The Wyoming Rodeo Clown Who Gunned Down 2 People In 1953

It was a notorious crime in Wheatland 71 years ago that seems to have been lost to history. Rodeo clown Tricky Riggle gunned down his fiancée and her companion, escaped the gas chamber and continued his act even while in prison.

Jake Nichols

June 29, 202414 min read

Ranch hand and rodeo cowboy Herschel Clay "Tricky" Riggle was sentenced to death for killing his fiancée and a local ranch hand at a Wheatland café in 1953.
Ranch hand and rodeo cowboy Herschel Clay "Tricky" Riggle was sentenced to death for killing his fiancée and a local ranch hand at a Wheatland café in 1953. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Tricky Riggle was a kind of cowboy showman in the vein of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody. A low-rent version of those famed Western legends, bouncing from town to town on the rodeo circuit, barely scraping by until he settled in Wheatland, Wyoming, in the 1940s.

A crowd oohed and aahed during the 1952 Platte County Fair as Riggle performed a few of the signature rope tricks that earned him his nickname, culminating with his death-defying knife-throwing skills.

His lovely assistant was Frances Williamson. They had met that spring and began a relationship.

Among Williamson’s many services in Riggle’s act, she would stand obediently against a plywood backdrop as Tricky hurled knives at her. One by one the blades thwacked all around Frances, eventually silhouetting her curvy body.

He’s gonna miss and kill her one of these days, spectators had to think.

Riggle would indeed kill her one day, but not with a knife. And he did not miss.

The little-known tale of Herschel Clay “Tricky” Riggle includes a double-homicide over a lover’s tryst and an 11th-hour commutation from the governor that saved the condemned man from the gas chamber. The politician’s soft-heartedness, some say, cost Gov. Milward Simpson his reelection bid.

To this day, hardly anyone remembers the details. Folks in Wheatland just don't talk about it.

Wheatland in the ’50s

“Romper Room” and the “Johnny Carson Show” debuted the year a real-life posse was formed in southeastern Wyoming, engageing in a three-day manhunt for a killer on the run.

It was 1953. Swanson introduced TV dinners, Marilyn Monroe was a Hollywood sex symbol and Hugh Hefner debuted a magazine called Playboy.

America was coming of age, but the West was still as wild as ever.

In early spring that year, tiny Wheatland — population 2,300 at the time — was rocked by a double-homicide. On March 28, 1953, Riggle held a smoking gun in the doorframe of a local café as his fiancée and a local ranch hand who paid her too much attention both hit the floor dead.

Riggle would later claim he remembered nothing of the shooting. A jury didn’t buy it. This was the same Tricky Riggle that was found guilty of taking a shot at a county sheriff in a bar in 1946. Again, over a woman.

“Most of the trouble I’ve gotten into was a result of dirty deals from women,” Riggle once told his court-appointed psychiatrist Dr. Joseph F. Whalen.

How the participants met their fates that Saturday night is a story as old as time. Jealous rage, a jilted lover and an unstable middle-aged gun owner crazy over a woman he couldn’t have. It was a recipe for murder.

Tricky Comes West

Give Riggle some credit, he followed his childhood dream. Two weeks before graduation from high school in Macedonia, Iowa, Riggle struck out for the Wild West to become a cowboy.

By 1920, he started rodeoing, riding bulls, broncs, whatever. He was good but not great.

It was on the circuit he met up with rodeo legend Lucille Mulhall who had taken over her father’s famed “Mulhall Wild West Show.” Under Mulhall’s wing, Riggle concentrated more on the entertainment side, specializing in trick roping, knife throwing and becoming a general rodeo clown.

Riggle married briefly in 1927. Not much is known about the four-month marriage other than Riggle stating later that he found out his new bride was not yet divorced from her previous husband. Tricky’s distrust of women was further solidified.

Riggle continued his novelty act sideshow, which included a three-legged horse, for about two decades until the early 1940s. When not rodeoing, he supported himself doing various ranch work in Wyoming.

