Wild West

BILLY THE KID OF KANSAS

On June 3, 1881, the Sedan Times of southeast Kansas published this dispatch about a local lad:

Last Saturday, while Willie Chadburn was gathering strawberries a short distance south of town, he was bitten on the hand by a copperhead snake.…The boy has now entirely recovered.

Had it known what kind of fellow the 10-year-old boy would grow up to be, the snake might have held back out of professional courtesy. For unless Chadburn was stealing the strawberries, that dispatch may have been the only newspaper account of him not tied to some act of deviltry.

Recorded in the 1880 census as John W. Chadburn, he was the second son of five children born to William and Malissa Chadburn. A Civil War veteran, his British-born father was a freighter and with his wife operated a succession of boardinghouses in Sedan (see related map, P. 59). By all accounts a law-abiding, God-fearing couple, they tried rearing their children to follow suit, but Willie was the proverbial black sheep. He may have been inspired by period newspaper accounts and dime novels chronicling the exploits, real and fanciful, of Old West desperadoes. Or perhaps he idolized half-brother Wes Ewing (Malissa’s son from a previous union), reportedly a boozing ne’er-dowell who haunted the local gambling dives and whom the Coffeyville Journal once termed “the boldest jointest [sic] that ever operated in this section of the state.” Older brother Edwin, an industrious kid who at age 11 had walked 17 miles to seek a job herding cattle, might have proved a better role model. Sadly, he drowned at age 19 while on a freighting trip with his father in May 1885.

Willie’s troublemaking started with frequent truancies from school and quickly escalated. Months after his run-in with the snake reported he and classmate Sandy Ingram had gotten “into a row during recess…[that] resulted in Willie severely cutting Sandy on the hand with a pocketknife.” Whether from outside influences or

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