Robert Odell, Jr. is the senior video editor for the Take Me Back to Beale project, a 100-year chronicle of Beale Street History.
Career of Brutality
William Latura, better known as "Wild Bill," was no stranger to violence and made a career out of dishing out brutality. He shot many people, both black and white. In 1908, Latura casually walked into Hammitt Ashford's saloon on Beale Street and deliberately shot five people, leaving them lying wounded or dead. Citizens all across the United States were shocked and abhorred because Latura admitted to the crime but never got prosecuted.
Bastions of Crime and Violence
The same Beale Street saloons that sheltered and nurtured the blues were sometimes also the bastions of crime and violence.
It was no strange thing to see patrons of Beale Street cut-up or shot-up. The majority of the time, if those unfortunate souls were black, authorities did little, if anything about it. In the early 1900s, Beale Street was too often the scene of chaos and death. Dubbed the last real Memphis bad man, William "Wild Bill" Latura was in the midst of it all.
- 1902: Wild Bill was supposedly defending himself when he used a baseball bat to kill a man.
- 1908: Wild Bill nonchalantly walked into Hammitt Ashford's Saloon on Beale Street and ended up killing or wounding five people. Some reports say that he shot a total of seven people, killing four to five of them. Latura was found not guilty because of insanity.
- After the Hammitt Ashford shooting, Wild Bill later committed an act of "self-defense" when he shot and killed a gambler called "Alabama Tom." The men were gambling at Latura's undercover hamburger restaurant. Even though prohibition violators felt a lot of heat from state law enforcement officials, alcohol was plentiful in Wild Bill's hamburger joint.
The Cave Man
Underworld kingpins were well acquainted with William "Wild Bill" Latura and aptly referred to him as "The Cave Man of the Memphis Jungles."
Because he was good at helping them to get elected, the politicians kept "The Cave Man" out of jail and winked at his illegal liquor sales, robberies, and killings.
Known as a Family Man
Born in 1880, William Latura was married, had three daughters (Rose Virginia, Allie Elizabeth, and Dorothy Mae), and was known as a family man. Latura was good-natured and affectionate around his three beautiful children and his wife.
Synonymous with Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, William Latura had a dark side. The well-known family man killed at least seven people within his short lifetime.
Thirty Years of Violence
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
- Stabbings and
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.
In the wake of the carnage, Latura left five people lying around wounded or dead. The wounded included a woman. All of the injured parties were black (negro).
After the shooting, "Wild Bill" left the scene with no apparent remorse, never being tried for the atrocity.
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
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. The least likely person fatally wounded Latura during a whiskey and gambling bust of his place. "Wild Bill" was slane by a young and nervous police officer named John "Sandy" Lyons.
The Washington Herald death notices of Saturday, September 2, 1916, 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
Why Did He Kill?
Latura was a man who, on the surface, appeared to be a respected businessman. Considered to be 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."
William Latura was a real Memphis "bad man" who caused chaos, pandemonium, and death. "The Cave Man" beat, stabbed or shot to secure the 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, if necessary, 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