In 1946, Riggle had his first major brush with the law. During an argument with a peace officer over a woman in a bar, Riggle took a shot at the lawman.

Riggle was sentenced to five to six years in the state penitentiary in Rawlins for felonious assault. He served 31 months before being discharged in 1949.

Riggle returned immediately to Wheatland, where he took a job at the local lumber yard owned by Charles Perry. He did some plastering, flooring, general lumber work, stacked lumber, loaded trucks and the like. He was a hard worker, but his fellow employees found him “mentally abnormal,” saying he was moody and would often talk to himself.

He kept his nose to the grindstone until he met Williamson in spring 1952.

  • A newspaper clipping reporting on Tricky Riggle's appeal of his death sentence for killing his fiancée and a male friend in a fit of jealous rage.
    A newspaper clipping reporting on Tricky Riggle's appeal of his death sentence for killing his fiancée and a male friend in a fit of jealous rage. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • A report in the Billings Gazette on how Tricky Riggle was allowed to have animals in prison.
    A report in the Billings Gazette on how Tricky Riggle was allowed to have animals in prison. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Tricky And Frances

Riggle fell hard. He courted the widow and operator of the Mountain View Camp in Wheatland, eventually coaxing her to join his part-time rodeo sideshow act.

During the relationship, Tricky brought up marriage, but Frances was reluctant. She had been married twice before and wasn’t looking to go that route again at age 53, according to a niece.

Riggle later described the relationship as troubled but, despite him calling Frances a “woman of low character,” he genuinely liked her and wanted to marry her.

“I loved that woman and I thought we could make a go of it,” Riggle said.

Williamson, on the other hand, appeared to be stringing Riggle along. At least that’s what Riggle came to believe at some point, according to testimony given at his Wyoming Supreme Court appeal July 31, 1956. She would spend time with other men, causing Riggle’s jealousy to be aroused.

Riggle also said Williamson would often demand money from him and threatened to charge him with rape if he didn’t pay up.

Sometime in early March 1953, Riggle got into an argument with local ranch hand Walter Akerblade at Williamson’s apartment. Riggle informed Akerblade that he and Frances were to be married soon — they set the date for March 28 — and tossed Akerblade out of the room.

That set the stage for Saturday, March 28, 1953. Riggle was in a jovial mood at work that day but distracted. His coworkers remember him making some mismeasurements on a few windows, which was not like him.

“I got off work at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday. I drove to my room and washed and changed clothes,” Riggle remembered. “I put on a striped pair of brown pants, a blue shirt, a clean jacket with a fur collar. These were my best clothes. I also had my hat and was going to pick Frances up and go to Lusk.”

Wedding Day

Whether Williamson agreed to go to Lusk (where she had family) to be married that Saturday is a matter of contention. Truth was, when Riggle stopped in at the Top Hat Bar in Wheatland that night around 6 p.m., Williamson was already drinking and talking with several other men, including Akerblade.

“When I came in, I saw Mrs. Williamson with these men in the bar. I came in and sat down at the end. She didn't look at me,” Riggle later recalled in court. “Then Akerblade left her, and I walked over and asked her if she wanted a glass of beer. I asked her if she was ready to go.”

Eyewitness John Burke saw it differently.

Burk testified that Riggle came in and laid his hand on Akerblade's shoulder and said, “You son of a bitch, I told you to stay away from her or I would kill you.”

Williamson reportedly asked bartender Jerry Sparks to throw Tricky out for harassing her. She did not want to go with him to Lusk. Sparks had a word with Riggle and told him he could stay as long as he behaved himself.

Sparks recalled Riggle mumbled angrily to himself for about five minutes and left around 7:30 p.m. Riggle said he went home to eat and stopped at the post office, where he picked up a $3 check for back income tax.

Riggle returned to the Top Hat around 7:45 p.m., cashed the check with Sparks and tried again to get his fiancée away from the men she was with.

“I was feeling blue then and I asked her again and she refused,” Riggle said. “Akerblade and Randall had gotten her drunk on whiskey and beer, and I think Elmer Greenlee. I thought I could get her in my car and get her away from the bunch that was getting her drunk. I knew she would go.”

