How Colonel Kate Won Her Spurs
by Florence Finch Kelly
Mrs. Harrison Winthrop Coolidge had long been the recognized leader of
Santa Fé society. Her husband, who had twice been Governor of New
Mexico (this was long before the Territory had put on the garment of
Statehood), was the best known and most esteemed man in the Southwest.
He was rich, energetic, capable, and popular, and he came of the family
of the Massachusetts Coolidges; while his wife, who was just as capable
and as popular as he, sprang from the Adams family of the same State.
But, notwithstanding all this, to the Unassorted of Santa Fé society
she was always "Colonel Kate"; and the Select themselves, in moments of
sprightly intimacy, would sometimes refer to her or even address her by
The occasional new resident and the frequent health-seeker were sure to
hear of Colonel Kate before they had spent more than a day or two in
the ancient city; and if they had come from the strait-laced East they
were likely to be much scandalized when they learned the identity of
the lady spoken of thus disrespectfully, and would at once want to know
how and why such things could be. Then they would be told that the
shocking appellation was only a good-natured and admiring recognition
of Mrs. Coolidge's general efficiency. For it was the universal
opinion in Santa Fé that Colonel Kate would always accomplish whatever
she started out to do, and that nobody ever could guess what she would
start out to do next.
All this was quite true, but it was also true that the Governor's wife
had won her military title by the especial daring and efficiency which
she had once displayed on a particular occasion. The facts in the case
are known only to some three or four people who have always kept them
very quiet. It happened, however, when I asked for information about
Mrs. Coolidge's nickname, that the man with whom I was talking was the
very one who had first bestowed it upon her, and he told me the secret
truth about it. Mrs. Coolidge had no stancher friend than he, nor any
who regarded her with greater respect and admiration, but he rarely
spoke of her or addressed her by any other name than "Colonel Kate."
It all happened a good many years ago, when Harrison Winthrop Coolidge,
then a comparatively young man and newly married, had just come out
from Massachusetts to be Governor of New Mexico. His wife was a young
woman of tall and shapely figure, handsome face, and striking presence,
and possessed of such vivacity, vigor, health, and strength as few
women enjoy. Her superabundant vitality found many emergencies upon
which to expend itself, but the man who told me this story declared
that she never found one that was too big for her. She probably never
found a bigger or more important one than that which she faced on the
night when she won her spurs. Governor and Mrs. Coolidge reached New
Mexico in the days of the first coming of the railroad, when the sleepy
old Territory woke to a brief season of active and hilarious life. And
the Governor, fresh from New England reverence for law and legal forms
and accepted methods, was inexpressibly shocked by the low opinion in
which such things were held in his new bailiwick. Especially was he
horrified by the frequent and brief proceedings which left men who had
been too free with their guns or with other people's property hanging
from trees, projecting beams, and other convenient places. The usual
rough justice of the affair did not, in his eyes, mitigate the
offensiveness of its irregularity.
The Santa Fé Bugle at once interviewed him about his plans and
intentions, and Governor Coolidge talked very strongly on the subject
of lynch law. He said that it was entirely wrong, unworthy even of
barbarians, and was not to be endorsed or palliated in either principle
or practice. He deplored the frequency of its operations in New
Mexico, and emphatically declared his intention of stamping it out.
And he took that opportunity to announce that all persons connected
with lynching affairs would be treated as murderers or accessories to
The editor of The Bugle, which was the organ of the opposition,
published every word the Governor said, and then gleefully waited for
something to happen. He did not know what it would be, but he was
perfectly sure there would be something, and that it would be
On the night after the interview was published Mrs. Coolidge awoke,
possessed by an uneasy feeling that something unusual was taking place.
