Marc Aspinall for BuzzFeed News

On August 13, 1903, Gilbert Twigg opened fire during a concert in Winfield, Kansas, killing nine and injuring dozens. There was no motive, and no one had ever seen anything like it before, or for decades after. Yet it’s the archetype for the kind of tragedy we see so frequently now.

When the band called for intermission, the crowd milling and noising about, a small group of boys saw a man with a gun creep up from a nearby alley. He wore dark pants and a khaki buckskin coat. Despite the stealthy way he slithered up the alley, he moved with the confidence of one at ease with his plan. The boys didn’t sense that confidence at first. Nor did they see the gun right away or the look in his blue eyes as he surveyed the crowd, among the largest ever assembled on the corner of Ninth Avenue and Main Street in Winfield, Kansas.

According to various newspaper reports, somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 people packed the intersection between Ninth Avenue and Main Street that Thursday night — an impressive figure, as Winfield’s population barely topped 5,500 at the time. There wasn’t much to do in Winfield that summer. You could buy or borrow a book at Craig’s Book Store, right on the intersection of Ninth and Main, or buy necessities and frivolities at Winfield & Miller. Milligan’s was the place to get new shoes or fix old ones; Swartz Lumber Co. was farther down the block. The parks were good for walking about. The annual county fair in September was still some weeks away. Weekly outdoor music concerts by the 20-piece Winfield Military Band were the best entertainment option in town.

Winfield’s local band, Caton’s Dozen, October 1890
(Harry Caton, middle row, third from left).
Cowley County Historical Society Museum

Led by W.H. Caman, the band had good reason to expect a large crowd. They’d entertained similar crowds the prior year with brass renditions of pieces like “The Cavalry Charge” and “The Comic Tattoo,” coming off a successful trip to Washington, D.C. On the evening of August 13, Caman and his band started well, without reason to suspect impending catastrophe.

Inside an alley right near Milligan’s, the boys finally saw the man’s gun. One or two might have known who he was. They might have heard their elders call him “Crazy Twigg,” or somehow sensed that something wasn’t quite right with him. And now the man was upon them.

He stared down at one boy. “I am going to do some tall shooting, son,” the man said. “And you had better run, as I have no desire to hurt you.”

The boy did not run. Neither did the others, not at first. The man raised his firearm, a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun, and said, “I wonder if I can get Caman.”

Hearing the bandleader’s name, the boys snapped out of their trance. Then, as the man dropped to his left knee, pointed his shotgun, and cried, “I’ll kill every one of you,” they ran as far as they could. They ran as shots rang out and confusion propagated among the large crowd.

By the time it was over — the whole thing took perhaps 20 minutes — six were killed, including the shooter. He died either by his own hand or that of the town’s night watchman George Nichols, a rumor raised hours after the shooting and never fully solved to the town’s satisfaction. Three more died over the next few days. Twenty-five suffered injuries of varying seriousness.

The vocabulary we now have to describe Gilbert Twigg’s actions on August 13, 1903, differs from the way witnesses and reporters described what happened in the hours, days, and weeks thereafter. Words like “maniac” and “demented” and “terrible shock of the tragedy” were the newspapers’ favorites back then, because in 1903 America had little concept of someone plotting, and then carrying out, a mass shooting.

There is evidence Twigg’s was not the first American massacre — but it was arguably the first of its particular nature. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist who studies mass shootings, references significant massacres in 1857 and 1900. The first, known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, was a coordinated series of attacks by members of the Utah Territorial Militia upon a group of emigrants from four Arkansas counties. (One hundred and twenty people died, while 17 children under age 7 were spared.) The latter attack, by Robert Charles in New Orleans, stemmed from the false arrest of black men by racist police officers and launched subsequent protests in the city. And still another took place on April 11, 1902, when Will Reynolds, a 35-year-old African-American, killed seven white men, including the sheriff and five deputies, in Tuscumbia, Alabama in retaliation over an old warrant for his arrest.

