Like many of the raucous, unruly mining areas in New Mexico, the Moreno Valley had its share of disreputable characters and gruesome stories. However, of the many outlaws and rogues in the area, none was more dangerous and twisted than Elizabethtown’s resident serial killer, Charles Kennedy.
Charles Kennedy was a big, full-bearded fellow. He moved to the valley around 1865 with his wife, Rosa, a Ute woman, and their 3-year old son. They built a traveler’s rest stop in an isolated area on the Taos Trail between Taos and Elizabethtown, at the base of Palo Flechado Pass. However, Charles was not a good host. He killed his guests in their sleep, took their stuff, and either burned or buried the bodies. The trail was used primarily by cowboys and outlaws in 1865. However, that changed in 1866 with the discovery of gold in the streams and gulleys on the western face of Mount Baldy. The trickle of travelers became a deluge as hopeful prospectors streamed into the newly incorporated Elizabethtown, locally known as “E-Town.”
Though mining communities in the American West were highly transient, rumors of mysterious disappearances began to circulate amongst the locals over the next couple of years.
There’s no telling how many people Charles killed between 1865 and 1871, but his lucky streak came to an abrupt end during the winter of 1871. A prominent Taos citizen vanished on his way to Elizabethtown. Authorities found his horse, belongings, and pack mules on Kennedy’s property. Charles talked his way out of it. He claimed that he had found the animals wandering alone and assumed the owner had been abducted or killed by the Apaches. Apache attacks were common. However, the investigators were suspicious. It seemed implausible to them that Apaches would abduct or assault a traveler and leave their stuff, particularly the pack animals. The Apaches had an affinity for mule meat. However, the investigators didn’t have sufficient evidence to make an arrest and returned to Taos. Kennedy dodged the bullet that afternoon, but, unbeknownst to him, his murderous days were numbered.
Like many historical anecdotes, there are variations on the tale of Kennedy’s final murders in the fall of 1871. All hinge on a traveler asking too many questions and a 9-year old boy’s fatally candid response. I’ll stick with the most common version.
A traveler stopped for the night on his way to Taos. Over dinner, he asked his hosts if they had seen any Indians in the area. Charles’ son responded, “can’t you smell the one Papa put under the floor?” Kennedy lost it. He shot his guest and bashed his son’s skull against the fireplace, throwing both bodies in the cellar. He locked his screaming wife in the house and proceeded to drink himself into a stupor. When he eventually passed out, his terrified wife escaped through the chimney and fled 15 miles to Elizabethtown. She burst into the local saloon frantic, crying, bleeding, half frozen, babbling incoherently. Clay Allison and David Crockett, nephew of frontiersman Davey Crockett, were having drinks, watching and listening.
The Jig is Up
Rosa breathlessly told them what happened and claimed Kennedy had also killed their other two children before they moved to the area. The terrified woman recounted horrifying details, claiming the bones of twenty men were buried on their property.
Clay Allison was a hard drinking, former Confederate officer turned rancher, known for his gun-fighting skills, hair trigger temper, and drunken rampages. He was invariably a participant when anything violent happened in the area. Though he killed numerous ‘bad’ guys, it is unlikely that anyone would have considered him a “good guy with a gun,” but he managed to avoid being on the wrong side of the law despite dispatching several men to their maker. In general, it was fatal to get on his bad side, which was certainly the case for Charles Kennedy.
Clay Allison led the posse to Kennedy’s cabin. They arrested Charles without incident. He was still thoroughly sotted. The men searched the house and property for evidence to support Rosa’s story. They found plenty, including partially charred human bones in the fireplace, two skeletons under the house, a skull near the house, and the bodies of his most recent victims, including his son, in the cellar. They hauled Kennedy back to Elizabethtown, where he was given a pre-trial hearing on October 3, 1870. A witness to one of the murders came forward. He testified that he had seen Kennedy shoot one of the travelers.
Corruption in the Courts
Based on the evidence, one would assume that the case would have been a slam dunk, but law and justice weren’t on speaking terms in the late 1800’s. The public viewed judges with suspicion due to the level of corruption contaminating the courts.
The court refused to make a determination on the case and ordered Kennedy held for action by the grand jury. Rumors began circulating that Kennedy’s lawyer was planning to buy his freedom. Clay Allison and his companions took matters into their own hands and kidnapped Kennedy from jail. Accounts about what followed vary, though the outcome for Kennedy is consistent. One variation suggests that one of the men cut his head off with a knife. Another version says the vigilantes put a rope around his neck and dragged him by horse up and down Main Street until his head detached from his body. Bottom line…they beheaded Kennedy in brutal fashion. Residents of Elizabethtown refused to bury the killer in the Catholic cemetery. Instead, they interred the body outside the cemetery boundaries. However, the head followed a separate path, which is another twist in this tale, with blatant historical inaccuracies.
The most common version of the story indicates the vigilantes staked Kennedy’s head on a pike outside of Henry Lambert’s saloon in Cimarron for a year until the mummified remains mysteriously vanished. Great way to end a movie, but it isn’t plausible. Henry Lambert opened the Cimarron saloon in 1872. However, Lambert may have been involved and the story about the head on a pike could be true.
Lambert arrived in E-Town with his wife in May of 1868. He worked the placer mines for a few months before opening a hotel in E-Town that fall. Perhaps that was the Lambert property where they posted their macabre display. If so, that might have influenced his decision to relocate to Cimarron in the autumn of 1871, where he opened another saloon/boarding house (today’s St. James Hotel). More likely his decision to move was due to the waning ore output from the mines in Elizabethtown and the sale of the Maxwell Land Grant.
In total, Charles Kennedy is believed to have murdered 15 – 100 men before he was caught. Though he always took their money and belongings, he wasn’t known to spend money. Most people assumed that he buried the money, waiting for a time when he could spend it without suspicion. Perhaps the money is still buried somewhere deep in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.