The ABCs of Lowell History: K is for Kid White

The ABCs of Lowell History is back for another round. This popular series explores a wide variety of topics in Lowell area history in weekly online articles and is written by volunteers and staff from the Lowell Area Historical Museum.

K is for Kid White

The story of William (alias Billy, Kid White) Whiting is sad and tragic. In 1906, the Lowell Ledger stated that his story “will serve no good end unless it proves an effective warning to other boys who are inclined to lead shiftless, wild or dissolute lives. The way of the transgressor IS hard.”

Billy Whiting was the son of John (Jack) and Martha Whiting, born around 1887. He went by the nickname “Kid White.” Records contradict each other, but what is clear is that he lost his mother at a young age and his dad was an alcoholic. Jack Whiting raised Billy sleeping in barns and livery stables. At a young age Billy was called a “saloon roustabout.” The Whitings lived in Lowell for about five years. Then Billy ran away from his father and joined the navy, but he ran away from that too. Jack Whiting ended up living at the Ionia County Poor farm. He died in 1905 and is buried in the cemetery there.

On September 26, 1904, far from home, Kid White robbed Conway’s Saloon in Seattle Washington with John Hildebrand. Shots were fired injuring several people and killing William Murphy, the bartender.

When arrested, Kid White was insolent and brazen. But a change later took place in his life. It is reflected in the change in how his story was reported. This change is most evident in one journalist’s work. Her name was Ernestine Coughran Strangborg. She wrote under the name Nan Byxbee. In her first article on White, she wrote horrible descriptions of him, the kindest being “he has the round expressionless eyes of a pig”.

Kid White confessed to the crime. White’s partner in the crime, Hildebrand, was older than White, and a seasoned criminal. Hildebrand testified against White and received a life sentence while White was sentenced to be hung. Later White withdrew his confession, explaining that he confessed in order to save Hildebrand who was an ex-convict. He and Hildebrand believed White would get a lighter sentence. White claimed that he had spent all his money before he met Hildebrand and it was Hildebrand who invited him to participate in the robbery. Kid White said they both had shot, but he believed his shots missed.

Another article from Nan Byxbee came out with another perspective. This time she tells the story of Kid White growing up with no parenting and with daydreams of pirates. He began getting tattoos as part of his dream to be a pirate. He started with floral designs and animals, moving on to chorus girls and ballet dancers, then his own designs, including one that would later haunt him.

This tattoo was above his right knee, the design was one that he sketched himself. “It is the picture of a murderer marching up the steps of a scaffold, with head erect and a jaunty air, of a priest at the foot of the scaffold praying with bowed head, of the executioner in grave attitude, of a woman weeping, and of a crowd below.” The tattoo was done by Pat O’Brien, a former cellmate. When the tattoo was done his attitude was “Indifferent. He wasn’t afraid of any hells or hereafters; fellows had been strung up before, and there wasn’t any use making a fuss about a little thing like that.”

Everything changed when O’Brien was transferred, and White was alone. Charitable women began bringing him fruit and magazines. A local priest, Father O’Lefferty began coming to visit and talk through the bars. White grew ashamed of the tattoos and covered them up when the women or priest came by. One day Father O’Lefferty left a prayer book. White said he wouldn’t read it, but he did. The next time Father O’Lefferty came by he had lost most of his jaunty air and made fewer sacrilegious remarks. Then the tattoo began bothering him. He couldn’t sleep. He covered it up with bandages, but when tempted to look at it he would stare, and his body would shake and sweat.

“The realization of what death on the gallows, in shame and disgrace, meant to a boy of 19 began to come to him.” White continued changing and even began to look forward to the priest’s visits “Now he is tremulous about hells and hereafters, and he needs all the courage that the priest can give him to meet the real that is to come. He has secured the promise of the priest to go with him and stand by at the execution in case appeals fail and pardon is denied.” While he continued to keep the tattooed scaffold image covered, he was still tempted and drawn to look at it. At those times, instead of staring at the image he would read the little prayer book.

Kid White fought for his life. His lawyer filed appeals. White wrote to his Lowell friends begging for help and he wrote to Michigan Senator Smith, whom he claimed to know, asking for help. The Seattle Woman’s Club tried to save his life. This was the first time in their history that they became involved in trying to save someone from the death penalty. The Rev. W. D. Simmonds, Unitarian minister, also got involved. Said Simmonds, “Kid White is not a hardened criminal, he is not a degenerate; he is just a bad boy, who has come up without even decent training; one who has drifted into the criminal ranks. Not alone for the sake of this motherless boy, but for the honor of the state of Washington – that the record of jurisprudence here in this grand new state may not be stained by the judicial murder of a boy not yet 19 years of age – I make my earnest plea for executive clemency. Let every humane man and woman make like plea, and at once.”

On March 2, 1906, the warden of the state penitentiary in Walla Walla Washington came and took Kid White from his cell to the scaffold. All of the prisoners told him goodbye. White shook the officials’ hands. Father O’Lefferty was with him. He climbed the stairs and crossed himself.

Following his death, he was buried in a local Catholic cemetery.

The following day, Kid White’s name was a new cause, “Save the Bad Boys.” The Spokane Chronicle pleaded, “let those who worked to save White’s life strive to forward the movement for a reformatory and lay the foundation for an institution that may make good and useful citizens out of just such boys as Kid White.”

The Lowell Ledger concluded, “The execution of Billy Whiting, alias Kid White, will serve no good end unless it proves an effective warning to other boys who are inclined to lead shiftless, wild or dissolute lives. “The way of the transgressor IS hard.”

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