Why is it that we remember and even glorify such Western American outlaws as Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy when other outlaws are long ago dead, buried and forgotten?
One historical theory is that Billy and Butch were “social bandits,” meaning that they stole from the rich and shared with the poor. Were Billy and Butch really “good” bad men, and if so, what about the “bad” good men who were brutal thugs who hid behind their badges, intimidated, beat and brutalized innocent people and committed crimes under the shadow of the law?
William Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, stole horses but was Irish Catholic, spoke fluent Spanish and was a favorite son of New Mexican Hispanic communities because during the Lincoln County War, he robbed from the cattle barons. According to one scholar, if Billy the Kid stole a few horses, “the big ranchers had stolen an entire country.”
Robert Leroy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy, robbed trains with his Wild Bunch, but the railroads themselves robbed small farmers and ranchers by dramatically raising freight rates when it was harvest time and imperative to ship sheep, cattle or wheat. What were the real crimes and who were the real criminals in the first decade of the 20th-century West?
A case in point is the checkered career of Bob Meldrum. Born in 1866, the same year as Butch, Meldrum straddled the law and may have killed as many as 14 men. An artist and saddlemaker, the Pinkerton Detective Agency recommended him because of his quick temper and fast trigger finger. Meldrum boasted of his friendship with the notorious killer Tom Horn, who was hanged in Wyoming after shooting the son of a homesteader. Meldrum drifted down into Telluride in 1903 when the Old West had ended and a new, powerful industrial order was ripping gold and silver ore out of the San Juan Mountains.
HHHBy the end of the 19th century, the romantic American West had ended. Native peoples had been forced onto reservations. The open range had been fenced. A new era had begun of industrial-scale mining where miners increasingly demanded better wages, safer working conditions and an eight-hour day. They joined the Western Federation of Miners and wanted respect for their dangerous, daily jobs that netted millions for out-of-state mine owners.
The mine owners responded by creating the Mine Owners Association to fight the union and to hire “man-killers.” Paid thugs received their monthly wages from the MOA, which then provided these gunmen to the San Miguel County sheriff at no charge. Mandatory residence in the county was ignored, but then, so were a lot of laws. Sheriff Cal Rutan was also in the pocket of the mine owners, and they gave him a solid gold sheriff’s badge. Telluride’s labor troubles at the turn of the 20th century would become legendary.
The best account of this conflict is MaryJoy Martin’s “The Corpse on Boomerang Road: Telluride’s War on Labor 1899-1908.” A central figure in the mayhem was Robert “Bob” Meldrum. Martin writes, “Meldrum fashioned a reputation for killing those he was supposed to apprehend when he shot a wanted man in the back of the head. Given to bouts of drunkenness and bad temper, he liked to find an excuse for ‘shooting first’ those who questioned his authority to arrest them.”
As an illegally deputized gunman, he carried a sawed-off shotgun on horseback, probably a Winchester Model 1897 12-gauge pump action. His stated goal was to rid Telluride of all union men, and he liked to beat them unmercifully around the head and face with the butt of his revolver.
Union men picketed stores favored by the mine owners. Meldrum arrested the pickets and beat them before throwing them into unheated jail cells. Gov. James Hamilton Peabody, a staunch supporter of mine owners, sent the Colorado National Guard to enforce order at Telluride. Worried that deported miners would return with a vengeance, the Guard built a stone machine gun nest at the top of Imogene Pass between Telluride and Ouray where it can be seen today. Guardsmen left inscriptions carved and penciled into the wood.
HHHI knew about the machine gun nest and a little about Meldrum, but it was my visit to the Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig last summer that brought out even more details. San Miguel County stabilized the machine gun nest a decade ago as an important labor history site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But photos of the site in use had never been located. In Craig, I found photos of three men at the site with Meldrum in the middle.
History is like that. The oddest things turn up in unusual places. I call it the “flotsam and jetsam of history” where items and artifacts resurface from dusty attic boxes. I learned that Bob Meldrum had worked at the Tomboy Mine as a hired company guard. He shot in the belly a drunken miner named Olaf Thissal who had headbutted him. The miner died a painful death. Though a coroner’s jury ruled that the “shot was fired in the heat of passion with felonious intent,” Meldrum was never convicted of manslaughter.
Author Martin notes that after the altercation, the Tomboy Mine sent its hired thug to Denver, where he received gold caps on his teeth. Miners ruefully remarked that the mine guard now “looked like a million dollars every time he smiled.” Not worried that their guard had killed a man, the Tomboy Mine owners gave Meldrum a present in May 1904. That gift recently surfaced in the world of highly collectible guns.
Meldrum received a rare Colt Quickdraw Model Single Action .45-caliber revolver with an “eagle motif” on pearl handles. The unique pistol featured intricate engraving by Helfrict with gold inlay probably from the Tomboy’s gold. The words “from the Tomboy Gold Mine, Telluride, Colorado” are on the handle. On the pistol butt was engraved “Rob’t D. Meldrum.” One of Colorado’s billionaires, Bill Koch, purchased the gun at auction for $250,000.
Three years after his fancy gift, Meldrum’s killing continued. Sent to arrest David Lambert, Meldrum, instead, shot him. A Telluride jury found him not guilty, but as the labor wars declined and unions gained power, Meldrum wisely headed north to Wyoming. A complicated character, he was also an artist and an accomplished leather craftsman.
In and out of court, continuing to kill at random, he finally shot an amiable cowboy named Chick Bowen in January 1912. After three trials for murder, he spent a short period in the Wyoming Penitentiary. By 1926, fire had destroyed his saddle shop in Walcott, Wyoming, and he disappeared from history. Today, the Museum of Northwest Colorado has a standing reward of $500 for anyone who can locate “the final resting place of Bob Meldrum.”
HHHBilly the Kid lives on in legend and in the folklore of New Mexico. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid died in Bolivia after a botched bank robbery. They ride together in Western lore and in one of the best films ever made in Durango and La Plata County. But Bob Meldrum disappears into history and rightfully so. His gold-engraved gun remains as a symbol of corporate power and in remembrance of miners pistol-whipped by a deputized killer who wore a badge.
So who were the crooks and who were the criminals in the history of the West?
Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at [email protected].