LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — She’s known as the “First Lady of Las Vegas.” Responsible for so much of the valley’s growth for 50 years, starting in the late 1880s. Educated, community minded, religious.   

Could she have been responsible, too, for a double murder, one of early Las Vegas’ deepest mysteries? Were Helen J. Stewart and her family involved in a revenge killing, plotting the deaths of the Kiel brothers, William and Edwin, on Oct. 11, 1900?

When it comes to Helen, those most grounded in Las Vegas history say absolutely not. As for other family members? Unanswered questions challenge such logic. But the idea that a cultured, respected frontierswoman might have waited some 16 years to plot and avenge the murder of her husband, it’s a story too juicy to ignore.

“I don’t think Helen did it,” says Michael Green, professor in the UNLV history department.

UNLV colleague Joseph Thomson agrees: “There seems to be no evidence beyond fanciful speculation that the Stewarts were involved in the Kiel brothers’ murder.”

Here’s the story

On June 13, 1884, Helen’s husband, Archibald Stewart, was shot and killed by Schuyler Henry at the Kiel Ranch. A gunfight somehow underplayed and overlooked in an Old West that only three years earlier had fed the nation the likes of Billy the Kid and the Earps and Clantons exchanging bullets at the O.K. Corral.

Helen, widowed with four young children and another on the way, believed her husband was lured into an ambush by Conrad Kiel, Hank Parrish, an outlaw and reputed gunslinger, and Henry, who only days earlier had been a ranch hand for the Stewarts.

No one was charged after Helen, Kiel and Henry, wounded twice in the gun battle at the Kiel Ranch, appeared before a grand jury in Pioche. Parrish had conveniently disappeared. (He was, however, hanged in Ely years later, convicted in a string of murders.)

Conrad Kiel at his ranch in probably the 1880s. (UNLV Special Collections)

There had been tension between the two ranches, competitors in supplying area miners with fruits, vegetables, equipment and livestock. But now? Considerably tighter with Archie’s death. Helen never again talked to Kiel family members, some historians say. And the Kiel Ranch’s reputation as a gathering spot for outlaws and badmen, that, too, escalated.

“The Kiel Ranch was the ranch across the tracks, for the lack of a better term,” Green says. “The Stewarts were not like that. There was the rub there.”

A mother’s grief? Fuel for revenge?

Jump ahead some 15 years, to July 1899. The child Helen delivered just after her husband’s death, her fifth, was named for his father. Young Archie also happened to be his mom’s favorite. At 14 years old and with his mother away in California, young Archie that summer was chasing wild horses on the Stewart Ranch when he was thrown by his mount, a fatal fall.

Helen’s grief was overwhelming. “Her reaction to little Archie’s death was apparently a lot more emotional than what she exhibited when her own husband was killed,” Green says.

The Stewart family at its ranch in the early 1900s. From left, Frank Stewart, Helen Stewart, Evaline Stewart and Tiza Stewart (with cat). Perched on the wall, from left, are Will Stewart and Hiram Stewart. (UNLV Special Collections)

Perhaps understandable. When her husband died, Helen had young children to care for in a desert wilderness. She had to call in her father from California to run the ranch. Such responsibility probably stifled her grief, Green says. But when young Archie died, her other children were grown. No shields, no buffers.

And those grown children would have noticed their mother’s heartbreak. Especially her sons, William and Hiram, both in their mid-20s who now shared running the Stewart Ranch. Helen wrote extensively about her anguish, about the void left by young Archie, in letters to her daughter, Flora Eliza, known as Tiza.

Could a mother’s grief have fueled revenge? According to Carrie Townley Porter, the Las Vegas historian who spent 35 years researching Helen, Stewart family legend says that William and Hiram, still holding a grudge, killed the brothers on that October day in 1900. The Stewart boys tied horseshoes to their feet, to mask footprints, and sneaked onto the Kiel Ranch where they shot the brothers. For years, many Las Vegas old-timers believed the killing – originally ruled a murder-suicide – was retribution by the Stewarts.

