||January 4th, 2007|
by lyle e davis
Gunfighter! The word alone has magic.
We hear or see the word and immediately a vision comes into our mind. A deserted sun-baked street in a Western town. Horses dozing at hitching rails in front of suddenly quietened saloons.
Slowly, from opposite ends of the street, two hard-faced men in big hats and spurs approach each other, hands hovering over low-slung sixguns, eyes locked. One wears a badge, the other is an outlaw. The lawman, being the “good guy,” waits for the other to make his move, then beats him to the draw and guns him down. The timid townsmen rush from their hiding places praising the lawman for doing his job.
Only one thing is wrong with this picture; it rarely, if ever, happened.
First of all, and we hate to break this news to you, the Wild, Wild West seldom had quick draw contests.
The weapon of choice in many feuds was, in fact, the deadly shotgun.
The unglamorous but deadly efficient shotgun played a far more important role in the taming of the West than the writers of the “Draw, you varmint!” school of scribblers care to admit. Tough John Slaughter, Sheriff of Cochise County, Ariz., in the late ‘1880’s put a reporter from a New York newspaper straight on the matter in short order. Somehow the dude scribe got up the nerve to ask Slaughter why he carried a shotgun along with a Winchester 44-40 and a Colt 44 revolver on his manhunts. John’s hard black eyes narrowed in contempt. “To kill men with, you damned fool!” he snapped.
Which simple, cold fact explains why so many gunfighters on both sides of the law, packed the lethal scattergun as an essential tool of their dangerous trade. At long range, of course, there was no substitute for the rifle, so John Slaughter, Wyatt Earp and many others packed shotgun, Winchester and six-shooter. Earp preferred a double-barreled shotgun stuffed with buckshot when he had to face some hard-case gunman aiming to perforate his hide. The success of this tactic may be judged by the fact that cagey Wyatt died in bed at 83.
Lawman and outlaw, both equally imbued with nature’s first law – self-preservation – would have opened fire the instant he was within effective range. The so-called “Code of the West,” as described above, was probably an invention of dime-novel writers.
The great advantage of the shotgun to the average man was that with it he was equal – often superior – to the professional gunslinger. Shotguns fired by ordinary citizens broke up the James-Younger gang in the Northfield, Minn., bank robbery, and in Trinity City, Texas, John Wesley Hardin, who gunned down 44 men during his bloody career, came within inches of death by a scattergun in the hands of Phil Sublet. Hardin pulled through because of a heavy, gold-laden money belt that stopped most of the charge of buckshot, but he was out of action for several months.
Stagecoach guards carried sawed-off shotguns in addition to rifles and revolvers, and the phrase “riding shotgun” became an indelible part of Western vernacular and legend.”
There was this young lad, son of a Methodist minister and circuit rider, named John Wesley Hardin. Fairly well educated . . . might have become, like his father, a preacher. But such was not to be. John Wesley Hardin is probably the deadliest gunslinger to come out of the west with approximately 44 kills attributed to him.
Hardin killed his first man, a Negro who had offended him, in 1868 when Wes was 15. Hardin started a gory career with 44 killing. No man kills 44 fellow humans, no matter what the provocation, unless he enjoys killing. That gruesome fact does much to explain the spine-chilling enigma of Wes Hardin.
Eventually, the Texas Rangers brought him to justice where he was tried specifically for one of many murders, a Deputy Sheriff named Webb. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in the penitentiary at Huntsville.
Wes was pardoned by Gov. James Stephen Hogg on March 16, 1894, after serving 16 years and five months. Hardin’s wife had died while he was in prison and his children were being cared for by relatives. Hardin had studied law while in prison and had, in fact, passed the bar. He eventually opened a law office in El Paso, Texas, a bawdy border town on the Rio Grande, was the last outpost of the old-time wild Texas through which Hardin had shot a bloody trail years before. Hardin hung out his shingle as a lawyer but quickly learned that legal business was scarce for an ex-con who had learned his profession in prison. Soon he gave up his office and turned to the poker tables to make a living. He was still a topnotch gambler and plenty of suckers were ripe for the taking. He bought new clothes and boots and took to wearing his guns again.
On the night of August 19, 1895, Hardin entered the Acme Saloon and headed for the bar. Fifteen minutes passed. Hardin, his back turned carelessly to the door, was shaking dice for the drinks with a pal, Henry Brown. Old John Selman walked into the room. Selman jerked to a halt as he spotted his deadly enemy. For just a moment he froze, then drew and fired. Hardin jolted against the bar as if slammed by a giant fist, hung there a second, then slid to the floor across the brass rail, his face in the dirty sawdust. Blood, dripping from a head wound, bubbled from his last dying breath. Selman’s bullet had struck him in the back of the head, emerging from his left eye. The killer pumped 3 more bullets into Hardin, then backed into the night through the batwing doors. Nobody followed him.
