Did you know… Dora Hand?

Dora Hand of Dodge City

Dora Hand(  (c. 1843 – October 4, 1878)

Tales of the Old West

Dora was talented and beautiful. Born in 1843 in Boston, she had a musical education in Europe and sang opera in New York. There’s some doubt historically about different aspects of Dora’s background, but these are the best available facts. Sometime in her late twenties, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Dora figured marriage and family weren’t in the cards for her, and she might as well live it up, see some more of the world. Tuberculosis or consumption as it was called, is characterized externally by fatigue, night sweats, and a general “wasting away” of the victim. Typically but not exclusively a disease of the lungs, TB is also marked by a persistent coughing-up of thick white phlegm, sometimes blood. There was no cure, and little treatment available, but some physicians prescribed a dry climate. Dora traveled to Kansas at the suggestion of a friend, arriving in Dodge City in about May 1878. She took a job as a lounge singer, earning $40 a week, the equivalent of $1050 today. Her beauty and captivating voice made her an instant hit. After a short stint at her first job, she moved over to the Lady Gay Dance Hall, and almost doubled her salary. The Lady Gay was part-owned by Jim Masterson, younger brother of the town marshall and Bat Masterson. Many men sought her, but she particularly attracted the attention of the town mayor, James H. “Dog” Kelley. Though Dora was reportedly estranged from a husband back East, Dog Kelley sought her out and struck up a friendship. The town had rarely seen the likes of her beauty and talent. It was a wide-open cowtown, with droves coming up from Texas to meet the railroad.   Dora worked out a deal to sing at the Lady Gay, and also at her former employer, the Alhambra.

In Dodge City: Queen of Cowtowns, Kansas historian and author Stanley Vestal also speaks of her generosity: “During the day she proved a kindly, resourceful and energetic person, always ready to help anyone in trouble. If some raw boy from Texas who had never even seen a train before lost his pile at faro or drank too much redeye and was rolled south of the Deadline, she could be counted on to grubstake him or redeem his saddle so that he could ride home. She asked no security or even the names of the men she helped. When someone fell sick, she was willing to play the part of a practical nurse. Of course, in such a small community, everybody knew all about everybody else, and few people in Dodge were more respected than Dora.”

Dodge City: Queen of Cowtowns: “the Wickedest Little City in America” 1872-1886
0803296177 (ISBN13: 9780803296176)

She was a model of generosity but ruffled feathers of “respectable” folk because of her “saloon girl” status. When the minister of the Methodist church invited her to sing for Sunday evening service, some parishioners were outraged – especially when she was back at the Lady Gay an hour later, singing for the crowd.

Given the nature of the town, it’s no surprise that soon there was jealousy, with different men claiming the right to exclusive time with Dora. One of these was Texas cowboy James W. “Spike” Kenedy, 23 years old and lovestruck. Seeing Dora with Dog Kelley maddened Kenedy. He had to have her. Spike Kenedy’s middle name was trouble – he was arrested by Wyatt Earp for brandishing a pistol, and by Charley Basset for disorderly conduct. One night he stayed at the Lady Gay, drinking up his father’s money, and became overly familiar with Dora, so that Kelley threw him out.

In revenge, Spike plotted an ambush and murder. He got a fast horse to make his escape and waited for an opportunity. Dog Kelley suffered an intestinal problem but didn’t get along with the town doctor. He left town secretly to get medical attention, inviting Dora to stay at his place while he was gone. Town ordinances wouldn’t allow openly carrying a gun, so Spike snuck into town after dark, mounted on his racer.

Dora must have been feeling uneasy. She invited a girlfriend to stay with her at Kelley’s cabin. About four o’clock in the morning on October 4, 1878, Spike rode by the cabin, and fired his .44 revolver at the door, thinking Kelley was inside. The first shot harmlessly hit the floor. The second passed over Dora’s girlfriend, and struck Dora in the right side, just under the arm, killing her instantly.

There were no eyewitnesses to Spike pulling the trigger, but it was widely assumed that he was responsible. A posse formed, including Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. They guessed that Spike would run for it, seeking the safety of his rich father’s ranch in Texas. Taking a short cut, they got ahead of him. When Spike came up a hill and saw the posse waiting for him, he tried to run. Bat Masterson had a .50 caliber rifle, and raising it, put a bullet in Spike’s shoulder. Wyatt drew his pistol and killed Spike’s horse. The chase was over. Spike was badly wounded enough to lose the use of his arm. He asked the posse, “Did I get him?” On learning he had killed Dora instead, he berated Masterson for not shooting him in the head!

Justice does not always prevail, then or now. Spike’s rich daddy hot-footed it to Kansas with a briefcase full of money. The October 29 issue of the Ford County Globe reported with a wink: “Kennedy [sic], the man who was arrested for the murder of Fannie Keenan, was examined last week before Judge [R.G.] Cook and acquitted. His trial took place in the sheriff’s office, which was too small to admit spectators. We do not know what the evidence was or upon what grounds he was acquitted.” It can’t be proved, but the rumor was that $25,000 was paid (modern equivalent $6.5 million) to get an “acquittal” on the murder charges.

Dora is rumored to be the only woman buried on Boot Hill. Dora’s story appeared in the Life and Times of Wyatt Earp television series. The Lady Gay saloon is mentioned in several episodes of Gunsmoke. Some say that Dora was the inspiration for the “Miss Kitty” character in Gunsmoke, portrayed by Amanda Blake.

Dodge City 1876