While the Wild West brings us thrilling tales of outlaws, gunslingers, and cowboys, they rarely bring us tales of serial killers.
One day in the fall of 1870, a few men were relaxing in a saloon in Elizabethtown, New Mexico. Suddenly, an injured and distraught woman named Rosa burst in crying out for help. The men helped her to a seat and asked her what happened.
Her story was horrifying.
A Rest Stop for the Weary
Charles Kennedy moved to the Elizabethtown area in 1865 with his wife Rosa and their young son. About 15 miles outside of town, on the way to the next town of Taos, the family found a rather isolated plot of land to build on and call their own.
When someone struck gold nearby in 1866, an influx of miners quickly swarmed the area and the Kennedy family turned their property into a rest stop for weary travelers. For those passing through the long, dark trail, this was the perfect place to stop for a hot meal and a place to sleep for the night.
Soon though, rumors began to spread that several travelers who had stopped at the rest stop were never seen again.
No one questioned Kennedy until a prominent businessman disappeared. When the man’s horse, pack mule and belongings were found on Kennedy’s property, he was a prime suspect in the disappearance. Kennedy claimed that he found the animals wandering on their own and took them in, and with no evidence against him, he remained free.
Series of Murders
On the day that Rosa burst into the saloon for help, she confessed to the men that her husband had been murdering their guests as they slept, and stealing their belongings. He would burn or bury the bodies to hide evidence and hadn’t spent the money. To her best guess, as many as 14 had been killed.
The previous night, a traveler was at their rest stop eating dinner and asked Kennedy if there were any Native Americans in the area. Before Kennedy could respond, his son quipped “Can’t you smell the one Papa put under the floor?”
Kennedy flew into a fit of rage, quickly shooting and killing the traveler before he could run to tell others. Kennedy grabbed his son and bashed the boy’s face into the fireplace until he was dead. He threw the bodies in the basement, locked Rosa in the house, and began to drink heavily.
As soon as her husband passed out, Rosa climbed up the chimney to escape and scrambled the 15 miles to Elizabethtown for help.
Evidence and Testimony
A local rancher, the particularly short-tempered Clay Allison, was in the saloon and heard Rosa’s story. He gathered up a group of men and led them to the rest stop to search for Kennedy and potential evidence.
In the basement, they found a gruesome sight. The bodies of the traveler and Kennedy’s young son were strewn about, and partially burnt human bones sat in the fireplace. Beneath the house were two skeletons, and another skull was found nearby.
Having seen enough, the group took the still-drunk Kennedy into custody.
During the hearing, a witness claimed to have seen Kennedy shoot a traveler before. Between Rosa and the witness’s testimonies and evidence found on the property, the court ordered that Kennedy be held for a full trial.
At this time in the American West, there was widespread concern about corruption in the legal system. It wasn’t unheard of for officials to accept bribes to release the guilty or look the other way for a variety of crimes. When rumors spread that Kennedy’s attorney would attempt to buy his client’s freedom, Clay Allison decided to take matters into his own hands.
The End of Charles Kennedy
Allison was well known for his violent rages, quick trigger finger, and erratic behavior. He would often lead violent mobs, participate in gunfights, and ride naked through town.
One story tells how he saw a dentist who accidentally drilled the wrong tooth. Allison left, found another dentist to fix it, then returned to the original dentist with a pair of pliers. Pinning the man down, Allison pulled out one of the dentist’s teeth in return.
Led by Allison, a few men broke into the jail and kidnapped Kennedy. Legends differ in the exact manner that he was lynched by the mob. Some say that Kennedy was hanged, then Allison cut his head off with a knife. Others say that Allison tied a rope around Kennedy’s neck and dragged him behind a horse until his head ripped off.
Regardless of the manner of beheading, Allison supposedly put Kennedy’s head on a spike outside of the saloon in Elizabethtown for all to see.
While little is recorded of Charles Kennedy’s activity and there is no evidence to substantiate the claims of how many he killed, we are left with only the testimony of those who knew and lynched one of the earliest serial killers of the Wild West.
- History.com Editors. (2009, November 16). Gunfighter Clay Allison killed. History.com. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/gunfighter-clay-allison-killed
- New Mexico Nomad. (2022, March 13). Charles Kennedy: Serial Killer on the Taos Trail. New Mexico Nomad. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from https://newmexiconomad.com/charles-kennedy/
- Sullivan, H. (2019, August 27). A Cycle Of Violence. My Strange New Mexico. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from https://mystrangenewmexico.com/2020/08/04/a-cycle-of-violence/
- Weiser, K. (2020, May). Charles Kennedy — Old West Serial Killer. Legends of America. Retrieved April 7, 2023, from https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-charleskennedy/
Originally published on Medium’s Lessons from History publication on April 13, 2023.