Keno Wilson had two lasting memories from his younger years. Though a man of few words — they said he was “short on poetry and long on action” — Wilson couldn’t stop talking about one. Friends said the other, which he never mentioned, “haunted him all his life.”
Born in Visalia, California, October 26, 1862, Jefferson Keener Wilson was one of 12 children. The family shortened his middle name to “Keno,” after the bingo-like, banking game popular in gambling dens and saloons. People outside the family called him “Kaner,” “Keener,” “Keeno,” “Keeneye.” But when he became San Diego’s chief of police in 1909, most everyone pronounced it “Keno.”
One Sunday in the 1870s, on a day off from driving cattle at his Uncle John’s ranch near Denton, Texas, Wilson spotted a brown cloud rising from the north road. Horses. Five, maybe six. But only one rider: a man, late-20s, curly hair down to the collar, handlebar moustache and v-shaped, Van Dyke beard, outfit sweat-stained a deep brown. A remuda of horses trailed behind.
“Any ponies for sale around here?” he asked.
“One,” said John Wilson, pointing to an unbroken bronc in the corral.
“If you can ride him,” said John, “ten dollars.”
The man roped, saddled, and blindfolded the horse, Keno recalled. He jumped on and “whipped off the blinders.” The man rode so well, the “horse couldn’t shuffle him from the saddle.” He paid the $10 and said his name was Cody, William Cody, later known as Buffalo Bill.
“A fearless man,” Wilson told the San Diego Union in 1933. “He came riding down through a lot of wild country, all alone, to buy up ponies and take them north. He could shoot, too, and was a man that everybody liked.”
Thirty years later, when Wilson was police chief, Cody brought his Wild West Show to San Diego. Wilson introduced himself. To his surprise, the world-famous showman recalled that day. They became friends. In 1917, Cody gave Wilson a watch “bearing the likeness of his famous self and equally famous protégé, Pawnee Bill.”
Wilson never tired of telling that one, or nodding at the gleaming trophy on his office wall. The other story, he refused to talk about, not even in his autobiography, two typed pages of dates and terse comments he wrote shortly before he died in 1934.
“November 6, 1888: I was elected constable at General election at Oceanside for term two years.
“July 16, 1889: I was appointed City Marshal at Oceanside by the City Trustees.”
He gives no reason for the upgrade.
Wilson returned to California in 1884. He got a job as a “special investigator” for Las Bolsas and Stearns Ranchos Company. He patrolled their 200,000 acres and evicted squatters, “over 200,” he estimated.
In 1888 he became a constable at Oceanside, working under his older brother, Charles, the city marshal. Their brother James and sister, Mary Elizabeth, also lived in the area. At 28, Charles was the eldest.
That year Oceanside was a cross between boomtown and wild and woolly. It had first-class hotels: the St. Cloud and the South Pacific. Men wore pistols in low-slung holsters, and those not bit by the temperance bug imbibed strong drink in 13 saloons from Hill Street down to the railroad tracks on Cleveland.
In April 1889, the South Oceanside Diamond said “Charley Wilson is an excellent City Marshal — that is if there was anything for him to do.” Keeping the peace usually meant breaking up disputes over gambling, women, language differences, or who could harvest the most produce. Charley and Keno tracked down the occasional horse thief and locked him in their 20-foot-square jail.
The two hotels faced each other and waged an ongoing war for customers. On July 3, 1889, they fought over the most festive Independence Day. South Pacific put up banners, but the St. Cloud, just east of the tracks, went hog wild with signs and bunting and the promise of a fireworks display. The holiday and a “tournament” of half-mile stakes races, supervised by Charley Wilson, filled both hotels.
Late in the afternoon of July 3, John Murray and José Chavez got their pay from hay-baling in the San Luis Rey Valley. They headed to Oceanside to celebrate the Fourth. On the way, Murray swore to “have some fun with the Wilson brothers.”
A year earlier, Murray got “full” — blazing drunk — at a local saloon. He raised such a ruckus, Charley Wilson had to take out a warrant and track him down. Along with a fine of $20 (a good month’s pay) for disturbing the peace, Charley ordered Murray to steer clear of Oceanside. As Murray rode off, he said he’d “get even” with the Wilson brothers.
The 23-year old Murray had a hair-trigger temper. “Sullen in disposition” (South Oceanside Diamond), he “would become excited over the most trivial matter.” A “desperado…he has a record of killing two brothers in Texas” (Los Angeles Times). Others said it was a Sheriff in San Sabo, where he grew up in a well-to-do family. He “fled to California to avoid arrest.”
To the Wilsons, Murray was just another “cow-boy” tough. He’d come to town a couple of times since but raised no cain.
On the evening of July 3, Charley and Keno walked separate patrols. They met on occasion to compare notes — and remark how the “damp and impenetrable” fog made things hard to see.
Between 9:00 and 10:00, Charley heard someone blathering in the Diamond Saloon. The voice sounded familiar: Murray, “fighting drunk” and demanding a refill. Murray was unarmed and, therefore, in the marshal’s eyes, “on the peaceable.” Charley told him to go home and sleep it off, “or I’ll have to arrest you.”
Murray and Chavez mounted up and raced out of town — but turned around and went to the Pioneer Saloon. Two weeks before, Murray had planted his .44 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver behind the bar.
