Writing an Historical Mystery/Suspense Novel
by Jean Henry Mead
I was researching a Wyoming centennial history book during the mid-1980s, by reading 97 years’ worth of microfilmed newspapers. During that period I read about a young woman named Ellen “Ella” Watson, who had been hanged by cattlemen along with homesteader James Averell. The lynchers claimed that the pair had been running a rural bawdy house and taking cattle for Ellen’s services.
They called Ellen“Cattle Kate” and vilified her by claiming that she was not only a prostitute but a rustler. The Cattlemen’s Association, headquartered in Cheyenne, controlled a local newspaper and reports of the hangings were published worldwide, resulting in considerable condemnation that a woman had been hanged, despite the cattlemen’s claims.
I was mystified by the newspaper reports of 1889, when the murders took place, and decided to write a novel about it, someday. When I learned that Thomas Watson, Ellen’s father, believed the lies, I thought they must be true. A number of writers had written about the hangings from the cattlemen’s point of view, and western films had been produced, portraying Ellen as a pistol packing outlaw. That didn’t jibe with news reports from the Casper Weekly Mail, which published James Averell’s “letters to the editor,” complaining that greedy cattlemen were gobbling up all of Sweetwater Valley, so they could graze their cattle on government land, without paying for it.
James and Ellen had legally filed homesteads under the Desert Land Act, which happened to be located in Albert Bothwell’s hay meadow. Aha, I thought, there’s more to this story than the cattlemen claim. But finding out more about it would require more time and travel than I could spare at that time. Later, George Hufsmith’s nonfiction book was released and I was able to write my novel. Hufsmith had been commissioned to write an opera about the hangings, and was so intrigued that he spent the next 20 years researching and interviewing residents of Sweetwater Valley, who had intimate knowledge of the people involved as well as the real reason for the hangings
To my surprise, Hufsmith discovered the wedding license that James and Ellen had filed in Lander, Wyoming, and the fact that they kept their marriage secret, so the government wouldn’t take Ellen’s homestead land away from her. Only single women could own homestead land.
Because I didn’t want to end my novel with the Averells' deaths, I wrote the story mainly from the viewpoint of a single woman homesteader, a neighbor of the Averells. From my research I learned that some 200,000 single women filed for homestead land of their own. Many of them married before they proved up on their land, but quite a few persevered, and even thrived, alone on their land.