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Remembering Laura Bullion: The Thorny Rose of the Old West

Wikimedia // Public Domain

Laura Bullion was a natural outlaw—it was family tradition, after all. Her father, Henry Bullion, was a bank robber. Her uncle by marriage, William “News” Carver, rode with the Black Jack Ketchum Gang of train robbers. So perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that Laura joined the Wild Bunch, the gang known for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, taking part in train robberies and forgery until she was nabbed by the long arm of the law.

Laura Bullion was born around 1876—records are unclear on the place and exact date of her birth—to Fereby Bullion, the daughter of German immigrants, and Henry Bullion, a Native American outlaw. She grew up in Knickerbocker, Texas.

Laura’s early life wasn’t easy. Her parents separated when she was about 5 years old, and Fereby took Laura and her siblings to live near her parents, the Bylers. Whenever Fereby had a new boyfriend, she left her three children with their grandparents. In 1888, when Laura was 12, this haphazard arrangement became permanent when Henry Bullion died. Fereby was free to marry again and promptly did, leaving her children behind.

When Laura was 14, a series of events began that would set her on her path to the outlaw life. Her mother died, and William Carver began courting her aunt Viana Byler, who was only three years older than Laura. At that time, Carver was still a cowboy and hadn't yet embarked on his life of crime—though he did already have a reputation as a crack shot. Carver had known Laura’s father and was likely friendly toward her, but he only had eyes for Viana, and the two married.

Less than two years later, Laura’s grandparents moved, handing Laura and her siblings off to one of their sons. Around the same time, Viana Carver died of a fever due to pregnancy complications, and William Carver began his life of crime. He first joined up with the Ketchum gang, robbing trains and banks in Texas and New Mexico; he and Tom "Black Jack" Ketchum had known each other as cowboys in Knickerbocker. Carver joined the Wild Bunch after the Ketchums were arrested and hanged for their crimes.

Sometime in the midst of all these changes, at around the age of 15, Laura left Knickerbocker and headed for San Antonio. There, or so she later told police, she entered the profession that many independent women in the Wild West turned to: prostitution. She may have taken on the alias of Della Rose at this time. She certainly made use of it later, along with many others: Clara Hayes (with various spellings), Mrs. Nellie Rose, Laura Casey, Clara Casey, and Desert Rose.

Two years later she was back in Knickerbocker, where she took on the mantle of respectability for at least a couple of years, returning to her schooling and participating in town social events. But she had met up with now-outlaw William Carver in San Antonio, and the two began corresponding.

She left her hometown again not much later, likely when she was around 20. According to what she later told police, she supported herself in dance halls throughout Texas and Wyoming. Through Carver, she also began spending time with the Wild Bunch, along with other female outlaws like the Bassett sisters and the mysterious Etta Place, as well as prostitutes such as Della Moore and Lillie Davis. She claimed to have worked on and off at Madame Fannie Porter's brothel, a favorite of the Wild Bunch. The gang is also said to have been the ones to nickname her the Thorny Rose. Details on what, exactly, Laura did in her early days as a member of the Wild Bunch are scarce, but when she was finally arrested, it was on charges of "forgery of signatures to bank notes" and robbery.

It was as a member of the Wild Bunch that she met Ben Kilpatrick, the “Tall Texan.” Her affair with him in 1901 would bring an end to her outlaw life. Like Carver, Kilpatrick was a former cowboy and an acquaintance of the Ketchums. It's unknown how he became involved with the Wild Bunch—he may have known members Elzy Lay and Kid Curry before he joined the gang, in addition to riding with Carver and the Ketchums—but he is seen seated in the middle of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the famous "Fort Worth Five" photograph of the gang, taken in 1900.

The "Fort Worth Five" photograph, via Wikimedia // Public Domain

The picture was the gang's undoing. Photographer John Swartz displayed it in his shop, and someone, probably either a Wells Fargo executive or a Fort Worth detective, recognized the train robbers and notified the Pinkerton's Detective Agency. Wanted posters soon went out for the five men. Under pressure from the law, Butch, Sundance, and Etta Place left the country, headed to Argentina.

But the rest of the gang wasn't ready to pack it in yet.

In 1901, Laura helped Kilpatrick and Curry plan a train heist. The Great Northern Railway ran from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, passing through Wagner, Montana, which is where Kilpatrick and Curry planned to strike.

On July 3, 1901, the gang made their move. One robber posed as a tramp in the mail car. When the conductor discovered him, the robber ordered him back into the train at gunpoint, then held up the train's engineer until they were three miles west of Wagner. That's when the robber ordered the engineer to stop, and two more men boarded the train.

Three people were wounded by gunfire as the men boarded the train, and the conductor ordered everyone to hide behind the seats. At that point, the three blew open the express car with dynamite and stole $83,000 in bank notes. Laura Bullion rode in the heist, but it's unclear whether she boarded the train. She most likely served as a lookout and watched the getaway horses.

After the heist, the gang parted ways to lie low. Laura and Kilpatrick headed east, stopping in St. Louis. But the law was hot on their trail, and Laura got picked up on charges of forgery and illegally possessing bank notes (she was first identified under the alias Della Rose). Kilpatrick was picked up shortly after, originally misidentified as Harry Longabaugh, a.k.a. the Sundance Kid.

The two put up a stubborn front, at first refusing to speak to authorities in interviews or in court. Laura eventually shared some limited and mostly false details—she apparently did not tip off authorities to Kilpatrick’s true identity, which they determined from the photo; she claimed to know nothing about the robbery in Wagner, and said that she had known Kilpatrick only a couple of months. Author Jeffrey Burton believes Laura feigned a lack of intelligence and education to fool the lawmen who had arrested the duo. The people of Knickerbocker, he wrote, said she had never spoken as poorly as the newspapers claimed, and her letters showed she was intelligent and had a good grasp of language.

Eventually, law enforcement straightened the story out and both went to trial. Laura was sentenced to five years, which she served at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. After serving a little over three years, she was released in 1905 and traveled to Atlanta, where Ben Kilpatrick was incarcerated, using the name Mrs. Freda Arnold. She was not allowed to visit him.

Laura relocated to Birmingham, and Kilpatrick intended to meet her there when he was released in 1911. But just as he was being released, he was arrested for a murder in Texas. After being acquitted, Kilpatrick restarted his life of crime with fellow outlaw Ole Hobek, until the two were killed in a train robbery gone wrong in Sanderson, Texas, in 1912.

After the loss of Kilpatrick and after her prison stint, Laura was no longer interested in the outlaw life. She moved to Memphis, where she took up a new identity as widow Freda Bullion Lincoln. She made draperies and later worked as an interior designer, apparently never returning to crime.

She died on December 2, 1961 in Memphis of heart disease, the last surviving member of the Wild Bunch. Her grave marker at Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis bears her assumed name, Freda Bullion Lincoln, her birth name of Laura Bullion, and her nickname, "The Thorny Rose."

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