They were living then in the ancient adobe "Governor's palace," with
its four-foot walls and its eventful history ante-dating the landing at
Plymouth Rock, and for a half-waking instant she wondered if some
unshriven victim of century-gone enmity and revenge still walked those
old halls or sought its mortal habiliments among the rotting bones in
the placita. She listened and heard whispering voices and cautious
movements in the portal that fronted the entire length of the
building. Then she arose, wrapped a long, dark cloak about her, and
peeped out of the window. Directly in front of their bedroom, in the
portal, were three or four men who bore among them some long and
heavy burden. She drew her dark hair across her face, that there might
be no white gleam to attract their attention, and crouched beside the
window to watch.
One of the men, who was apparently a leader, mounted the shoulders of
two others and seemed to be feeling for something in the wall above the
window. The dim rays of an old moon, which showed that the time must
be near morning, did not afford as much light as he needed, and he
fumbled for some time before he found the hook in the wall for which he
was looking. Over it he passed the end of a rope and then jumped to
the ground. They pulled together on the rope, and the long, dark
burden, which had been left lying on the ground, was drawn upward until
it hung in front of the window beside which Mrs. Coolidge was watching,
and she saw that it was a human body. Then they fastened the rope to
one of the iron bars across the window and stood for a few moments
looking at the swaying body and chuckling together. The one who seemed
to be the leader rolled a cigarette and lighted it, and by the glare of
the match she recognized him. He was a man of prominence in Santa Fé
and the leader of the opposing party, not only locally but for the
whole Territory as well.
Mrs. Coolidge's first impulse was to awaken her husband, but a swift
intuition warned her that that would not be wise. So she controlled
her horror and indignation, and, as she stared at the poor, lifeless
thing swaying outside, she did some very rapid thinking. She
understood that there had been a lynching and that the corpse had been
brought there and hung in front of her husband's bedroom window, where
his first waking glance would fall upon it, as a sign of how public
opinion regarded his ideas and intentions on the subject of lynch law.
She saw that it was intended as a warning and a contemptuous defiance,
and her spirit rose high in righteous wrath. She knew well that this
event presaged for the Governor trouble and humiliation, and probably,
if a conflict were precipitated at once, an early defeat, and she
quickly decided that he must not see the body or know what had
happened. But what could she do with it?
Then an idea occurred to her and she smiled and said to herself that it
was impossible. But it seemed such a good idea, and it pleased her so
much, that she kept on thinking about it. Presently she assured
herself that her husband was still sleeping quietly; then she put on
some clothes, and, laughing softly, went out on the portal.
The man who had been the leader in the affair that night, and whom Mrs.
Coolidge had recognized, was awakened early the next morning by the
sound of voices in front of his house. It was barely dawn, but already
a little group of Mexicans were staring at his door and talking with
much excitement. Wondering what it could mean he hastily dressed
himself and went out. As he opened the front door he ran into the body
of the man, swinging above his own threshold, which he had left a few
hours before hanging at the Governor's window.
"My jaw dropped and I shut the door mighty quick, when I saw that," he
told me, with a reminiscent, amused chuckle at himself. "I knew in a
second that the Governor was onto us, that he must have seen us in
front of his window, and that it was up to me to do some lively pullin'
of freight. As a matter of fact, I had n't had anything to do with the
lynching. That had been done by some cowboys who were in town the day
before, and the fellow they 'd done for was an ornery cuss of a
half-breed Mexican, who was a whole lot better off dead than alive,
anyway. He tried to play some low-down game on 'em at poker, and they
just strung him up and rode off. Some of our fellows heard about it,
and three or four of us decided it would be a good thing to let
Coolidge know what our sentiments were.
"We were in dead earnest, and we meant to get his political scalp and
drive him out of the Territory with his tail between his hind legs,
before he knew what had happened to him. I won't say," and the man
grinned and his eyes twinkled, "I was n't expecting to be appointed
Governor myself afterwards. Anyway, I did n't care to be roped into a
trial for murder just then. It would have interfered with my plans.
And if the Governor had seen us apparently lynching a man right under
his eyes, he could cinch us if he wanted to.
