A Trail of Victims: The Short, Violent Life of Wild BillLatura

Posted by Devin Greaney on Monday, April 19, 2010, Across Tennessee ·

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William Latura

from The Memphis News-Scimitar,1908

“Leisurely strolling through Hammett Ashford’s saloon at Fourth and Beale, William Latura, known among his associates as Wild Bill, at midnight Thursday night entered a billiard room in the rear and calmly unbuttoned his overcoat and pulled out a 38 caliber pistol, picking his victims from the first billiard table on the back wall and began firing. At no stage of this sick slaughter did Latura evidence excitement, rather showing acute forethought.” – Memphis News Scimitar.  December 10, 1908

Initially three patrons lay dead at Hammett Ashford’s and another one or possibly two were dying. Latura walked out with his friend, Punch Wilson, “arm and arm” according to the newspaper account to Rosebud’s saloon at Hernando and Gayoso where he was arrested.

It was a violent moment, in a violent life, on a violent street in a violent city.

William Latura was born January, 27, 1880 in Memphis, the son of a grocer who ran a market on the southwest corner of Poplar and Dunlap. He was married to Allie Latura and they had three daughters. He was known as a family man. In addition to the grocery, he had a saloon attached to the store and sold hamburgers

But Latura was also referred to in press accounts as a “police character” and known for a violent temper and had admittedly killed people. Some cases he had corroborating witnesses that called those incidents self defense. But self defense or not, Latura had a knack for getting in quite a few of those incidents where guns and knives settled scores. He was never convicted, possibly due to the fact he was white and many of those he shot or stabbed were black.

The first incident involved a white man on August 8, 1902. Newspapers reported Dan S. Wright had been a Memphis firefighter but had been let go. Since that time he a talent for getting into fights. He knew Latura, entered in his saloon and Latura says he gave him three beers on the house. Wright asked for a fourth free beer but was refused. Wright became violent and started fighting with employees. Latura pulled out a baseball bat and fractured Wright’s skull, killing him.

Not quite a year later a fight broke out where a man tried to shoot Latura. While police were talking to the two, Latura pulled out a concealed knife and tried cut the other man. Police disarmed him before there were any further injuries.

January 16, 1904 he again used a knife to injure Will Wallace in an argument over money.

He shot Irene Mantley in a quarrel at a resort at 157 Gayoso a year and a half later.

Albert Hunt was shot by him over a debt April 6, 1907.

January 9, 1908 he shot Henry Mitchell in the back at the Dixie Saloon.

March 8, 1908 was almost the end of Wild Bill. A knife fight gave Latura huge scar along his right jaw line. The other man was obviously aiming lower.

That following November, The Commercial Appeal said he presented “a big gun in a gambling room and compelled several circus men to deliver money they had won from him.”

Stories vary about the incident at Hammett Ashford’s Saloon. Later recollections of the incident said five were killed in the rampage. Articles were written a few years after the incident when memories would have still been fresh, which also put the death toll at five. But press accounts at the time listed the dead as Charley Miller, Clarence Allen, Bob Carter and Leslie Williams. Injured were Birdie Hines, Richard Slott and Robert Spect. There are no Shelby County death certificates from around that time showing any of those three dying.

One story said he walked in and started firing. Another claimed he told the bartender he was going to turn the place into a funeral parlor before the shooting incident. When Officer Mike Kehoe arrested him he said “I shot ‘em and that’s all there is to it.”

Latura remained in jail for two years and was acquitted for all but one of the murders.  During his trial Dr W. B. Sanford said he was suffering from “progressive paranoia.” He was acquitted due to insanity.

He showed up in the newspaper. Again.

“William Latura known to police as “Wild Bill” added a 7th scalp to his belt at 1 o’clock Friday morning when he shot Thomas Gibson.” – Memphis News Scimitar. May 24, 1912.

Latura was shooting craps at his saloon with the man known as “Alabama Tom.” After winning all his money, Gibson begged for twenty dollars back. Latura gave him ten. He said Gibson shot at him when Latura’s back was turned. He returned fire striking Gibson three times. Latura went to the phone and called police. “Send out here and get me. I have got me another man,” he said.

He hated the name Wild Bill and called The Commercial Appeal threatening to shoot up the newsroom if they called him that. Editor CPJ Mooney complied. But in 1916 a new reporter, Boyce House, called him “Wild Bill” in an article. He wrote later it put Latura in a bad mood.

Other things were happening, too. In 1909 Tennessee had banned alcohol but Memphis was well known for lax enforcement, calling it a state issue rather than something for the city or county to handle. By 1916 things had begun to change. Latura’s saloon/grocery had been raided a few days earlier and over one thousand bottles of beer were found. Two officers who patrolled that area, John C. “Sandy” Lyons and Charlie Davis were fined ten days pay and threatened with their jobs if Latura kept selling alcohol on their watch.  They intended to keep their jobs. Latura had also called in threats to Chief Oliver Perry and Captain John Couch.

