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Jeff Kidder (November 15, 1875 - April 5, 1908) was a little-known police officer in the closing days of the American Old West. He is considered one of the twelve most underrated gunmen of the Old West.
He was born Jefferson David Kidder in 1875 in Vermillion, South Dakota, the son of Silas W. Kidder from a prominent family. The boy's grandfather, for whom he was named, was Jefferson P. Kidder; he had served as the Lieutenant Governor of Vermont and later served on the South Dakota Supreme Court and in the U.S. House of Representatives. Silas had a brother Lyman S. Kidder, who became an officer in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment (United States), and served under George Custer. He and his detachment were killed by Native Americans in July 1867, in an event that became known as the Kidder Massacre. In 1868, Silas W. Kidder settled in Vermillion.
By an early age the boy Jeff had taken an interest in dime novels depicting the lives of gunfighters. Kidder began studying and practicing the art of the quick draw. He attended the University of South Dakota where he studied algebra, language and composition.
Life in the west
In 1901, Kidder's family moved to California, but he stayed in Vermillion. That same year, the Arizona Rangers were formed, and Kidder ventured southwest to join them. He was not hired until 1903, and he took many odd jobs in between, including working as a cowboy, a miner, and as a lawman in Nogales, Arizona. Kidder quickly became known within the Rangers as the second best marksman, second only to Captain Harry C. Wheeler.
Two months later, Kidder and other Rangers went to Morenci to quell the mine strikes and riots. Kidder had a reputation as being quiet, having little to say, unless he was drinking. When drunk, he was known to be loud mouthed and quarrelsome. Tom Rynning, an Arizona Ranger Captain, would later claim that he never saw any man faster with a gun on a quick draw than Jeff Kidder.
Kidder began working to control cattle rustling along the United States/Mexico border near Nogales, often working alone, but sometimes joined by Rangers Fred Rankin, Billy Old, and Bill Sparks. In early 1904, Kidder and Rankin intercepted gunrunners near the border, which resulted in a gunbattle. Kidder shot and killed one of the outlaws, with Rankin shooting the horse out from under another. The two Rangers confiscated several weapons and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Kidder had numerous other clashes with gunrunners on the border, leading to intelligence reports that he was to be targeted by the Mexican Border Police, who were involved in the gunrunning business with the outlaws.
Kidder, Rankin, Sparks and Old had all received commissions from Mexican General Luis E. Torres, commander of the northern district of Sonora, authorizing them to enter into Mexico if need be in pursuit of outlaws. In the fall of 1907, Kidder and a Benson, Arizona Constable fought and captured one bandit and dispersed several others who were smuggling arms and gunpowder. By this time, Kidder had a sizable reputation on the border and in Mexico. He was promoted to sergeant in early 1908.
Gunfight and death
In late March 1908, Kidder pursued gunrunners into Mexico. He entered Naco, Sonora on April 3, 1908, and in a small cantina he located his suspects. A gunfight erupted between Kidder and Delores Quias and Tomas Amador, both of whom were Mexican policemen, resulting in both suspects being wounded, and their wounding Kidder. Two Mexican police, in business with the outlaws, burst into the cantina and fired at Kidder, hitting him in the gut. Kidder, alone and outnumbered, continued the fight, returning fire on the two officers, killing them both. Kidder was badly wounded, the bullet having ripped through his intestines and exiting his back, leaving him lying on the floor.
Kidder, realizing he was in trouble, staggered to his feet and walked into the night and began attempting to reach the US border several hundred yards away. Several Mexican policemen and civilians stood between him and the border by this point and they began firing at Kidder. Ranger Kidder then attempted to return fire, but his gun was empty, so he veered to his right heading for the boundary. Taking cover, he reloaded and shot one of the civilians who came within his range, killing the man. Kidder continued to return fire until his ammunition was expended, at which point he surrendered.
Naco Police Chief Victoriano Amador and several of his policemen immediately jumped on Kidder, beating him senseless. Chief Amador had been wounded by Kidder. The police beat Kidder as they dragged him about fifty yards toward the local jail, and he was hit on the head with a pistol, which cracked his skull. Kidder was held in jail that night without medical attention.
The following day, American officials led by Ranger Captain Wheeler pressured Mexican officials to release Kidder into a private residence for medical care, and pressed for Mexico to allow a Bisbee, Arizona doctor, Dr. F.E. Shine, to attend him. Mexican officials complied. However by that point there was little hope that Kidder could survive. He was, however, able to speak and to relay the events as they happened in his own version.
Deputy US Marshal John Foster, a friend to Kidder, entered into Naco and visited Kidder during this time, along with several others having authority to do so. Kidder died on April 5, 1908, at 6:30 am. At first, local Mexican authorities refused to allow Kidder's body to be removed to American soil. After intense arguments, General Torres intervened and ordered Kidder's body returned to the Americans. His body was sent to his mother in Los Angeles, California, where he was buried.
No charges were ever filed against the Mexicans. The Arizona Rangers and many citizens of Arizona were enraged. When the Rangers were disbanded in 1909, Ranger Billy Old, Kidder's closest friend, disappeared into Mexico, where he remained for two years. Years later, former Ranger Captain Tom Rynning revealed that in Mexico, Old had hunted down and killed all the men who attacked Kidder.
- Robert K. DeArment, Deadly Dozen
- Robert K. DeArment, Deadly Dozen: Twelve Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West, University of Oklahoma Press, 2007, pp. 194–210 ISBN 0-8061-3559-X