Yet the Winfield massacre, seemingly indiscriminate in its choice of victims and all but forgotten outside the town, eerily foreshadows subsequent mass shootings so well-known we can name them by city alone. San Ysidro. Killeen. Columbine. Tucson. Aurora. Sandy Hook. Santa Barbara. Roseburg. And most recently, Hesston, only about 75 miles northwest of Winfield. Scores of innocent people arbitrarily dead because of the murderous actions of men — and they are almost invariably men — whose prior behavior ranged from slightly odd to dangerously worrisome, whose families may have sought help and run up against a system that failed them.

A postcard looking east on Ninth and Main streets. Cowley County Historical Society Museum

When he died in Winfield, Kansas, Gilbert Twigg had few friends or family ties. When he was born in a small section of Cumberland, Maryland, known as Flintstone, he had more family than he could ever possibly reckon with.

There were so many Twiggs in western Maryland that, by the 1860s, the main family manse and surrounding hundred acres were commonly known as “Twiggtown.” (The name lives on as a post office in the area.) Decades earlier the two largest Twigg branches feuded vociferously and violently over the land. Then, according to family lore, a blue-eyed Twigg girl fell in love and married a black-eyed Twigg boy and the rift healed.

Gilbert, born around February 1868, was kin to the blue-eyed side. Details of his early life are sketchy, reliant on conflicting census and genealogy records. Gilbert’s parents were probably Moses and Catherine Twigg, the latter deceased by the time the 1870 census records Gilbert living with his older brothers, Isaiah and John Frances, and their grandparents Robert and Eliza. When Robert died in early 1874, all three grandsons, Gilbert included, received $6.04.

All the Twiggs in Twiggtown worked the land and it’s plausible Gilbert did, too. But when his Uncle Argel, nearing 40, took his wife, Barbara, and headed west to Winfield in 1887, Gilbert got the notion to follow suit. It’s not clear when he first arrived in Kansas, but the Winfield Courier, so good back then at tracking the minute comings and goings of townsfolk and visitors alike, recorded Gilbert visiting his uncle for Thanksgiving in 1889.

Soon after Gilbert Twigg began to work as a miller, sifting heavy flour and other materials. He first apprenticed in Burden, approximately 18 miles away, and then worked several years at the Baden Produce Company in Winfield. Twigg made the social rounds and was considered to be bright, with good background and character, not to mention pleasant to look upon, broad shoulders atop a 5-foot-9 frame. He met a young woman named Jessie Hamilton, born and bred in Winfield, and courted her seriously enough to propose marriage sometime around 1894.

The marriage did not take place. For unclear reasons, Jessie Hamilton broke it off. Gilbert Twigg was bereft, and while he continued to work at the Baden Mills, he also wanted out of Winfield. Two years later, in July 1896, 28-year-old Gilbert enlisted in the United States Army and headed for St. Louis, where he joined the 8th Cavalry and shipped out to Camp Forse in Huntsville, Alabama.

Within a year, Twigg’s first-class marksmanship earned him a promotion to corporal. But when he learned the 8th Cavalry had been passed over for deployment to Cuba, Twigg switched to the 17 Company Signal Corps. He shipped out in December 1898, where he was assigned as a telephone operator but never saw combat, and his enlistment expired the following April. Twigg’s discharge papers, stamped in New York City, indicated he had an “excellent record of service.”

But Gilbert Twigg wasn’t quite done with the Army. He wanted the combat he felt he was denied in Cuba, and re-upped with the Signal Corps for a second three-year term. When he shipped out to the Banate on Panay Island in the Philippines in July 1899, that country was in the midst of its own bloody, brutal conflict with the United States. The Philippine Islands expected independence after the end of the Spanish-American War, but the U.S. maintained them as a colony. The resulting insurrection was ugly — introducing the epithet “gook” to the American lexicon, and the widespread use of torture by both sides — and costly, leading to the death of 4,200 American troops, more than 20,000 Filipino soldiers, and as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians.

