The outlaw Ben Craven was one of the suspects in the murder of George Montgomery, at Winfield, in 1901. He was never arrested for this murder however his story needs to be told as he did operate in Cowley county.
Ben Cravens was born in 1861 near Lineville, Missouri where he grew up- He was ornery even as a kid. He bullied other pupils and terrorized the schoolmaster. In revenge for a severe licking his teacher gave him, he went to the schoolhouse at night, smashed all the windows, kicked the stove off its legs and blackened the desks and walls with soot. Lodged in the local cooler, he soon escaped and hid out in the Ozarks of Southwestern Missouri.
In 1890, he joined a roving band of horse traders, and after completing a course in the art of horse thievery, which he found more profitable than anything else, Cravens drifted west to Chautauqua County. During week days he worked as a cowboy in the Osage,Cherokee and Creek nations, gaining a thorough knowledge of the country and forming friendships that were to aid him greatly in his career later.
He began his criminal career as a bootlegger along the southern border of Kansas, including , Cowley county. He peddled whiskey to the Osage, Kaw, Otoe, Ponca, and Pawnee Indians in the outlet. He was arrested in December of 1894 and jailed at Guthrie, but he escaped.
Cravens fled to Kansas. After a few months he was back to the Outlet, having graduated into a cattle thief. Just before Thanksgiving in 1896, Cravens and his gang held up the store at Hewins, in Chautauqua County. He also stole a fine black horse belonging to Fred Gaddie.
Cravens was arrested in 1900 in the Osage country by Frank M. Canton for cattle stealing. Canton took his prisoner to Perry where he placed him in jail. In less than a week Cravens broke jail and escaped, at the same time freeing several other prisoners.
He then started on a career of robbing banks, post offices and country stores. He was considered one of the most reckless outlaws of the Territory and for several years was hunted like a wild animal. If cornered, his usual tactics were to make his escape in a running fight, and he was handy with a Winchester rifle even when running. His plan of operation was usully to have with him some young fellow with little experience, but ample nerve. Such he could ordinarily get rid of after having used him and appropriated the major part of loot to himself.
Cravens picked up a young fellow, Dick Ainsley, near the Sac and Fox Agency, and with him planned to rob a bank in Blackwell. The two outlaws went to Blackwell,examined the surroundings and the location of the bank which they intended to rob the following day. They then bought some supplies and went to a cabin in the woods nearby and made camp. But the officers in Blackwell had observed the suspicious looking characters, and after the outlaws had left town they organized a posse, and after dark followed them into the woods where they surrounded the cabin and secured positions where they could easily watch the door and window. They planned to make an attack at daylight.
The outlaws, somehow, learned that they were surrounded by armed men
and determined to escape in a running fight. Filling their cartridge belts,
they sprang out, firing as they ran. Cravens was shot down within a few
yard while Ainsley traveled about forty yards before he was shot dead. Two
bullets passed entirely through Cravens body, making ugly wounds
which were then thought to be fatal.
The dead body of Ainsley and the wounded Cravens were taken to Blackwell where Cravens refused to talk about the dead man except to say that they called him Dick. From this the officers thought they had killed the notorious bandit, Dynamite Dick, who had some time before escaped from the Guthrie jail and who was still at large.
United States Marshal Pat Nagle of Kingfisher, Charley Colcord of Oklahoma
City and Frank M.Canton went to Blackwell where they examined the body and
recognized it as that of Dick Ainsley. The three then entered an adjoining
room where the wounded Cravens was lying on a bed. Looking at Canton, the
outlaw at once recognized him and said, "I know you, Frank Canton.
You are the d----d officer that put a bullet through the cantle of my saddle
one night in the Otoe country." Then he began to cough and bleed at
the mouth. Canton gave him a drink of water and asked if there was anything
he could do for him to relieve his suffering. "NO, Cravens replied,
"I guess they got me this time." It was not believed that the
outlaw could live more than a few hours at most, but to the surprise of
everybody he recovered.
Fred Gaddie came from Chautauqua County and identified his horse. Sheriff John Powell of Chautauqua County secured requisition papers and returned Cravens to Kansas. Cravens was tried, convicted, and sentenced to fifteen years in the state penitentiary at Lansing on January 16.
After serving for a time, Cravens was placed with the coal mining gang with whom he worked several hundred feet below the surface. In the same gang was a notorious robber, one Joe Ezell, and the two planned their escape. With prison tools obtained in some manner, they fashioned two long-barreled wooden make-believe revolvers around which they neatly wrapped tinfoil. In the dim light of the coal shaft these appeared as murderous weapons. With these pieces of wood on November 16, 1900 they held up the guard stationed at the bottom of the shaft and disarmed him. After securing his arms and ammunition they forced him to give the signal for the hoist. Reaching the top of the shaft they made a break for liberty, and though guards shot at them from every direction, both escaped. Once out of prison,Cravens stole a horse and was soon back in the Osage country. Ezell was left to shift for himself.
Officer Canton learned of the prison break about the time Cravens crossed the southern line of Kansas and trailed him to his old haunts in the Otoe country and there lost the trail. He ran across a cowboy whom he knew, wrote a telegram and asked him to take it to the nearest telegraph station. This message notified the officers of the country that Cravens was again at large in the Territory.
