Charles Kennedy: The Serial Killer of the Taos Trail

On a cold October night in 1870, a Ute woman ran through lightly falling snow on the Taos Trail in northern New Mexico. She fled toward Elizabethtown, known as E-Town, a small and sometimes violent mining community in the Moreno Valley of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

When she arrived, she burst through the doors of Johnny Pearson’s saloon before collapsing on the floor in exhaustion. The bar patrons — infamous gunfighter Clay Allison among them — quickly came to the woman’s aid.

In broken English and between labored breaths, the woman revealed that her husband, Charles Kennedy, had that night killed their son, bashing his head against the stone fireplace of their log cabin home at Palo Flechado Pass, just south of E-Town.

The Serial Killer of the Taos Trail

But that wasn’t the first murder that occurred at the cabin.

The woman, who was captured and forced into marriage with the older, “grotesque” Kennedy in the 1860s, described how the old mountain man had lured dozens of travelers into his house of death over the years.

Check the property and you’ll find bodies buried everywhere, she claimed.

It didn’t take long for Allison and some 50 others to saddle up and ride out to Palo Flechado, where Kennedy was just waking from the previous night’s drinking binge. The posse dragged him to the E-Town jail while the townspeople pressed his wife for more details.

The night of her son’s murder, she relayed, a traveling merchant had stopped by and dined with the Kennedy family. When the merchant asked if there had been sightings of Native Americans in the area, the five-year-old Kennedy boy asked the peddler, “Can’t you smell the one papa put in the cellar?”

The boy referred to a dead body kept in a crawl space below the main room, where Kennedy often disposed of bodies before later burning them outside behind the house. The body in the cellar allegedly belonged to the Ute woman’s brother, who was killed when he tried to negotiate for his sister’s safe release.

Within seconds, Kennedy murdered his son and the peddler, throwing both bodies into the cellar to join the other remains decaying in that place. He locked the woman in the main room and drank the rest of his night away.

When the fire died down hours later, the woman climbed through the chimney — scraping her hands and feet the entire way — until she reached the roof, where she jumped and ran into the night.

Now, with more information, a party headed back to the Kennedy home to search for evidence, and they found more than they bargained for.

“Bodies reposing in the cellar were buried,” wrote Calico Jones in a May 1967 issue of Real West. “Remains of others were dug up near the chimney outside, around the barn and corral, and in a dozen other places. Digging in the garden brought to light holes filled with pieces of charred bones. Doctors declared most were human skeletal remains.”

Back in E-Town, Kennedy hastily hired an attorney, but the townspeople were “in no mood to countenance delays in bringing Kennedy to justice,” said one report. A mob quickly formed a jury pool, and Kennedy chose 12 — two of whom had been convinced by attorney M.W. Mills to avoid convicting the defendant — but by late that night, the mob rule was done with any sort of legal maneuvering.

Charles Kennedy Clay Allison

They stormed the jail and marched Kennedy to a nearby slaughterhouse, where he was hung and found the following morning. The town enacted their frontier justice, though the local newspaper couldn’t approve of the “midnight mob.”

“There is a general feeling of satisfaction that he is at last beyond the power of doing further harm,” reported The Daily New Mexican on October 13, 1870. “Still, while we have no word of pity for the murderer, we cannot commend the action of those who hunt him. The time has passed when it was necessary for the people of this community to take the punishment of offenders in their own hands.”

After Kennedy’s death, rumors spread that Clay Allison took the man’s mummified head east to Cimmaron, where he convinced hotelier Henry Lambert to display the trophy at his hotel and bar.

Lambert first denied the request, it was said, but wanting to stay on good terms with the gunslinger, eventually stuck “the gruesome object on the end of a vertical pole at the corral gate, on a side street behind his hotel.”

When it was all said and done, Charles Kennedy had allegedly murdered at least 14 people, though locals believe he killed as many as 50 or more.

Kennedy had arrived at Palo Flechado before gold was discovered in the region in 1866, so by the time the flood of prospectors came through — E-Town’s population peaked at 5,000 to 7,000 residents — he was well-positioned to pray on travelers seeking rest on the way to Taos.

Between 1865 and 1870, he lured travelers back to his home, where he supposedly ran a traveler’s inn for weary commuters. His usual scheme involved bringing travelers back with the promise of a soft bed and warm meal, but in the middle of dinner, or before bed, he would murder his guests, taking their money, gold or goods — including livestock.

Charles Kennedy Church

Some travelers he would shoot in the head or back, and others he attacked with a forge hammer. Some bodies were buried outside, and others were thrown in the cellar until they decomposed. He would on occasion use or sell his victims’ livestock, and though some locals questioned where he acquired the animals, they often chalked it up to him being the town weirdo, and thought little else of it.

At one point, Kennedy killed a man in front of a farmhand named Jose Cortez, who escaped after Kennedy said Cortez would have to help dispose of the body. When another farmhand, Hilario Cruz, went missing, Cruz’s friends and family in the Taos area began suspecting foul play, and spent time covertly exploring the hills around Palo Flechado.

By late 1870, then, there where whispers of something odd going on at the pass, but it wasn’t until that October night that anyone aside from the poor Ute woman knew exactly what had occurred in the Kennedy house of horrors.

Charles Kennedy Photograph

Interestingly, two years before Kennedy was caught and hung, a prospector describing his journey in the area recalled meeting Charles Kennedy and searching for another traveler, a man named Edmunds, who couldn’t be located. The prospector recorded his story in a July 1868 article in the Santa Fe Weekly Post.

For several hours the author and his partner searched the hills for Edmunds, and when he wasn’t found, Kennedy suggested “Mr. Edmunds had successfully made his escape and that we would probably find him somewhere at the mines.”

Sometime later, Edmunds body was found just off the road, where he had been stripped of clothing that contained $1,000 sewn into the pockets. There were broken arrows in his body and others scattered nearby, suggesting he was attacked, but in retrospect, it’s not unreasonable to believe Kennedy may have been involved in the murder.

Edmunds’ fate, however he came to it, would be the same for more than a dozen travelers on the Taos Trail in those years, and were it not for the brave Ute woman who endured Kennedy’s abuses, the monster of Palo Flechado may have preyed on many more fortune seekers on that winding road to Taos.

Sources & Further Reading

  • Birchell, D. B. (2022). New Mexico Ghost Towns. The History Press.
  • Birdseye views and mining news. (1868, July 4). Santa Fe Weekly Post, p. 4.
  • Lynch law in Elizabethtown. (1870, October 13). The Daily New Mexican, p. 1.
  • Patterson, R. M. (1985). Historical Atlas of the Outlaw West. Johnson Books.
  • Varney, P. (1987). New Mexico’s Best Ghost Towns: A Practical Guide. University of New Mexico Press.
  • Weigle, M., & White, P. (1988). The Lore of New Mexico. University of New Mexico Press.