Laura Bullion: The Thorny Rose of the Old West
By Karen Harris
When an 85-year-old Memphis seamstress died in 1961, she was buried beneath a tombstone with three lines of text. It said, “Freda Bullion Lincoln. Laura Bullion. The Thorny Rose.”
The first line depicted the name she used at the end of her life. The middle line was her birth name. The last line, however, speaks of her life as an outlaw, train robber, prostitute, cross-dressing master of disguise, and a member of the infamous Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.
It is that last line on her tombstone explains Laura Bullion’s place in history as the Thorny Rose, an apt description for a handsome woman with a taste for violence.
November 5, 1901
Bank notes stolen from a train that occurred in July 1901, Montana turned up more than 1,300 miles away in St. Louis, Missouri about five months later, in early November. This was the break that the Pinkerton Detective Agency had been waiting for.
Together with the local police department, the Pinkerton agents were able to determine that the bank notes had been passed by a gentleman who was new to town. A resident pointed him out to the authorities, and they took him into custody on November 5, 1901.
Although he refused to give his name, he was, in fact, Ben Kilpatrick, an Old West outlaw and member of the Wild Bunch, a gang led by Butch Cassidy.
Kilpatrick gave no information to the Pinkerton detectives, but they did a thorough search of his person. In one of his coat pockets, they discovered a key. That key, they learned, was to a room at the Laclede Hotel, located on the city’s waterfront.
Early the next morning, the police went to the hotel to search Kilpatrick’s room. There, they found a woman, Laura Bullion, with suitcase in hand, preparing to flee the hotel. The suitcase did not contain Bullion’s unmentionables.
Instead, it was stuffed full on bank notes from the Montana train robbery. Laura Bullion was immediately arrested.
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Laura Bullion’s Arrest
Newspapers of the time sensationalized Bullion’s arrest and trial. Reporters fought to scoop rival newspapers with juicy tidbits about the only female member of the infamous Wild Bunch.
For her part, Bullion wasn’t talking. According to newspaper reports in subsequent days, Bullion feigned falling asleep while being questioned. She was called “Sphinx-like” in her silence.
The lack of information coming from Bullion and Kilpatrick didn’t stop the press coverage. Neither did facts. The editor printed speculation, exaggerations, and outright falsehoods in their goal of selling more newspapers than their competitors.
Laura Bullion was, in some articles, painted as the dutiful wife that did whatever her husband asked of her, even robbing a train. In other articles, Bullion was labeled the ringleader of the Montana train robbery.
She was described as recklessly and carelessly firing her gun while dressed as a man. Her motive, the reporter claims, was simply the thrill of the robbery. In reality, Bullion never fired a shot, although she did disguise herself as a man.
Because of the media hype, the public couldn’t wait for Kilpatrick and Bullion’s trial to begin.
Who Was Laura Bullion?
Laura Bullion was born in Knickerbocker, Texas, though the date of her birth is up for debate. Her death record lists her birthday as October 4, 1876. At various points in her life, however, she gave the year of her birth as 1873 and 1887.
Her parents were Henry Bullion and Freda Byler, both unsavory characters and criminals. Henry Bullion was in and out of the picture, and Freda Byler sought the company of a litany of unscrupulous men.
She left her children, including Laura, in the care of her own parents, Elliot and Serena Byler. Despite the best efforts of her grandparents, Laura Bullion was drawn to the seedy outlaws that passed through the area.
A bank robber, Henry Bullion was friends with other Texas outlaws, including William “News” Carver and Ben “The Tall Texan” Kilpatrick. Laura Bullion also knew them: Carver was married to her aunt, Viana Byler, for a time. She also befriended outlaw brothers Sam and Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum.
When she was just 15 years old, Laura Bullion left her grandparents’ home. She landed in San Antonio, where she took a job as a prostitute, or soiled dove, at Fannie Porter’s brothel. While entertaining her clients, Bullion used the name Della Rose.
Fannie Porter’s brothel was a popular stopping point for many outlaws passing through the area, including William Carver and Ben Kilpatrick. Other frequent customers were Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, better known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Laura Bullion was a favorite of Carver’s and the two started a relationship, even though William Carver was married to Bullion’s aunt and Bullion was only 15 at the time. After Viana Byler’s death, the relationship between Carver and Bullion ramped up.
Carver was also, for a time, romantically involved with Josie Bassett, whose sister Ann Bassett was Butch Cassidy’s girlfriend.
From Prostitute to Outlaw
Many men — outlaws and lawmen — passed through the doors of Fannie Porter’s brothel, but Laura Bullion kept their identities a secret. Her trustworthiness was one of the qualities that Ben Kilpatrick admired about his friend, Will Carver’s girlfriend.