Greenlee later testified that Riggle and Sparks got into a little confrontation when the bartender threatened to throw Riggle out.

“Try it and you’ll be dead before you make it over the bar,” Riggle reportedly said.

John Burk also testified to the fact that Riggle was livid about being stood up. He heard Tricky tell Frances if she did not quit fooling around with Akerblade he would kill her.

“He was angry and he looked wild,” Burk added.

Riggle again left the bar and returned to his 1937 Chevrolet parked outside.

Shots Fired

Minutes later, Riggle bumped into his fiancée, still with Akerblade and another man, on the sidewalk outside the Top Hat Bar around 8 p.m.

Joseph Ferguson overheard Riggle make a threat to Akerblade who responded, “Anytime.”

Riggle then turned to Williamson and said, “As for you, Frances, I am through with you.”

“Yes, I am darn glad of it,” Williamson shot back.

The party went to the nearby Angle Café to get something to eat — all except Riggle, who returned to his vehicle for a .22 semi-automatic rifle he kept in the back seat.

Riggle would later say, “I saw them sitting there laughing. I don't know what happened from then on. I just went to pieces and don't know what happened. I last remember seeing them laughing before I blacked out.”

Riggle stood I the doorframe of the café, raised his rifle at Akerblade and exclaimed, “God damn you, I told you I was going to get you.”

Ferguson tried to interject, “Tricky, cut it out.”

The first bullet passed through Akerblade’s outstretched hand and hit him in the cheek. Akerblade staggered back into the arms of Ferguson as Riggle pumped four consecutive shots into his chest.

Riggle turned to Williamson who was still sitting on a stool in disbelief. Four more shots, all to the chest, two striking Frances in the heart. She was dead before she hit the floor.

Riggle ran out the door and fled in his car. He sped east out of Wheatland, struck a telephone pole and nearly broke it. Riggle somehow managed to continue on until he put his car into a ravine.

Riggle testified later this is where he “came to.” He grabbed his rifle, left the car and walked across a few open fields before coming upon a house being built by his boss at the lumberyard, Charles Perry, for his brother Willard.

Riggle hid there for the rest of the night and all day Sunday.

Meanwhile, within 15 minutes the Platte County Sheriff’s Office had thrown up several roadblocks from Wheatland to Lusk.

Sheriff Ben Brown organized a volunteer posse that included a plane flown by George Nelson with John Phifer as his spotter.

The all-points bulletin buzzed over the state’s new two-way radio system, never used before that.

But more than 48 hours of searching turned up nothing.

Gov. Milward Simpson, shown here with his wife Lorna, commuted two death sentences for Tricky Riggle. He lost his bid for reelection, which many have said was because of his saving Riggle from the gas chamber.
Gov. Milward Simpson, shown here with his wife Lorna, commuted two death sentences for Tricky Riggle. He lost his bid for reelection, which many have said was because of his saving Riggle from the gas chamber. (Wyoming State Archives)

Surrender And Conviction

On Monday, March 30, 1953, Perry’s project manager Dick Dockter came to the house Riggle was hiding in looking for some putty he had left behind on the jobsite. Riggle stepped out of the closet he was hiding in.

“Are you scared?” Riggle asked Dockter.

“No,” Dockter replied.

“Did I hurt anybody?” Riggle asked.

“Yes, you killed ’em,” Dockter answered.

“Oh my God. I might as well blow my brains out,” Riggle said.

Dockter convinced Riggle to stay put while he went to get their boss, Perry.

“We’ll figure this all out,” Dockter assured the killer.

Dockter returned with Perry, who also brought Don Sherard, an attorney who would eventually represent Riggle. They convinced Riggle to turn himself in.

During the ensuing trial, Sherard tried for an insanity plea on behalf of his client. It was true Riggle had experienced numerous head injuries in his rodeo career and later on the job in the lumberyard. Some of the injuries caused him to suffer total amnesia for several days at a time, forgetfulness, irritability and awkwardness, his lawyer said.