In the Stewarts’ corner

Porter never believed the family legend. In a 1974 article for the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, she wrote: “It is difficult to imagine that two young men, such as the Stewarts, or even one, Hiram, could have caught the Kiels unawares and murdered them in the manner in
which they were found. … The Stewart boys, with their background, would have been no match
for someone who had dealt over 20 years with men of unsavory reputations, gunslingers, desperados, and the ilk. Ed Kiel, himself, had a reputation for not being much better than the desperados who frequently lounged around the Kiel Ranch.”

Thomson believes firmly that the murders are unrelated. In working with members of both families over the years he says he never found evidence of “continuous conflict” between the neighboring ranches.

“If (the deaths of the Kiel brothers) was a hit, then it took incredibly long to knock off their next-door neighbor,” Thomson says.

But Green isn’t quite as dismissive, especially when it comes to Hiram, who was known as a bit of a hell-raiser.

“I don’t think it’s implausible or impossible,” Green says, noting that speculation about Hiram’s role in the Kiels’ murders long has been rumored and discussed. “The feeling in the family is that Hiram had a wild hair. … We still don’t know.”

If not the Stewart boys, then who? Remember, the Kiel Ranch had been a haven for plenty of badmen over the years. Others, for sure, could have wanted revenge.

Forensic evaluation of the Kiels

The idea that the Stewarts somehow, some way were involved in the murder of the Kiel brothers – originally ruled a murder-suicide – perhaps grew in 1975 when, with family permission, the bodies of Edwin, William and Conrad (who died in 1893) and some others were exhumed. In their forensic evaluation, the husband-wife team of Drs. Sheilagh and Richard Brooks, UNLV anthropology professors, determined that both brothers were murdered.

In the 2014 Cambridge Archaeological Journal article “Ghostly Gunslingers: The Postmortem Lives of the Kiel Brothers, Nevada’s First Frontiersmen,” John J. Crandall and Ryan P. Harrod write of the Brooks’ evaluation: “Their analysis determined that the brothers had indeed not killed one another in a simple murder-suicide. … In total, four gunshot events occurring at different ranges suggest the Kiel brothers were violently killed as the assailants closed in.”

Again, such a conclusion, to many, was not a surprise.

Family friend, Henry Hudson Lee, a Lincoln County rancher and politician who as a child played at the Stewart Ranch, in a 1973 interview, said of the Kiel brothers’ murders: “I figured Hi (Hiram) did it, Hi Stewart. I don’t think there is a doubt in the world of it. He was the most reckless one of the family.”

Finding the bodies of the Kiels

The bodies of the brothers were discovered on the morning of Oct. 11, 1900, by William Stewart and Frank Stewart, no relation to the family and the ranch foreman who in 1903 would wed Helen.

They went to the Kiel Ranch to buy tobacco and to tell Ed Kiel that some wagon wheels he had ordered were ready to be picked up. Helen, at the time, was postmaster.  

At the main house, Will and Frank found open both the front and back doors. There were two bodies. Ed Kiel was lying on the kitchen floor with a pistol near his right hand. William Kiel was some 30 feet away, his body partially submerged in a ditch with a double-barreled shotgun at his feet.

Will and Frank touched nothing and went back to the Stewart Ranch to report what they had found.

Two days later, a coroner’s jury assembled before C.M. Over, justice of the peace of the Goodsprings district. Ed Kiel had one injury, a gunshot wound above his right eye. William Kiel was shot three times. It was well known the brothers did not get along and that both were heavy drinkers. Evidence suggested strongly that Ed Kiel shot and killed his brother then shot himself. The ruling: Murder-suicide.

The only witnesses called by the coroner’s jury were Will Stewart and Frank Stewart.

Sources: Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, “Helen J. Stewart: First Lady of Las Vegas (Parts 1 and 2),” 1973-74, by Carrie Miller Townley; “The First 100: Portraits of the Men and Women who Shaped Las Vegas,” 2000, Huntington Press; “Ghostly Gunslingers: The Postmortem Lives of the Kiel Brothers, Nevada’s First Frontiersmen,” by John J. Crandall and Ryan P. Harrod, 2014, Cambridge Archaeological Journal; “Helen J. Stewart: First Lady of Las Vegas,” by Carrie Townley Porter and Sally Zanjani, 2011.