In this last installment in the series of stories that my Great Aunt Esther told me, we turn to a tale of murder! Esther told me that after her uncle Alfonso Hanson and his son both died (as we saw in Part 4),
His wife remarried. She and her second husband were found murdered in their car.
Just two brief sentences to go on, but can we verify this juicy tidbit? Oh my, yes we can!
First, as a refresher, here’s how Esther was connected to Gertrude. Gertrude was the widow of Alfonso Hanson, who was Esther’s paternal uncle.
In the 1930 census, we find Gertrude teaching school in Tie Siding, Wyoming. This would have been two years after the deaths of her husband and son. She was a lodger in the home of Percy Cota.1 The sad widow and lonely bachelor apparently fell in love, in 1937 they were married by a Justice of the Peace in Boulder, Colorado.2
In the 1940 census, we find Percy still at Tie Siding3 but Gertrude is a lodger in Horse Creek, Wyoming where she is teaching school4. Horse Creek is about 30 miles northeast of Laramie, while Tie Siding is about 20 miles south. So that’s quite a distance apart. I wouldn’t automatically assume that there was any problem in their marriage, perhaps they needed the income from her teaching position, and this was the only position available at the time.
Their lives ended on July 2, 1943 at their home near Tie Siding. From the Marysville (Kansas) Advocate (scroll down to read transcript):
A Former Blue Rapids Girl Killed in Wyoming
Mrs. Percy Cota and Husband Murdered at Ranch Home July 2, Near Laramie, Wyo
Article from Jul 15, 1943 The Marysville Advocate (Marysville, Kansas)
Mr. and Mrs. Percy Cota, Laramie, Wyo., were shot and instantly killed at their ranch home near Laramie Friday night, July 2. Mrs. Cota was the former Gertrude Jewell, Blue Rapids, where she was born and reared. For 13 years she was a teacher in Marshall county rural schools.
The couple were found dead the morning of July 3 by Charles Johnson, foreman of a neighboring ranch. Mrs. Cota had been shot through the head and her husband through the throat. Their bodies had been dragged by the feet from the doorway of their home to a garage 100 feet away and thrown together beside the wooden building. A short piece of rope was knotted about Mrs. Cota’s throat.
The couple apparenlty were killed the night before, on their return from a grocery shopping trip to the Tie Siding store at Dale Creek, small depot on the Union Pacific railroad.
Cota drove to Laramie July 2 to get his wife, who had been attending summer school for teachers at Wyoming university. Together they started home and stopped at the Tie Siding store.
They had carried one load of groceries from their car into their house and were shot as they went back to their car for the rest of the purchases.
Their killer apparently had stolen into the house after Cota left for Laramie and lurked there awaiting their return. A meal had been eaten in the Cota’s kitchen and one bed looked as if someone had slept on it for short time. Nothing of value apparently had been taken from the home.
Two empty .32 shells lay near the front door. Near the bodies was a man’s green sock in which were found about 30 loaded .32 shells.
Johnson had gone to the Cota ranch after he found the Cota’s coupe – blood on one running board – bogged down in a mudhole on a country road a few miles from the ranch.
Sheriff Ed A. Wood, Laramie, theorized that the killer drove away from the ranch in the coupe, got on a road that grew smaller as he drove, tried to turn around, got stuck in the mudhole, then fled on foot.
After an intensive search by police officers and ranchmen, first degree murder charged were filed July 6 at Cheyenne against Howard W. Pichell, 24, alias Pickell, ex-convict from New York, who was jailed at Cheyenne as Wyoming’s mad triple killer.
Pichell is believed to be the man who also killed Matt Katmo, 44, Cheyenne war worker, June 30, in a mountain camp ground near Laramie.
Katmo was killed and his companion, Mrs. O. W. Larson, Laramie, was beaten and her hands tied by a man who accosted them as they stepped out of Katmo’s car to pick some flowers.
Mrs. Cota was married in 1915 to Al E. Hanson and moved from Blue Rapids to Green River, Wyo., where her husband was express agent for the Union Pacific. Later the family moved to Laramie and a son, Jean, was born. When then son was 10 years old, he and his mother were walking along a Laramie business street when the boy slumped to the sidewalk. He was rushed to a hospital, where it was learned that a rifle bullet had penetrated his abdomen and he soon died. It was later learned that a boy, cleaning a rifle in a second-story barber shop, accidentally discharged the rifle that sent the bullet into the child’s body. Three months after her son’s death, Mrs. Hanson’s husband died on the operating table, while undergoing a major operation.
After the death of her son and husband, she returned to teaching and four years ago married Percy Cota.
Some of the other newspaper accounts describe vigilante posses combing through the county in the days after the murders, with intentions of shooting to kill. This photo appeared in a Tennessee newspaper5:
As if all of this isn’t sad and strange enough, the story took another turn when the accused killer recanted his confession and another man, Henry Ruhl, was arrested for the death of Matt Katmo. Because Katmo was murdered on a government reservation, federal charges were brought. At a federal district court in Cheyenne, Wyoming in May, 1944, he was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Per Wikipedia, he was the only person executed by the U.S. Government in the State of Wyoming. Read more about the Ruhl case here. Ruhl was executed before he was ever officially charged or tried for the deaths of the Percy and Gertrude Cota.
Newspapers across the country covered the murders, the recanted confession, the trial and execution. For example, it was on the front page of the New York Times on July 5, 1943. I’m sure my relatives followed the case with interest.
Percy and Gertrude were buried together in the Greenhill Cemetery in Laramie, Wyoming. And poor Gertrude, I don’t think I’ve got anyone else in my family tree with a more tragic life story.
Aunt Esther gets another A+ for accuracy for this story. Even though Percy and Gertrude apparently weren’t shot while in their car, the car itself is relevant to the facts of the case so she still gets credit.
Despite the mostly tragic nature of these stories, it was fun to track down the details and fact-check Aunt Esther. I am so pleased that, for the most part, she got her facts straight. What I remember as dramatic embellishments seem in hindsight to have been limited to the tone of her delivery. I wish she was still here so we could relive these stories together.
Here’s a re-cap:
- Part 1: Esther’s uncle was killed in a train accident
- Part 2: Esther’s first cousin drowned during boot camp training for WW I
- Part 3: Esther’s first cousin once removed renounced her citizenship
- Part 4: Esther’s first cousin died of an accidental gunshot wound
- Part 5: Esther’s uncle’s widow was murdered
1 1930 U.S. Census, Albany County, Wyoming, Election District No. 3 Tie Siding, Enumeration District 2, Sheet 2A, Line 33.
2 Ancestry.com. Colorado, County Marriage Records and State Index, 1862-2006 [database on-line], Image 4657 of 6094.
3 1940 U.S. Census, Albany County, Wyoming, Election District No. 3 Tie Siding, Enumeration District 1-3, Sheet 1B, Line 62.
4 1940 U.S. Census, Albany County, Wyoming, Horse Creek, Enumeration District 1-28, Sheet 1A, Line 18.
5 Evening Herald Courier, Bristol, Tennessee, Page 1