Twigg’s personality, meanwhile, began to show signs of strain. High heat, forceful opposition, terrible conditions, and watching fellow soldiers die alongside you are prime ingredients for what we now understand to be post-traumatic stress disorder.

There Twigg engaged in his first major interpersonal conflict, involving an Army officer, Myron C. Bowdish, and a contract surgeon, O.W. Woods. Twigg’s later, rambling account was light on detail: “Now, there is one thing that I have to regret, and that is because I did not settle this thing with [Bowdish and Woods] … Then I could have gotten what was due me, and this thing would have been over long ago. I would have settled these things then and there, but lived in the hopes that there would be some end to the thing some time, but it seems not. At least, there is no end in sight yet, and have no way of knowing that there ever will be.”

Clearly, something happened that he refused to forget. Whatever it was, the Army didn’t think enough of it to blemish Twigg’s record. His three-year enlistment ended on April 29, 1902, and Twigg, by then promoted to sergeant, was discharged in California with another citation for excellent service. He could have returned to Winfield, but instead found work at the Royal Milling Company in Great Falls, Montana, at $3 a day.

The work kept Twigg so busy, as he wrote to his friend Chance Wells in September of that year, that Fourth of July and the coming Labor Day were “the only time I have had to myself up to the present time.” Still, Twigg wrote, “I like the work and the place here very much and would like to stay here. This is a beautiful town of about 14,000 population with all the advantages of an eastern town … it is only a matter of a few years when Great Falls will be a great city.”

Despite Twigg’s optimism, he ended his letter to Wells, still living in Winfield, with more than a pang of sadness: “Well, Chance, I often think of the old days gone by when we use to have so much fun together in our little crowd. Those were the happiest days in my life, and it would have been much better for me if I had gotten married and settled down as you have done. I have no doubt but what you are very happy, while I am not.”

Less than a year later, after a return back East to see what remained of his family, Gilbert Twigg returned to Winfield for good. Any remaining sliver of optimism he seemed to have withered away, replaced by an outrageous plan.

Winfield Police Department (George Nichols, far right). City of Winfield, Kansas

While Gilbert Twigg grew up among scores of family members before embarking upon a life of solo adventure, George Nichols, the man who may have ended the Winfield massacre, lived a life marked by uniqueness, where he had to be twice as good, if not more so.

Nichols’ father, John, had moved his wife and nine children from Topeka to Winfield soon after the town’s founding in 1871, when George was just 3 years old. There were other Nicholses in Winfield, including another George. That family was white. John’s was black, the first such family in Winfield. It’s unclear whether the town treated the Nichols family with rank prejudice; papers like the Courier, the Daily Free Press, and the Tribune weren’t about to document racial slurs or violent outbursts directed at black people. John, a former slave, set up shop as a barber, and it did not appear to be a segregated business.

George married Catherine Schaffer in 1893 and had two children: Leon in 1894, Welcome seven years later. In between, Nichols was elected to the office of constable, and appointed night watchman of the Winfield Police in 1898, making him the first black officer on the force. When Nichols announced his retirement in 1911 in favor of the farming life, the other officers convinced him — with more consistent pay — to stay on.

Nichols engaged in a number of gun battles, including one incident where he fatally shot a suspect who had, minutes before, shot dead another Winfield policeman. He took a bullet to the hand in the process, an injury that spurred him to stop patrolling at night and become Winfield’s first desk sergeant. Serious illness finally pulled him away from the police department a few weeks before his death on June 23, 1944.

But in August 1903, Nichols was another officer on call every night to look out for suspicious figures in need of arrest. None of his experience prepared him for what happened the night of the 13th.

