WSGA: In the News

Date: 11/23/2014 12:00:00 AM

Title: 'Cattle Kate' recounts true story


Title: 'Cattle Kate'

Author: Jana Bommersbach

Pages: 342

The first chapter of Jana Bommersbach’s novel “Cattle Kate” reminds one of Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” In both cases, the intended victims of a judgment wait with hands bound for a hangman’s noose to be lowered and tightened on their necks.

Thoughts of injustice mixed with the hopefulness that this is just a bad dream race through their heads. Whether or not Bierce based his story on a real event is not known, but Bommersbach did.

The author soon engages us with the image of Kate twisting and kicking so violently at the end of the rope that her beautiful beaded moccasins fly off her feet. Doubters of the authenticity of the scene or the story can view those moccasins on page 22 in the November, 2014 issue of True West magazine.

The actual moccasins are on display in the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne. The photo appears in a factual article Bommersbach wrote for the magazine titled “Dead Wrong About Cattle Kate,” and makes a good companion piece to her book. She lays out many of the facts modern sleuths have used to determine that the victim and her husband lynched beside her were innocent of the alleged crime.

In some ways, the novel matches the format of many fictional Westerns where the victims own desired property with good water that neighboring ranchers want for themselves. But when readers know that facts support the storyline, they can readily accept it. Born Ellen Watson in Ontario, Canada, Kate came to Kansas with her family and soon married a man who abused her with a horsewhip. She fled that predicament and moved to Rawlins, Wyo., where she worked as a cook and waitress until meeting her second husband, James Averell.

A business-minded man, he filed for homestead land and opened a general store and restaurant where Kate cooked and mended clothes for cowboys. Because these men come and go to their cabin, rumors of prostitution began to form. The couple soon came up against the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and one of its members, John Bothwell, who made several offers to buy land from them which they refused.

Bothwell countered them with charges that they were rustling cattle from his herd. Rumors accusing cattle rustling and prostitution prompted vigilantes to take them to a convenient tree to conduct their outrageous act. While the sheriff did eventually arrest six men for the lynching, nothing came of it due to intimidation of witnesses and the disappearance of another.

The historical novel “Cattle Kate” is interesting and might serve to remind us that lynchings took place in this area, too, such as one in Emmons County in 1897, a vigilante group’s response to the Spicer family murders.

Jana Bommersbach possesses North Dakota roots. Born in Hankinson, her professional journey took her to Arizona and the role of an acclaimed journalist. The Arizona Press Club has honored her with The Distinguished Service Award as well as Arizona Journalist of the Year. A communications expert, she has won praises and awards in all phases of her work as a journalist, author, broadcaster and speaker.

 Lynn Bueling, a member and staff writer for the Western Writers of America, lives in Mandan.


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