Mr. Edwards was a successful Taos businessman who rode a good horse, carried hundreds of dollars in his pockets, and traveled using mules to carry his belongings.
In the fall of 1870, his business took him just east of Taos, through the north-central part of New Mexico, near the mouth of a canyon at the northeastern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Edwards, whose first name has since been lost to history, had just stopped to water his animals at a lonely spring, when he noticed a tattered log cabin nearby, its walls already sagging around its chimney. The building was the only one around for miles, and the sun was setting, and Edwards was pleased to find that the cabin also doubled as a sort of hotel and tavern.
Had he had access to such then-unwritten books as Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Howard Bryan’s Robbers, Rogues and Ruffians, or Tom Hilton’s Nevermore, Cimarron, Nevermore — books that would one day refer to that cabin as “that wretched house on the Mora trail,” “the inn of death,” and the “dug-out…of the mad butcher” — he might have kept on moving.
The cabin had been built by a man named Charles Kennedy, a large man with unkempt whiskers and wary blue eyes. Kennedy had been a hunter and trapper in the Rocky Mountains, and in 1868 had moved to the Sangre de Cristos with his Hispanic wife and their baby son. There, where the area’s only two roads merged and entered into a mountain pass, he established a crudely developed ranch, and invited travelers to stop and pay for a night’s lodging or a strong drink.
“As hosts, the Kennedys left much to be desired,” wrote Howard Bryan in Robbers, Rogues and Ruffians, a book containing perhaps the most relentlessly investigative account of this story. “Guests felt strangely uncomfortable in the presence of the sullen proprietor, and noticed that his wife appeared to be his virtual slave. She appeared fearful of her husband, seldom spoke to anybody, and was not permitted to leave the house alone.”
Kennedy apparently chose this isolated setting for one reason only: to murder and rob his guests. He would kill them with an ax or a gun, and one rumor claims he sometimes ate them as well.
From 1868 to 1870, as many as 100 trappers, travelers, miners, and peddlers died or disappeared while traveling near Kennedy’s cabin. In the fall of 1870, the body of Mr. Edwards, the businessman from Taos, turned up nearby, robbed and shot, its presence blamed on the area’s Apache Indians.
Kennedy had allegedly even killed two of his own children, in fits of drunken rage. When Kennedy’s remaining son nonchalantly told a visitor about a dead man buried beneath the house, Kennedy swung the three-year-old boy headfirst against the fireplace. After killing his son, he also killed the stranger, after killing the stranger he drank until unconscious, and while he was unconscious, his wife ran away.
Kennedy had always told his wife that if she ever mentioned anything to anyone about the things he did, he would kill the children, but now he had already killed them. She had no one left to lose, and no reason to protect him any longer.
Eighteen miles north of the cabin stood Elizabethtown, a prosperous gold-mining settlement that in 1870 boasted three dancehalls, a much-patronized red-light district, seven saloons, and several legendary outlaws — including Clay Allison, “the Gentleman Gunslinger.”
While growing up in Tennessee, Allison suffered a severe head injury, and for the rest of his life was given to extremely wild mood swings. He could be a complete gentleman one moment but a complete psycho the next and, after moving to Texas and New Mexico, seemed to grow increasingly bizarre — riding naked through dusty streets, dancing naked atop a bar, or challenging an entire town to a gunfight, while naked.
In October of 1870, Allison — fully clothed — sat drinking in an Elizabethtown saloon, when Charles Kennedy’s wife stumbled in and choked out a gruesome story that confirmed every suspicion anyone had ever had about her husband.
Kennedy was quickly arrested and tried, but when the primitive forensics of the time were unable to prove if all the bones found on his property were human, it was allegedly Allison who rallied a mob together, dragged the terrified Kennedy from his prison, hanged him, and cut off his head for display on a fence post.
Allison would die too, seventeen years later, when — in an early instance of drunk driving — he would fall while intoxicated beneath his horse-drawn wagon, and a wheel would roll over his neck.