The Mystery of Edna Wilson
By Amy Phillips
Just two years after Meeteetse officially became a town, a young girl by the name of Edna Wilson went missing.
Edna Wilson was one of five children born to Andrew and Margaret Wilson. Her family had come to Wyoming in 1881 from Colorado, settling on Meeteetse Creek. Edna’s elder sister, Ida, was already married to John Gleaver and settled nearby on the Wood River. Shortly after settling in the area, Andrew B. Wilson, Edna’s father, passed away.
Edna and Ida were often seen riding between the two ranches. Both were apparently skilled riders and their father had gifted them matching saddles before his death. The girls were also a common sight at the Pitchfork Ranch where Ida was the cook. Otto Franc, the owner of the Pitchfork Ranch, was a friend of the family and Ida’s son was named “Otto Franc Gleaver” in honor of him.
But in 1888, Edna disappeared. Tom Osborne, reported as a friend of the Wilson family, was a ranch hand at the Pitchfork Ranch in the 1880s and his autobiography was reproduced by Curtis Larsen in 1995 and given to the Meeteetse Museums. It reads:
“Edna Wilson, belle of Meeteetse, left home on Old Meeteetse Creek in the summer of 1888. She went to the Pitchfork for dinner where her sister, Ida B. Gleever [sic], was cooking. Mrs. Gleever told Edna of plans for a dance being held at the Gleever Place on Wood River that night. Edna decided to go to the dance with her sister. During the dance, Edna took a fancy to Al McComb, who was a well-known cowboy in the country. About 2 o’clock in the morning, McComb and Edna left the dance. They went up to the W-W Ranch where Al was working. Edna dressed up in Tex Abston’s clothes. Leaving here, they weren’t heard of for three days. McComb and Edna had supper at the LU round-up that night on Cottonwood, saying that they were going to stop for the night at the cabin on Owl Creek, then on to Casper. The men at the roundup made bets among themselves about McComb’s partner being a woman. At that time they didn’t know about Edna’s disappearance, but upon hearing later, they were sure it was she who rode with McComb and had stopped at their camp for supper, just before her death.
“When George Humphgrey [sic] and Tom Osborne, who were out looking for horses, saw McComb come riding up the creek. Osborne and Humphfrey [sic] were above the creek rimrocked [sic]. They called to McComb but he didn’t answer. He kept riding as though he didn’t hear them. These men, knowing that the belle was missing and that Mc
Comb was the only other person missing, were anxious to learn of her whereabouts. Osborne and Humphfrey [sic] started around the rim to meet McComb, but decided it may be a bad move. They were sure McComb would stop at the W-W that night. Next day they saw Harry Cheeseman who stated that McComb told him he and Edna had started for Casper and while crossing the Big Horn River at the mouth of Owl Creek, Edna had drowned in the river.
“McComb got a horse and left for Gardiner, Montana where he wintered. There were several rumors among the ranchers that Edna was still living and that if her trunk should be sent to the marshall at Billings that she would get it. The trunk was sent, but after laying in the storage there for about six or eight months, it was returned unclaimed. About eight months after her disappearance, a horse and sidesaddle were found in the Big Horn River, down about Worland. It had been washed upon a sandbar. Mrs. Margaret B. Wilson, her mother, was anxious to know whether it was Edna’s horse and saddle so she asked Tom Osborne to go down and identify the horse and saddle as he had ridden to and from the Pitchfork many times with her. Mr. Osborne positively identified the horse and saddle. The saddle was brought home and still lays up in the attic at the LK.
“About thirty-five years after this tragedy, Al McCombs returned. He talked to Josh Deane about the whole affair. He stayed overnight there and then went up to the Fred Whitney Ranch. McComb talked about Edna almost constantly during this visit with Whitney, asking for her picture, which Whitney gave him. The rumor got out that McComb was going to be arrested. He left in the night and hasn’t been heard of since. Nobody knows where he went. It is the opinion of Tom Osborne that had McComb been left alone he would have gone to Edna’s grave, and that she was never drowned.”
Al McComb did return to Meeteetse in 1924, roughly thirty-five years after Edna’s disappearance. But if he confided in Josh Deane during his return, Deane didn’t write that confession down in his autobiography, The Mayor of Meeteetse.
