Wild Women Of The West: Laura Bullion


The Great Northern Railway Coast Flyer No. 3 pulled away from the train depot in Malta, Montana, at 11:45 P.M. on July 3, 1901.  Malta was a typical cowtown with a broad, rutted lane of brown dust running between a double row of false-fronted, framed buildings.  Horses, their tails swishing idly at buzzing flies, stood hipshot at the hitchracks that lined the front of every store.  The Flyer was headed west to Wagner, Montana, a slightly bigger cowtown that greatly resembled Malta right down to the flies.

Among the passengers traveling to Wagner was train robber Ben “Blackie” Kilpatrick.  Kilpatrick was a member of outlaw Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.  Two additional Wild Bunch gang members were making the trip with Kilpatrick: Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan and O. C. Hanks.  Thomas Jones, the train’s engineer, brought the vehicle to a sudden halt less than six miles east of Wagner.  Logan had a revolver leveled at his head encouraging him to stop the train.  The gunman had snuck aboard the tender car* and onto the engine cab.  The Flyer’s fireman*, Mike O’Neill, was with the engineer when he was overtaken, and neither man dared move with a gun pointed at them.

Logan motioned for O’Neill to disembark the train and uncouple the baggage and express cars from the passenger cars.  He reluctantly complied.  While the engineer was following orders, a rancher named John Cunningham noticed the peculiar display and spurred his horse toward the scene for a better look.  Recognizing the train was being robbed, he jerked his roan in the direction of Malta, and the animal started to run.  Kilpatrick, who had jumped off the passenger car, shot at the rancher, knocking his horse out from under him.  John Cunningham quickly picked himself up and began running in the direction of the cowtown.  A few curious onlookers dared to lean their heads out the windows of the car to witness the action.  Kilpatrick fired at them and warned them to remain in their seats.  No one evinced a desire to disobey the order.  A brakeman named Woodside and a traveling auditor refused to comply with the outlaw’s orders, and both were shot through the shoulder.

The three bandits made their way to the express car and demanded the mail clerk and express messenger guarding the cargo inside to step away from the safe.  

According to the July 4, 1901, edition of the Great Falls Tribune, the robbers then “proceeded to blow open the large safe and secured a booty estimated at $50,000.”  The man with the dynamite was identified as Ben Kilpatrick.  The article noted that a fourth bandit was waiting near the location where the train came to rest.  That individual, dressed in trousers, work shirt, boots, and duster had possession of the explosives used in the crime and provided the horses the outlaws used to escape.

Several months after the holdup occurred, law enforcement agents discovered the fourth accomplice was actually a woman disguised as a man. Laura Bullion, a twenty-five-year-old prostitute from Texas, was Kilpatrick’s lover and co-conspirator.

By ten o’clock in the evening of the train robbery, a posse had been dispatched from Malta to track down the bandits and arrest them. Law enforcement believed the gang was traveling southwest through the Missouri Breaks.

Several days after the robbery, an auditor for the Great Northern Express Railway informed authorities the exact amount of the loss by the hold-up was $41,500. All but $300 was currency sent from Washington to the Montana National Bank of Helena. The remaining money belonged to Great Northern Railway. The consignment to the Montana bank consisted of bank notes printed in sheets of $10 and $20 bills.  Only nine were signed by the president and cashier of the bank, but all could be readily passed without their signatures.

Executives at Great Northern Railway were informed of the identity of the men who robbed the express safe on July 10, 1901.  

Pinkerton detectives sent from the St. Paul, Minnesota, office were instrumental in determining the guilty parties. A spokesman for the railroad declined to give the names of the suspects to the press.  They preferred to wait until the Pinkertons had made an arrest. “If the Pinkertons are correct, the men are experienced hands and have held up trains on other roads,” a Great Northern Railway spokesperson told reporters.  

Officials at Great Northern Railway might not have wanted to divulge the culprits’ names, but the sheriff of Ramsey County, Minnesota, had no trouble sharing the identity of the train robbers and news of the $5,500 reward offered by the railroad for their capture. “The robbers are described as being George Parker, alias George Cassidy, alias ‘Butch’ Cassidy, alias Ingerfield; Harvey Logan, alias Harvey Curry, alias ‘Kid’ Curry, alias Bob Jones, alias Tom Jones; and Harry Longabaugh, alias Harry Alonzo,” the sheriff is quoted as saying in the July 27, 1901, edition of the Saint Paul Globe.  