As soon as Carver’s attention moved from Laura to another one of Fannie Porter’s soiled doves, Kilpatrick moved in to woo Laura Bullion. When Kilpatrick joined the Wild Bunch in 1898 and moved to their Wyoming hideout, called the Hole-in-the-Wall, Bullion was at his side.
Laura Bullion was an asset to the Wild Bunch. She could fence stolen goods without raising suspicion. She could also secure needed supplies for the gang without raising eyebrows. In addition, Bullion was good at making observations and gleaning information that helped the members of the Wild Bunch steal horses and rob trains.
The members of the Wild Bunch nicknamed Bullion “Della Rose” and the “Rose of the Wild Bunch.” Laura Bullion was considered a true outlaw, differentiating her from the other women who frequented the Wild Bunch’s hideout.
According to Old West lore, only four other women, besides Laura Bullion, ever spent time with the outlaw gang at their infamous hideout. They were Etta Place, longtime girlfriend of the Sundance Kid; Josie and Ann Bassett, sisters and girlfriends to Will Carver and Butch Cassidy, and Maude Davis, Elzy Lay’s girlfriend.
It is unknown how many train robberies she participated in alongside Kilpatrick and the rest of the Wild Bunch. Although she seemed quite adept at using her feminine wiles, Bullion was described as having a “masculine face.”
Wearing men’s attire, she could easily pass for a boy or young man, making it hard for authorities to definitively say she was involved in robberies credited to Butch Cassidy’s gang.
That is, until the Montana train robbery in 1901.
The Great Northern Railway Robbery
Just before midnight on July 3, 1901, the Great Northern Railway No. 3 pulled out of the sleepy town of Malta, Montana on its way to Wagner, Montana.
Among the passengers on this train were three members of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, Ben Kilpatrick, O.C. Hanks, and Harvey Logan, also known as Kid Curry. Several miles before reaching Wagner, Logan pulled out his revolver and ordered the engineer to stop the train.
He forced the engineer to disconnect the baggage and express cars from the passenger cars, but as he was doing so, he caught the attention of a nearby rancher.
John Cunningham noticed that the train had stopped and that railway workers were uncoupling some of the cars. He rode his horse over to see what the problem was and quickly realized that the train was being robbed.
Cunningham spun his horse around, intent on alerting law enforcement in Malta. Ben Kilpatrick fired some shots in Cunningham’s direction, striking the horse. Cunningham was unhurt and continued on foot toward Malta, but the commotion was enough to let the passengers know that something was amiss.
According to witness reports, Ben Kilpatrick fired a few warning shots at the passengers and demanded they remain in their seats. The three outlaws then moved to the express car where Kilpatrick dynamited the safe.
They took the estimated $50,000 that was inside. At this point in the robbery, witnessed noted that a fourth bandit — someone who was not on the train but was waiting near where it had stopped — joined the others.
Some reports claim this fourth person supplied Kilpatrick with the dynamite he used to blow open the safe. Other reports stated that this person simply supplied the bandits with getaway horses.
Either way, the witness described this fourth bandit as small, clean shaven, wearing a work shirt, boots, trousers, and duster. They naturally assumption was that this was a man or boy, but after Ben Kilpatrick and Laura Bullion were arrested by Pinkerton detectives in St. Louis with money from the robbery in their possession, another theory emerged.
The Trial of Laura Bullion
News accounts of the trial of Laura Bullion and Ben Kilpatrick were quick to link the pair to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In fact, they credited the Great Northern Railway robbery to this gang, even though there was no evidence to connect the infamous outlaw duo to the crime.
But because members of their gang, the Wild Bunch, were involved, the entire incident was said to have been the work of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It helped to sell more newspapers and increase the public’s interest in the upcoming trial.
Bullion and Kilpatrick were tried in separate trials, held in the early weeks of December 1901. Both were found guilty for their roles in the train robbery, however Kilpatrick’s sentence was much harsher.
Bullion was sentenced to only five years in jail, while Kilpatrick received a 15-year sentence to the state penitentiary, located in Jefferson City, Missouri. Bullion was sent to the Massachusetts Correctional Institute for Women.
During her incarceration, her popularity with the public only increased. The public was enthralled with the image of a woman as rough and tumble as the Old West outlaws, yet pretty and feminine at the same time.
They painted Bullion as a romantic young woman who would do anything for her lover, Kilpatrick, who was equally devoted to her. In reality, the love between Bullion and Kilpatrick did seem to increase during their time in prison. They kept in touch via letters. Bullion even corresponded with Kilpatrick’s mother, who seemed rather fond of Laura.
Laura Bullion’s Life After Prison
In September of 1905, Bullion was released from prison. She immediately returned to St. Louis, where she met with the assistant district attorney to plea for Ben Kilpatrick’s early release.
