Chroniclers say the tiny, hook-nosed, blue-eyed Sally Skull rode a horse like a man, cursed like a sailor, shot like an Indian, and spoke Spanish like a Mexican. Stories abound of her five husbands–she may have killed one or two, and number five may have killed her.
Sally grew up early, and she grew up tough. Born in 1817 as Sarah Jane Newman, her family moved to Texas in 1821 and settled in the northernmost part of Stephen F. Austin’s original colony. Besides the constant threat in her childhood of Indians stealing the family’s horses and corn, Sally watched as an Indian stuck his foot under the cabin front door to lift it off the hinges and her mother used an ax to chop off his toes. At other times her mother put the children to bed and blew out the candles fearing Indians might shoot them through the cracks between the log walls of the cabin. Finally, the family moved to Egypt, a settlement less prone to Indian attack.
Like many girls of that time, at age sixteen Sally married Jesse Robinson, a man twice her age who served as a volunteer in the famous Battle of San Jacinto and in several subsequent military campaigns. When they divorced in 1843, he claimed she was a scold and “termagant” and committed adultery with someone she kept in the washhouse. Sally said Robinson was excessively cruel. They both fought for years over custody of their two children.
Sally married again on March 17, 1843, eleven days after the divorce, but not to the accused in the washhouse. Despite three more unions, husband number two, George H. Scull, provided her famous name with a slight variation in the spelling.
After the Scull marriage, Sally sold her inherited property around Egypt and disappeared for about ten years. She may have spent that time near her children who attended convents in New Orleans. Those who knew Sally reported that she adored her children and always found other children delightful. However, as her notoriety spread, mothers often chided their children to behave or Sally Skull would get them.
George Scull disappeared from the record by the early 1850s about the time Sally established a horse-trading business twenty miles west of Corpus Christi at the crossing of Banquete Creek and El Camino Real (the old road from Matamoros on the Rio Grande to Goliad and beyond). Several accounts place Sally at the great 1852 fair in Corpus Christi because she is remembered for shooting a man—in self-defense, of course.
Her reputation also spread over her lifestyle choices: she often wore men’s pants, she rode her horse astride rather than side-saddle, and she buckled at her waist a wide belt anchoring two cap and ball revolvers. Her only nod to feminine attire consisted of a slatted sunbonnet to protect her once-fair complexion.
She hired a few Mexican vaqueros that rode with her on horse-trading trips as far south as Mexico and along the Gulf coast all the way to New Orleans. She purchased up to 150 horses at a time with gold carried in a nosebag around her neck or over her saddle horn.
Sally did not allow anyone to inspect or cut her herds, which may have fueled rumors that after she visited ranches, Indians drove off the best horses that appeared later in Sally’s herds. Wives sometimes claimed she made eyes at their husbands while her vaqueros stayed busy running off their horses.
Several tales surround Sally’s loss of husband number three, John Doyle, who like George Scull simply disappeared from the scene. Some accounts claim Doyle and Sally had a duel and her superior marksmanship won the day. Others said that while in Corpus Christi for a fandango, which she loved attending, she did not wake quickly enough the following morning and Doyle poured a pitcher of water on her head. She leaped from the bed not fully awake, drew her pistol, and became a widow. Another tale tells of her insisting that John Doyle and her vaqueros ride across a swollen river. The rushing current swept away Doyle and his horse. When the Mexicans asked if they should look for his body, she said, “I don’t give a damn about the body, but I sure would like the $40 in that money belt around it.”
In December 1855, Sally married Isaiah Wadkins and divorced him the following May for beating her, dragging her nearly two hundred yards, and living openly in adultery. After she won the divorce, the Nueces County Grand Jury indicted Wadkins for adultery.
Sally’s number five was Christoph Horsdorff or “Horsetrough,” a moniker he earned for just sitting around and possibly for being almost twenty years her junior.
With the start of the Civil War Sally quit horse-trading, fitted out several mule train wagons, converted her Mexican vaqueros into teamsters, and began the highly dangerous and lucrative business of hauling Confederate cotton to Mexico. The Union blockade of all the ports on the Gulf Coast made it necessary for the Confederacy to ship cotton to the mills in England through the neutral Mexican port of Baghdad at the mouth of the Rio Grande. Hundreds of English ships waited for the precious cargo in exchange for Winchester rifles, ammunition, and medical supplies for the Confederate Army. The old route to Matamoros that led through Banquete became known as the Cotton Road as ox-carts and mule-drawn wagon trains lumbered along its sandy route hauling thousands of bales of cotton from all over the South.
A few court records after the Civil War document Sally’s final scrapes with the law: The Goliad District Court minutes show her indicted for perjury on May 4, 1866, and acquitted seven days later. The court closed an eight-year-old case in 1867 that had been filed for an unknown reason against “Sarah Wadkins” (name of husband four) and another woman’s husband. The final note on the record stated, “death of Defendant suggested.”
Some storytellers believe Horsdorff killed Sally after she was seen riding away from Banquete with him and he returned alone. Later, a man claimed that he saw a boot sticking out of a shallow grave and discovered her murdered body. No one was ever charged.
J. Frank Dobie, historian and folklorist, best described the illusive lady: “Sally Skull belonged to the days of the Texas Republic and afterward. She was notorious for her husbands, her horse trading, freighting, and roughness.”
And that’s the truth.