“The circular provided to all law enforcement agencies gives in brief what is known of the criminal records of the three men, from which it appears that Cassidy is known in the states of Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and Nevada, and that he has served terms in Wyoming for grand larceny.  

“Logan is the one who murdered a man named Pike at Landusky, Montana, on December 25, 1894, and is a fugitive from justice.  He has since been implicated in a number of crimes, among them the robbery of a Union Pacific train at Wilcox, Wyoming.  

“Longabaugh has a long criminal record, and has, since he was a boy, been repeatedly arrested for horse stealing, robberies, and other crimes.  In 1892 he held up a Great Northern train with some other men near Malta, Montana, and although two of his confederates were apprehended and given long terms, he escaped, and has since been implicated in the robbery of a number of banks at Winnemucca, Nevada, and Belle Fourche, South Dakota.  For the last crime he was arrested, but escaped from jail at Deadwood on October 31, 1897.  

“The circular issued by Great Northern Railway states that included in the spoils of the Wagner raid was a package of $10,000 of incomplete currency lacking the signature of the president and cashier of the National Bank of Helena, Montana. The package consisted of 800 sheets, with four notes on each being three $10 and one $20 bills. They also took a similar package containing $500 intended for the American National Bank of Helena.”

The authorities were only partially right about who robbed the Great Northern Railway Flyer No. 3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were nowhere around when the crime was perpetrated, and no one suspected a woman had a hand in the theft.

The Pinkerton files from the early 1900s list Laura Bullion as a “consort of criminals.” She was born in Mertzon, Texas, on October 4, 1876, to parents with questionable morals. Her father, Ed, was a thief who tried his hand at robbing a train in December 1897, and her mother, Fereby Elizabeth Bullion, was a strumpet who preferred the company of a variety of bad men over her husband. Laura and her siblings were primarily raised by her mother’s parents, Elliot and Serena Byler, in Knickerbocker, Texas. The area of the Southwest where the teenage Laura was living was a hub of outlawry. The Bylers tried unsuccessfully to steer their granddaughter away from such an influence.  

Among the men of questionable character in and around Knickerbocker with whom Laura associated were Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum and his brother, Sam; Ben Kilpatrick; his brother George; and William “News” Carver, the latter of which was married to Laura’s aunt, Viana E. Blyer. When Laura left her family’s home, she headed to San Antonio. She took a job at a brothel owned and operated by Fannie Porter, and, using the name Della Rose, the young woman began entertaining clients.  

Porter’s bordello was a favorite location of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, alias Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh. The two leaders of the outlaw gang known as the Wild Bunch spent time with several of the women in Fannie’s employ. Ben Kilpatrick and William Carver, who joined the Wild Bunch in the late 1890s, were among those who frequented the establishment with Butch and Sundance. Will Carver took up with Laura. Viana had died shortly after she and Will married, and Laura’s similarities to her mother’s sister attracted the grieving widower.  

The soiled doves and the outlaws socialized outside the brothel.  Laura and the other girls who worked in the house proved themselves to be trustworthy with the identity of the men who visited them. They could keep a secret. Laura’s ability to keep a confidence was one of the qualities Ben Kilpatrick found appealing. When Will’s attention turned to another woman at Fannie’s, Ben seized the opportunity to be with Laura. She accompanied him to the Wild Bunch hideout, Hole-in-the-Wall, in northern Wyoming. Just how many robberies Laura assisted Kilpatrick with is not known. The only certainty is that she was an accomplice in the Great Northern Railway robbery near Wagner, Montana.  

Between July 1901, when the train was held up, and early November 1901, a number of posses were formed to track the train robbers. Law enforcement agents from Chouteau County, Montana, were so certain they would capture the outlaws they brought along a coroner and a handful of caskets. 

In early November 1901, stolen bank notes from the Wagner robbery began turning up in St. Louis, Missouri. Police in the city, along with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, managed to track the passing of the notes to Ben Kilpatrick. He had been residing at a hotel near the waterfront. He was taken into custody on November 5, 1901, and was uncooperative with authorities. He refused to identify himself or answer any questions.  While searching through his personal belongings, authorities found a key to a room at the Laclede Hotel. The following morning when the police were able to search the premises, they met Laura Bullion leaving the hotel room with a suitcase full of the forged bank notes. She was arrested on the spot.  

