Robert Odell, Jr., is the senior video editor for the Take Me Back to Beale project, a 100-year chronicle of Beale Street History.
He Made a Career of Brutality
William Latura, better known as "Wild Bill," embraced violence and made a career of dishing out brutality. He shot many people, both black and white. In 1908, Latura walked into Hammitt Ashford's saloon on Beale Street and shot five people, leaving them lying wounded or dead. Citizens across the United States grimaced and moaned as they learned Latura admitted to the crime but never received prosecution.
Many Patrons Got Cut or Shot
Beale Street saloons sheltered and nurtured the blues, but sometimes they harbored crime and violence.
Soulful narrative ballads routinely preceded cuts and gunshot wounds for many Beale Street patrons. If those unfortunate souls had dark skin and kinky hair, authorities did little about it.
In the early 1900s, Beale Street often harbored chaos and death. Dubbed "the last real Memphis bad man," William "Wild Bill" Latura lingered in the middle of it all.
Facts About “Wild Bill”
William "Wild Bill" Latura was:
- Born in 1880
- Married and had three daughters (Rose Virginia, Allie Elizabeth, and Dorothy Mae)
- Known as a family man
- Good-natured and affectionate around his three beautiful children and his wife.
Kingpins Called Him the Cave Man
Underworld kingpins frolicked with William "Wild Bill" Latura and referred to him as "The Cave Man of the Memphis Jungles."
Through finagling, bribery, and strong-arming, "The Cave Man" helped many politicians to get elected. As a result, they kept him out of jail and winked at his illegal liquor sales, robberies, and killings.
He Was a Killer
- 1902: Wild Bill "defended himself" when he used a baseball bat to kill a man.
- 1908: Wild Bill walked into Hammitt Ashford's Saloon on Beale Street and killed or wounded five people. Some reports say that he shot seven people, killing four to five. Latura received a not guilty verdict because of insanity.
- Wild Bill shot and killed a gambler called "Alabama Tom." The two men were gambling in Latura's hamburger restaurant. Wild Bill claimed "self-defense." The restaurant was a cover for illegal alcohol sales.
“Wild Bill” Had a Short, Violent Life
Within a short thirty-year time span, "Wild Bill" Latura committed a plethora of violent acts that included:
- A baseball bat killing
- Gunshot wounds
- Pistol wounds
It Was a Shocking Display
Well-known for having a short temper, "Wild Bill" made a shocking display when he walked into Hammitt Ashford's Saloon on Beale Street. Witnesses claim that Latura, who was silently fuming because of a gambling loss, said something, pulled back his coat, took out a pistol, and began shooting.
Latura left five people lying around, wounded or dead. The injured included a woman. All the injured parties were black (negro).
After the shooting, "Wild Bill" left the scene with no apparent remorse, never being tried for the atrocity.
He Did Not Mind Shooting Women
Leisurely strolling through Hammett Ashford’s saloon at Fourth and Beale, William Latura, known among his associates as 'Wild Bill,' at midnight Thursday night, entered a billiard room in the rear and calmly unbuttoned his overcoat and pulled out a 38 caliber pistol, picking his victims from the first billiard table on the back wall and began firing. At no stage of this sick slaughter did Latura evidence excitement, rather showing acute forethought.
— Memphis News Scimitar. December 10, 1908
A Young Man Slew Him
As fate would have it, "Wild Bill" died violently.
Years after the 1908 shootings in Hammitt Ashford's Saloon on Beale Street, "Wild Bill" died in a gunfight.
During a whiskey and gambling bust of his place, the least likely person fatally wounded Latura. A young, nervous police officer named John "Sandy" Lyons slew "Wild Bill."
Saturday, September 2, 1916, The Washington Herald death notices stated that "... the last real Memphis' bad man' bit the dust."
... the last real Memphis 'bad man' bit the dust.
— The Washington Herald, Sat. Sept. 02, 1916
The Washington Herald, Saturday, Sept. 02, 1916
The Surface Looked Good
Latura was a man who, on the surface, appeared to be a respected businessman. Considered a family man, Latura had three beautiful daughters and a wife. Rolling back the veil of his sinister underworld life reveals the brutality of "Wild Bill" Latura, the "Cave Man of the Memphis Jungles."
Why Did He Do It?
William Latura was a Memphis "bad man" who caused chaos, commotion, and death. "The Cave Man" beat, stabbed, or shot to secure control of his mafia-style domain. Pondering the question of, "Why did he kill?" the conclusion unveils itself. "Wild Bill," seemingly, killed patrons on Beale Street because he felt he could do so. Latura seemed to think, by pleading self-defense or insanity, he could act out his vengeance and then go on about his own usual business.
- Deaths Reported. (1916, September 02). Washington Herald. Death Notice of William "Wild Bill" Latura
- Greaney, D. (2018, May 04). Murder and May-hem in Memphis. Retrieved from https://storyboardmemphis.com/featured-story/murder-may-hem-memphis/ Wild Bill Latura
- Take Me Back To Beale, Book I (Before The Red Ball). Dir. Carolyn Yancy-Gunn. Edited by Robert Odell, Jr. Perfs. Arthur Smith, Tony Patterson, Sonny Holderbaugh, CFA Graduates. DVD. CFA Productions, Inc. Archives
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2015 Robert Odell Jr