The Curious Case of the West Virginia Mystery Paintings

Originally published in the Jan. 5, 2018 Charleston Gazette-Mail

By Douglas Imbrogno

CRAIGSVILLE, W.Va.: The 19th-century farmhouse, now covered in white vinyl paneling, sits amid rolling hills in the West Virginia heartland. No one has lived in the Nicholas County house for at least a decade.

Why, then, is there is a lock on the front door of a house in which the chimney flue has collapsed, leaving a pile of blackened bricks in a downstairs room? Why is there another lock on a second-floor bedroom no one has occupied for perhaps a half-century or more?

Pat Woods digs into a pocket of his jeans for his keys to unlock the doors and reveal a mystery in search of a history.

The locks are meant to protect remarkable oil paintings that need a champion to preserve them in the long unheated building — or a new place not coming apart at the seams to house them.

“It’s fallen on me to try to do something about it,” says Woods, as he prepares to enter the house and unspool a history that reads like a Hollywood script.

And just like a Hollywood movie, the family lore has it that the house may have a connection with a marquee name — one of the notorious gentlemen outlaws of the Dalton Gang of Wild West fame.

A Dalton Gang researcher will later in this story cast serious doubt on that connection. But the mystery of the paintings still involves pistols, an armed 19th-century mystery artist and some amazing $5 brushwork that begs a question.

Who the heck was this guy?

Up the stairs

The Woods family has owned the property the farmhouse rests upon since before West Virginia became a state in 1863. At that time, the family possessed more than a thousand acres in the area.

The farmhouse itself dates from the late 1850s. It is jammed full of a flea market-worthy collection of old clothes, dusty bottles, musty baby dolls and other boxed-up stuff stacked everywhere.

On a recent frigid December day, Woods steps onto the snow-flecked porch to creak open a screen door and unlock the entrance. He enters the house, then climbs a stairwell, running one hand up a curving wooden banister, carved and installed long ago by his great-great-grandfather. The banister, like the house, was made from wood hewn on the property.

At the top of the steps, his keys jangle again as he unlocks a second-floor room and pushes open the door.

The first thing a visitor notices is that the ceiling has fallen in over part of the room.

But immediately the eyes latch onto accomplished artwork on every wall. Someone has stretched and tacked canvas onto all four walls and the ceiling, too. Some serious painting adorns the canvas.

One wall features a Native American village seen in the distance, with teepees in the midst of what looks like a stand of lodgepole pine. Plumes of white smoke curl from a campfire as an Indian man stands, hefting a rifle.

Front and center on the wall is a cavalryman, a long-barrel rifle slung to his saddle, as he reins in an alert brown horse. In the distance, a man poles a canoe to the dock of a lake, where a woman in an ankle-length dress awaits.

Another wall features a picturesque white-steepled church at dusk, with churchgoers visible through tall, yellow-lit windows. Nearby stands another building that might be a tavern. A couple stands near a sign that reads “Gold Bug” — the name of the tavern or of the village?

A third wall displays a mountain range, viewed by two tiny figures in the foreground. Family lore suggests these are the mountains of Ararat, which the book of Genesis says is where Noah’s ark came to rest after the flood.

A fourth wall features the room’s piece de resistance, a bravura painting of a classic sailing ship in mid-ocean. Its sails and complex rigging strain in the wind, as the ship dashes through white-capped waves.

Woods flips on his cellphone flashlight. He wants to bring attention to two things. The first is a tiny wooden barrel on the deck of the ship. On it, the painter has daubed the initials “WD.”

Then, Woods points to the prow of the ship.

“Right here is the ‘Dalton B,’” he says, reading off the words painted on the ship’s wave-flecked prow. “I guess that was the name of the ship.”

Or the name of the man who painted the ship?

WD? William Dalton?

Or, as William was better known, Bill Dalton, who rode with the Doolin-Dalton Gang, the Wild West bad boys immortalized in the Eagles song “Doolin-Dalton” from the band’s famous “Desperado” album.

The family thinks so. Or maybe this was some other William Dalton? Or another random man entirely with those initials, like, say, Wallace Dunn or Willie Douglas?

But what about the boat’s name?