Winfield Police Department (Nichols, fifth from left). City of Winfield, Kansas


Near the end of his time in Great Falls, Gilbert Twigg wrote to Baden Mills in Winfield and tried to get his old job back. No such luck. He’d parted ways with the firm in Great Falls under murky circumstances that apparently raised suspicion about his mental state. Still, Twigg kept looking for work once he returned to Winfield, some weeks before August 1903. Perhaps, puffed up by his Army experience as a telephone operator, he tried to get a job at the Winfield Telephone Company, where bandleader W.H. Caman held a full-time job, or the Water Works, which once employed the man Twigg’s former fiancée ended up marrying.

If he did seek work, neither business hired Gilbert Twigg. Nor did any other place of employ. He spent the summer days, according to the local papers, “loafing about town,” often by Winfield’s parks. Twigg stayed in a rooming house on Seventh Street close to Main, not far from where his Uncle Argel and Aunt Barbara still resided. They tried to engage Gilbert every now and then, but the visits with their nephew decreased and grew more disquieting. He spoke of being “doped” in Great Falls, and said that people in the Montana community had plotted against him.

Something changed on the first of August. Twigg walked into Winfield & Miller, the hardware and general goods store, to buy a shotgun. There was “nothing unusual” about the gun purchase, the Daily Courier would report after the fact, but when Twigg started choosing his ammunition it aroused the curiosity of the store’s owner, W.D. Winfield, standing close by to watch the sale.

“What are you going to do with that kind of a shell?” Winfield asked.

“I haven’t yet decided,” Twigg responded.

Before Twigg left the store, he bought one additional item: a .32 Harrington & Richards pistol. A cheap gun, comparatively, costing no more than $5.

Over the next week or so he refined his plan. He bought shotgun shells and stored them in a trunk in his small room. He continued to wander around the city parks, muttering aloud about the young lady who jilted him all those years ago following him from place to place, even all the way to the Philippines. He took out wads of cash from the local banks, designating two $300 drafts each payable to his brothers, then living in Pennsylvania.

A few hours before the concert started, Twigg went to his Uncle Argel’s house. Gilbert didn’t stay long, and said nothing of his plans. Still, Argel noticed the shotgun and the buckskin suit and thought his nephew might have gone hunting. Gilbert left the house around 7 p.m. and Argel prepared to retire for the night. Later, Argel wondered if he ought to have said anything about Gilbert’s instability, but since he didn’t believe his nephew posed a danger to others, he hadn’t wanted to alert the authorities.

George Nichols witnessed Twigg’s disturbed wanderings, too, and suggested to his police superiors that something be done. But Nichols was reluctant to address Twigg directly. According to the 1933 recollections of Roscoe Bell, who witnessed the massacre, “George, as being a colored man, and very sensitive as well as at all times considerate, felt that the white officers should handle the case.”

Twigg stationed himself in the alley about 125 feet west of Ninth and Main as the concert began. He also brought an express wagon full of shells, buckshot, and a nitroglycerin/black powder mix. Twigg dropped to one knee, like he’d been taught in basic training. He raised his shotgun, aimed at the bandstand. The players arranged themselves in a semicircle around their leader, Caman.

Twigg fired at Caman, the object of his apparent ire. The shot hit a horse over its back, and the animal reared its hind legs and roared away.

Then Twigg fired again, straight at the bandstand.

That shot hit Re Oliver, the Military Band’s drummer, going through his shoulder and abdomen. “I’m shot, boys,” Oliver cried, and fell over, but W.H. Caman did not hear him and shouted at the rest of the band to sit down, continuing to pass out sheet music for the night’s set.

The bullet kept going, passing through Clyde Waggoner’s bass horn and shattering the instrument. His injuries were serious, not fatal, but the horn’s destruction alerted Caman that something extraordinary was happening. Every time Twigg fired, he took a step back, compensating for the shotgun’s recoil. He dropped to one knee each time, and fired again.

