|John B. Townsend|
Even more distressing is the fact that when there exists an environment rife with racial cleansing, not only can a serial killer hide in plain sight, he might even be lauded for his ghastly deeds.
Such is the case of one John B. Townsend, 1835-1873. "Those writing of this man seem to agree that he had a pathological hatred for the (Indian) and he hunted them with grim determination." (*1)
A WARNING: The following story contains graphic racist remarks and incidents that can be harsh to read. It may not be suitable for sensitive readers.
JB Townsend was born June 28th, 1835 in Round Top (Bennett County,) Texas. He presumably lost his mother shortly after the birth of his younger brother James. He lost his father when he was 13 and the two boys were then raised by their grandparents. (*2)
There is no doubt that JB Townsend was familiar with carnage and death prior to coming to Arizona. He and James fought for the Confederate Army where John was wounded and his brother killed.
At some point, perhaps during the Civil War, a switch of pathological hatred flipped in Townsend's head and he aimed that hatred toward Native Americans with a ghoulish tenacity that lasted until the day he died.
Once while in Texas, after killing 7 Comanches, he came home to find two more taking his corn. He killed them too. The Comanches retaliated by taking some of Townsend's horses and burning his barn. (*1)
If death hadn't become familiar enough with him by then, it certainly would when he took his wife and livestock to the Aqua Fria River, outside of Prescott in 1867.
Like many pioneers, Townsend reinvented himself in Arizona. He was an excellent tracker, and desired a job as a scout for General Crook's army. So, in an effort to better his job qualifications, he told people he was half Cherokee--a fabrication that persisted a hundred years until a family genealogist wrote the Sharlot Hall Museum:
"It has been recorded that (John B. Townsend) was a half-breed Cherokee Indian," he wrote. "There is no truth whatever to this. His lineage has been traced back to England." (*2) Additionally, while he was known in Arizona as John BENJAMIN Townsend, his descendants refer to him as "John BENNETT Townsend." (*2)
He often told a story that while in Texas, part of his family were killed by Comanches, "but there is no documentation of this." (*3) Townsend also told people that his mother and father died at the hands of Indians, which was also untrue. (*4) Perhaps Townsend desired to offer some extraordinary explanation to justify his extraordinary hatred of Native Americans.
|Gen. George Crook|
Surely covered in blood, Townsend finally returned to the troops proudly displaying 15 Native American scalps. Incensed, Crook sacked him immediately. (*5)
This, however, would not slow down Townsend in the least. He found a more kindly reception among the ranchers in Yavapai County, as he would often be chosen to lead posses in response to Indian raids. (*1)
Ed Wright accompanied Townsend "on a good many raids," and later related one in particular to Townsend's daughter, Ora. It offers insight into Townsend's activities and his state of mind. (*6)
Riding up to a location which Wright later called "Baby Canyon," Townsend and his posse spied about a half-dozen teepees. "The Indians were camped there roasting and pounding muscal when we run in (sic) on them," Wright wrote. They mowed down "16 outright," wounding and scattering the rest. What was left was "6 or 7 (indian babies) in their baskets." (*6)
Wright's next line is even more odious than it is illiterate: "It was always ruleable (sic) there then to kill the babies to stop the warfare and the saying was 'kill the nits to get rid of the lice.' (*6)
"We drew straws to see who would kill the babies," Wright continued, and it was Townsend's lot to do the deed. "He laughed and said that was easy." (*6)
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Townsend pointed his revolver at the first child's head. Surprisingly, the baby smiled at him. This brought Townsend to thoughts of his own months-old daughter, Ora, and he told the men so. When the posse-leader withdrew his revolver from the child's face, "that released all the rest." (*6)
They strung up the baskets with the babies still in them to a tree "where they would be away from the animals...Some time during the night, some of the Indians came and got the babies." (*6)
While trying to show that Townsend had a bit of compassion, (and this was the ONLY known time he showed any compassion toward the Indians,) it must be remembered that Townsend and his men had just made these infants orphans! Additionally, it seems that only the birth of his own child had any effect. Considering that he laughed and said it was easy to kill Indian babies makes one wonder how many babies he might have killed previously. After all, it was considered "rulable" to "kill the nit to get rid of the lice."
