Old Times and Old Timers

On the Death of Russian Bill – He Choked to Death! 

Here are the known facts: two men were hanged at Shakespeare, New Mexico, sometime in 1881. Just about everything else about the matter is in some dispute.

One of the honored guests at the necktie party was Waldemar Tethenborn (or Tattenbaum), also known as William Rogers Tettenborn or Russian Bill. He claimed to have been born in 1850 to a Russian nobleman and the daughter of a Scottish sea captain. He went to sea at an early age but left the salt air behind in San Francisco and migrated to Fort Worth, Texas where he was soon wounded in a gunfight. He then traveled to Denver where he was again wounded, that time with a knife. By 1880 he had arrived in Shakespeare, New Mexico, a small collection of adobe buildings in the arid reaches of what was then Grant County in the southwest corner of the territory.

Accounts at the time describe Russian Bill as tall and gangly — above six feet — with shoulder-length blond hair and a moustache. He wore high boots with gaudy spurs and a large sombrero. He packed a pistol on his hip, maybe two of them. Some described him as a braggart and a drunkard who boasted of his violent past, deeds of daring-do and his activities as a thief and cattle rustler. Others discount all that and point out that he was involved in the legitimate business of mineral speculation and mine ownership. He also served as an official claims recorder. It may be that the only criminal act he ever committed was stealing a horse, and that led him to an impromptu gallows.

The other guest on that cruel occasion was known as Sandy King, but his real name might have been Luther King, or Red Curly, or something Ferguson. If he was Luther King, he was involved in some of the thievery that led up to the shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881. He would not have been around at the time, though, because he seems to have disappeared from Arizona after March 1881 when he walked away from the Tombstone jail. In any event, Sandy King was loitering around Shakespeare by November of 1881 after having spent a few months in the jail at Silver City. He seems to have become friends with Russian Bill, probably a saloon pal.

One day in early November, 1881, King got drunk in a Shakespeare saloon before he wandered into Smyth’s Mercantile and took possession of a red neckerchief for which he declined to pay. When the store clerk demanded payment, King pulled his pistol and, drunk as he surely was, he nearly missed, but managed to shoot off the clerk’s index finger. One source says the sound of the shot drew immediate attention and the malefactor was promptly arrested. Another says he managed to get to his horse and flee the town, only to be captured by Deputy Sheriff Dan Tucker a short time later. Whatever the case, with King in custody, Russian Bill decided that he had best leave town, an act of which the townsfolk would have generally approved, except that the horse he rode out on did not belong to him, and its owner, Al Parker, was particularly incensed.

Russian Bill made it to Deming where he aimed to spend the night in an empty boxcar that had been shunted to a siding. He was arrested there, some say, by that same deputy Dan Tucker. Others say it was deputy Jack Rutland who made the arrest. Yet a third source says it was a hastily formed posse made up of Shakespeare townsmen who rode him down. Whoever captured him, he was soon returned to Shakespeare where he was locked up in a room at the Grant Hotel; the same room which housed the prisoner Sandy King.

Deputy Rutland, apparently somewhat indifferent to his responsibilities, guarded them. The prisoners were allowed to shout threats from windows to the townsfolk passing by, warning that they would dance to the outlaw’s music within a day. Local citizens took the threats seriously. In the wee hours on the morning of November 9, 1881 (one source gives the date of these events as January 1, 1881), a group of citizens — some referred to it as the Law and Order Committee, and others as the vigilantes — broke into the room. They threw deputy Rutland into a corner and covered him with a mattress while they removed the prisoners.

The two outlaws were then hanged in either the Grant Hotel or the Shakespeare Hotel — sources cannot agree — in either the barroom or the dining room. One source says that King asked only for a drink of water and “died game” while Russian Bill begged for his life. Another claims Bill calmly asked for a drink of whiskey and remarked that he didn’t think there was any whiskey where he was going. What is known for sure is that they were strung up to the rafters and their bodies left where they were hanged.

As the story goes, a stagecoach arrived early the next morning and the passengers walked into the room and encountered the gruesome scene. When asked about the cause of the executions, the bartender is said to have pointed to Sandy King and said, “he was a horse thief, the other one — a damned nuisance.” Of course, other sources claim the reverse, that King was the nuisance. One source claims the stage passengers cut down the bodies and buried them before breakfast. Another reports that one of the passengers stole Russian Bill’s boots, and they all ate breakfast with the bodies in place.

Some months later, Grant County Sheriff Harvey Whitehill received an inquiry from a lady of means in Russia in which she inquired of the whereabouts of her son, Waldemar Tethenborn. Legend is not clear as to exactly what the sheriff replied, but various sources offer these possibilities: “he choked to death,” “he died from a shortage of breath due to a sudden change in altitude,” “your son died of throat trouble,” “your son committed suicide,” and, finally, “your son met with a serious accident.”

One thing is for certain: Sandy King and Russian Bill did not again bother the people of Shakespeare and Grant County.n

Don Bullis’ latest book, New Mexico Historical Biographies is available at area bookstores. He may be reached at donbullis@msn.com, or by going to his webpage at donbullis.biz