Six shots hit William Bowman, a farmer from Oxford, a city some 10 miles away, who stood in front of the Winfield National Bank. Bog, as his friends called him, fell near the steps, the fusillade of gunfire forcing him up and then down to the ground, blood and brains pooling around what remained of his head. He died instantly. Nearby, Everett Ridgeway took three shots to his back. Twenty-two-year-old Port Smith was shot in the head, the bullet lodging in his brain. He died after being transported to the Holcomb & Boyle hospital.

Dawson Billiter, a 23-year-old barber, stood near the front corner of Craig’s Book Store when he was hit, shots passing through his neck and bowels. He lived only a half hour, spending his last half-conscious minutes mumbling to those who had rushed up to him that he lived on East 10th Street. Arthur Hansford, visiting from West Virginia, took another shot in the hand.

As Billiter died on the street, Link Smith sat on the southwest corner of Ninth and Manning. He had heard Twigg’s first shot and began to run towards the middle of Ninth, where he found his aunt, Sallie Milligan. She’d seen the muzzle flash but, curiously, felt no fear of the shooter.

“What’s going on?” Smith asked.

“I don’t know,” Sallie replied.

J.P. Milligan, Sallie’s husband and Smith’s uncle, moved to the doorway of his shoe shop. Without realizing, he stood directly in front of Gilbert Twigg. Smith saw his uncle from the across the street and ran towards him, momentarily forgetting Twigg was still shooting. Twigg, seeing Smith, fired a fast, deliberate shot. A few buckshot pellets passed through Smith’s coat sleeve.

Once he reached his uncle, Link asked for a gun to take the shooter down. Milligan refused. “Don’t do it.” Link ignored his uncle and ran upstairs, where he hoped a gun might be stashed in the rooms of the boarders. If there was, Link didn’t find one.

Twigg reloaded his shotgun. At that moment four men rushed down the stairs of the Odd Fellows Hall, situated just above Craig’s Book Store. Its exit, next to the shoe shop, was right in Twigg’s line of sight. One volley of gunfire took out three of the men: Sterling Race, Elmer Farnsworth, and J.B. Story. Race died after only a few minutes; Farnsworth, who owned Winfield’s cigar store, lived only until 8:30 the following evening; Story took a bullet to his elbow and side, but the wounds were not fatal. The bullets entirely missed the fourth man, James Galloway.

At this point, Twigg fired the shotgun’s second barrel. He first hit Otis Carter, a janitor with the Odd Fellows, who had just emerged from the stairwell. Carter took two shots, with the one to the temple proving to be fatal the next morning.

Sixteen-year-old Roy Davis was also in the line of fire. Eight buckshot pellets pierced his neck and bowels. Earlier that day, Davis had run into Twigg as he wandered and mumbled around Island Park, carrying his shotgun. Then, Twigg had pushed the boy away, threatening to shoot him if he didn’t follow orders. After this second encounter with Twigg and his shotgun, Davis bled out on the street and died within minutes.

Twigg stepped back, reloaded, and fired some more. The next shot hit three women: Mrs. Jonathan Brooks, Elizabeth Ballard, and Florence Gregg. Both Ballard and Gregg were wounded in the neck; Gregg also suffered hand and leg injuries.

The shooter swung around to the south end of the bandstand. Will Moore was severely wounded from a shot to the left thigh, while Bill Couchman ended up with a pellet in his shoulder. Jim Clarkson was also hit, a pellet entering his right arm and another shot passing through his side and into his bowels.

Subsequent shots hit William Wilkins and Charles Thomas in their knees, Clyde Reed in his hip and kidneys, and Sam Compton in his leg. Still more men suffered serious injuries: Elmer Urie (wrist), H.E. Williams (broken wrist), Jake Simpson (chest), Al Shoup (leg), Artie Cutler (foot), and John Armstrong (leg).

Twigg could have continued shooting. He had already caused so much carnage. But then he recognized the two men running toward him from the other side of the intersection. He lifted his .32 revolver and aimed it at his head.