Like Kilpatrick, Laura refused to answer authorities’ queries.  According to the November 8, 1901, edition of The St. Louis Republic, law enforcement agents noted “it was like questioning the Sphinx.”  Superintendent Schumacher of the Pinkerton Detective Agency tried to get Laura to cooperate, but she merely yawned and pretended to fall asleep.  “The prisoner exuded silence and noninformation at every pore,” the St. Louis Republic article read, “and the amount of knowledge of her antecedents they did not acquire would fill so many volumes it would bankrupt Carnegie to house them.  She said less in more time than a Republican campaign orator.  She was impervious to the volley of questions hurled at her as a Republican organ to the truth about the state finances.  Chief William Desmond, chief of detective in St. Louis, was disappointed, but not disheartened, laid her away at midnight like an uncut volume of Browning.”

With neither Laura nor Kilpatrick willing to talk about the robbery or cooperate with authorities and give them the names of all those involved in the Wagner train holdup, detectives with the St. Louis Police Department decided to fill in the blanks themselves.  Chief Desmond requested the wanted circular issued by the Pinkerton Detective Agency that included a description of the bandits.  Given the description, the St. Louis Police said it was determined that Kilpatrick was indeed Harry Longabaugh.  After St. Louis detectives examined Laura’s belongings, they were convinced they had apprehended the notorious Sundance Kid.  Among her personal effects was a notebook in which she had written, “Harry Longbaugh [sic] black hair, steel grey eyes, very fair skin when not tanned by the sun.”  The man in custody resembled the description Laura gave.  For the authorities that was another confirmation they had one of the leaders of the Wild Bunch behind bars.  

Laura knew the Sundance Kid wasn’t in jail but continued with the charade when the police asked her about the journal on November 14, 1901.  “I have known the prisoner who is called Longbaugh [sic], since the latter part of April,” Laura told detectives.  “It was in Fort Worth, Texas, that I first met him.  Since that time, we have lived in various cities and have gone under different names in every place that we visited.  He had plenty of money, and I never asked him any questions as to where he got it.  He gave me the money that was in his possession when I was arrested.  I don’t know where he got it.  I don’t know anything about that Wagner robbery.”  

Laura admitted to forging the name of the cashier of the National Bank of Helena on the notes found in her possession.  She also admitted that the names she and her partner had registered under at the hotel were false.  The couple had registered as J. W. Rose and wife of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Laura went on to tell authorities that when she met the man they thought was the Sundance Kid, he introduced himself to her as Cunningham.  It wasn’t until she found a pocket dictionary in his coat with the name Harry Longabaugh written in the front page that she knew his true name. According to the November 15, 1902, edition of The San Angelo Press, Laura told Chief Desmond that when Cunningham gave her $7,000 in unsigned Helena National Bank notes, she was convinced that he was Longabaugh the train robber. She said she never mentioned her suspicions to Cunningham.

A picture of the man St. Louis Police believed was Longabaugh was circulated to various sheriff offices in the Southwest shortly after the initial arrests in the Wagner robbery were made. In mid-November 1901, a telegram was sent to Chief Desmond in St. Louis from Sheriff House in Concho, Texas, identifying the man in the picture as Ben Kilpatrick. Known by Sheriff House as the “Lone Texan,” Kilpatrick was wanted for killing a man.

“You are wanted for murder down there,” the chief reportedly asked the accused. “Now, whom did you kill?”

“I don’t remember having any trouble down there,” replied the prisoner.  Then he stopped talking.  

“The police were then convinced that the suspect was Ben Kilpatrick of Paintrock, Texas,” the November 16, 1901, edition of The Saint Paul Globe noted.  “A letter containing an authentic picture of Kilpatrick was received this afternoon from Sheriff House.  The likeness between the picture and the prisoner is unmistakable. When the photograph was shown to the prisoner, he was visibly agitated. He compressed his lips but did not say anything.

“Within ten minutes after the photograph was shown, a telegram was received, this one from R. B. Kirk, the sheriff of Billinger County, Texas, saying that the picture of the supposed Longabaugh had been positively identified there as that of Ben Kilpatrick.”

Laura Bullion became somewhat of a legend while waiting to be tried for her part in the Wagner train robbery. She was referred to in some newspapers as “astonishing” and “staggering.” She claimed she robbed trains for the “sheer pleasure of it” and because “she was a devoted wife helping her husband loot.”  An article in the December 12, 1901, edition of The Anaconda Standard called her “a remarkable woman criminal.”