There are a couple discrepancies in Tom Osborne’s account of Edna’s disappearance. If she was disguised as a man when Edna and McComb stopped at the LU round-up on Cottonwood Creek, she could not have been riding sidesaddle as that would be a dead giveaway to her real sex. Additionally, two articles published in August 1888, the month of Edna’s disappearance, state that Al McComb passed through Lander where he sold his horse and headed to Rawlins. Yet Osborne stated that McComb was headed for Gardiner, Montana which is in the opposite direction from Rawlins. There was an Al McComb living in Big Timber, Montana (which is about 87 miles from Gardiner, MT) from 1897 until at least 1914. This Al McComb was an Al A. McComb, however, and the McComb we are interested in is an Al J. McComb.
According to those same August 1888 newspaper accounts, when he passed through Lander, McComb had considerable money in his possession. That money was thought to have been the $310 entrusted to Edna by her mother, Margaret. Margaret at this point was offering a reward of $250 for the “apprehension” of her daughter.
A newspaper article published in The Boomerang on January 23, 1890 confirms Tom Osborne’s assertion that a horse and saddle washed up from the Bighorn River. The article quotes an article from The Bonanza Rustler which could not be located:
“’Last June a headless horse and a lady’s saddle were washed ashore from the Big Horn fifteen miles below the spot where the body was discovered, and it was thought then that Edna Wilson had been lost in crossing the Big Wind river, and that her body, horse and saddle had been swept through the canon and thus into the Big Horn.’”
The saddle and horse were washed ashore roughly a year after Edna’s disappearance according to this newspaper article. Tom Osborne claimed to have identified the saddle and horse as belonging to Edna. He doesn’t mention the horse being headless, but one of the theories of the time was that the horse had been shot in the head and to remove that evidence, the head was removed. Perhaps Osborne believed the horse was deliberately killed to confirm the story Al McComb told of Edna drowning.
Now remember, Tom Osborne stated that Edna and McComb were planning on staying in a cabin on Owl Creek before continuing on to Casper. On April 4, 1890, an account was published that the body was found on the lower Owl Creek:
“but when the coroner reached the place, he found that the body had been disinterred and removed a day or two previous to his arrival, leaving only the bodies of an Indian buck and a squaw, who it appears were buried at about the same time as the murdered girl.
“The fresh earth thrown up where the body had been interred showed that the operation had only been done a day or so before, while foot prints which could not be trailed but a short distance along the river, leaves no room to doubt but that some one living in the Big Horn basin is in some way connected with the murder. The coroner brought back a blood-stained spade and pick found near the grave.”
That same paper had published an account just months earlier on January 24, 1890 that was originally published in The Clipper, a Lander newspaper, which claimed that Edna Wilson disappeared from the vicinity of Lander and that on Kirby Creek:
“Mr. Enos discovered fresh dirt thrown up a few feet in the rear of this cabin and on examination found the lower limbs of a human being protruding from the excavation which had been made by coyotes. On further examination it proved to be the body of a female. Two rings were found on the fingers, one of which it is said contained the initials ‘E.W.’ engraved on the inside and the other the inscription “Edna W.””
According to the article, the clothing was sent to Mrs. Wilson to identify and she maintained they did not belong to Edna.
There’s another account of Edna’s disappearance given to the Museum in 2007 by Ralph Larsen who had heard the story from Charlie or Dan Webster who heard it from
Rufus Wilson. According to Ralph Larsen:
“Edna Wilson knew someone who met the man (Al McComb) she went off with. Al returned to the area looking for an old violin he’d left behind. He never attempted to meet up with the Wilson family. Told the same story about her calling him a coward and crossing the river despite it being full. He said he saw her and her horse floating downstream with the force of the river. Then he disappeared again.”
The tragedy was hard for Edna’s family. Her brother, Andrew, died the following year and her sister in September 1892, having never fully recovered from her sister’s disappearance. Margaret Wilson, Edna’s mother, reportedly, “told friends she had given up hope that Edna was alive. She believed Al McComb had killed her daughter and led her horse to the river to drown it in order to make the death appear accidental.”
In December 1955, uranium hunters reportedly found a skeleton under overhanging rocks about 25 miles outside of Lander. The body was reportedly found with a Spanish-style bridle, belt buckle, comb, and mirror and thought to have belonged to Edna Wilson. There is disagreement as to whether the body belonged to Edna or an unknown young woman, perhaps of Native American descent.
So, the mystery of Edna Wilson’s disappearance continues. Was she murdered by Al McComb or did she die an accidental death? Let us know what you think!