There were a lot of question marks, not the least of them coming from Woods himself.

By day, Woods works at Fisher Auto Parts in nearby Summersville. He is hard-pressed to be a spokesman, much less an historically informed representative of the provenance of these paintings.

But the fact of the matter is, they have fallen into his lap now, and he is trying to figure out how to save them.

Woods stumbles apologetically for words when asked about their history. He defers instead to a five-minute videotape his late grandfather, Milton Woods Jr., and father, Kelly, recorded years ago, to put down for the record some intriguing family lore about how these paintings came to be.

The video

Woods lives in a small house on a hill across from the farmhouse. It has taken him a week to track down a copy of the video to show to a visiting reporter. He fires it up.

The video depicts Milton and Kelly seated in “the painted room,” as Woods calls it, as a videocam pans across the paintings and records them talking about what they see.

Milton recalls the family story about a man who appeared one day, apparently sometime in the 1890s. No one in the family has a more specific date, and even this one may be just a guess.

“The best that I know of it, there was a man came here and asked if he could board with them for the winter,” Milton says on the video.

The man said, if the family would pay him $5, when he left, “He would paint this room,” Milton says.

The fellow exhibited some odd behavior as he settled into his new abode as winter came.

“He would lock the door behind him, and he kept it locked at all times. My father would come up and knock on the door. He always came to the door, and he’d have a gun in his hand,” Milton says.

Then, there was what he wore.

“He had a vest that was made special, evidently, to carry two guns. And he kept them on him at all times,” Milton continues.

“When he’d come downstairs to eat, he’d always be the last one down — the last one to come into the room. He sat in the corner with the wall to his back and all. But he was ‘a real polite somebody,’ my father told me.”

The video shifts to Kelly, who goes up to the sailing ship and points to the initials on the barrel and to the boat’s name.

“I’ve always felt he’s left this as a clue to who he really was,” Kelly says.

Milton observes, “The similarities in the name lead us to believe that it was probably one of the Daltons, being as he was evidently running from the law.”

Milton goes on to direct the viewer’s attention to a bouquet of flowers and leaves painted on the ceiling. This was the only painting in the room that was never finished, he says.

“He just up and decided to leave. He asked for his $5.”

After the man left, in short order, so did a new school teacher recently hired at the local Cottle school, Milton says.

“Two weeks after this fellow left, that teacher, he quit and left. And the way the story was told to me, they found out later he was a Pinkerton. A detective. So, evidently, for some reason or other, the fellow that was staying here knew that they were closing in on him.

“And that’s the last we heard of him.”

Turning outlaw

Let us now shift our attention westward. Not at first to the Wild West, through which the Dalton Gang roamed and robbed, etching their names into the region’s history and ultimately into American legend.

But it’s time to check in on a man who has delved deep into Dalton Gang history — David Allin — who calls Albuquerque, New Mexico, home.

Allin is a Vietnam War veteran, awarded a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars, who went on to become an arms-control inspector in the Soviet Union. He has done a lot of writing on the side, including several novels about the Vietnam War.

Then, there is his 488-page book, “The Dalton Boys: The Real Story of the Dalton Gang,” which interested readers can find on Amazon.

Allin wrote the self-published book, he says in a telephone interview, in part because his family history has Dalton Gang connections, and he also wished to correct the record on some of the gang’s backstory.

His great-great-grandfather founded one of the first two banks in Coffeyville, Kansas, the town near where the Dalton brothers grew up, and where the Dalton Gang met its dramatic demise trying to rob those banks.

“I grew up hearing about the Dalton Gang and decided I wanted to know more about them,” he said.

Allin delved deep into court records in the National Archives. He read all the contemporaneous newspaper stories about the gang he could find, which was a lot. The Dalton Gang haunted and thrilled the imagination of the American public during its heyday from 1890 to 1892.

The gang was so notorious for its bank and train robberies that its members were blamed for crimes they never could have committed, according to Allin’s research.

To the extent possible, given the vagaries of frontier history, he traced the whereabouts of the brothers from the roots of the gang to its end in a fusillade of bullets on the Coffeyville streets.

