A WELL TOLD TALE
Kate Powell Harvey and her brother Robert Powell
One of the most legendary people in Mill Creek Canyon, or the San Bernardino mountains for that matter, was Kate Harvey. Known to the locals as Cactus Kate, she was larger than life. Kate could swear a blue streak when she was riled, wore holstered six-guns on her ample hips, and made many headlines. She was also known as the genial lady offering hospitality at Skinner’s Mountain Home Resort, which became Harvey’s Resort under her management. But this time, Kate doesn’t get to take the spotlight. Instead, this is a story about her younger brother, Robert Powell.
Robert Powell and Kate Harvey
In many historical stories, a person hides in the shadows of someone’s notoriety but makes startling appearances. Although he was a man who blended into the scenery, Bob Powell took center stage in his sister’s story twice – in 1910 when he shot and killed Kate’s brother-in-law, John Harvey, and again in 1919 when he shot Kate’s second husband William Howard and wounded her. Powell became a familiar figure in the headlines because of these two cases, but he remains a bit of a mystery. His sister, Kate, was so devoted to him that she stood by him against both of her husbands and Bob lived on the ranch with her for much of his adult life. The stories they told about Kate’s life with her husbands were so shocking and riveting that they won an acquittal for Powell twice. They also won public sympathy by essentially telling the same tragic tale about two different crime scenes, involving two different people eight years apart. Now, that’s a good story.
The question is, were Kate Harvey and Bob Powell reliable narrators? Through the long lens of time, patterns in information, and stories sometimes shed new light. Kate Harvey often told her friends and neighbors that Powell Street in San Francisco was named after her father. She described him as an important physician. It was a great story and perhaps one that afforded Kate and her brother a sheen of importance, but a fiction nonetheless. Their father, John Goodson Powell, was an interesting character, to be sure. Born in Tennessee, he became a dentist and abandoned a family to go to the goldfields in California where he did some mining, harness-making, and itinerant dentistry. Moreover, Powell Street was definitely not named after him. It was named for Dr. William J. Powell, a ship’s surgeon on the U.S.S. Warren, who played a key role in the Mexican-American War. Now, Kate was only three years old and Bob only a year old when their father died on July 23, 1881. To be fair, it’s possible that this was a story that they were told about their father, not one that they invented. Bob Powell, however, went a little further with his own fictions. In September of 1918, Powell’s World War I draft card (pictured below) gave his name as “Robert Wheeler Webber Powell.” Later, in April 1942 on his World War II draft card (also pictured below), he gave his name as “Robert William Windsor Powell.” Maybe he forgot what his name was? Doubtful. It was shortly after the abdication of King Edward VIII of England when the former monarch became the Duke of Windsor. Maybe Powell had delusions of grandeur. We’ll never know. Does this make Kate Harvey and Robert Powell unreliable narrators? Maybe. Even so, it demonstrates the power of a well-told tale and how legends are born.
Copyright 2020, Shannon E. Wray. All Rights Reserved. No reprints in whole or part without permission.