Billy Boy had tattooed HARD LUCK on his left hand. As
a child he grew up in a mine shaft, then reform school, and then the pen.
While in jail he nearly killed an inmate with a baseball bat.
In 1950, a
short time after being released from prison, he flagged down a car and
forced a family of five to drive aimlessly through four states. After
seventy-two hours of driving he shot all five family members and their
dog. When he got to California he commandeered another car and shot the
driver in Yuma, Arizona. He was finally arrested by Mexican police six
hundred miles south of Tijuana.
Before getting gassed in 1952 he stated
he hated "everybody's guts."
Before Charles Starkweather, there was William Cook, a
brutish hell-raising young punk who held a grudge against any poor soul
that ever crossed his path. And for over a brief two-week period in
1950-51 he reigned as the terror of the Southwestern region of the
An incorrigible hellion from the very day of his birth, William Cook
spent his entire youth in and out of reform schools. Eventually he would
become a full-time drifter. When he reached his late teens took the
pleasure of getting a tattoo across his knuckles that spelled out
H-A-R-D-L-U-C-K. The tattoo represented the life of his that he found to
be a burden and full of hatred for fellow human beings. By the time he
had reached the age of 21, he was ready to kill whoever he felt unworthy
On December 30, 1950, Cook launched his senseless blood-letting spree by
kidnapping a motorist near Lubbock, Texas. Armed with more than one
loaded handgun, Cook forced the motorist into his own trunk. The
motorist was spared though by the Good Lord when he managed to force
open his trunk and escape with his life on foot on a small backroad.
Cook's next targets however would not be spared.
The family of Carl Mosser picked up Cook in New Mexico a few days later
and were immediately held captive by the drifter after he displayed his
gun. The Mosser consisted of Carl Mosser, his wife Thelma, and their
three small children. Cook ordered the family to continue driving and
they complied out of sheer fear for their lives. Cook, a merciless
psychopath absent of a conscience, shot and killed all five members of
the Mossler family. For no apparent reason except for the helluva it he
shot and killed the family dog as well.
Cook dumped the corpses in an
abandoned mine shaft outside of Joplin, Missouri. The Mossler's car was
found in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Not long after, the bodies of the Mossler
family were discovered. Cook, although quite evil and bloodthirsty, was
not the smartest of murderers having left behind a receipt for the gun
he used to kill the Mosslers with in their car. The police used this
damning clue and soon learned the identity of the fiendish killer. And
so began the hunt for William Cook.
Meanwhile, Cook remained busy with his quest to create total mayhem and
bloodshed. He kidnapped a deputy sheriff in California and ordered the
officer to chauffeur him around. During the forty-mile road trip with
the deputy, Cook bragged continuously about murdering the Mossler family.
At some point, Cook ordered the lawman to stop and told him to get out
of the car. After tying the officer's hands behind his back he decided
to display an act of kindness by letting the officer live, even though
he had already told the deputy that he planned to put a bullet in his
head. Cook drove away and soon came across a motorist named Robert Dewey.
Cook did not show mercy in this instance and shot the poor man to death
in an execution style.
Cook fled to Mexico, well aware of the search that was being probed by
the FBI. He made it about 400 miles south of the border and kidnapped
two more men. The nightmare would all end though in the small town of
Santa Rosalia. The chief of police recognized the killer and simply
walked up to him and arrested him. FBI agents soon arrived in the town
and extradicted Cook back to the United States.
Tried and convicted for
the murder of Robert Dewey, Cook was sentenced to death. He died in the
gas chamber at San Quentin on December 12, 1952.
The story of
William Cook was the basis for Ida Lupino's 1953 film The Hitch-hiker,
an acclaimed cult classic.
In New Mexico, 1950, William Cook (not to be
confused with the brother of Wesley Cook, aka Mumia Abu-Jamal) hitched a
ride with a family of five. He showed them his gun, held them hostage in
their own car and forced the driver, Carl Mosser, to continue ahead for
Then, with his captives still trapped inside the car, he shot
to death each member of the Mosser family, including the dog. Cook
repeated the horror story less than two weeks later, but with different
results: he used one man as an unwilling chauffeur for a while, then
instructed him to stop the car and get out. This time the man, a
California police officer, was allowed to live, standing helplessly by
the side of the road while Cook stole his car and drove away.
equipped with wheels, Cook pulled up alongside another motorist and shot
him in the head at close range. It was this last murder for which Cook
was tried and sentenced to death.
Only two years after the beginning of
William Cook's route of destruction, he was executed at San Quentin. He
The murders were not the acts of a typical serial killer, having
been committed over two weeks with a gun instead of many years with a
knife or ligature. Sexual sadism was apparently not a factor in the
motive for these killings (though the victims made to drive with Cook's
gun at their backs surely experienced this as a sadistic act designed to
Cook is classified as a spree killer, a category of impulsive
and emotionally tormented individuals who go on murderous road trips.
