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Elizabethtown Serial Killer: Charles Kennedy, What do we really know?

By Edward Camp, Staff Writer

Clay Allison was a fiery man, a man of justice. When he heard who the judge would be, a magistrate known far and wide for his corruption, Allison knew that justice would not be served. He knew a killer would walk free.

And not just any killer, but a monster who had murdered his own child to cover up his other killings; a monster named Charles Kennedy. Allison and his brother John began gathering a mob to ride on the jail and see that the monster got what he deserved…

It all began one night a couple of months earlier when a badly beaten Ute woman had fallen through the doors of a saloon in Elizabethtown where Clay Allison and his friend Davy Crockett (nephew of the Alamo defender) had been drinking. The woman told the gathered patrons a harrowing story; her husband, a white man, was a killer. He had murdered numerous travelers at a guest house he ran at the base of Palo Flechado Pass, on the road to Taos. Once lured in, he would murder them in the most cowardly of ways, in their sleep or while they ran away, unarmed and begging for their lives, just to relieve them of their property. She hated him but she was terrified. He beat her too, just to make sure she didn’t tell.

Earlier in the day, a lone traveler, an Easterner many believe, stopped at Kennedy’s house for a meal. Commenting on the race of Kennedy’s wife and son, the man casually asked if there were many Indians in these parts. Kennedy’s 9-year-old son responded, saying “Can’t you smell the one papa put under the floor?” Enraged, Kennedy killed the man and then turned on his own son, bashing his head in with a fireplace poker. He then beat his wife bloody, locked her in the house and preceded to get blindingly drunk outside. After he finally passed out, she escaped (some say through the chimney) and walked barefoot to Elizabethtown in a storm.

Allison, Crockett and a posse of other E-town men set off at once for Kennedy’s cabin, where they found him still passed out. They bound him and, searching the place, found the bodies and bones of his many victims. They took Kennedy back to Elizabethtown and handed him over to the law.

But while the shocked community awaited the trial, news came that a corrupt judge would be working the case, a man open to bribery. Allison knew Kennedy would have no problem paying the requisite amount and sprang into action. He and his brother John gathered a lynch mob and took Kennedy from the jail at gunpoint. Before they strung him up, Kennedy is said to have confessed to killing 21 men. Rather than find a tree for hanging, Allison drug the gasping and struggling killer behind his horse, not only until dead, but until Kennedy’s head was ripped from his corpse. Allison then took the severed head to Cimarron and put it on a stake in front of the St. James Hotel so that everyone would know what fate befalls a mass murderer when Clay Allison is around. It would be one of many violent exploits in the life of the so-called “gentleman gunfighter.”

At least, that’s how the story’s told. Or one version of it, anyway. There are almost as many as there are storytellers. But what really happened and who was this killer?

WHAT WE DO KNOW: The first public record that can be definitively linked to Kennedy is his marriage to Gregoria Cortes on February 28, 1867. Performed at Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Catholic Church in Taos, it lists “Charles Canady,” as the son of William and Fanny and a native of Tennessee. Gregoria Cortes is described as the only daughter of widower José Cortes of Cordillera de Ranchos and his late wife Antonia Lucero.

Kennedy then appears in the article from the July 4, 1868 issue of the “Santa Fe Weekly Gazette.” The article describes the correspondent’s trip through the region to see the mining camps, where along the way, he stops at a stage coach station run out of Charles Kennedy’s home. Coincidently, or perhaps not, one of the writer’s traveling companions who had gone ahead of the others was found murdered some two miles up the trail from Kennedy’s home. The writer, however, was quick to blame the incident on Jicarilla Apache men.

Kennedy is recorded on the 1870 census as resident of the newly formed Colfax County. It lists the 31-year-old a as carpenter, his wife, 17-years old, as an illiterate housekeeper, and the presence of a 1-year-old son, Samuel.

Finally, there’s the article on his demise. The October 13th, 1870 issue of the “Santa Fe New Mexican” tells the tale:

Charles Kennedy… was arrested last month and taken to Elizabethtown for examination on a charge of murder. The trail came off… when Jose Cortez testified as follow [sic]: That he was at Kennedy’s house on Christmas of last year… A stranger came to the house afoot and stopped for the night; he was an American and had large red whiskers; witness and stranger had gone to bed and witness was asleep when a pistol shot awakened him; there was no light in the room but Kennedy soon after lit a candle, and witness saw the stranger lying dead on the bed with a bullet hole through the head… after refusing to help Kennedy bury the dead man, witness ran away to Taos…

It goes on to tell of how bones found in Kennedy’s garden were examined by doctors who could not say conclusively whether they were human. During the hearing, a Taos Pueblo man testified that there was a body buried in one of the rooms of Kennedy’s house and a party went to recover it. A justice of the peace determined the victim as the man José Cortes saw Kennedy murder. Kennedy was bound over for trial and held in a guarded log cabin as Sheriff Houx prepared a more secure jail to keep him through the winter.

Records show the juries were hard to assemble in the early years of Colfax County. Mobs were different story. On October 6, 1870, a mob came to where Kennedy was held, intent on seeing justice served. They decided to hold an impromptu trail on the spot with Kennedy allowed to pick the jury. The jury couldn’t agree and it was decided to leave him in the hands of the law to face a regular trial.

At 11pm the next night, another mob of around 25 masked and armed men overwhelmed the guards and took Kennedy from the prison. When his body was discovered the next day, the medical examiner determined he had died by hanging.

He was buried with a wooden marker branding him a killer.

WHAT HAPPENED TO HIS WIFE: Gregoria disappears into history. It’s likely she remarried though records have proved elusive. The fate of Kennedy’s son is equally mysterious. If Kennedy had killed the infant, as some versions claim, it would have made it into the news, since that sort of gruesome story is exactly what sold (and sells) papers. It’s possible that if Gregoria remarried, that Samuel was given a new name, or, considering what Kennedy had done, the child may have been left with an orphanage.

WHAT WAS CLAY ALLISON’S INVOLVEMENT: Unknown. Though a fight he had with a group of Apache in Kansas in 1868 had made local papers there, Clay Allison’s fame really came during the Colfax County Wars later in the decade. While it’s possible he helped lynch Kennedy, he was masked and anonymous like the rest of the mob. He certainly didn’t drag Kennedy though the streets of Elizabethtown or decapitate him, since that too would have sold papers from coast to coast. Plus, no serious biographer of Allison believes he was involved. Most believe he was just trying to settle down and start a new life after the horrors of the Civil War.

HOW MANY DID CHARLES KENNEDY KILL: It can’t be said with any certainty, but many criminologists estimate between 5-15 during his time at Palo Flechado. They believe Kennedy primarily killed for profit and coldly, without remorse. Court records are gone, but local lore says Kennedy was involved in multiple lawsuits with locals he’d cheated when his father-in-law turned him in for murder. As any record of him before 1867 has not been located, it’s possible Charles Kennedy was an assumed name and that he had been killing under a different identity before. All we can say for certain is a brutal man met a brutal end under October skies in New Mexico.

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