George Nichols watched Twigg raise the revolver from his perch in the alley near Ninth and Main.

He began the night shift near Dauber’s Dry Goods store, two blocks away, when he heard the first round of shots, and ran toward the gunfire, ready to use the Winchester rifle in hand or the .44 holstered to his body. At the coroner’s inquest a few days later, Nichols testified he “saw Twigg leaning against a telegraph pole.” Nichols stopped about 40 feet from where Twigg stood. He saw Twigg fall and heard him groan audibly.

Nichols continued to watch Twigg for a couple more minutes, then retreated into the alley to fetch his lantern. As he did so, he heard a single shot “much lighter” than the others, implying the sound came from the .32 caliber pistol, not the shotgun.

Nichols ran into an off-duty detective named Cal Ferguson, toting his own shotgun. Nichols explained what was happening, and the two men moved back to the alley going north to Friedenburg’s Pharmacy, through the store, and into the alley toward the place where Twigg had been shooting.

The two men found Twigg crouched on hands and knees, his head on an iron pile where the alley opened onto Ninth. Ferguson said he saw the wound in Twigg’s head; a revolver lay by his side, with 8 to 10 empty shells, cartridges, and a few loaded shells in a small tin wagon nearby. Twigg still held his shotgun in his arms.

Sheriff James Samuel Day and Constable Guy Marsh arrived on the scene from the south side of Ninth and Main, having ducked a spray of shots by the First National Bank. They found Nichols and Ferguson standing near Gilbert Twigg’s prone body. The four men carried the mortally wounded Twigg to the bandstand and placed him on the platform. As an unidentified man ran to find medical help, Twigg was formally identified by his Uncle Argel.

No doctor attended to Twigg, as they were occupied with his victims. Lying on the bandstand, covered with his own blood from head to foot, Gilbert Twigg expired.


Gilbert Twigg’s body lay on a gurney at Axtell Funeral Home as his uncle tried to find a church to administer the funeral and a cemetery to bury him. Despite much resistance and some outright refusals, Twigg had a funeral, attended by Argel, Chance Wells, and a handful of others. Today, Twigg’s burial site is subject to dispute. A military headstone for Sergeant G.A. Twigg stands on the north end of what’s now known as Union-Graham Cemetery in Winfield. But a yellow flag further south, in Highland Cemetery, is believed to mark where Twigg is truly buried.

The morning after the massacre, Winfield police officers searched Twigg’s room at the boarding house on the Thompson block of Seventh Street. They found yet more ammunition in a trunk, along with a note. While written with steady penmanship, the note’s tone was far removed from the lucid sadness of Twigg’s 1902 letter to his friend Chance Wells.

Twigg blamed everyone other than himself for his problems, claiming he did “not and most likely never will know the real cause of being treated in the manner in which I have been treated.” His tone is echoed by Charles Whitman’s suicide note, found after Whitman killed 16 people in 1966: “I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However lately … I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”

“You know that you drove me from place to place in the same manner and forced me to give up a neat little sum of my hard earned money to railroad companies money that I went through the danger of war and diseases, both in Cuba and in the Philippines to get,” Twigg continued in rambling, paranoid, petulant, and vengeful fashion. “You also know that you watched my mail and after finding out my friends and correspondents, you told them some kind of a story about me that caused everyone of them to drop me and turn me down cold.”

The paranoia built to a crescendo in the closing paragraph: “You may think your theory is all right, but if common sense does not teach you, experience will. Your brain may be all right in quality, but there may be a chance for them to be lacking in quantity. I believe this as all I have to say, so, ‘Adios.’”

Coroner Cooper held his inquest Friday evening. Sheriff Day, Argel Twigg, and others testified to what they saw and heard the night before. Night watchman George Nichols told the inquest he heard Gilbert Twigg’s final shot and found him dying in the alley of a self-inflicted wound. When testimony concluded the jury ruled that Twigg’s death was the result of suicide, from a .32 shot to the head.