Cravens had, in the meantime, gone into the vicinity of Kingfisher where he had induced a young farmer, Bert Welty, to go with him to rob a store and post office at Red Rock in the Otoe country. To avoid suspicion Cravens disguised himself as a farmer and Welty put on a woman's dress and sunbonnet. In a light wagon which they had rigged up with a plow tied on behind, they drove across the country toward Red Rock, using their saddle horses for their team.
They reached Red Rock about dark, left their horses in the timber nearby
and walked several hundred yards carrying their Winchester. When they entered
the store they found several people standing around. These the robbers quickly
held up and robbed. Alva Bateman, the assistant postmaster, was standing
in the rear of the store and while the hold-up was in progress, picked up
a revolver and fired at one of the robbers but missed. The outlaws then
opened fire on Bateman, killing him instantly. They then robbed the post
office of several hundred dollars and made a break for their horses. A heavy
storm had come on and the rain was pouring down in torrents accompanied
by terrific thunder and lightning. The outlaws, under these conditions,
experienced considerable difficulty in finding their outfit; but once found,the
bandits drove at their utmost speed eastward. In the darkness they ran into
a gulch and broke their wagon. They then jerked the harness from their horses,
and saddled them. Welty had the loot in a sack. Cravens, now having no further
use for Welty, pulled a shotgun from the wagon and fired point-blank into
face, who instantly dropped to the ground. Cravens,being unable to see distinctly in the darkness, but believing that he had killed Welty, secured all the money, mounted one of the horses, and leading the other, disappeared alone in the darkness. The darkness saved Welty's life. When Cravens fired, the shot struck the side of Welty's face, making a dangerous, but not necessarily fatal wound. Welty lay unconscious for several hours in the rain and then walked about ten miles to Black Bear Creek, where he entered the home of one Hetherington whose place had been one of Cravens's hide-outs. This farmer summoned a doctor and cared for Welty until he was out of danger. Perry officers arrested Welty at Hetherington's place. He was convicted of killing Bateman, and sentenced to life imprisonment for murder.
The officers at Perry had been immediately notified after the murder and robbery at Red Rock and some of them had reached the place that same night. Early the following morning Jean Branson, a Perry deputy sheriff, struck the bandits' trail which, in the mud, was easily followed. The tracks of the two horses led eastward toward Pawnee. Branson followed the trail to where they led up to the house of a farmer named Cunningham. He observed two horses in Cunningham's corral which had the appearance of having been hard ridden. Keeping himself under cover, the officer rode to Pawnee where he got the sheriff and a posse. They returned to Cunningham's,surrounded the house,called Cunningham out and asked him if Cravens was in the house. He denied that he was. Tom Johnson, a deputy from Pawnee, had taken a position in the open about ten feet from the door. With the muzzle of his high-powered rifle, Cravens pushed open the door, and quick as a flash, shot Johnson down with a mortal wound. He then jumped out, ran eighty yards across an open field of plowed ground, jumped over a bluff into a ravine and escaped. As Cravens ran across the plowed ground Sheriff John Chrisman and deputy Joe Weariman, both good rifle shots, stood in the open and emptied their magazines, but the outlaw got away without a scratch.
For four of five years after this escapade,practically every officer in the Territory was on the alert for Ben Cravens. Heavy rewards were offered and he was the most talked-of outlaw in the country. He was accused of nearly every murder and hold-up where the criminals were not killed or captured. He was reported to have been seen in Texas, Old Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico. But he had disappeared, apparently, completely.
What Cravens actually did after the killing of Tom Johnson near Pawnee was to go to Missouri and hire out as a farm hand under the name of Charley Maust. Here, he was considered a hard-working, honest sort of fellow. Evidently he had decided to "quit the road" and reform.
He married there under the name of Maust and his wife worked with him on the farm. But at last his old propensities broke loose. He stole a horse and was sentenced to a term of four years in the Missouri penitentiary at Jefferson City in November, 1908.
One day, while in the Missouri penitentiary, a barber who had been in the Lansing prison with Cravens, recognized him and notified the officers that the prisoner, Charley Maust, was none other than the notorious and long-looked-for Ben Cravens. The Bertillon (fingerprint) record of Cravens was then procured from Lansing,which on comparison with that of Charley Maust at Jefferson City, agreed in every particular. The Oklahoma authorities were then notified that the Oklahoma outlaw, Ben Cravens, wanted for murder, was in the Missouri penitentiary. Cravens was brought to Guthrie in Nov., 1911 where he was tried in the United States district court for the murder of assistant postmaster Alva Bateman, of Red Rock. Witnesses were subpoenaed to identify Cravens and Bert Welty was brought from the penitentiary to testify. Welty made a full confession, and though Cravens pleaded not guilty the evidence was complete and he was found guilty and given a life sentence in the Federal penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Jan. 29, 1912. October 17, 1936 he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal prisoners at Springfield, Missouri where he died on September 19, 1950. He continued to maintain that he was Charles Maust and not Ben Cravens until his death.
This story was compiled from articles by George Rainey and Glen Shirley.
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