As the Nevada State Journal, in June 1951, imagined Susie Raper and Robert Payne.
Born SUSAN WARFIELD in New South Wales, Australia, September 11, 1844; died of cancer, Los Angeles, October 12, 1900, aged 56.
Also Known As –
· Susie Raper, Rapier, Rayner, Booth, Yonkers, Dawson and Black.
· The Wickest Woman in the West
· Bronco Sue
· Six-Shooter Sue
· The Pistol-Packing Mama
· Buckskin Sue
· The Female Buccaneer of the Sagebrush
· The Lady Gay Spanker on the Pacific
(Lady Gay Spanker, a “horse-riding virago", was a character in the 1841 comedy London Assurance [originally Out of Town], written by Dion Boucicault.)
· The Lucrezia Borgia of the West
(Lucrezia Borgia, the oft-married daughter of Pope Alexander VI, is regarded as the ultimate femme fatale.)
· The Mazeppa of the Humboldt
(A Mazeppa is the rider of a wild horse. It originates from Ivan Stepanovyč Mazepa, the Ukrainian Cossack leader. Humboldt is a county in Nevada.)
Australia has historically been proud of its criminal past, celebrating its convict heritage and lionising its bushranger heroes, like Ned Kelly. But not so much its female outlaws. And no Australian newspaper, writer or historian has hitherto mentioned one of this country’s most notorious murderers, Susie Raper. The Kelly Gang collectively killed four men – Susie Raper alone shot at least three, and is considered New Mexico’s first serial man killer.
For 14 years to 1884, Australian-born Susie Raper and her “coquettish swagger”, “winning ways” and foul mouth had reporters spraying purple ink around newspaper offices across the United States, from California to Tennessee and on to Vermont. Trigger-happy Susie’s legend was launched on March 12, 1870, in just such one of those colourful rags, the Sacramento Independent, in what’s now a ghost town in Colorado. It would soon spread nationwide, with papers in all corners of the country picking up and republishing the Independent’s prurient story. And the legend survived well into the latter part of the 20th Century, revived in 1953 by yarns about her “comb stick-up” of 1869, when she convinced sheriffs she was holding a pistol at their heads. Susie was also remembered by the Nevada State Journal in May 1976 as “the brassiest, lovingest castle rustler in the West” - comparable with Butch Cassidy, the Daltons and the James Brothers - and as a “comely cattle rustler” by the Reno Gazette-Journal in September 1998. She was indeed brassy and comely. In one of her earliest escapades, she – with “a string of curses on her lips” - stole back her confiscated horse “Humboldt” and in doing so gave, according to the Indianapolis News in June 1870, “a liberal exhibition of her well-molded extremities to the greedy street gazers in her Mencken ride through [Mineral Hill, another Nevada ghost town]”. (Actress Adah Isaacs Menken was best known for her performance in the melodrama Mazeppa, with a climax that featured her apparently nude and riding a horse on stage.)
The Hartford Courant, July 1953
Calling her “The Lady Gay Spanker on the Pacific”, the Sacramento Independent’s evidently enamoured editor wrote that Susie was “rather prepossessing in appearance, has a passable face, a graceful and well-rounded form and good carriage.” As a coquette, she had run many of the leading citizens of Elko, Humboldt County, Nevada, “a merry string”, driving them “spoony” and vulnerable to the badger game. “Smart, bold, and of winning ways, she seldom missed her mark. She can shoot a pistol like a sportsman; ride a mustang with all the grace and dash of a vaquero, drive a bull team equal to any Missourian, and in the parlour or ball room ‘get away’ with most women of style.”
In almost the same breath, the writer added that in trying to escape custody in Austin, Lander County, Nevada, on January 18, 1870, Susie had shown “fight, nerve and skill in the handling of a six-shooter”. In court, “she acted as if it was fun”. But on being taken into jail, she had given “vent to a tirade of abuse upon the heads of those who had deserted her”. Naturally enough, clearly not wanting to be subjected to similar treatment, the all-male jury found her not guilty of grand larceny (for stealing a herd of cattle from the Mound Valley ranch of Nevada’s future governor, Major Lewis Rice “Broadhorns” Bradley). Susie gave the prosecutor a kiss on his cheek, threw back her head and laughed, and walked out with chin held high. It was a case of one down, one to go for Susie. A week later she faced another grand larceny charge, for stealing jewellery and gold coins worth $713 from a former employer, Carrie M. Taylor. Again she was found not guilty. One more week and a second not guilty finding for rustling. And this was pretty much to be the pattern of Susie’s outrageous ways until 1884.
That’s when the Chicago Tribune reported that “the wilful lady is now cultivating a flower garden in Texas”. Sure enough, Susie had headed south. In the meantime, from New Mexico she had joined forces with New Yorker Captain Robert Payne to move to Wyoming and then head south to invade the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) of the Choctaw and Cherokee nations, which the United States Government had promised would be free of white settlement. This agreement was soon defied and violated (with Susie “making Payne stand guard over the wickiup with a shotgun”) and impunity awarded to Susie and Payne to advertise and sell Indian Territory land under the supervision of a US Marshal. Unhappy with this more regulated arrangement, Susie abandoned Payne to his wits and took a raft down the Red River and Rio Grande to Texas.
Winnemucca’s Silver State newspaper, moved seven years earlier from Unionville, knew Susie’s form well. In early 1881 it gleefully quoted the Virginia Enterprise as claiming “All that is necessary is to arrest or kill Payne and capture Susie and put her in woman’s clothes, and provide her with a civilised good-looking man to occupy her time in courting her and giving her mustangs to ride. This accomplished and Susie Raper Payne may be tamed, and the incipient rebellion she and her Cher ami are endeavouring to inaugurate will be crushed out.”