For more than a century the people of Winfield grew up believing Nichols played a more active role in Twigg’s death. That rumor cast Nichols as a ready-made hero who ended the town’s most incomprehensible nightmare, but was forced to deny his role because it was considered too dangerous for a black man to kill a white man, even justifiably.

Robert P. Davis, who studied the massacre extensively, speculated further. “Other than the Coroner’s Inquest, no other investigation of the episode seems to have been conducted,” Davis wrote in 2001. “Twigg was found with a ‘wound’ in his head. Was it a .32 caliber, close-range wound surrounded by powder burns? Or was it a .44 caliber wound fired from a distance? Nichols was carrying both his Winchester rifle and a .44 caliber revolver. Maybe the wound was from some different sized weapon, fired from an alternate distance. No note of this has ever come to light.”

Nichols denied the rumor almost as soon as it began circulating. Its origin was a wire report only a few hours after the massacre stating Nichols “confronted Twigg and fired a bullet into his head, but before life was extinct the demented man drew a revolver from his pocket and fired a shot into his own.” Hindsight and greater understanding of the rush of inaccurate, conflicting statements in the early reports of modern-day mass shootings lend credence to something similar happening here, rather than an early statement of fact in need of quashing. One other point buttresses the truth of Nichols’ vociferous denials and silences the rumormongers: his shooting, 17 years after Twigg’s massacre, of the man who killed a fellow police officer, and the generally positive media coverage and attention toward Nichols for this justifiable homicide.

When George Nichols died in 1944, his obituary quoted an unnamed friend as “reflecting the general esteem” among the town of Winfield: “If everyone was as good as George we wouldn’t need a police force.”

He was buried only 100 yards away from Gilbert Twigg’s headstone.

Gilbert Twigg’s headstone

Joe Chrisman

George Nichols’s headstone

Joe Chrisman

 

“Why a man of his ability and integrity should fall the victim of a maniac’s whim can never be explained in this world,” a friend wrote the widow of Elmer Farnsworth. The town buried Farnsworth, Sterling Race, Otis Carter, Roy Davis, and Port Smith, while Dawson Billiter’s remains went to nearby Wilmot, interred next to his mother. William Bowman’s boy shipped back to his home of Oxford. Charles Thomas died two and a half days after the massacre.

Everett Ridgeway, so given up for dead that the papers reported there was “no hope” and practically planned his funeral, proved the naysayers wrong. By September 23, he could move his right leg. Two weeks later, on October 5, a reporter found him sitting up in bed reading newspapers, with limited use of his arms. “You newspapers have had me dead several times,” said Ridgeway, who’d dropped to a hundred pounds — 60 below his usual weight — during his arduous recuperation, “but I am far from that yet and I am going to get well. The doctors and everybody told me I couldn’t get well, but I was determined to pull through and I did. It was a close call, but I made it.”

He could walk with crutches in November, but it was clear Ridgeway’s career as a plasterer was over. By year’s end the town of Winfield raised $88 to stake Ridgeway in starting a restaurant. “Everything put up in first-class style. Give us a call. Try a Bowl of Chili,” read the ad he took out in early January 1904.

The restaurant lasted only a month. Ridgeway’s health worsened considerably, and never recovered. He died in 1907.


Jessie Hamilton, the woman who chose not to marry Gilbert Twigg, never spoke to the newspapers about the massacre. Nor do we know what, if anything, she knew about the last, terrible acts of her former fiancé. But as Hamilton had moved with her husband to Wichita after their wedding in August 1900, and they still visited Winfield on occasion afterward, it’s likely she did know — and, understandably, did not want to discuss it.

Instead Hamilton, thereafter Mrs. Ernest Cramer, led an exemplary life in Wichita: mother to five children, soprano soloist with her church choir, and so active in the burgeoning suffragist movement that she was honored, in March 1917, for “taking a prominent part in the work of establishing women’s suffrage in Kansas.”

