History tells us that in the Old West, the rope was an instrument of both justice and injustice—sometimes they hanged the right guy for the right reason; sometimes they didn’t. This is a case that straddles that line. But, then, it’s easy to hear history adding, “so what?”
This is the story of Sandy King, a tall cowboy, rustler and thief who often rode with William “Curly Bill” Brocius, associated with the Clantons of O.K. Corral fame and was a close friend with “Russian Bill” Tattenbaum, a notorious “cowboy.” Besides rustling in both Arizona and New Mexico territories, King was known as a bully.
In November of 1881, Russian Bill was caught red-handed stealing a horse and was brought to Shakespeare, New Mexico, now a ghost town. On Nov. 9, he was tried in a mock trial at the Grand Hotel by the local “vigilance committee” organized to combat rustling. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang. King was a spectator in the courtroom, and someone on the vigilance committee proposed he be hanged at the same time for being “a damned nuisance.”
The rest of the committee agreed and King was seized. Someone pointed out that King had recently gotten drunk, went into the general store and shot off the clerk’s finger when he didn’t move fast enough to suit the outlaw. King countered that his sin wasn’t that bad—in fact, wasn’t as bad as the case of Bean-Belly Smith, who weeks earlier had shot a man to death in the dining room of the hotel over the last egg in the house.
The vigilantes ignored his argument and took both King and Russian Bill to the hotel lobby, where they threw ropes over the high rafters. Bill begged for his life, but King asked for a glass of water because “my throat is dry after talking so much to save my life.”
He drank the water and was promptly hung. Both men were left hanging from the rafters for several hours “so the people about town could ride in and see how justice had overtaken two bad characters.”
Television would later present a sympathetic view of Sandy King, played by actor Luke Halphin in a 1968 episode of Death Valley Days. King is portrayed as the youngest member of the “Curly Bill” gang, with Curly played by Robert Yuro. Meanwhile, Sam Melville was cast as Army Lt. Jason Beal, who befriended the young Sandy King. No mention was made that Sandy was the town bully.