The Grave Misfortune of Kid Adams, the Ouray Highwayman

One of the old stage routes in Ouray region was the run between the Camp Bird Mine and Ouray. Sometimes called the Sneffels stage, it operated every day except Sunday. Known to carry a treasure box full of gold bullion from the Camp Bird mill, it ran without incident for a year before it proved an irresistible draw to bandits. On Monday, October 2, 1899, the stage stopped at the mill and picked up two days of output bullion, worth from $6,000 to $10,000 ($153,000 to $254,000) depending on how you calculate inflation. James Knowles of the Camp Bird accompanied the bullion, and a second guard, Pat Hennesey, rode behind on horseback. W.W. Almond drove the stage. As usual, they stashed the loot in an iron box beneath the driver’s seat.

The stage hadn’t been going long when a man jumped out from a bank of willows and pointed a Winchester at the stage driver, commanding him to put up his hands. A second man materialized in front of Hennesey’s horse and ordered him to dismount. Although Hennesey had a .45 revolver hidden inside his coat, he found opportunity to use it.

The bandits both wore slouch hats, and their clothing were smeared with dust. Black masks with large eyeholes covered their faces. They ordered the three men to lie down with their faces in the dirt. The first bandit stood guard while the second rummaged through the stage. He grabbed mail pouches and baggage but somehow failed to get the gold. It wasn’t clear whether he couldn’t get the box opened or simply believed Almond’s story that they weren’t carrying any bullion that day.

The bandits told the men to get back on the stage and take off. Then they stole Hennesey’s horse and rode away with the mail pouch and minor items from the stage. Later, a man in the area reported that he was robbed of his horse around that time by two masked in in ann excited frame of mind.

As soon as the victims reached Ouray, the called backed to the Camp Bird and Revenue mines. Though everyone was relieved that nobody was hurt and the bullion was safe, posses quickly formed at the mines and headed off in pursuit. The victims had seen the bandits head in Edgar, Under-Sheriff McQuilken and City Marshal O.C. Van Houton in Ouray also formed posses.

Camp Bird manager J.W. Benson offered $1,000 reward for the apprehension of the bandits. Inspired by the reward, numerous miners and mill workers in the region quit work and took off in search of the robbers.

That same evening, the Camp Bird posse located  the highwaymen camped at Yankee Boy Basin. A gunfight ensued, but the bandits escaped. It was dark, and the posse pursued only briefly.

The next day, Sheriff Edgar and his men spotted the fugitives eleven miles from Ridgway. The posse gave chase, and a running fight ensued, with both parties shooting each other. The two bandits made for a tree-covered mountainside, but a horse stumbled and fell, dumping a bandit and his rifle. The man managed to mount again quickly and he vanished among the trees again, leaving behind a broken Winchester. He still apparently had a six-shooter. The bandits separated and disappeared.

A different version of this escape had a horse and rider making a suicidal leap into a box canyon and vanishing. This story came from the editor of the Silverite-Plaindealer, F.J. Hulaniski, who went into great detail describing this own heroic entry into the chase, a daring adventure during which he was pitched off his mount, making a “hasty visit to the clouds.” With unabashed enthusiasm, he described his horse as a “cross between a trick mule and a Texas bronco, [sic]” who “turned forward and backward somersaults [sic] with much ease, pitched in all languages, come down stiff legged like an educated steam pile-driver, and went out of one fit into another.”

Apparently, despite the less-than-spectacular haul of of robbery, just about every able-bodied male in the San Juans had set out to join the fun of chasing these bandits.

The Silverite-Plaindealer went on to describe a Tuesday night spent standing guard duty “without closing an eye or moving from one post assigned by the sheriff, who, with all the others, did likewise. The night was dark and cold, mountain lions, wolves, and wild cats prowled and yelled, the and taken as a whole was no picnic.” In a perplexing contradiction, the Ouray Herald reported on that Tuesday, Edgar and his posse gave up the search and headed back down the mountain to refresh themselves with some hot supper.