Four years later, in 1921, Jessie Cramer was the first woman juror to serve in a Wichita criminal case. (Her twin sister, Jean, beat her to the “first overall” honor, breaking the gender barrier on a civil trial.) Serving on a subsequent jury, Cramer apparently so irritated the judge with her probing questions and complaints that when he demanded to know why she spoke up so much, Cramer replied: “But the other side is so obstinate.”

“If the city had been provided with electric lights,” one man told the Daily Free Press the morning after the mass shooting, “the murderer would have fired but two shots. The poorly lighted streets made the terrible deed possible. It’s a shame [Winfield] doesn’t have electric lights.”

Electric lights came to Winfield within three years of the man’s lament. Today it is a modern small town, more than double its population in 1903. Tourists still come every September, now to the annual bluegrass festival. The coffee is excellent at College Hill Coffee, close to Southwestern College, still Winfield’s only institution of higher learning. Ridgeway’s place is beyond faded memory, but Blue’s has delicious breakfast all day and Kathryn’s is where to go for fine dining. The Winfield National Bank — now, simply, CornerBank — remains at its perch on Ninth and Main. Any trace of bullet holes in the window disappeared long ago, but they were around as late as 1927.

The lack of electric lights is one of many what-ifs and easy scapegoats of the massacre on Ninth and Main. More pressing ones concerned Gilbert Twigg’s mental health: Was his increased paranoid behavior not taken seriously enough? Was he taken seriously, but caution prevailed? As Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine co-shooter Dylan Klebold, said in a recent interview, “The most important thing we can do is accept the concept that someone we love may not be feeling inside the way they present to us.”

We better understand, post-Columbine, the sense of alienation and disenfranchisement that may lead a subset of young white men to mass murder. Conversely, we also understand how other young people take in these crimes, their immediate, visceral brutality, and fall under a spell that mimics the propagation of a lethal virus.

The Winfield massacre in August 1903 prompted extensive coverage by the local and state papers. Without that coverage this story would have been entirely lost to history, because corroborating legal records, such as the coroner’s inquest or police files, were destroyed decades ago, likely by fire or flood. The limits of technology, to telegrams and cables and the expensive telephone call or two, confined much coverage of Gilbert Twigg’s awful crimes within the borders of Kansas. The town marked anniversaries with survivor accounts in the Courier and Free Press, though the focus was entirely on the tragedy itself, never about other shootings or gun control. Then greater massacres in the form of World Wars crowded out those memories.

When Howard Unruh, another former serviceman, shot and killed 12 of his neighbors on September 6, 1949, in Camden, New Jersey, Gilbert Twigg’s name popped up anew on the wire services. “Camden Slaying Stirs Old Memory,” read the Associated Press headline the following day, on a three-paragraph brief describing how “old-time residents” recalled a similar massacre. A pithier UPI story tallied the death toll and said Unruh’s massacre had topped Twigg’s.

Afterward, Twigg’s name, and his crime, barely rated national attention. Cultural memory still includes Unruh on occasion and goes no further back. Historical research on mass shootings is scant because the darkness and the tragedy of the crimes overwhelm the rational pursuit of correlations and causalities. That something so modern was, in fact, happening more than a century ago means reckoning with greater societal problems instead of the individual ills of any one perpetrator. It’s a discomfiting thought. All the easier to forget.


The Saturday after the massacre, the papers reported a palmist visited Gilbert Twigg’s body, not yet buried, and examined the shooter’-s right hand. The palmist “failed to find any indications of insanity, but that lines indicating extreme morbidness and a tendency to murder, vengeance, and violent death were plainly marked.”

Gilbert Twigg Cowley County Historical Society Museum

CORRECTION

The Columbine co-shooter’s name is Dylan Klebold. An earlier version of this story misstated his name. Thanks to the commenters who pointed it out!






























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