Townsend's most famous expedition set out June 5th, 1871. The near-by Bowers ranch had been raided. 137 head of livestock were taken with one of the Bower's brothers being killed. (*3) As usual, Townsend was made the leader of the posse. They tracked the Indians back to the Verde Valley. There they overran two Apache camps killing 56 Native Americans outright. JB Townsend killed 15 of them with his own hand. (*1)
As incensed as Gen. Crook was at Townsend's deeds, the people of Prescott and the ranchers in particular, were overjoyed. Sunday, June 18th, the town had a banquet in the expedition's honor. For decades, this date was known as "Prescott's Day of Jubilee." (*1)
It was learned that Townsend would make his own buckshot for his shotgun. So a few days later, he was presented with a beautiful (and effective) Henry rifle as well as 1000 rounds of ammunition. (*5) The encouragement to "go out and git ya some more" was obvious.
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It was at this point when Townsend started a two-year "solo" campaign, keeping out of the public eye. In an antithesis to "the wolfman," Townsend would set out on the night of the new moon.
"Townsend had a definite procedure for killing the Apaches: he would leave his ranch with the coming of the new moon, when most Apache raiding parties set out, circle the area near his ranch, hoping to cut a fresh trail and then ambush the Indians as they approached the ranch." (*1)
Early writers of Townsend's story put the number of Indians he killed at 65. (*1) & (*5) More recent writers have revised the number downward to 25-35, citing the potential inflation of "fish stories." However, these lower numbers don't seem to take into account all of Townsend's "good many" posse raids and none of his solo raids--(a thousand rounds could go a long way!)
This author sees no real reason to discount the earlier number. Those early writers were also aware of the phenomenon of "fish story inflation" and may have already taken it into account. Considering that Townsend ultimately went "underground" to commit his killings by himself, it's likely he didn't report all of those deaths. After all, he could have been arrested for his deeds, particularly if the number killed was excessively high.
Yes, there's a chance the number of dead is lower than 65, but there is also a chance the number might be grossly higher!
One historian observed this bit of damning evidence about Townsend: "He killed more Apaches than most pioneers had seen." (*1) There is only one practical way to accomplish such a claim: to go out purposely looking for Indians to kill.
Group vigilanteism to fight raids that actually occurred against one's neighbor is one moral dilemma. Going out by oneself hunting human beings to kill just because they happen to be in the area is quite another.
Yet such heavy carnage by one individual could not go unnoticed by the Native Americans.
Once Wright and some men accompanied Townsend to Camp Verde to buy some horses. On the way, One man noticed several Indians talking in there native language while pointing at Townsend.
"John, they are talking about you," one said. (*6)
"Yes, they know me," Townsend replied.
Wright told him that the Indians were going to get him. Townsend seemed to agree and responded by asking Wright to look after his family "when" they did. (*6)
That day would come September 16th, 1873. Townsend set out to track a group of 8 Indians who raided his garden. The Indians were, in fact, setting an ambush for Townsend. The Indians carefully covered their tracks and Townsend soon lost them at Dripping Springs.
So, in order to find them, he climbed a mountain to utilize his looking glass at its highest point. But in trying to locate the Indians, Townsend made the mistake of exposing himself. He was shot several times nearly simultaneously and killed instantly by the Indians from the cliffs below. (*7)
His horse stood by him for 4 days, but when the creature smelled decay setting in, he ran back to the ranch riderless. Knowing something was seriously wrong, a party followed the horse's tracks back to Townsend's body.
Originally, "Townsend was buried where he fell, but his body was later taken to Prescott and given a Masonic burial." (*7)
As for his legacy, the case for John Townsend being a vigilante is airtight. The case for him being a serial killer is more circumstantial.
Yet, if Yavapai County was London, and the Native Americans were prostitutes, this man of english lineage just might be Jack-the-Ripper!
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ALSO BY Drew Desmond:
(*1) Arizoniana. Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall 1961. "John Benjamin Townsend--Arizona's Cherokee" pgs. 29-31
(*2) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives. Vertical File: John B. Townsend; Letter dated March 1, 1973 from Albert F. French (family genealogist) of Sun City, CA.
(*3) Prescott Courier 6/23/1987 pg 1C
(*4) Prescott Courier 9/20/1974 pg. 10 col. 1
(*5) Arizona Highways; March, 1937.
(*6) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives. Vertical File: John B. Townsend; Letter by Ed Wright to Ora Townsend French; January, 1930.
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