SAN QUENTIN, CA — On December 12, 1952, William Edward Cook Jr., 23, gasped his last inside the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison.
Cook had come to be called “Hard Luck Billy,” both for the hideous breaks life had given him early on and, more obviously, for bearing knuckle tattoos on his left hand that spelled out “H-A-R-D L-U-C-K.”
Primarily, though, Cook was known as a merciless serial murderer who slaughtered six people — including an entire family — during a 22-day cross-country rampage as 1950 turned into 1951.
Billy Cook was just 23 years old at the time.
Born in 1928 to an impoverished Missouri family of 10, Cook’s mother died when the boy was just five years old. His alcoholic father coped with having to raise children on his own by taking Billy and his siblings to a coal mine and abandoning them.Authorities were able to place Cook’s seven siblings with foster parents. Young Billy, though, suffered from a deformed right eye that never closed and a belligerent nature that often erupted into violence. As a result, Cook became a ward of the state. He initially grew up in monstrous orphanages where he suffered hideous sexual and physical abuse at the hands of both staffers and other children, the least of which was brandishing him with the nickname “Cockeyed Cook.”
Eventually, a foster mother took in Cook, but she proved to be so psychotic that, when he turned 12, Billy told a judge he’d prefer to just reside in a reformatory. The judge granted his wish, and Cook learned how to live as a criminal from the other residents — lessons he put to work almost immediately as a teenager.
By 17, Cook had committed so many offenses, authorities transferred him from reform school directly to the Missouri State Penitentiary. Once inside, he acquired a baseball bat and used it to severely assault fellow inmates.
Upon getting sprung from the pen in 1950, Cook briefly hooked up with his estranged father. Billy told the old man that his only intention now was to “live by the gun and roam.”
So, Cook then got his hands on a snub-nosed .32-caliber revolver and that’s exactly what did. He hitchhiked to Texas, robbing and assaulting those who picked him up before he crossed over into Oklahoma.
The killing spree commenced there on December 30. Illinois farmer Carl Mosser had been driving his family to New Mexico for a vacation when he made the tragic mistake of stopping to give Cook a lift.
For the next 72 hours, Cook forced Mosser to drive nonstop from Oklahoma to Texas to New Mexico, and then back to Texas, and finally to Winthrop, Arkansas.Growing fearful over passing police cars, Cook executed Carl Mosser, 33, along with his wife Thelma Mosser, 29, and their children, Ronald Mosser, 7, Gary Mosser, 5, and Pamela Sue Mosser, 3. He ditched the family’s bodies down a well in Winthrop.
From there, Cook drove the Mosser’s car to Tulsa, then took busses and thumbed rides to arrive in Blyth, California, on January 6, 1951, where he promptly overpowered a sheriff’s deputy and stole his patrol car.
En route to Mexico, Cook used the cop car to pull over Robert Dewey, 32. He immediately shot Dewey to death, and used his vehicle to go south of the border.
Cook then eluded the law for a week by kidnapping a pair of amateur prospectors and hiding out in the wild. The men later said they didn’t flee because they could never tell when Cook fell asleep, since “his right eye was always open.”
In the meantime, the Mosser family’s remains turned up, and America cried out for justice. Survivors of Cook’s rage came forward and connected him to the crime.
Various law-enforcement agencies enacted the highest-profile manhunt in history. TV, radio, magazines, and newspapers blanketed society with Cook’s picture and information.
So complete was the saturation messaging that when Cook dared to drop by the Mexican city of Santa Rosalita, the local police chief instantly recognized him. In a flash, then, the top cop grabbed Cook’s gun and overpowered the suspect.
“Hard Luck Billy” got a fast trip up north from there.
Initially, a judge tried Cook’s case in Oklahoma without a jury and sentenced him to 300 years. As that still allowed for some possibility of parole, the public demanded something more severe.
California prosecutors announced they could easily nail Cook for killing motorist Robert Dewey. The U.S. Department of Justice allowed for Cook to be transferred west for a new trial.
In November 1951, after 50 minutes of deliberation, the California jury found Cook guilty and sentenced him to death. Cook smiled upon hearing the verdict.
Cook’s lawyers spent the next year filing appeals. They all quickly got shot down. Just 11 days before turning 24, then, “Hard Luck Billy Cook” took his seat in the gas chamber and, reportedly, inhaled deeply.
Although Cook made no official statement, he remains remembered for his 1952 declaration upon being arrested:
“I hate everybody’s guts, and they hate mine.”
Since then, Cook has been overshadowed in Eisenhower-era heartland spree killer lore by Charles Starkweather, but he did provide the inspiration for director Ida Lupino’s top-notch 1953 noir thriller, The Hitch-Hiker.
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Main photo: Billy Cook [Missouri State Prison]