c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins
It is certain that, in its prime, the Cripple Creek District in Colorado had its share of criminals. From the local Crumley and General Jack Smith Gangs to such notorious notables as Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, the district saw more than just a few outlaws pass through. More often than not, the more wicked of the District’s transient population often went unnoticed until some unfortunate incident brought their identities to light. In the interim, the good citizens of the District did their best to keep the scourge of society out. Such was the case with Bob Ford, killer of the notorious outlaw Jesse James.
Bob Ford was only nineteen years old when he made his place in history by killing James. At the time of his death, 34-year-old Jesse Woodson James had murdered upwards of sixteen men and taken $250,000 in cash, gold and jewelry from banks and stages across the Midwest. There was a $10,000 price on his head, but legend has it that Jesse was trying to go straight under the alias of Thomas Howard when death came. Ford was a guest of Jesse’s at his home in Missouri at the time. He was also allegedly Jesse’s first cousin, recruited to assist in Jesse’s last robbery before he turned from his life of crime.
The story goes that on April 3 of 1882, Jesse noticed a crooked picture on the wall and stepped upon a chair to straighten it. Bob Ford, the gleam of a $10,000 reward in his eye, took advantage of Jesse’s unguarded move. A single shot through the back of Jesse’s head did him in. Next Ford surrendered to local authorities, was tried, convicted, and pardoned immediately by Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden.
Even now, certain historians and would-be relatives of James claim Jesse didn’t die at Bob Ford’s hands. But at the time, America believed him dead. And, no matter how bad the outlaw, the wild West’s code against shooting a man in the back prevailed. Besides, Jesse James had been respected and admired despite his outlaw status. Ford received less than a heroes’ welcome, especially when he began touring and giving lectures on the incident. He was often booed from the stage and nearly lynched more than once.
For several years following the killing, Bob Ford roamed the country. History is scarce as to exactly where he went and what he did. No doubt, Ford had trouble shaking his reputation as a yellow coward. Eventually he landed in Colorado City, that wild and woolly place just west of Colorado Springs. In 1889, Bob was dealing Faro at the Crystal Palace. He also worked for Colorado City’s notorious madam, Laura Bell McDaniel, and at the Nickel Plate Saloon.
The unwelcome reception Ford had received in other places eventually echoed in Colorado City. In December of 1891, he was arrested for gambling. It was likely this incident that inspired him to seek greener pastures once more. This time, he decided to try his luck in Cripple Creek. The District was just starting to roll with one of the nation’s last—and most productive—gold booms.
What Ford didn’t know was that Cripple Creek authorities were very aware of his presence in Colorado City. Someone must have tipped them off about his plans to invade Cripple Creek, for when Ford reached the fair city he was met by Sheriff Hi Wilson. Exactly what Wilson said to him is lost to history, but the conversation was enough to convince Ford that Cripple Creek wasn’t his kind of place.
On February 3 of 1892, the Colorado City Iris announced Ford had gone to try his luck in Creede. Success came easier there, and Ford soon found himself officiating prize fights and even running a dance hall and brothel out of a tent. Ironically enough, Ford’s newfound happiness was deterred briefly by a rumor that he had been killed in Creede shortly after he departed Colorado City. The killer was thought to be Billy Meyer, with whom Ford had quarreled before leaving town.
That fateful rumor would soon ring truer than anyone realized. By April Ford had managed to make several more enemies in Creede. The newspaper there reported him dealing Faro but staying “out of the range of any window…” Furthermore, the paper stated, Ford “keeps a restless eye on the crowd about him, while ever near him lies the gun with which he brought down by a shot from behind, the much-feared Missouri Outlaw.”
Before long, Ford was run out of Creede and returned to Colorado City once more. But he wasn’t any more welcome there than before, and soon departed for Creede again. By June he was back at his dance hall tent in Creede. Ed O’Kelley was waiting for him. A former deputy sheriff from Pueblo, O’Kelley was one of hundreds who didn’t like Ford. Their relationship was especially strained after some incident in Pueblo, perhaps a gambling debt. On June 8, according to most accounts, Kelley walked into Ford’s, said “Hello, Bob!” and fired off two sawed off shotguns a mere five feet from Ford’s throat.
Accounts vary as to whether O’Kelley actually shot Ford in the back. But other facts are certain: O’Kelley received a life sentence, was paroled in 1902, only to be killed in a scuffle with Oklahoma City police in 1904.
That was the end of the Bob Ford saga. The bar behind which he was shot was sold to a saloon keeper in the Colorado town of Spar City, now a long gone ghost town. Later, Ford’s body was said to have been moved from Creede to the family plot in Richmond, Missouri. Creede went on to claim its own fame as the death place of Bob Ford, and the answer to what would have happened if Sheriff Wilson had let Bob into Cripple Creek will never be known.
“The dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard”, Bob Ford.