Cherokee Bill’s wild life led to hanging

Jadon Gibson

There’s been added interest in Cherokee Bill who was twice sentenced to hang by the hanging judge, Isaac Parker. His real name was Crawford Goldsby, the son of an Alabama black man who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. The senior Goldsby was a Buffalo soldier, a name given to the black cavalrymen by the Indians with whom they fought. He had to flee from Alabama after returning from the war to keep from being hanged. Cherokee Bill’s mother was a mixture of Indian, African and white ancestors.

Cherokee Bill was born in 1876 and lived a short life, dying on the gallows at Fort Smith in 1896. His dad’s rough and tough life rubbed off on young Goldsby (Cherokee Bill). He could barely read and write even after attending an Indian school in Kansas for three years and an industrial school in Pennsylvania for two years.

At age eighteen he took up for his brother in a fight with Jake Lewis. Young Bill shot Lewis and thinking he was dead, fled Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, for the Creek and Seminole Indian nations. He met Jim and Bill Cook, two mixed blood Cherokees and joined their outlaw gang.

It wasn’t long before Cherokee Bill was in more trouble. Train conductor Samuel Collins tried to eject him from a train at Fort Gibson for not having a ticket. Bill shot and killed him, perhaps his first murder.

In early 1894 the United States government purchased a tract of Indian land and agreed to pay approximately $266 to each Indian with a legal claim to it. Goldsby and the Cook brothers were part Cherokee and they traveled to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, to claim their money. Goldsby was wanted for murder and the Cooks were also wanted so they had second thoughts about making their claim. They met up with Effie Crittenden, an acquaintance, and talked her into making the claim for them.

Sheriff Rattling Gourd followed with a posse on her return to Tahlequah, hoping to arrest Goldsby and the Cooks. Their opportunity came on June 17th when a gunfight erupted. The Cook gang had more firepower than the sheriff expected and the posse broke off the skirmish. Deputy Sequoyah Houston lay dead. “Was that Crawford Goldsby who had you make the claim at the land office,” Sheriff Gourd asked Effie Crittenden.

“No it wasn’t Goldsby,” she answered. “It was Cherokee Bill.” She wasn’t aware of his legal name, only the name the Cook gang had dubbed him, Cherokee Bill, a name that would then spread across the southwest. He became known as one of the most dangerous men in the Indian Territory and he was only eighteen years old. He was living dangerously.

Judge Isaac Parker of Fort Smith, Arkansas, the famed hanging judge who had jurisdiction over 70,000 square miles of frontier territory in that area, became aware of Cherokee Bill’s mischief. He knew there likely was even more as the habitual lawbreakers never volunteered information about their misdeeds.

The Cook gang went into full-time operation robbing banks, stagecoaches, trains, and stores after this. They weren’t averse to murder either. From July through October that year Cherokee Bill and the gang robbed a bank at Red Fork and another in Chandler, Oklahoma, killing J.B. Mitchell. He participated in numerous robberies. During a visit with his sister’s family, he killed his sister’s husband, Mose Brown, after a disagreement over feeding the hogs. Ill words led to the shooting. A month later, during the robbery of a general store, Cherokee Bill shot and killed Ernest Melton, a customer who entered the store while the robbery was in progress.

Federal agents stepped up their search for Cherokee Bill and members of the Cook gang following Melton’s death. Several were killed and the others split up, feeling it would make it easier to blend into the general population. When a $1300 reward was placed on Cherokee Bill some of his acquaintances decided to turn him in for the money. He was taken to Fort Smith to stand trial before Judge Parker. He was sentenced to death by hanging.

Cherokee Bill made friends with Sherman Vann, a prison guard while awaiting the hangman’s noose. Sherman sneaked a six-shooter into Bill who used it to shoot night guard Lawrence Keating in the stomach. As Keating staggered away to get help, Bill shot him in the back and killed him.

Although he was already sentenced to die, Judge Parker insisted he be tried for Keating’s murder. The judge asked why he killed Keating.

“I wouldn’t be much of a man if I didn’t try to get away and save my life,” he answered. Parker sentenced him to hang for the second time.

Cherokee Bill woke up “whistling and singing” at 6 a.m. on the day of his hanging, March 17, 1896. His mother sent him breakfast from the local hotel. She and his “Aunty” Foster arrived a little later. The hanging was delayed until the arrival of the 1 p.m. train as his sister Georgia was coming to see him.

Cherokee Bill was asked before the hanging if he had any final words to say.

“I came here to die, not make a speech,” he answered tersely before the trapdoor was sprung. He is buried in the Cherokee National Cemetery at Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. copyright 2018 jadon gibson

Editor’s note: Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, TN. His writing are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read periodically at bereaonline.com. Don’t miss a single issue!

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