Dr. Joseph F. Whalen, superintendent and medical director of the Wyoming State Hospital at Evanston, testified to Riggle’s mental condition.

“He did not indicate any serious illnesses or injury,” Whalen concluded.

Herschel Clay “Tricky” Riggle was convicted of two counts of premeditated murder. After a failed appeal in July 1956, he was set to be executed in the gas chamber Wednesday, Sept. 5, 1956.

Wyoming State Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Blume, in striking down Riggle’s appeal, stated that, “The defendant is guilty of a serious crime. He killed not only one person, he killed two. That accentuates the fact that if defendant had a fair trial, as we think he had, no sentiment or sympathy on our part should permit him to escape the penalty which the law decrees.

“It is not he alone whom we must consider. We must consider society as well. A warning must be given that to take another's life is dangerous to the one who takes it. We have too many killings.”

Riggle Spared

The April 2, 1953, edition of the Lusk Herald shared the shocking news of Williamson’s death: “Lady Murdered at Wheatland Sister of Local People,” the headline proclaimed.

Both Williamson and Akerblade were laid to rest April 1, Williamson in Greenhill Cemetery in Laramie, Akerblade at Wheatland Cemetery.

Appeals pushed Riggle’s execution to March 28, 1957, but eventually he was out of options. His attorneys petitioned the governor as a last-ditch effort to spare their client. Just 13 hours before Riggle was to face the gas chamber, he received a stay of execution from Governor Simpson.

“I have always been opposed to capital punishment. I doubt that it is a deterrent to crime. Terrible and revolting and indefensible as was Riggle’s crime, taking his life cannot atone for the murders, nor lessen the grief of the victims’ survivors. It merely adds one more life to the toll of the tragedy,” Simpson said in a statement.

“Riggle’s punishment is God’s prerogative. Only God can finally adjust the balance between justice and mercy, and I am commuting the sentence of Clay Riggle from death to life imprisonment,” the governor added.

Simpson’s action drew both positive and negative feedback. Speculation continues today on whether the decision cost Simpson his bid for reelection in 1958.

Simpson faced other political challenges, including controversies over the proposed route of Interstate 90 and cracking down on gambling in Teton County, but Riggle’s attorney was convinced that sparing his client’s life was key reason he was not reelected.

Riggle Lives To 80

Simpson’s commutation of Riggle’s sentence included the stipulation he would not be eligible for parole. He would spend the rest of his life in confinement.

Riggle carried out his sentence at the Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston. According to the Riverton Roundup, he was later transferred in 1963 to the Honor Farm in Riverton where model inmates are allowed to work with horses.

A story in the Billings Gazette on June 9, 1964, under the Show Business section stated: “Murderer Returns to Training Animals.”

Riggle was gifted a Pomeranian by the prison warden, Lenard Meacham, as well as a 5-month-old colt. Riggle trained both animals to perform tricks and gave performances occasionally for fellow inmates and their families.

In his later years, Riggle developed diabetes and had a leg amputated. He was confined to a wheelchair and eventually transferred back to the state hospital, where he died Oct. 6, 1981, at the age of 80.

Riggle requested to be buried in Rock Springs, where he was laid to rest at Rest Haven Memorial Gardens on Oct. 12, according to the Daily Rocket Miner.

Contact Jake Nichols at

  • Herschal "Tricky" Riggle is buried in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
    Herschal "Tricky" Riggle is buried in Rock Springs, Wyoming. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • The grave of Frances Willaimson, killed by her fiancée Tricky Riggle on March 28, 1953, in Wheatland, Wyoming.
    The grave of Frances Willaimson, killed by her fiancée Tricky Riggle on March 28, 1953, in Wheatland, Wyoming. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • The grave of Walter Akerblade, gunned down by Tricky Riggle in 1953 in Wheatland, Wyoming.
    The grave of Walter Akerblade, gunned down by Tricky Riggle in 1953 in Wheatland, Wyoming. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
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Jake Nichols

Features Reporter