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Wild Bill Latura: The Bad Man of Beale Street

Robert is a video analyst for the Memphis police department and senior video editor for an independent film about the history of Beale St.

william-wild-bill-latura-the-cave-man-of-the-memphis-jungles

A Career in 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 were outraged when they learned Latura admitted to the crime but was never prosecuted.

This actor portrays William "Wild Bill" Latura casually leaving Hammett Ashford's Saloon after shooting five people on Beale Street in 1908.

This actor portrays William "Wild Bill" Latura casually leaving Hammett Ashford's Saloon after shooting five people on Beale Street in 1908.

Danger on Beale Street

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.

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.

In the early 1900s, Beale Street was too often the scene of chaos and death.

In the early 1900s, Beale Street was too often the scene of chaos and death.

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.
william-wild-bill-latura-the-cave-man-of-the-memphis-jungles

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.

After the shooting, "Wild Bill" left the scene with no apparent remorse, never being tried for the atrocity.

Following the slaughter at Hammitt Ashford's Saloon on Beale Street in 1908, five people, including a woman, lay wounded or dead.

Following the slaughter at Hammitt Ashford's Saloon on Beale Street in 1908, five people, including a woman, lay wounded or dead.

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, September 2, 1916: "Wild Bill" Latura is referred to as the last real Memphis "bad man."

The Washington Herald, September 2, 1916: "Wild Bill" Latura is referred to as the last real Memphis "bad man."

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 "Why did he kill?" the conclusion seems obvious: "Wild Bill" 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.

Sources

  • 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

© 2015 Robert Odell Jr