“When the police of this city arrested Laura Bullion, or, as she is better known, Mrs. Della Rose, they captured one of the most remarkable woman criminals of whom there is any record,” the Anaconda Standard article read. “Mrs. Rose, as far as is known, is the only woman who ever assisted in a train robbery in this country.  Dressed in man’s attire, she helped her husband in the hold-up of a Great Northern train in Montana a few weeks ago and the theft of $85,000 in new and unsigned bank notes from the safe of the express car.  The woman’s husband, Harry Longabaugh, alias J. W. Rose also has a record as a daring and desperate criminal.

“Longabaugh, or Rose, and Mrs. Rose were arrested on the same day.  A reward of $6,500 had been offered for the arrest of any of the persons concerned in the robbery. It was not until after Mrs. Rose had been arrested that she was suspected of having actually taken part in the great train robbery. But certain admissions which she let slip at the time of her arrest aroused suspicion and a remarkable chain of circumstantial evidence is now being linked together against her. The robbery of the Great Northern express occurred three miles east of Wagner Station, Montana.  It was the work of three persons.”

The Anaconda Standard article contained a number of errors, not the least of which was the true identity of Laura’s cohort in crime. An article in the December 8, 1901, edition of The Inter Ocean also contained a number of inaccuracies. The report maintained that Laura was the lead gunman at the train robbery. “She was wearing a mask, but appeared to be in authority, was very energetic, and utterly reckless in life. She discharged bullets like a Mexican gun.” Laura took part in the crime, but never fired a weapon. The truth obviously wasn’t considered as exciting as the sensational version many newspapers decided to print.

Laura Bullion and Ben Kilpatrick’s trials were held in early December 1901. Ben was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years in prison in the state penitentiary at Jefferson City, Missouri. Laura was also found guilty and sentenced to five years at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution for Women.

The public’s fascination with the only woman to belong to the Wild Bunch continued long after Laura was incarcerated. The robberies in which she allegedly participated grew from one to six while she was living out her sentence. Readers were intrigued with a female train robber. “It’s hard for most to comprehend,” a story in the June 12, 1904, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted. “A woman dressed in men’s attire who assisted in the hard riding raids perpetrated by the outlaw gang from Wyoming.”

Since the train robbery in the summer of 1901, officials at Great Northern Railway had taken steps to prevent such a crime from occurring on future passages. In addition to adding more security onboard the vehicles, the rail line decided to add a posse car to the train. The car was able to accommodate several horses and law enforcement agents that could be dispatched at a moment’s notice. Other railroad lines such as the Union Pacific had already employed such measures for tracking gangs like the Wild Bunch in 1900. Great Northern Railway had been slow to add a posse car, and that’s the reason they were a target for the outlaws.  

Laura’s affection and devotion to Ben Kilpatrick only strengthened during her time behind bars. The two regularly corresponded, and she even became friends with Ben’s mother.  The two exchanged letters, and Mrs. Kilpatrick encouraged Laura to stay strong and focus on the future. In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Gazette in mid-September 1905, Laura shared what life had been like since she had been sentenced.

“Prison life is what the prisoners make it,” she told the newspaper reporter. “The officials do their best. The matron is kind, but prisoners are like so many children. They play the games of children, and to them each day is for itself. They forget things easily. It is no place for a young woman. There are some girls there, and it is hard to think of what they have learned.

“Women prisoners do not wear ugly uniforms as do the men.  Our dresses were made of checked goods and cut after a fashion that was probably the style when grandmother was a girl – the skirt plain and sewed to the waist, which is buttoned down the front. The skirt fastens at the side.  Some of the women who sew try to make their dresses look well but the garb is well known in the city.

“The only hard work is contract work – the making of overalls and shirts. As I was a federal prisoner, they could not make me do that. The women who were there for other offenses must do contract work. I like to do drawn work, that helps pass time.  Some of the women do beautiful fancy work.  

“We were permitted to write letters every Sunday and, when necessary, to write specials through the week. We received plenty of food, and it was usually good, but there was little variety.”

Laura explained she didn’t talk much in prison and that when she did speak she chose her words carefully. “I saved myself many difficulties by not talking much and carrying no tales,” she noted. “I was ignorant of a great many things when I went to prison. I know too much now. I knew the prairies then. I had traveled across Arizona and New Mexico, but I didn’t know the wickedness of the cities.”