On the night of July 3, the Pioneer was the most popular drinking hole in Oceanside. The proprietor, J. Hallen, set up betting pools for the races. Murray had to elbow his way through thickets of men either swilling liquor, gambling-mad, or both.
“I want the gun.” he told Hallen.
“No! You’re full!”
Murray said he wouldn’t “go through the city without it,” Hallen later testified, “as there were certain officers he wanted to get even with.”
In those days, bars closed at 11:00. Murray and Chavez went in search of after-hours whiskey. They tried Mayerhofer’s Hall, but it was closed. The hotels? Not the St. Cloud; that was a temperance house. The South Pacific?
Even in fog-damp darkness, Murray and Chavez could find their way. “Hotel men” erected a row of streetlamps, lanterns in large glass globes, from the tracks to the door. When trains stopped at night, passengers could enjoy a quality meal.
Chavez rode west across the tracks. Murray pulled up at a lamppost. He smashed a globe with the butt of his pistol — wrangled from Hallen at the Pioneer — and lifted the lamp off the frame.
Charley and Keno joined up at Taylor’s Barbershop. As they walked north on Cleveland’s sole wooden sidewalk, they heard glass breaking not far ahead. They saw two men on horseback and knew “who it was.”
“Halt,” Charley shouted as he moved toward Murray. Keno crossed the tracks and got the drop on Chavez.
“Throw up your hands!” Charley shouted at Murray. “I will arrest you!” Charley didn’t pull his gun; he assumed Murray was still “peaceable.”
Murray rode up to Charley’s left. He held the bridle and the lamp in his left hand. His right hand hung down behind him.
Charley grabbed the bridle. Murray hurled the lamp at his head. Charley tried to block it. As glass shattered, Murray swung his right hand over the saddle-horn — a gun! He fired straight down — crack, flash! Charley collapsed to the dirt.
Murray took off. He fired a second shot the same time Keno shot back. Missed. Keno fired two more times, one at Murray, nicked him, the third to stop his horse. The bullet hit near the tail, flesh wound, but the pain, and the uphill trudge slowed the animal. Murray abandoned it. He ran to the dry San Luis Rey River bottom and a natural sanctuary: 25 acres of bulrush-sized tules northeast of town.
“I went to Charley, who was lying on the ground,” Keno said at the coroner’s inquest, “lying on his right side, hand on pistol, still in the scabbard. I cried out, ‘Charley, are you killed?’ But he never answered.”
Keno cradled his brother’s head in his arm and yelled for help. Then, as blood began to gush from Charley’s mouth, Keno howled at the hidden stars.
Dr. Harrison E. Stroud was among the first to arrive. The bullet “must have cut the main artery,” he said at the inquest, “because all the blood in the body seemed to be pouring out.”
Asked if the shot was fatal, Stroud replied, “It could not have been more fatal.”
When she heard the news, Charley’s wife Maggie became so “prostrated with grief,” wrote the Diamond, that “doctors feared for her life.” Charley had a two-year-old daughter, but his sister, Mary Elizabeth, couldn’t care for the child. Mary Elizabeth was “stricken down by the cruel blow and confined to her bed.”
The Fourth of July wore a shroud. “This affair has thrown a damper on our celebration,” wrote the Los Angeles Times correspondent. “The grand arrangements for the Fourth were forgotten” because an “excess of grief prevailed in every house.”
The races were canceled. The St. Cloud Hotel was “the best decorated building,” but few seemed to notice.
The funeral service, held at the Congregational Church, was followed by a mute, mile-long procession to the Buena Vista Cemetery in South Oceanside.
Chauncey Hayes wrote an obituary for the Diamond: “Courteous, obliging, and kind to all, Wilson was one of those frank, congenial spirits that links others to it in the strongest bonds of friendship. Without a vice, or a stain on his honor, he passed from among us to the great beyond, leaving a niche in the temple of manhood that will be hard to fill.”
Part 2: Manhunt.
- Arthur Ribbel: Wilson “preferred not to have his name in print, and he firmly shunned all attempts to portray him as a steely-eyed, grim-jawed badgeman of the Old West with six-guns blazing.”
- Pliny Castanian: Wilson “wore a badge for 49 years, from Oceanside constable to San Diego chief and, near the end, deputy U.S. Marshal.”
- South Oceanside Diamond: If Charley’s friends capture Murray he’ll be “lynched without ceremony and the demands of justice served without a tedious term in the courts.”
Castanian, Pliny, To Protect and Serve: A History of the San Diego Police Department and its Chiefs, 1889–1989 (San Diego, 1993); “A Tall Man Among Tall Men,” San Diego Union, December 26, 1965.
Crawford, Richard, The Way We Were in San Diego (Charleston, 2011).
Hawthorne, Kristi, Oceanside: Where Life Is Worth Living (Virginia Beach, 2000); interview.
Jansen, A.E., “Keno Wilson— A Lawman’s Lawman,” Journal of San Diego History (October, 1962).
Ribbel, Arthur, “A Lawman’s Lawman Stood Tall for Order and Decency,” San Diego Union, May 16, 1982.
Trial transcript, coroner’s inquest, City of Oceanside, Oceanside Historical Society.
Articles in the San Diego Union, Oceanside Blade, South Oceanside Diamond, Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Daily Union, and others.
Part 2: Manhunt | < href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2014/nov/26/unforgettable-keno-3/">Part 3: The Marhsall Gets His Man