“In those days, the newspapers tended to blame everything on the Daltons — even after they were dead,” Allin said.

The Daltons came from a family of 15 and were cousins to the Younger brothers, who rode with two other outlaw legends, Frank and Jesse James.

The family history began on the right side of the law, as several of the Dalton boys were legitimate lawmen, or started out as ones.

The oldest, Frank, was a deputy U.S. marshal, killed in the line of duty in 1887. Three other brothers, Robert “Bob” Dalton, Gratton “Grat” and Emmett “Em,” had turns as lawmen, too, often riding with Frank.

But Bob grew bored with the job, Allin said.

“He was mostly serving warrants and gathering up witnesses. He really wanted more excitement and turned to crime because it was more exciting and fun,” he said.

Bob drew Grat and Em along with him to form the Dalton Gang. They headed out on the Owl Hoot Trail, as it was called — the renegade, nighttime trail a man who had left the straight and narrow took.

The brothers recruited other wannabe outlaws to join their crime spree. The gang planned to cap its legend with an audacious heist on Oct. 5, 1892, which gang leader Bob Dalton hoped would eclipse even the iconic outlaw star of Jesse James.

His plan called for the double daytime robbery of two banks in Coffeyville.

“In a town where everyone knows them,” Allin said, and you can imagine him shaking his head on the other end of the phone line at the craziness of the idea.

Five gang members parked their horses in an alley, later dubbed Death Alley, in acknowledgment of that day’s fateful events. Half the gang headed for one bank, half the other.

“They were recognized as they were walking towards the banks,” Allin said.

Word spread. Two hardware stores passed out rifles and ammunition to townsfolk.

“Townspeople took up positions all around the two banks. When the Daltons tried to come out of the banks, a huge firefight erupted. It was pretty bloody,” Allin said.

It was so bloody that Coffeyville, to this day, has etched onto its streets outlines of the bodies of those who died that day, along with memorializing the event at its Dalton Defenders Museum.

In the hail of bullets that blazed and ricocheted through town, Bob and Grat Dalton dropped dead, along with two other gang members. The town marshal and three Coffeyville citizens were killed. A number of others were injured, as was Emmet Dalton, who received 23 gunshot wounds but survived, going on to serve 14 years in prison.

So, stop a moment. This is a story about West Virginia, not Kansas, right?

What about that other Dalton brother — Bill Dalton — whose initials, “WD,” and family name can be found in a decaying farmhouse in the middle of West Virginia?

Hitting the trail

Allin swiftly poured some cold water on the chance Bill Dalton was ever on the run near central West Virginia, as Woods family lore suggests.

“From all the research I did, he seemed to be a very straightforward guy, a family man,” Allin said.

Bill Dalton, who moved from Kansas to California, was one of the few Dalton men that even had a family, he added. “The other Dalton men mostly remained bachelors.”

There are stacks of articles and books that cite the possibility of a sixth gang member in Coffeyville that day. Bill Doolin is proposed as one candidate, but so is Bill Dalton.

Allin disputed the idea of either being there. His research indicates Bill Dalton showed up in Coffeyville only later to organize the defense of the surviving brother, Emmett.

“When his brothers became outlaws, he initially tried to help them go straight, or at least avoid being arrested,” Allin said. “Then, he got caught up in it.”

After Coffeyville, Bill Dalton appeared to set out on the Owl Hoot Trail himself.

With Dalton Gang leaders dead or behind bars, Bill Doolin formed the Doolin-Dalton Gang. They were better known as The Wild Bunch, the Oklahombres and the Oklahoma Long Riders because of the long dusters they wore.

“Once Emmet went to jail, Bill was seen in Oklahoma, in Indian territory, riding with the Doolin gang,” Allin said.

People said they thought he might have been involved in a robbery or two.

“But there was not real evidence of it,” Allin said. “There were not arrest warrants. He wasn’t on the run.”

Yet a posse of lawmen tracked Bill Dalton to a house near Ardmore, Oklahoma, where he was gunned down in 1894. Curiously, the lawmen were later charged with murder, though court records of what happened next were lost in a fire, Allin said.

But that led Allin to a theory about Bill Dalton.