Meanwhile, the stagecoach driver, W.W. Almond, also a member of some posse or other, had told authorities that he believed he recognized the voice and clothing of one of the bandits as a young man known as Ouray as “Kid Adams.” He said that, prior to the robbery, Kid Adams had been hanging around the village of Sneffels (today a ghost town) with another man, acting, “in a very suspicious manner.”

On Thursday, the bandits were still scarce. Mr. Benson of the Camp Bird declared he would spare no expense in their capture, and local papers reassured their readers that the highwayman were cornered. A chorus of voices declared that they would take the men dead or alive.

By Friday, the second bandit had been identified as Ed Perry. Before switching to stage coach robbery, Perry had been painting the Camp Bird boarding house. He had also worked as a painter in Silverton and other San Juan towns. Papers reported that he was known as an OK fellow and that his partner had turned him bad.

Kid Adams also went be the name of John Carter. The Silverite-Plaindealer described him as “young, small in stature, and an all-round tough character, desperate, unscrupulous, and possessing the nerve of a hardened pirate.” He has also been working at the Camp Bird as a laborer on the mine dump, a job that presumably gave him opportunity to case the area.

At some point during the next few days, Ed Perry appeared at a place called Netherely’s ranch where he ate supper and spent the night. A posse nearly nabbed him, but he heard them coming and escaped. Two ranch hands followed him to the Montrose area and notified the authorities. Meanwhile, a Montrose sheriff encountered Perry at a creek with the latter was cooling his heels, literally, in the fresh mountain water. The sheriff did not arrest him, a story that inspired much irate grumbling among Montrose citizens. When the sheriff returned later with reinforcements, Perry had gone. The Montrose sheriff’s department later defended themselves, saying the sheriff did not know who Perry was when he first encountered him.

By Saturday, the reported value of the gold that the robbers overlooked had nearly doubled.

That same day, the saga turned much more serious. Deputy Sheriff George Kinchen of the San Miguel County wired Sheriff Edgar, asking him about the reward and requesting an arrest warrant for Adams. Several days later, he sent the following wire: “I have killed John Carter [Kid Adams], will be in Placerville tomorrow morning with the body–answer if I shall ship remains to Ouray.”

Before taking his last breath, the Kid had told Kinchen his name was John Carter and that his parents lived in Texas. The story that later emerged that he wasn’t John Carter from Texas but Walter Adams from a local family. His father was identified as the late James S. Adams, a prominent cattleman who had run a ranch located between Montrose and Delta.

After some delay, the body finally arrived in Ouray. Newspapers reported gruesome details about the condition of the Kid–that he was “shot clear through the middle of the body, and the whole top of the head is shot away by a revolver ball.” Deputy Kinchen described what happened for several reporters. He said he learned that the Kid had been spotted heading down Disappointment Creek in San Miguel County. Kinchen followed that trail to Jim Mair’s cattle ranch on lower Disappointment, which is where he found him, apparently working with Mairs.

Kinchen approached the ranch house and chatted with the men, pretending to be looking to buy some cattle. Mairs invited him in for supper and to spend the night. The Kid was watching him closely and Kinchen noted that he was armed.

At some point, Kinchen confided his intentions to one of the other men. Around ten o’clock at night, he judged the time right, pulled his gun on the Kid and told him to surrender. The Kid jumped away and pulled his gun, and the two men began firing at each other. During the gunfight, Kinchen and the other two men fled the cabin, leaving the Kid alone inside. Half an hour late, the men outside heard a shot.

They waited until the next morning before entering, when they discovered the Kid had shot himself in the head.

The coroner held an inquest and officially confirmed Kinchen’s story.

Despite the coroner’s ruling, rumor quickly circulated that Kinchen had murdered the Kid in cold blood. Folks complained that Walter Adams was only twenty-one years old and from a respected Colorado family. The Aspen Tribune also reported Undertaker James Pierson of Ouray as saying, “I have given the cause of death, murder. This is my privilege. The Kid didn’t get any money; neither did he kill anyone and he was shot in the back. His hair was not burned by powder. He did wrong but he should have been taken to Cañon City alive instead of dead.”