Laura didn’t want anyone to get the impression she blamed Ben or her family for her downfall. “They tried to get me to say things in court about Ben, but I wouldn’t,” she explained.  “What good is a person if she can’t keep to herself that which she is told? Besides, I wouldn’t tell on him. I’d rather be sentenced. I trusted in people before I went to the penitentiary.  I don’t now. That’s what it has cost me. A woman can influence a man much. It was my fault that we came to St. Louis. I wanted to come; we came, and trouble resulted, but Ben never blamed me.”

Laura was released from prison in September 1905 and, shortly thereafter, traveled to St. Louis to meet with Assistant District Attorney Horace L. Dyer to plead for a reduction in sentence for Ben Kilpatrick. The attorney informed her she needed to petition President Roosevelt. He explained that her petition would then be turned over to the pardon attorney, and it would be returned to St. Louis for the approval of the U.S. District Attorney.

Laura thanked Assistant District Attorney Dyer for meeting with her and promised to follow the procedure he laid out for her. She informed Dyer that once she had completed the steps he suggested, she would go to Atlanta where Kilpatrick had been moved and was being held and wait to hear from the government about her request. She rented a room at a boarding house opposite the penitentiary under the name of Frieda Arnold.  

Ben Kilpatrick was released from prison on June 13, 1911, having served one-third of his sentence. The moment he left the gates of the Atlanta facility, he was greeted by Texas authorities who escorted him to Concho County to stand trial on a murder charge from 1897. Laura followed after Ben, determined to stand by him until the matter could be settled. The case against Kilpatrick was dismissed due to lack of evidence.  

On March 12, 1912, Ben Kilpatrick and another outlaw named E. Welch attempted to hold up the Southern Pacific train near Sanderson, Texas. Express messenger David Trousdale stopped the two train robbers before they could successfully complete the job. The train made an unscheduled stop at a bridge near the town of Eldridge. A fire had been built near the tracks where it was later believed a third bandit was waiting with horses so the trio could ride into the hills after the money had been stolen.

“The first we knew of the trouble was when the engineer knocked on the right hand door of our car, and we were ordered to get out and go up to the engine,” a second express messenger named J. K. Regan who was on the train explained in an article in the March 14, 1912, edition of the El Paso Herald. “We were covered with rifles by the two men, who had their heads covered with black cloths, and who made us climb on the engine while one of them poked his gun in the porter’s nose and made him uncouple the baggage car, mail car and engine from the remainder of the train.  

“We then ran about two miles west with the men covering the engineer to make him stop. When we stopped, one of the men made us go into the mail car and slit the sacks of mail so that they could get the valuable packages out. The man told us that he was going to make us help him get the stuff across the Mexican line. He made one of the mail clerks assist in opening the mail, although none of it was carried out of the car.  

“From the mail car he made us go into our own car. Like a fool, he walked in front of us and Trousdale was ahead of me. There was a wooden mallet in the corner of the car to the right of the end door through which we entered. It was used to break up ice for icing oysters in transit. Trousdale saw it and while the man had his back to him, he cracked him one with it over the head and proceeded to beat his brains out and spill them over the car floor.

“The lights in the car were out, and I went to turn them on. We then got in the far end of the car and waited for the other man to come. Trousdale was armed with the dead man’s rifle, and I had my gun, which was in the car. We sat there for more than an hour waiting for the man to come. I was on a pile of boxes higher up than Trousdale, who was near the door in the opposite end of the car from the place where he had brained the first man. Finally, the second robber came nosing through the door to see where his partner had gone. We both blazed away at him but Trousdale got him with the rifle, and he was a dead one.”

Both J. K. Regan and David Trousdale believe the third person waiting for the two bandits to return for their rides escaped into the hills after hearing the shots. Some speculated that Laura Bullion was the accomplice holding their horses, but there wasn’t any evidence to link her to the crime.

Where Laura Bullion disappeared to between 1912 and 1917 is unknown. She turned up in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1918 claiming to be a widow. She told people her husband, Maurice Lincoln, had been killed fighting overseas in World War I. The quiet woman found employment as a seamstress for various department stores.  

Laura Bullion, the last member of the West’s most notorious outlaw gang and the last known woman to ever help rob a train, died on December 2, 1961. She was laid to rest in Memphis Memorial Park Cemetery. She was eighty-five years old.  

*A tender or coal-car is a special rail vehicle hauled by a steam locomotive containing its fuel (wood, coal, or oil) and water.

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