Susie and Tom Raper, as the Nevada State Journal imaged them in 1951.
We’ll get back to the duplicitous Payne later … Suffice to say here that the Chicago Tribune’s Nevada correspondent weighed in by reminding readers of Susie’s “antics” – her “marvellous feats of horsemanship [sic], coupled with a keen appreciation of the value of other people’s cows and calves”. Her “brilliant, erratic career” had “carried her through a series of adventures and escapades that made her the special wonder and admiration of the Elko press … and which, if properly written up in the form of a two-shilling novel, would have made their fortunes.”
Nothing is known of Susie’s early life in Australia, but she probably grew up in either the Campbelltown or Windsor areas outside Sydney. She and her brother Joe Warfield first appeared in the US in Forest City, Sierra County, California. There were Warfields with Indiana links digging for gold in Sierra at the time, but it is unclear whether they were related. One different kind of gold digger, however, soon met another and in Forest City on March 6, 1860, the 15½-year-old Susie married Thomas Davison Raper from Davis County, Indiana, a veteran of the 1846-48 Mexican War. Raper was almost 16 years Susie’s senior, and it wasn’t to be a marriage made in heaven. Indeed, this was to be merely the first of at least five or six marriages Susie would go through in the next 15 years, although none of these would appear to have been entirely legal (she was still calling herself Mrs Susie Raper in 1899 and was awarded a widow’s war pension in Raper’s name in 1900). Susie and Raper did, nonetheless, have three boys - Joseph was born in California in 1861, Robert in Paradise Valley, Humboldt County, Nevada, in 1863 and William, also in Paradise Valley, in 1865. In April 1865 Paiutes Native Americans attacked settlers in Paradise Valley and on July 26, Susie’s brother Joe Warfield was killed in a clash at Willow Point. At Gueno Valley the following March 7, Raper accidentally shot himself in the arm while defending the family farm from another raid, leaving him disabled throughout the rest of his life. (Raper later lived in Montana and Arizona and died, aged 70, in November 1898, having become a deacon in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at Santa Maria, California.)
At Gueno Valley Susie strapped her wounded husband to a horse, killed two of the attackers and took Raper 60 miles south to Camp Dun Glen. From there the couple moved to Unionville, where Raper was treated and Susie found a teamster willing to take the family back to California. By the time they had reached the West Coast, Susie owned the team and the teamster still owed her money. Susie left her husband in Santa Barbara and returned to Humboldt County, where, dressed as male, she lassoed a deputy sheriff and was a suspected of stage robbery.
After appearing as the “Wickest Woman of the West” in a Winnemucca theatre, in 1869 she settled in Carlin, Elko County, and was convinced by Payne that he was a kindred spirit and would make a good fellow traveller. They contracted a Morganite marriage and planned the Native American land thieving partnership of Payne & Raper. The next year Susie declared herself a dressmaker in the US census. By then she had left the overtly respectable employ of Carrie Taylor to become an out-and-out outlaw.
The Indianapolis News suggested the good citizens of Elko would miss her. “Every now and then [they were] treated to a little fun by the fair damsel. Susie has no superior in boldness, dash and intrigue – if any equals. No yellow-covered book ever pictured her equal, if all accounts are true. Susie is as gay and festive as any female troubadour who ever trod the mountains under the blue sky of Italy. Possessing a natural and graceful appearance, a keen eye, a quick intellect, a tongue that swings on a pivot, she can make up to represent any character, and has ability enough to execute any deep laid scheme. Mazzepa chief of a gang of land pirates, she boasts of her power to command, at a moment’s warning, their assistance to execute her wishes, however unlawful or diabolical they may be. The experience of the dungeon taught her no lesson, as it was hoped it would have done by her lovers”.
After ditching Payne, Susie went through three more mock marriages. The first of these was to Frenchman Jacob “Jake” Youncker, who was struck down by smallpox. A Scotsman called Robert S. Black helped Susie bury Youncker, and then became Susie’s “husband” No 4. In 1884 Susie and Black fell out over property and Black attacked our heroine with an axe – only to be shot and killed by Susie’s .44 revolver. Susie pleaded self-defence and no charges were laid (at least for the time being, until she was dobbed in by her own son). Susie next married stockman Charles Dawson, but after further family feuding Dawson too was gunned down – though not this time by Susie herself.
Detroit Free Press, March 1870
In the midst of all this, Susie’s eldest and youngest sons, no doubt led by example, turned bad, and the middle son died young. As the Yerrington Times, Nevada, said of Joe Raper in August 1875, “Susie brought her children up in the way they should go and this one seems to be going it.” Still, Susie needed the signature of the youngest, Bill Raper, in order to acquire Tom Raper’s estate “of real and personal property”, after Raper died at La Graciosa, Santa Barbara, California, in November 1898. Susie was also living in Santa Barbara at the time, and two months after Tom’s death appealed to newspaper readers in Arizona to help her track Bill down. What she failed to mention was that 11 years earlier, Bill had scarpered with $1000 worth of Susie’s jewellery.
In February 1900, Susie was one of a handful of Californians to be granted pensions, in her case a princely $8 as a Mexican War widow. But she didn’t have long to enjoy it. Eight months later she was dead. Previously, all books and articles in which Susie’s life has been mentioned have speculated that in all probability she would meet a grisly end. None of the authors imaged that she would survive until one month after her 56th birthday, or that she would die of cancer in her own bed, alone. But she did. And even more remarkably, this notorious killer did so having spent only four months in jail in her entire life – back in 1869!