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. Continue reading