Part 2: John Childers, killer who came to Clovis

By Don McAlavy: Local Columnist

We learned in part one John W. Childers Jr. survived a long court trial down in Las Cruces for killing a prominent attorney. Money and power behind the scenes caused Childers to be acquitted. His rich and powerful father and attorneys, with the help of three famous New Mexicans, aided Childers in being judged “Not guilty.”

Childers’ history showed, before coming to Clovis, he was involved in shooting up the towns near Gainesville, Texas. One night there were 60 Mexicans waiting for him. A shot hit his wrist and he fell. He was left for dead.

He was a long time getting well so he learned how to use a gun left-handed.

He immediately left New Mexico after the 1902 trial. He returned about a year later and was in Deming. He was in trouble again. He hit a fellow over the head with the butt of his pistol with intent to kill and then fled to Mexico. Deputy Cipriano Baca had a warrant charging Childers with assault with intent to kill. Baca followed Childers south of the border and arrested him. Technical irregularities prevented his extradition. He later crossed into Texas and found his way to Dalhart, Texas.

He was in Dalhart, Texas, operating a pool hall at the end of 1908 when he was in a shooting fray which killed Mose Watson. Under indictment, he abandoned Dalhart, Texas, in favor of Clovis. With him was partner, Louis Lilly. They invested in the Elk Bar located at 112 West Otero (now 2nd St.) and the Cash-In-Sale dry goods store.

Childers was 50 years old when he reached Clovis in 1909. (Apparently he had abandoned his wife and kids.)

It was said in a matter of five hours on the night of Aug. 13, 1909, a trio of arson fires flared up in Childers’ heavily insured store. Fire Chief Gus Von Elm figured the fires were deliberately set by Childers. During the final conflagration, Childers pulled his six-shooter and dealt firefighter W. J. “Billy” Skeldon “a murderous blow with the butt of the heavy pistol.” (No record exists of “Billy” being killed.) Childers was arrested but released on bond. He was angered over Fire Chief Gus Von Elm placing a guard over his property.

Childers made known his intentions to kill Von Elm and called for a showdown. The shoot-out was in front of Von Elm’s saloon, the White House Saloon at Connelly and Hagerman Ave. (now First St.). As Childers climbed out of his buggy, Von Elm stepped out the door and fired first. The bullet struck Childers in the chest, causing him to shoot low.
He hit Von Elm in the knee, thigh and left hand. Von Elm fired twice more hitting Childers in his left hip and side.

He managed to get in his buggy and drive the two and a half blocks to his own saloon. He laid down on a billiard table and died on Aug. 14, 1909.

Childers was said to have had at least six notches on his gun when he died. Gus Von Elm recovered and with public opinion in his favor was not held accountable for the sudden demise of Childers. Childers was given a burial in the West 7th Cemetery.

One newspaper called Childers “one of the most dangerous men in the southwest.”

(My source for the Childers-Von Elm shoot-out was Tom Pendergrass of Clovis. The source for the story of Childers shootings elsewhere were Karen Holliday Tanner and John D. Tanner Jr.)

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at: dmcalavy@telescopelab.com