He advised her to petition President Roosevelt and, if he approved it, the request would be returned to St. Louis for approval by the U.S. District Attorney. But Kilpatrick had, by this time, been transferred to Atlanta. While waiting for her petition to go through, Bullion found a room to rent right across from the prison housing Kilpatrick.
After serving only a third of his prison sentence, Kilpatrick was released from prison on June 13, 1911, but Laura Bullion didn’t get the happy reunion she imagined. As soon as Kilpatrick stepped out of the prison, he was arrested by law enforcement officers from Texas and extradited to the Lone Star State to face charges for an 1897 murder.
Once again, Laura Bullion followed her man in hopes of helping him fight the charges. The charges were eventually dropped against Kilpatrick, and Laura Bullion finally got her reunion.
A Short-Lived Reunion
A few months later, on March 12, 1912, Ben Kilpatrick teamed up with another outlaw, E. Welch, to rob a Southern Pacific train near the town of Sanderson, Texas. As per their plan, the train would have to stop because of a fire on a railroad bridge.
Although it has never been proven, it is believed that a third bandit, likely Bullion disguised as a boy, set the fire on the bridge, and waited nearby with getaway horses. The robbery did not go as smoothly as the Montana train robbery years before.
Kilpatrick and his partner led the railroad workers from car to car to steal valuables from the mail sacks, but they made a critical mistake. In one car, the robbers led the way. They had their backs to the railroad workers.
One of the railroad workers seized a wooden mallet and cracked Kilpatrick across the back of the head with it, splitting open his skull. He then snatched up Kilpatrick’s gun and shot Welch with it.
Laura Bullion Lays Low
From the time of the botched Sanderson, Texas robbery until around 1917, the whereabouts of Laura Bullion was unknown. She resurfaced in 1918 in Memphis, Tennessee.
She told people that she was a widow, the wife of a man named Maurice Lincoln who died in World War I. She took a job as a seamstress, and for the rest of her life, Bullion lived a quiet existence.
Only a few of the people closest to her knew she was the Thorny Rose of the Wild Bunch.
The End of the Wild Bunch
Butch Cassidy, the leader of the Wild Bunch, his sidekick, the Sundance Kid, and his girlfriend, Etta Place, fled the U.S. for South America. By all accounts, the outlaws died in a shootout in Bolivia in 1908.
Etta Place’s fate remains unknown. As for the other members of the Wild Bunch, most met violent deaths. William “News” Carver was shot and killed in 1901 by a Texas sheriff and his deputies.
Kid Curry, the nickname of Harvey Logan, was involved in a train robbery in Colorado in 1904. As he and the other outlaws escaped, they stole horses belonging to a local resident. That resident enlisted a few friends and went after his stolen horses.
They shot Kid Curry, wounding him. The outlaw did not want to be captured alive. As they closed in to capture him, he shot himself in the head.
Elzy Lay, however, found redemption.
He was arrested in New Mexico in 1899 and sentenced to life in prison. He was a model prisoner and became a trustee to the warden. He accompanied the warden to Santa Fe. There, several of the prisoners rioted and took the warden’s wife and daughter hostage.
Lay spoke to the prisoners and negotiated the release of the two women. For his actions, the governor of New Mexico granted him a full pardon. He retired from his life of crime, remarried, and raised a family in California.
When Laura Bullion died on December 2, 1961, she was the last surviving member of the Wild Bunch. She was the last known woman to have participated in a train robbery. Only Josie Bassett, an outlaw girlfriend of the Wild Bunch, outlived her. Bassett died in late 1963 at the age of 90 after falling off a horse.
The Rose of the Wild Bunch
When Laura Bullion was buried under a headstone with the name the “Thorny Rose,” she represented the end of one of the most notorious gangs of outlaws in the Old West.
From an unruly child with neglectful parents, to a stint as a prostitute, to a brash female outlaw and train robber, Bullion lived an extraordinary life. Like a rose, she could be both beautiful and painful.
Read more about the most infamous outlaws and lawmen of the American West:
- Curly Bill Brocius Shot and Killed by Wyatt Earp: Fake News or the Real Deal?
- 7 Facts about Johnny Ringo You Won’t Learn from Movies
- 8 Famous (and Infamous) Sheriffs of the Old West
- 7 Facts About Tom Horn, Elusive Gun-for-Hire
- 8 Murderous Facts about John Wesley Hardin
- Encyclopedia Of Western Lawmen & Outlaws, Jay Robert Nash
- Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw, Charles Leerhsen
- The Last Outlaws: The Lives and Legends of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thom Hatch
- The Outlaw Trail: A History of Butch Cassidy and His Wild Bunch, Charles Kelly
by Karen Harris
Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University. A wannabe world traveler, Karen spends her days writing and her nights researching cheap flights to far-off places.