“My theory is, he may have been working undercover with the U.S. marshals, because he had never shown any inclination to criminality — and suddenly he’s working with the Doolin Gang.”

It is a theory not shared by many chroniclers of the Daltons, who see Bill Dalton as just as much a cutthroat outlaw as his bandit brothers.

Whatever the truth is, Allin — whose research sought to track the brothers’ whereabouts month to month in their heyday — sees no period when Bill Dalton might have settled in West Virginia.

That’s not to mention having the skill to conduct a private master class in scenic painting for an audience of one.

Of course, there is no definitive record of every movement, every day of the Dalton brothers on the Owl Hoot Trail, he acknowledged.

“One could probably find enough loopholes in the historical record to believe that Bill Dalton went to West Virginia,” Allin said. “But the odds against that are astronomical.”

Newspapers at the time tended to embellish the fearsome reputation of all things Dalton, Nancy B. Samuelson said. She self-published a book on the brothers, “The Dalton Gang Story: Lawmen to Outlaws,” as she has family ties to the Dalton line.

She did a lot of research on Bill Dalton, she said.

“I’m still not convinced he ever did much of anything as an outlaw. Most of it was newspaper hype. There are a lot of god-awful stories in newspapers about him that you cannot find any evidence he had anything to do with it — or that the event even happened.”

If not Bill, then, who was “WD”?

Playing the wild guessing game, an observer might note that Bill Doolin also had those initials. And he was on the run as one of the Wild West’s most wanted men during the early 1890s.

A U.S. marshal — one of the so-called “Three Guardsmen” who relentlessly hunted The Wild Bunch gang — blasted him with a shotgun in Oklahoma territory, where Doolin died in August 1896.

But there is no evidence Doolin ever made it to the Mountain State or had any skill with anything but a Winchester rifle.

That leaves the paintings still a mystery — and in dire need of a caretaker. Along with perhaps a historian researcher or maybe a master’s thesis.

Preservation job

People sometimes ask how newspapers come to report a story like the Nicholas County mystery paintings. This one traces to that great communal water-cooler conversation called Facebook.

Karen Price is a friend of Woods’ aunt, Mary.

“She asked me over a year ago if I could find someone interested in preserving and saving these paintings,” Price said. “I saw the paintings, and I’m like, ‘OK, we’ve got to save these!’ I’m on a mission!”

She reached out to the Clay Center and the state Culture Center in Charleston. To West Virginia University and the Huntington Museum of Art.

She came up shy. No interest.

As “my last ditch effort,” as she put it, she posted a plea to save the paintings to her Facebook timeline, which is where the Sunday Gazette-Mail heard about them.

“Hopefully we get someone interested in preserving this piece of West Virginia,” Price said. “Otherwise, they’re going to go when the house goes.”

A reporter suggested Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum, which describes itself as “America’s official national museum and education center for intuitive, self-taught artistry.”

Price liked that idea. For certainly, whoever did the paintings was either a self-taught, intuitive painter, or they had formal schooling in art.

And guns, too, it should be recalled.

What kind of person, one wonders, wears a pistol vest and can also paint a lifelike sailing ship, American Indian encampment, a horseman, a churchscape and Mount Ararat, behind a locked door at the height of a West Virginia winter?

And then just leaves.

There is the question, too, of where all the canvas and oil paint came from, given that the entire room is painted, ceiling to floor. Woods family lore reveals no hint about this. Was the canvas already on the walls?

“That was never mentioned,” Woods says of the room. “Maybe my great-great-grandmother went down and picked up supplies for the winter. And he painted it for them.”

Whomever “he” was.

Woods has considered trying to remove the paintings himself to save them. But he thought better of it, he says. “To be honest, I’d rather have a professional come in to do it.”

Before his dad died, Woods talked with him about his father’s desire to keep the mystery artist’s work on the family property.

“He wanted to keep it here,” Woods says, standing outside the house after a visit to the paintings.

He gestures to the farmhouse and the surprise that awaits visitors inside.

“But, now, seeing how the house is going and everything, I’d rather get it taken somewhere where it can be preserved, you know? For people to see.

“To me, it’s like a treasure. I want to share it with everybody else.”

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