Before 1950, Cook was already immersed in the role of the outlaw,
experiencing nothing throughout his life but reform schools and life on
the road. And then, of course, killing on the road and dying in another
place of reform, completing the circular course of William Cook's brief
Before carnaga was common, there was
JOPLIN, Mo.- Almost 50 years ago this
week, America stood riveted by a bogeyman come to life in the form of a
pimply faced, 23-year-old native of Joplin whose most arresting feature
was a right eye that never closed.
His name was William E. Cook Jr., alias "Billy Boy"
or "Cockeyed Cook."
In the first two weeks of January 1951, Cook murdered
six persons - including an entire family from Illinois - kidnapped four
others and became the object of a nationwide manhunt. Cook's apogee of
criminal notoriety came when Life magazine, then an essential in
millions of households, ran five pages of photographs of him and his
Coverage by Life in those days was the equivalent of
an hourlong special on every broadcast and cable channel today. Life's
reporting was reinforced by banner headlines in newspapers all over the
country about the pursuit of Cook.
So large was the hunt, said historian Glenn Shirley,
that it "overshadowed anything in the John Dillinger-'Pretty Boy' Floyd
"Oh, I remember," said Bruce Ellard, 69, who is
retired and works as a civilian clerk at the Joplin Police Department
and who was helping a visitor sift through a box of records dealing with
"I was on the West Coast then, and it was in all the
papers. In 1970, when we came back here, I remember the first thought
that went through my mind was, 'Joplin, that's where that awful tragedy
For most, however, Cook is off the radar screen. Six
killed? Why, eight were murdered in two incidents in Wichita alone this
month. Seven were killed in a Massachusetts company just last Tuesday.
Half a dozen dead seems hardly to register.
Still Cook, for the time, was singular. He was
bracketed by two other mass murderers of the late 1940s and early 1950s
- Howard Unruh, a demented war veteran who shot 13 of his neighbors in
15 minutes in New Jersey in 1949, and Jack Graham, who blew up a United
Airlines plane in 1955, killing 44, including his mother, whom he had
Unruh is still in an asylum; Graham was executed in
Dementia and greed, to most, were at least linear.
Cook was scarily different - the loner coming at a unexpected angle to
kill, of all people, strangers. Thought at the time to be an anomaly,
Cook became a matrix for others - Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, Charles
Whitman et al.
It started simply enough. On Dec. 28, 1950, a Texan
named Lee Archer picked up a young hitchhiker near Lubbock, Texas. The
next morning, near Oklahoma City, the squinty-eyed youth overpowered
Archer and locked him in the car's trunk. Unfamiliar with the manual
transmission on the stolen car, the young man got it stuck in a ditch,
then flagged down what was later identified as a blue, 1949 Chevrolet
The Texan freed himself from the trunk and called
police. By the time they arrived, the Chevy, with the young man inside,
had disappeared westward on U.S. 66.
Inside Archer's car, police found a duffel bag with
clues to who the hitchhiker was. Using newspaper wire photo machines,
officials soon had pictures and Missouri penitentiary records of Cook, 5
feet 6 inches tall, 145 pounds, tattooed, with a right eye that never
closed thanks to a botched operation to remove a congenital growth from
Still, as of Dec. 29, the case was one of highway
robbery - some punk stealing a car.
Then on Jan. 3, 1951, a grimy blue 1949 Chevrolet
sedan was found mired in a ditch 3 miles northwest of Tulsa, Okla. The
interior was splattered with blood.
That car belonged to Carl Mosser, 33, who with his
wife, Thelma, was making a Christmas trip from their home in Atwood, Ill.,
to Albuquerque, N.M. With the couple were their three children - Ronald
Dean, 7, Gary Carl, 5, and Pamela Sue, 3.
Relatives who had been expecting the Mossers for
several days had not heard from them. Lawmen feared the worst.
Within hours, the largest manhunt in United States
history up to that time had begun, with 2,000 law enforcement officers.
They were joined by other thousands - police, game wardens and private
Rescue of the Mossers was not in the cards. In fact,
a reconstruction of the family's last days was appalling. From central
Oklahoma, Cook forced Mosser to drive to Wichita Falls, Texas; then to
Carlsbad, N.M.; back east to Houston; then north to Winthrop, Ark.; and
finally back to Joplin. There, between 1:30 and 2:30 a.m. Jan. 2, 1951,
Cook, who became panicked by a passing police car, shot each member of
the family and dropped their bodies down a mine shaft in the Chitwood
section of town.
Cook fled to Tulsa, abandoned the car, and managed,
by bus and hitchhiking, to reach Blythe, Calif., by Jan. 6. There he
kidnapped a deputy sheriff, stole his patrol car, and used it to pull
over a car driven by Robert Dewey, 32.
Cook killed Dewey, took his car, and crossed into
Mexico, where he kidnapped two other Americans, James Burke and Forrest
Damron, amateur prospectors.
