Frontierado is this Friday, August 2nd, so just a few days left for seasonal posts this calendar year! As ever, this holiday is about the myth of the Old West, not the grinding reality.
RUSSIAN BILL – William Tatenbaum aka Waldemar Tethenborn aka Feador Telfrin was born in Russia as the son of Countess Telfrin. Russian Bill’s noble birthright was confirmed by the American Consul in Saint Petersburg, Russia after Bill’s death by lynching in 1881.
That’s important to note because during William Tatenbaum’s travels in the American West many people thought the smooth-talking Russian gunslinger was lying about being a nobleman. Apparently they assumed he was a forerunner of the 20th Century’s Mike Romanoff, who became a celebrity based on his brassy – but failed – attempt to pass himself off as a member of the fallen Romanoff dynasty.
The 19th Century’s William Tatenbaum might have lived a longer life if he had pursued a similar con-man’s career instead of falling into the life of a guns-blazing outlaw.
While serving in the Tsar’s Imperial White Hussars (cavalry) and after seeing action in the Khivan Campaign, the future Russian Bill had a violent falling out with a superior officer. The exact nature of the conflict is not known and years later the Countess Telfrin would refer to it only as “a political affair.”
Bill left Russia under a cloud and at some point wound up in the American West. The wandering rogue made references to having gambled on Mississippi Riverboats and in assorted Texas towns while participating in periodic “duels” (gunfights) over ladies or related matters of “honor.” Given how true Russian Bill’s claims to nobility turned out to be, all the other claims he made about his mysterious past need to be taken with some seriousness.
Tatenbaum certainly looked and otherwise fit the part of the Old West Gambler better than the rougher outlaw he later became. He was described as a dandified dresser and sported expensive pistols. In addition he was well-spoken, well-educated and fluent in at least four languages, all of which would have accounted for his popularity with the ladies. His supposedly handsome face, curly blonde hair and moustache would have helped.
By the late 1870s Russian Bill was in the Animas Valley in Southwestern New Mexico Territory where he fell in with the Clanton Crime Faction, whose control extended from there to parts of Arizona Territory. Some accounts claim Bill first took to committing crimes with them to pay off a gambling debt to one of the gang.
In any event Tatenbaum began robbing stagecoaches, rustling cattle, stealing horses and holding up teamsters throughout New Mexico and Arizona along with his cohorts. As he started spending more and more time in Tombstone, AZ Russian Bill began to fall out with the gang.
Curly Bill Brocius and many of the rougher elements of the Clanton Faction were too redneckish to take the sophisticated Russian expatriate all that seriously. They tried his patience by treating him like his polished manners made him a weakling or a wimp who didn’t deserve to be considered an equal.
It was the same sort of mistake Curly Bill and the Clantons would go on to make with Doc Holliday, but Russian Bill was gone from Tombstone before Doc and the Earps’ clash with the Clanton Faction came to a head. (Though Wyatt Earp did make references to Russian Bill in his memoirs.) Johnny Ringo was said to be one of the few gang members Russian Bill got along with.
Bill struck up an unlikely friendship with Sandy King, a pathologically violent giant of a man who also rode with Curly Bill and the Clantons. Supposedly drawn together by their growing discontent with how they were treated in the Clanton Faction, Russian Bill and Sandy King left Arizona in 1880. The pair wound up in Shakespeare, NM (formerly called Ralston, NM) where they began rustling cattle as well as robbing gold, silver and copper shipments or payrolls for the mines.
Unlike the surly, Conan the Barbarianesque Sandy King, Tatenbaum supposedly felt enough civic virtue to join the earliest groupings of the Shakespeare Guard, several dozen citizens who served as on-call militiamen against the frequent Apache attacks on the town.
By late 1881 Russian Bill and his pal Sandy King often got roaring drunk and rode through Shakespeare whooping it up and shooting their guns in the air. King became a town bully and on one occasion shot off the index finger of a shopkeeper he was arguing with.
Dangerous Dan Tucker, by then a Marshal as well as a Deputy Sheriff in Shakespeare, arrested King after that incident. While Sandy was cooling his heels in jail, Dangerous Dan also nailed his buddy Russian Bill on a horse theft charge.
A vigilante mob dragged Russian Bill and Sandy King from their cells on November 9th, 1881. After “trying” them in the dining room of the Grant Hotel the mob lynched them right there, letting them strangle to death while hanging from the rafters.
In 1883 Countess Telfrin, working through the American Consul in Saint Petersburg, began her efforts to locate her son, both for her own sake and over a matter of what to do with valuable lands owned by the late William. Authorities in Shakespeare, NM sent back word that Russian Bill had committed suicide to spare Countess Telfrin the truth about his criminal career and death by lynching.
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