Sister Blandina and the Original Billy the Kid

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Rose Marie Segale was born on January 23, 1850 in the small village of Cicagna in Italy.  When she was four she and her family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, part of the initial wave of immigration from Italy to America.  From her earliest childhood she was determined to be a sister and frequently told her father that she wanted to join the  Sisters of Charity as soon as she was old enough.  She began her novitiate at the age of 16.  When she professed her vows she took the name of Blandina Segale.  She taught at Steubenville and Dayton, and in 1872 she was ordered to Trinidad for missionary work.  Initially she thought that she was being sent to the island and was thrilled.  Instead, she was sent to Trinidad, Colorado in the western part of that state.

What she found when she got there, was a town that was frequently visited by outlaws and where lynchings were common.  A fairly rugged environment for a 22-year-old sister!

Nothing daunted, she began to teach.  Soon after she got there she stopped a lynching by convincing a dying man to forgive his assailant, the father of one of her pupils.  Sister Blandina and the sheriff brought the accused killer from the jail where he was being held to the bed of the dying man, through the midst of an angry lynch mob.  The dying man, very generously I think, forgave the man, the lynch mob dispersed, and the man’s fate was determined by the court and not the mob.

One of the many outlaws who terrorized the area was Arthur Pond aka William LeRoy, sometimes known as Billy the Kid, and who was celebrated as the King of American Highwaymen by the “penny dreadful” novelist  Richard K. Fox who released a heavily fictionalized biography of him immediately after his death, conflating his exploits with those of the more famous Billy the Kid.  (Sister Blandina in later life confused LeRoy with William H. Bonney, the more famous Billy the Kid, who operated in New Mexico a few years later.  Sister Blandina had known the outlaw only by his nickname and didn’t realize that there were two Billy the Kids, who died within months of each other in 1881.)  A member of his gang had been accidentally  shot by another member of his gang and left to die in an adobe hut in Trinidad.  Learning this from one of her students, Sister Blandina went to the outlaw and nursed him back to health, answering his questions about God and religion.   When Billy the Kid showed up in Trinidad one day, intent on scalping the four doctors who refused to treat the man Sister Blandina had been caring for, he thanked Sister Blandina and at her request reluctantly spared the physicians.

This was one of three occasions on which Sister Blandina encountered the original Billy the Kid.  The second occasion occurred after she was transferred to Santa Fe in the New Mexico Territory.  Riding in a stage-coach, saying her Rosary, Sister Blandina was startled when the stage-coach driver yelled that a rider was approaching.  The men traveling in the coach pulled out their pistols fearing that the rider was the infamous Billy the Kid who had been robbing stage coaches in the area.  Sister Blandina told them to put up their guns.  The rider road up to the stage-coach.  Sister Blandina shifted her bonnet so the rider could see her face.  It was the original Billy the Kid!  Their eyes met, Billy raised his hat, bowed and rode off!

Sister Blandina encountered the original Billy the Kid for the last time in May of 1881 while he was being held in the Santa Fe jail.  She had gone to the jail because Edward Kelly, a bartender who had killed a patient of hers, was being held there.  The original Billy the Kid was in the same jail cell and greeted Sister Blandina.  He asked her to do what she could for Kelly.  This was his first offense he said, and he was not himself when he had committed the crime.  As for himself, the original Billy the Kid said he would get out of the crimes he was charged with.  That prediction was proven incorrect.  LeRoy was sentenced to ten years on May 23, 1881 along with his brother Sam, a member of his gang.  They never lived to serve a day of their sentence however, as they were both hung by a lynch mob that broke into the jail that night.  Ironically, if Sister Blandina had visited the jail a few months earlier she might have encountered the more famous Billy the Kid who was held there until March 29, 1881, then being taken to Mesilla for trial.  He escaped subsequently and was gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881.

For the next twenty-one years, Sister Blandina continued her missionary work in the West, founding a hospital and a school in Santa Fe.  When she returned to Cincinnati, she and her sister, also a member of the Sisters of Charity, Sister Justina, founded an Italian Welfare Society, to help the poor of the city.  Sister Blandina died at 91 in 1941.  Her letters about her life in the West were published as At the End of the Santa Fe Trail  to popular acclaim in 1932.

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  1. It’s a funny thing about hoods — sometimes the hardest, nastiest young men have a streak of honor and justice in them that can be touched by the right teacher or nun or such. Sometimes it leads them out of trouble; sometimes they stay in; but they usually treat that particular respected person with dignity and kindness even while treating others like crud. It’s the sort of teeter-totter heart that such kids have.

  2. Interesting article. I never knew there were two BTKs. Please, however, check out the difference between “hanged” and “hung”: “…they were both hanged by a lynch mob….”

  3. Hanged. A man is hanged. A picture is hung. The distinction eludes me, and would certainly elude the condemned man, but ’tis so.

  4. It’s a fairly modern distinction Mack. The words used to be used interchangeably and to me hanged just does not sound as well in a sentence as hung. I understand the rule, I simply do not follow it, in the spirit of Churchill’s view of the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

  5. I really enjoyed the article on sr. Blandina. I love Hisyory.
    I have read four books on Catholic Church History in the
    last year.I read other Church History while in Theology
    When I studied to be a priest. Thanks…

  6. Ah Greg, the Church only has so much time to acknowledge the legions of saints who have served God faithfully and with joy. Sister Blandina went to Rome in 1931 to ask Pope Pius XI to confer sainthood on Mother Elizabeth Ann Seaton. She was canonized on September 14, 1975. Perhaps in God’s good time Sister Blandina will also receive such recognition.

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