Latura stepped out and saw the officers on the Dunlap side of the store on the night of August 22, 1916. He became verbally abusive, accusing them of scaring off his employees.  The officers said Latura told them  “You _____ I’m going to kill you!”

“I said ‘Bill, you’re under arrest,” according to Lyons. “With that he made a motion towards his pocket. I fired. In falling a small automatic pistol fell out of his pocket.” After four shots hit him, he staggered across the street and fell. The officers headed to the station house to report the incident.

According to The News Scimitar, “Bleeding and gasping for breath he lay in the street without attention from a group of spectators… They were afraid to touch him fearing he might be shamming.  But then a gold-haired, blue-eyed beauty of twelve rushed up to his side.  ‘I want my daddy’ she cried while attempting to throw her body on his blood-stained breast. He was no ‘bad man’ to her. He was a father who adored her.”

Latura was loaded in a car and rushed to the City Hospital nearby and died at 12:20 am. “It was a horrible death that took Latura away and a horrible life that led him away from home” said The Commercial Appeal who said he had a “double life.”  The News Scimitar called him a “Jekyll and Hyde.” The funeral was held at his home at 303 Garland.

Lyons was taken into custody and an investigation cleared him. But not all were convinced. A letter arrived from “Bill’s Friends.”

“Lyons you dirty coward you are next in our first chance to kill you so prepare for it now you cowardly pup,” the note said.

Today Latura lies in Forest Hill in Memphis. The house still stands in an area locals call MidtownMemphis.

Latura’s store ended up becoming part of the Piggly Wiggly chain, which was founded in Memphis. Today the site is occupied by Orion Credit Union

Records obtained by Jan Jorgenson owner of People Stories, a genealogical research firm, showed John “Sandy” Lyons recorded in the 1930 census and still with the Memphis Police Department. His wife, Martha. died in 1951 and she was listed as a widow.

Punch Wilson – yes that was his name- died in 1911.

Officer Mike Kehoe, a native of Ireland, remained with the police department and had a reputation as a tough Irish cop. A story this writer remembered from his father, Ed Greaney, said during a barricade situation Kehoe walked to the front door, pounded on the door with a cane and said “This is Inspector Kehoe.Get your ass out here right now!” It worked.  Kehoe died in 1940 at age 75.

Reporter Boyce House moved to Texas and stayed in journalism. He broke story of Old Rip, the Texas horned toad that lived in thirty one years in a courthouse corner stone, and he wrote several books on Texana. He discusses Latura in his book “Cub Reporter” which was quoted in the book “Memphis in the Progressive Era 1900-1917.” He died in Fort Worth, Texas in 1961.

 The wife of one of Latura's great grandsons ( whose name was lost due to a computer error ) updated an incorrect entry from an earlier version. The children lived much longer than their father. Rose Lee Latura Wattam, the girl who ran to her father's aid, died in 1998 at the age of 92. Elizabeth Latura Edwards was 76 when she died in 1987 and Dorothy Mae Latura Phillips died in 1969. She was 56. His wife remarried and she died in 1964. 

The City Hospital where Latura was taken is now Regional One Health. As a level one trauma center it is still the number one choice for gunshot victims in West Tennessee, Eastern Arkansas and Northern Mississippi.

Over the next few decades, Memphis received national attention as being the nation’s murder capitol. Less than a year after Latura was killed, Ell Person was lynched near the current a location of the Summer Drive In movie theater while about three thousand watched and/ or participated. Descriptions of the ghoulish spectacle sound less like a lynching from a Western movie and more like an ancient Aztec human sacrifice.

In August and September of 1969, serial killer George Howard Putt killed five Memphians. In May, 1973 five people were killed when a man walked up Kansas Street, laughing as he shot people before he was killed by police. In March, 2008 six people were murdered in a house on Lester Street. A family member was convicted.

Beale Street remained a vibrant, wild place but its luster began to fade after riots in March, 1968. In the 1970’s neglect turned it into almost a ghost town. In 1983 it was rededicated in its new life as a remodeled entertainment tourist destination. Some long-time residents said it was not the same Beale from the old days.

But those who know local history know that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Sources:

“Memphis during the Progressive Era. 1900 to 1917” by William D. Miller

“The Two Faces of Infamous William ‘Wild Bill’ Latura” by Paul R. Coppock, The Commercial Appeal. August 18, 1974.

The Commercial Appeal

Memphis News- Scimitar

Shelby County Register of Deeds