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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Casner Cold Case

by Clay Coppedge

William and Daniel Casner, along with their father John Casner and brother Lew, struck it rich in Calaveras County, California in the early days of the gold rush. When they left California in 1876, John and Lew took up prospecting in New Mexico and Arizona. William and Daniel headed for the newly-opened Texas Panhandle with some sheep and, supposedly, five thousand dollars' worth of gold pieces.

That same year about two dozen Hispanic sheep ranchers from New Mexico had brought their sheep to the wide open grazing lands along the Canadian River. One of the sheepmen was Nicolas (Colas) Martinez, a former Comanchero who settled for the pastoral life after his trading partners, the Comanches, went out of business. Martinez knew that country well and had worked with Goodnight as a guide when the rancher made his first forays into the Palo Duro.

On a trip to Colorado for supplies, Goodnight expressed to Martinez his concern about Martinez's brother-in-law, Sostenes L' Archeveque. Sostenes had supposedly been banished from New Mexico after killing twenty-three people in that state. Martinez knew his brother-in-law's actions could endanger all the people who had come with him to Texas, and he assured Goodnight that he would take care of Sostenes himself if the outlaw caused trouble.

Sostenes supposedly did just that. He got the blame when someone rode into William and Daniel Casners' camp on the eastern slope of Palo Duro Canyon and killed them and their Navajo shepherd in a futile but bloody attempt to find the gold and maybe take the sheep as well.

Colas Martinez, true to his word, lured Sostenes to a small adobe house and helped kill him in what was viewed by his neighbors as more of a community service than a murder. Goodnight gave Western newspapers a description of the Casners' property and sheep, and in the spring of 1877, John and Lew Casner arrived at Goodnight's ranch to lay claim. They also embarked on a bloody vendetta to avenge William and Daniel's killing. Ironically, the first person they supposedly murdered was Colas Martinez. They killed a couple more people who lived in the plazas, including another man who was supposedly involved with killing Sostenes, and then they rode away, settling for a time in Donley County.

That's the story that has come down to us, but it might not have happened that way. There might never have been a Sostenes l' Archevêque, though Handbook of Texas identifies him as "one of the first badmen of the old Southwest…the son of a French father and a Mexican-Indian mother and a great-grandson of an expatriate French colonist, Jean l' Archevêque. When Sostenes was a boy, his father was killed by an Anglo-American in the town of Sapello, in northeastern New Mexico. Sostenes reportedly vowed that when he grew up he would kill every gringo he met."

Goodnight told the story of the Casner murders to writer J. Evetts Haley, who wrote it as Goodnight told it in his 1936 biography of the rancher. Goodnight's version of events survives because, aside from being a good yarn, everybody who could have disputed or corrected the story was dead by the time Haley recorded it. Even Haley called the Sostenes l' Archeveque story "more fantastic than fiction based on pure fantasy."

We have several versions of what happened to the Casners, or what might have happened and why, but every account discredits or ignores another account, leaving us with a lot of questions and no answer to a classic whodunit, a cold case that history is unlikely to ever solve.

There's no shortage of other suspects, including John Bottom, a New Mexico badman the Casners initially suspected of the killings because that's just the kind of thing he would do and he happened to be hanging out at the plazas at the time. Bottom claimed a crook named Phillip "Joe" Goodfellow (sometimes called Goodanuff) did it.

Goodfellow wasn't a very good fellow. His main business, conducted with the help of couple of corrupt soldiers at Fort Elliott, was the sale of stolen government property. Goodfellow might have put himself in the middle of all this by announcing that he would buy the Casners' entire flock if the brothers happened to get killed. Some have suggested said that Goodfellow's offer might have inspired Sostenes (or somebody) to kill the Casners.

In an attempt to protect himself from the surviving-and vengeful- Casners, Goodfellow fled to Fort Elliott, not to turn himself in, but to offer his assistance in locating some stolen government property. We don't know if the army knew Goodfellow was the one who stole the property in the first place or not, but he must have believed that the U.S. army would protect him from the Casners. He was wrong.

Goodfellow and a group of soldiers, including one of Goodfellow's partner in crime, departed the fort and, not by chance, encountered John Bottom. When Goodfellow found out the soldiers hadn't brought along a set of handcuffs, he removed the need for them by shooting Bottom twice-in full view of his family.

Back at the fort, the commanding officer didn't buy Goodfellow's plea of self-defense and had him confined to the guard house. A judge appointed Edward Berry-another cohort of John and Lew Casner-to take Goodfellow to Henrietta to stand trial for Bottom's murder. They never made it. A dozen or so men rode into their camp the first night and took Goodfellow at gunpoint.

Berry and his military escort found Goodfellow hanging from a cottonwood tree along the banks of the Canadian River the next morning.

The Dodge City Times later reported that a man named M. Harrison killed the Casner brothers, but the same paper reported that Harrison was in town looking for the "real" killers. A man named Frank McNabb was, for a while, a pretty good suspect.

None of the accounts, other than Goodnight's, mention Sostenes l' Archeveque. None of the standard histories of New Mexico mention his name either, nor is there any evidence that he murdered twenty-three people there, which would have put him two killings ahead of Billy the Kid, who shows up in plenty of New Mexico histories.

Frederick W. Nolan took a deep dive into the Casners' murder mystery in Tascosa: Its Life and Gaudy Times and came away wondering, among other things, if Sostenes l' Archeveque, in the context of the Casner murders, even existed.

"Goodnight might have decided, as might we, that if l' Archeveque did not exist, it became necessary to invent him," Nolan wrote, adding that there were "doubtless other bandits on the Staked Plains more than ready to murder for that much gold and more than happy to have a mythical bandit upon whom to foist their crimes."

If that's what happened the perpetrators picked the perfect foil in Sostenes l' Archeveque-maybe too perfect.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" July 11, 2020 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • The Fleeting Fame and Lasting Legacy of Bobby Morrow 6-10-20
  • The Phantom Booth 5-17-20
  • Trailing Texas Fever 4-16-20
  • Roy Bean's Bad News Bear 3-15-20
  • Karl May's Cactus Forest 2-17-20

    See more »

  • Related Topics:

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