"I called the Mexicans up to the door, told them I didn't know how the
body got there (I didn't, either), but it must have been put there by
some of my enemies. Then I gave them money to take charge of it, say
the dead man was a friend of theirs, and do the proper thing. So the
poor cuss was in luck by the affair after all, for he got a mass said
over him. Then I sent word to my friends who 'd been with me, and we
all just quietly skipped, on the minute. At sun-up that morning there
was n't one of us in town. I had urgent business in Texas for the next
"You see, we 'd all of us thought our new Governor was just a
highfalutin' tenderfoot, and it would n't be any job at all to buffalo
him. But this move of his gave us a suspicion that maybe we 'd sized
him up wrong. It was just the kind of quiet warning that we 'd be
likely to give if we had cards up our sleeve that the other fellow did
n't know about. It looked as if he really could and would strike back
good and plenty if we pushed him too hard. So we sent word to our
crowd all over the Territory to keep quiet a while. And let me tell
you, life in New Mexico was not nearly so exciting for the next few
weeks as some of us had planned it should be.
"Still, I was n't quite satisfied about it. Somehow, the Governor did
n't seem to pan out to be just the kind of man who would give that kind
of a jolt to his enemies. He was too Eastern. I was still chawin' it
over in my mind, when one day I met Mrs. Coolidge, two or three weeks
after it happened and the first time I 'd seen her since. She was
lively and cordial, as she always was, and is; but as I shook hands
with her and looked her in the eyes she suddenly dropped her eyelids,
and a queer expression crossed her face. She had hold of herself again
in a second and was looking at me and smiling and talking. But that
second was enough. It flashed into my mind that she was the one who 'd
done it. I reckon I would n't have dared to bone her about it if I 'd
waited two minutes. But the impulse took me, and I just asked her
bluntly right then and there if it was she who had transferred that
Greaser from her husband's window to my door.
"She threw up her head and looked me square in the eyes—you know that
straight, frank gaze she has—frowned a little and said, 'Yes, I did
it. I thought your doorway was the rightful place for that corpse to
be found in.'
"Well, the joke of it and the pluck of her just struck me right where I
lived, and I fairly roared. 'Put it there, Mrs. Coolidge,' I said, and
stuck out my hand, as soon as I could speak. 'You 're a regular
captain! No, you 're bigger than that—you 're a colonel! Shake, and
let's be friends!'
"Well, I just thought it would be a shame to drive a woman with as much
pluck and sabe as that back East to live. So I passed the word down
the line in our party that we 'd give the Governor a show—let him have
fair play anyhow, and, if he could make good, all right, the pot should
be his. I was so tickled by Mrs. Coolidge's trick and the way she won
out on it that I never called her anything but 'Colonel' after that,
and, somehow, the title stuck. Anyway, she deserves it."
For a long time after this affair, so I learned from Mrs. Coolidge when
I asked her about the story her friend had told me, the Governor
thought it was that interview and the stern spirit he displayed in it
that had made the change in the opposition's attitude toward him and
had seemed to affect the feeling of the whole Territory. For his
official path became unexpectedly easy. There were few attempts to
balk him in his administration of affairs and there was a general
manifestation of tolerance, and even of willingness to see how his
ideas would work out.
But the time came when, understanding better the people with whom he
had to deal, he knew that that interview ought to have had just the
opposite result. One day he said to his wife how surprising it was
that it had not landed him in the hottest of hot water, and how puzzled
he was to account for what seemed to have been its effect. Then she
confessed to him what had happened on that crucial night, how she had
taken the body away and hung it in front of the other house, and what
she partly knew and partly guessed about the results of the affair. At
once he realized that her instant and audacious retaliation was what
had made possible his success and his growing popularity.
Nevertheless, he was shocked at first, for New England was still but a
little way behind him. But amusement soon overcame every other
feeling, and he laughed heartily in admiration of her daring, just as
his opponent had done. After that, he seemed to take particular pride
in her sobriquet, and himself often called her "Colonel Kate."