I once wrote a western novel for Bantam Books called “Cherokee Joe.” The title character was fictional.
But if there wasn’t a real Cherokee Joe in the Old West, there was a Cherokee Bill. That’s what Crawford Goldsby was called, anyway, before and after they hanged him as a young man. When I learned that he was convicted in the court of “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker (what some called “The Court of the Damned” due to Parker’s reputation for tough sentencing), I wondered if George Maledon had been his hangman.
Apparently not. Maledon, who is buried over in Johnson City’s Veterans Administration cemetery for reasons nobody seems to fully know, retired from his hangman job in 1891. Cherokee Bill was hanged in 1896. Only 20 years old.
If 20 seems a young age to be hanged, you have to note that Crawford Goldsby was a precocious criminal. Depending on what you read, he was either 12 or 13 when he “broke bad” and began showing early criminality.
Born in February of 1876, he came from a mix of racial and ethnic backgrounds. His mother had a Cherokee, African, white and Indian heritage. His father was a mixed-race “Buffalo Soldier,” originally from Alabama. Crawford had two brothers and a sister.
One of his brothers got himself beaten up by a young man named Jake Lewis, and when Crawford Goldsby and Lewis both attended a dance, Goldsby brawled with him. Two days later, he shot Lewis, which put him on the run.
Before long he put himself in league with two criminal brothers named Cooke, who, like Goldsby, were part Cherokee, and became part of their gang.
When a payout to the Cherokee became available due to a government land purchase, the Cookes and Goldsby went to Tahlequah to claim their share of the government money. Fearing to show themselves too freely in public, the wanted men sent a young woman to collect the money for them.
When she returned with it, she was followed by law enforcement officers.
A shootout occurred, with one of the Cooke brothers wounded and a deputy killed. When law enforcement officers questioned the young woman about the identity of the men who had sent her to get the money, she used the phrase “Cherokee Bill” to describe Goldsby, and the name became attached to him.
During a store robbery late in 1894, Cherokee Bill Goldsby shot and killed a painter who innocently looked into the store to see what was going on. Very quickly Cherokee Bill had a hefty price on his head, courtesy of Judge Parker.
While visiting later with a woman friend in the home of the woman’s cousin, Cherokee Bill was knocked cold and captured by that cousin for the sake of the reward.
He was found guilty of shooting the painter in the store robbery, and sentenced to hang on June 25, 1895. After filing appeals he was granted a stay of execution and during this time attempted a jailbreak.
During that attempt, Cherokee killed a guard, but never escaped. That led to a new murder charge, and at trial, Cherokee Bill got a second death sentence.
On his way to the gallows at Fort Smith on March 17, 1896, legend has it that Cherokee Bill looked around and said, “It’s as good a day to die as any.”
Just before the trap dropped, he was asked if he had any final words.
Cherokee Bill said only, “I came here to die, not to make a speech.”
Within minutes, his life was over. His remains are buried today in a Cherokee cemetery in Oklahoma’s Muskogee County.
Only some of his criminal activity is recounted above. He is said to have killed at least seven men in his short lifetime.
He became sufficiently well-known for awhile to be a potential rival, in terms of fame, to Billy the Kid. As it turned out, Billy “won” that competition, Cherokee Bill being far less remembered than Billy all these years down the road.