Dr. Hamilton Fish, who examined the body, said that a piece of the brain and skull were missing and attributed this to an autopsy, though no autopsy had been held. The Aspen Tribune reported a rumor that someone had tampered with the body to conceal the fact that his skull had been crushed, though it wasn’t clear why someone would do that.

Kinchen admitted that his bullet had hit the Kid in the back and come out the stomach. He responded to the attacks with this indignant offer: “Who dares say I killed the Kid in cold blood? He can meet me at any time with any weapon and have it out.”

Kinchen did have his supporters; some insisted that the Kid was a “tough character’ and would have killed Kinchen if he could. In Ouray, according to the Silverite-Plaindealer, “Some irresponsible idiot went so far this week as to post notice on a telegraph pole near the post office offering ‘$1,000 reward for the scalf pf Mr. Benson and $1500 reward for Deputy Kinchen, dead or alive. Marshal Van Houten very properly tore it down.”

Either way, Kinchen collected his reward and quickly left town.

A couple of months later, A Telluride Journal reported said he had spoken to a man who was in the Disappointment cabin at the time of the shooting. The unarmed man told the reported that it was the “merest accident that Adams didn’t get the deputy” and that Adams fired first. Adams had also apparently boasted about robbing the Union Pacific the previous summer and that he had shot a Wyoming sheriff.

On Saturday night, October 14, 1899, twelve days after the robbery, the stepmother of Kid Adams, Mrs. Lucy Adams Whipple, arrived in Ouray to take charge of the remains. Walter’s mother, Emma Frazier Adams, had died when he was very young, and his father had remarried when Walter was seven. The father, James Adams, had died a few years earlier, and Lucy kept in her care the remaining Adams children, two of whom were hers. In June 1898, Lucy Adams married Don Whipple.

Apparently overcome with grief over the death of her stepson, she described him as a “reckless, good-hearted fellow, with a dare-devil disposition, and has never been in serious trouble but once before.” She admitted he held up a stage in March 1898 at Meeker at Routt County. Drunk at the time, Walter made the driver dance and sing and drink whiskey before Walter took off empty handed, having made no attempt to actually rob the stage. Authorities arrested him but let him go because he was so young.

Lucy Whipple took his remains to Cañon City where one of his relative was a retired Baptist preacher. Walter was buried beside his parents.

While all this was going on, another young man of quite a different sort involved himself in the Kid Adams story. Dr. Alexander J. McIvor-Tyndall, dubbed the “highest authority on science” of palm reading and author of an upcoming book on the subject, had been giving private readings in Room 24 at Ouray’s Beaumont Hotel. He was described by an enthusiastic Ouray reporter as “a man of superlative intelligence, a bright conversationalist, and a deep thinker on scientific subjects.”

The Silverite-Plaindealer hired McIvor Tyndall to do a reading on Kid Adams. The palmist took an impression from the dead man’s hand, which was printed in large form on the front page of the paper. The scientist first offered several remarks about the shape of Walter’s nose, forehead and earlobes, which apparently indicated that he was a desperado. As for Walter’s palm, “the head line…is short, erratic, crooked and indirect. It is much like the headline of a natural lunatic. Dr. McIvor-Tyndall went on to make a dire prediction about the late Walter Adam’s fate: “A distorted and intense imagination, a misdirected ambition and an unreasoning will are the prominent features of this hand. But the unfortunate position of the lines of life, head, and heart presage grave misfortune.”

There were no further notices about the fate of the other robber, Ed Perry.

mill at camp bird mine

Mill at the Camp Bird Mine, shown here in 1940. The Camp Bird cranked out plenty of temptation for bandits.

Notorius San Juans

“EVERYTHING IS IN PLACE – AFTER 500 YEARS – TO BUILD A TRUE ‘NEW WORLD’ IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE.” 

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