a white handkerchief. When the doctor turned the body over, they found Schlesinger had been shot clean through the heart. A closer look at the surrounding area showed a line drawn in the sand. It appeared Schlesinger died in a duel.
That was probable, considering the tone of his pre-death letters. Al had even written in one letter that he would reveal his duel opponent to the world—if he were to live. He didn’t, though, and so no reveal took place. Schlesinger’s bizarre murder made headlines all over the country for a time, but it was never solved. To this day, it remains one of the strangest and least-documented mysteries in frontier history.
1 Pearl Hart
Pearl Hart was a Canadian woman who went to finishing school as a teenager and appeared to be on life’s proper track. But something detoured her along the way, and as a young woman, she caught on with a bad crowd. She hooked up with known gambler Fred Hart when she was just 17 years old. The pair had two children, but the relationship was bad.
In 1898, sick of family life, Fred beat Pearl nearly to death and ditched the family. Months later, after recovering, Pearl met another man named Joe Boot. She and Boot went on a year-long robbery spree across Arizona. Most notably, they committed one of the very last roadside stagecoach robberies ever documented in the history of the American West.
When a posse tracked them down, their story made big headlines for one reason: Hart had cut her hair and was dressed as a man to help rob and plunder. A local sheriff in a rural Arizona county reported that Boot surrendered quietly when the pair was captured. Hart fought back, though, and had to be taken to jail by force.
When the media got wind of Pearl Hart’s gender-bending dress and robbery habits, her story was printed all across the country. The idea of a prim and proper woman cutting her hair, putting on men’s clothes, and pulling pistols on stagecoach riders was a tantalizing tale in the very final days of the Old West.
But here’s where the mystery part gets really good: After being jailed for the stagecoach setup, Hart simply vanished. Boot got 30 years for his troubles, but Hart was out after just a handful. As soon as she walked out of jail, she might as well have gone up in thin air. For a brief time after her 1902 pardon, Hart tried to sell a one-man (uh, woman) performance recounting her days of banditry. The public didn’t care much for that, though.
Then, after an arrest on a minor charge in 1904, she wasn’t definitely heard from again. One small-town resident in Arizona claimed to have seen her in 1924. A census taker in 1940 alleged she was living peacefully under an assumed name. Historians think she died in the 1950s or 1960s, but no one is certain. Despite her larger-than-life outlaw persona, Hart’s later life remains a strange black hole.