Those two men would be with Cook for the next week,
crisscrossing Baja California. The two captives said they were afraid to
try an escape because they never could tell when Cook was asleep - his
right eye remained open.
Finally, on Jan. 15, Mexican police recognized Cook
from the thousands of FBI posters that had blanketed the search area. He
was arrested at gunpoint in a cafe.
That same day in Joplin, Police Chief Carl Nutt and
Detective Walter Gamble played a hunch. Laboratory tests of mud found in
the Mosser car showed a heavy shale content. Shale and zinc mining went
together. Cook had been raised around Second and Oliver streets, where
there were abandoned zinc mines.
In one of the flooded shafts floated the bodies of
the Mosser family.
Things happened fast after that. Cook was brought
back to Oklahoma and tried under federal kidnapping statutes. Since the
Lindbergh kidnapping, such charges had almost automatically meant the
death penalty. Cook told his jailers that he expected to be hanged.
The judge, trying the case without a jury, gave Cook
300 years. But that included the possibility of parole. The public was
outraged. Editorials flayed the judge.
The U.S. Justice Department, hours after the verdict,
announced it would honor a request by California to try Cook in Imperial
County. Prosecutors there maintained they had a dead-bang case for the
murder of Dewey.
They did. In November 1951, a jury took 50 minutes to
find Cook guilty. Cook, a smirk on his lips, got the death sentence.
On Dec. 12, 1952, appeals exhausted, a sullen Cook
was strapped to the chair in San Quentin's gas chamber and eagerly
inhaled the cyanide fumes.
Three days later his body was on display at a
Comanche, Okla., funeral home. Fifteen thousand people viewed the body
before relatives stopped the showing. A few days later, well after dark,
Cook was buried in Peace Cemetery in Joplin.
Born in 1929 near Joplin, Missouri, William Cook was one of eight children fathered by an alcoholic miner.
When his mother died, Cook's father moved the family into an abandoned mine shaft, where they lived like animals until the old man finally deserted them entirely. Welfare workers placed Cook's siblings in foster homes, but little William was repeatedly rejected due to a congenital deformity which prevented his right eye from closing completely.
The resulting "sinister" look unnerved prospective foster parents, and Cook found placement only when the court agreed to pay his room and board. Unfortunately, Cook's appointed foster mother was more interested in earning money from the boy than raising him correctly.
Two years running, Cook was given bicycles for Christmas, and they were immediately repossessed for lack of payment. As he entered adolescence, Cook began to run the streets at night and practice petty theft; upon his first arrest, he told the court he would prefer reform school to his foster home. Released a few months later, Cook immediately robbed a cab driver of eleven dollars, earning a five-year stretch in the reformatory. Violent outbursts there resulted in a transfer to state prison, where he earned a reputation as a brawler. Once, Cook nearly killed a fellow inmate with a baseball bat, the incident resulting from a joke about his droopy eyelid.
Finally released in 1950, at the age of 22, Cook stopped in Joplin long enough for a reunion with his drunken father, moving west from there with the expressed intent to "live by the gun and roam." He picked up the gun -- a .32 pistol -- in El Paso, Texas, traveling as far as California before he doubled back, wandering aimlessly across country. The words "Hard Luck," tattooed across the fingers of his left hand, foretold the fate of hapless strangers who would cross his path.
In Lubbock, Texas, on December 30, 1950, Cook abducted a motorist at gunpoint, pushing north toward Joplin. His hostage escaped in Oklahoma, and Cook ran out of gas on Highway 66, between Tulsa and Claremore, on New Year's Eve. Carl Mosser, his wife and three children were bound for New Mexico when they stopped to help another motorist in trouble, and their trip became a nightmare from the moment they laid eyes on William Cook. Flashing his pistol, Cook ordered Mosser to "drive him around." Stopping for gas and food in Wichita Falls, Texas, Mosser tried to disarm his captor, but Cook was quicker and stronger, firing several shots at a grocery clerk who tried to intervene.
Over the next two days, Mosser drove Cook through New Mexico, Texas, and Arkansas, winding up in the gunman's old stamping grounds, around Joplin. There, Cook massacred the family (and their dog), dumping the bodies down an abandoned mine shaft before continuing his odyssey.
His bloodstained car broke down in Osage County, Oklahoma, and Cook flagged down a deputy sheriff, disarming the officer, whom he left in a roadside ditch, his hands bound. Driving the stolen patrol car, Cook stopped a traveling salesman, Robert Dewey, and changed vehicles again, forcing Dewey to head for California.
On arrival, Cook dispatched his hostage execution-style, the corpse and car alerting lawmen to his presence on the coast. Pushing south, Cook crossed the border at Tijuana, picking up two more male hostages en route.
On January 15, 1951, he was recognized by the police chief in Santa Rosaria and disarmed without a struggle.
Returned to California for trial, on murder charges, Cook was convicted and sentenced to die. He was executed in San Quentin's gas chamber on December 12, 1952.
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial
Killers - Hunting Humans