Mass shootings are sadly all too common in modern-day America, but they did not happen much at all a century ago. Here, Chuck Lyons recounts the sad story of the first indiscriminate mass shooting in US history. It took place in Winfield, Kansas in 1903 and the perpetrator was Gilbert Twigg.

 A panorama of Winfield, Kansas from around 1910.

A panorama of Winfield, Kansas from around 1910.

Early in the evening of August 13, 1903, thirty-six-year-old Gilbert Twigg parked his wagon in an alley near the corner of Main Street and Ninth Avenue in Winfield, Kansas. A large crowd had gathered there for an outdoor music concert. Wearing a buckskin hunting jacket, he walked to Ninth and Main. The band was taking a break and the crowd milled around talking. About a block from the bandstand, Twinge dropped to one knee, shouted “I’m going to shoot you all,” and opened fire with a shotgun. 

When he was done, nine people including Twigg himself, were dead. 

Gilbert Twigg had become the first indiscriminate mass killer in US history. He had acted without apparent motive and had killed whomever was handy. It was something the country had never seen before and would not see again for almost fifty years. Like many of today’s serial shooters he had served in the Armed Forces and had bought his guns legally. He also left a manifesto of 650 words of rationalization that explained little. 

“You should let this be a lesson to you in the future,” he wrote near its end.

 

Army veteran

Twigg had been born in Flintstone, Maryland in 1867 or 1868 and around 1888 had followed his uncle Argel to Kansas. There Twigg got a job as a miller and was said by people who knew him to be ambitious, intelligent, agreeable, and passably handsome, with “searing ice-blue eyes.” In those early days in Winfield, he worked, ran with a crowd of other young people, and courted a local woman, Jessie Hamilton, eventually proposing marriage and being accepted. But a short while after she accepted his proposal, for reasons that have never been clear, Hamilton changed her mind and broke off the engagement.

Her decision twisted something inside Twigg. 

“Those were the happiest days in my life,” he would write to a friend, Chance Wells, in 1902, “and it would have been much better for me if I had gotten married and settled down as you have done. I have no doubt but that you are very happy, while I am not.”

In 1896, two years after the thwarted love affair, Twigg enlisted in the army. He served two hitches and at one point was promoted because of his marksmanship. He saw action fighting in the Philippines where he also became involved in some sort of dispute with an officer and a doctor, Lt. Myron C. Bowdish and Contract Surgeon O. W. Woods, the details of which were never made public. But whatever had happened continued to haunt Twigg. He was mustered out of the army in California as a sergeant with an “excellent” service record and lived briefly in Montana working as a miller before returning to Winfield in 1903.

But things had changed, and Twigg was winding tighter.

In Winfield, he was unable to get his old job back or find any other employment probably because of his deteriorating mental condition. He was also reported to have lost his job in Montana “under murky circumstances.” He spent his days lolling around Winfield parks or sequestered in his boardinghouse room muttering about the people in Montana and Kansas who he thought had mistreated him and were plotting against him. 

 

Crazy Twigg

Local boys began calling him “Crazy Twigg.” 

Finally, on August 1, 1903, the twisting spring broke, and Twigg walked into the Winfield & Miller hardware store and bought a shotgun, an inexpensive .32 pistol, and more than 100 rounds of ammunition. He spent the next several days brushing up on the marksmanship he had learned in the Army. By August 13, he was ready. He piled his guns and ammunition into a tin express wagon and pulled it into the alley behind Ninth Avenue. Taking his shotgun, he began to walk to the Ninth and Main.

Along the way, The Winfield Chroniclelater reported, he ran into a group of local boys and allegedly told them he had some “tall shooting to do” and told them to get out of the area.

“I have no desire to hurt you,” the paper quoted him as saying.

At Ninth Avenue, he stopped in front of the Milligan Shoe Store, in sight of the bandstand and about a block away from it, and began firing. The band, Canton’s Dozen, a military band, was resting on the stage looking over sheet music. Twigg’s first shot grazed a horse that bolted and his second passed through the shoulder of the band’s drummer, Re Oliver, and shattered Clyde Wagoner's horn. Havoc erupted as Twigg kept firing into the crowd. Three men were hit as they exited onto the street from the stairway leading to the Odd Fellows Hall next door to Milligan’s. A group of three women were hit, and a 15-year-old boy. Bodies littered the street in growing pools of blood as Twigg continued firing on the scattering crowd. Some were running holding wounded arms or limping on shattered legs. Others were down in the street and moaning alongside the buildings.

Twigg had chosen the one evening of the week when the most people congregated, and “he chose the spot from which to fire with the skill of a general,” The Chroniclewrote. “He dropped on one knee at each fire, then retreated backward, while reloading, then dropped on his knee again and fired. These are the skirmish line tactics of the army and give a level `body line' to the volley. The employment of the tactics is due the terrible execution of his volleys. He remembered his training and `shot low.'”

Twigg worked his way back to the alley and his wagon. His last two shots were fired as he leaned around the corner. He then grabbed his .32 pistol from the wagon and turned it on himself. The whole incident had lasted less than ten minutes. Eight people, plus Twigg, died either immediately or shortly after the attack. More than two-dozen others had been wounded.

A rumor has persisted in Winfield for decades that Twigg did not shoot himself but was in fact killed by Winfield policeman George Nicholas, Winfield’s first and at that time only black policeman. “That rumor cast Nichols as a ready-made hero who ended the town’s most incomprehensible nightmare,” one historian wrote, “but [the town] was forced to deny his role because it was considered too dangerous for a black man to kill a white man, even justifiably.” 

For the rest of his life, Nicholas continued to deny he had shot Twigg.

 

The manifesto

The morning after the shooting, local police searched Twigg’s room and found a letter blaming unspecified individuals and the world at large for his troubles. 

"I would like to say to those who have interested themselves so much in my welfare (that seems to be the public in general),” he had written, “that I do not and most likely never will know the real cause of being treated in the manner in which I have been treated…You know you have `doped' me until I was forced to give up about a $100 a month position. You know that youdrove me from place to place and forced me to give up a neat little sum of my hard earned money to railroad companies, money that I went through the danger of war and diseases… You also know that you watched my mail and after finding out my friends and correspondents, you told them some kind of a story about me that caused everyone of them to drop me and turn me down cold.”

Was the cause of this persecution, he wondered, “my girl affaire here some eight or nine years ago? “ 

He also wrote that he regretted that “I did not settle this thing with Lieutenant Myron C. Bowdish and Contract surgeon O. W. Woods while I was a patient…in The Philippines. Then I could have gotten what was due me, and this thing would have been over long ago.”

The Winfield Chroniclewas surprisingly sympathetic to the man who had shot up its town and killed eight of its residents.

“Poor Twigg was not responsible for his insane acts. His disordered mind led him to the conclusion that the whole world was against him and he came back to the home of his boyhood to wreak vengeance and end it all,” it wrote on August 14, 1903.

There would not be another such attack in the United States until 1949, forty-six years later, when Howard Unruh wandered through his Camden, N.J., neighborhood killing twelve people. But by 2017, attacks such as Twigg’s were occurring with frightening regularly—and killing far more than the eight people Twigg had killed. 

“You should let this be a lesson to you in the future,” Twigg wrote in his manifesto, and he had indeed left a lesson for future generations.

But it was one we would be better off without.

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