Keno Wilson
  • Keno Wilson

Keno Wilson had two lasting memories from his younger years. Though a man of few words — they said he was “short on poetry and long on action” — Wilson couldn’t stop talking about one. Friends said the other, which he never mentioned, “haunted him all his life.”

Born in Visalia, California, October 26, 1862, Jefferson Keener Wilson was one of 12 children. The family shortened his middle name to “Keno,” after the bingo-like, banking game popular in gambling dens and saloons. People outside the family called him “Kaner,” “Keener,” “Keeno,” “Keeneye.” But when he became San Diego’s chief of police in 1909, most everyone pronounced it “Keno.”

One Sunday in the 1870s, on a day off from driving cattle at his Uncle John’s ranch near Denton, Texas, Wilson spotted a brown cloud rising from the north road. Horses. Five, maybe six. But only one rider: a man, late-20s, curly hair down to the collar, handlebar moustache and v-shaped, Van Dyke beard, outfit sweat-stained a deep brown. A remuda of horses trailed behind.

“Any ponies for sale around here?” he asked.

“One,” said John Wilson, pointing to an unbroken bronc in the corral.

“How much?”

“If you can ride him,” said John, “ten dollars.”

The man roped, saddled, and blindfolded the horse, Keno recalled. He jumped on and “whipped off the blinders.” The man rode so well, the “horse couldn’t shuffle him from the saddle.” He paid the $10 and said his name was Cody, William Cody, later known as Buffalo Bill.

“A fearless man,” Wilson told the San Diego Union in 1933. “He came riding down through a lot of wild country, all alone, to buy up ponies and take them north. He could shoot, too, and was a man that everybody liked.”

Thirty years later, when Wilson was police chief, Cody brought his Wild West Show to San Diego. Wilson introduced himself. To his surprise, the world-famous showman recalled that day. They became friends. In 1917, Cody gave Wilson a watch “bearing the likeness of his famous self and equally famous protégé, Pawnee Bill.”

Wilson never tired of telling that one, or nodding at the gleaming trophy on his office wall. The other story, he refused to talk about, not even in his autobiography, two typed pages of dates and terse comments he wrote shortly before he died in 1934.

“November 6, 1888: I was elected constable at General election at Oceanside for term two years.

“July 16, 1889: I was appointed City Marshal at Oceanside by the City Trustees.”

He gives no reason for the upgrade.

Wilson returned to California in 1884. He got a job as a “special investigator” for Las Bolsas and Stearns Ranchos Company. He patrolled their 200,000 acres and evicted squatters, “over 200,” he estimated.

In 1888 he became a constable at Oceanside, working under his older brother, Charles, the city marshal. Their brother James and sister, Mary Elizabeth, also lived in the area. At 28, Charles was the eldest.

That year Oceanside was a cross between boomtown and wild and woolly. It had first-class hotels: the St. Cloud and the South Pacific. Men wore pistols in low-slung holsters, and those not bit by the temperance bug imbibed strong drink in 13 saloons from Hill Street down to the railroad tracks on Cleveland.

In April 1889, the South Oceanside Diamond said “Charley Wilson is an excellent City Marshal — that is if there was anything for him to do.” Keeping the peace usually meant breaking up disputes over gambling, women, language differences, or who could harvest the most produce. Charley and Keno tracked down the occasional horse thief and locked him in their 20-foot-square jail.

The two hotels faced each other and waged an ongoing war for customers. On July 3, 1889, they fought over the most festive Independence Day. South Pacific put up banners, but the St. Cloud, just east of the tracks, went hog wild with signs and bunting and the promise of a fireworks display. The holiday and a “tournament” of half-mile stakes races, supervised by Charley Wilson, filled both hotels.

Late in the afternoon of July 3, John Murray and José Chavez got their pay from hay-baling in the San Luis Rey Valley. They headed to Oceanside to celebrate the Fourth. On the way, Murray swore to “have some fun with the Wilson brothers.”

A year earlier, Murray got “full” — blazing drunk — at a local saloon. He raised such a ruckus, Charley Wilson had to take out a warrant and track him down. Along with a fine of $20 (a good month’s pay) for disturbing the peace, Charley ordered Murray to steer clear of Oceanside. As Murray rode off, he said he’d “get even” with the Wilson brothers.

The 23-year old Murray had a hair-trigger temper. “Sullen in disposition” (South Oceanside Diamond), he “would become excited over the most trivial matter.” A “desperado…he has a record of killing two brothers in Texas” (Los Angeles Times). Others said it was a Sheriff in San Sabo, where he grew up in a well-to-do family. He “fled to California to avoid arrest.”

To the Wilsons, Murray was just another “cow-boy” tough. He’d come to town a couple of times since but raised no cain.

On the evening of July 3, Charley and Keno walked separate patrols. They met on occasion to compare notes — and remark how the “damp and impenetrable” fog made things hard to see.

Between 9:00 and 10:00, Charley heard someone blathering in the Diamond Saloon. The voice sounded familiar: Murray, “fighting drunk” and demanding a refill. Murray was unarmed and, therefore, in the marshal’s eyes, “on the peaceable.” Charley told him to go home and sleep it off, “or I’ll have to arrest you.”

Murray and Chavez mounted up and raced out of town — but turned around and went to the Pioneer Saloon. Two weeks before, Murray had planted his .44 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver behind the bar.

On the night of July 3, the Pioneer was the most popular drinking hole in Oceanside. The proprietor, J. Hallen, set up betting pools for the races. Murray had to elbow his way through thickets of men either swilling liquor, gambling-mad, or both.

Part 2: Manhunt | < href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2014/nov/26/unforgettable-keno-3/">Part 3: The Marhsall Gets His Man

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