Typical of the times was the cynical remark of one spectator: “I figure that if Selman shot Wes Hardin in the back of the head, he was a damn good citizen! If he shot him in the eye, he was a damn good marksman! Either way is O.K. far’s I’m concerned, just so long as the bastard’s dead.”
Robert Leroy Parker
There was also this young Mormon boy from Beaver, Utah. Cute little kid. Robert Leroy Parker. His parents were strict Mormons and he worked hard on their ranch over near Circleville, Utah. In time, cute little Bobby Leroy Parker would work at several other ranches. Even worked in a butcher shop in Rock Springs, Wyoming, for awhile. That’s where they gave him the nickname “Butch.” While working at a local dairy farm he had become friends with a horse and cattle rustler by the name of Mike Cassidy. Butch thought so much of Mike that, later in life, he would adopt Mike’s last name. And cute little Bobby Leroy Parker would become known as Butch Cassidy.
Harry A. Longabaugh
Harry Longabaugh made a huge mistake: he got caught stealing a horse in Sundance, Wyoming, and was thrown in jail. He might have lost his innocence, but he gained a name and a place in history. He became known as 'The Sundance Kid'.
He robbed a train in 1892 and a bank in 1897. Sundance became associated with a group known as the 'Wild Bunch' which included his famous partner Robert Leroy Parker, a.k.a. Butch Cassidy. By 1900, they held up the Winnemucca National Bank in Nevada and then headed for South America with their proceeds, all the while being pursued by Pinkertons. Before the Wild Bunch actually made their escape, they made a fatal mistake: they took a picture of themselves. Detectives later used this to help identify them.
Sundance and Butch Cassidy made their way to Argentina where they tried to live the life of peaceful farmers. However, for one reason or another, they turned back to their criminal ways sometime around 1905.
In 1908, they were seen escaping with a mule and money taken from a mining company's payroll in Bolivia. They were wounded in a gunfight with lawmen and eventually killed, some say by their own hand as a way to avoid capture and jail. However, their bodies were not physically identified and many still believed them to live after this encounter. In fact, the Pinkertons continued their search for many years.
Bob Dalton was probably the most handsome of outlaws (see photo below). Bob Dalton was a deputy marshal for the federal court in Kansas in Wichita, working out in the Osage Nation. He also served on several of his brother Frank's posses. While serving as head of the Osage police, Bob Dalton was accused of selling whiskey. Then in July of 1890 Bob, Grat, and Emmett were accused of stealing horses near Claremore I. T. (Indian Territory, known today as Oklahoma) and selling them in Kansas. With a posse hot on their trail, Bob and Emmett left the territories for California. In California the boys would join their brother Bill and events would soon have them fleeing the law again. On the night of February 6th, 1891, the Southern Pacific RR train was robbed at Alila, CA. The Dalton boys were accused. Once again Bob and Emmett were fleeing the state with a posse after them. Grat and Bill was arrested.
Bob and Emmett made their way back to the territories where they would rob the train at Wharton, I.T. in May of 1891. The gang made off with $1745 of the railroads money.
They would continue robbing banks until they decided to pull one last job, make enough money and leave the Indian Territory. They decided to rob two banks at the same time in Coffeyville, Kansas, their original home town, on Oct. 5, 1892. Unfortunately for them, they were recognized by the townspeople, who armed themselves and promptly shot up the gang . . . all but one of the Dalton Brothers, Emmet, being killed.
The Dalton Gang - all brothers,killed during a failed bank robbery in Coffeyville, Kansas
Wyatt Earp, a western name familiar to most tv fans, was a lawman . . . for part of his life. The blunt truth is that it was hard to distinguish the good gunfighters from the bad gunfighters, and decent hard-working citizens avoided both as they would a rattlesnake. One trait in particular marked the average lawman and the average outlaw: both were out for the fast easy buck, and neither had any repugnance at taking human life. The problem was, in those days it was difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
The truth is that Earp was a pretty shady character who often operated on both sides of the law. Wyatt was once arrested for horse stealing in Indian Territory (now known as Oklahoma), is pretty well documented as receiving kickbacks from brothels, saloons, and gambling halls that he was charged with protecting and overseeing. And, he made a pretty good penny at gambling, mostly faro.
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (March 19, 1848 – January 13, 1929), was a teamster, sometime buffalo hunter, officer of the law in various Western frontier towns, gambler, and saloon-keeper in the Wild West and the U.S. mining frontier from California to Alaska. He is best known for his participation in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, along with Doc Holliday, Virgil Earp, and Morgan Earp.
He was born in Monmouth, Illinois, lived for a time on a 160 acre family farm in Pella, Iowa, but moved west in 1864, via a wagon train. By late summer 1865, Wyatt and Virgil had found a common occupation as stagecoach drivers for Banning Stage Line in Banning, California.
On November 17, 1869, Wyatt was appointed constable in Lamar, Missouri, to which city he had recently moved. His law enforcement career had begun.
Charges of theft and misappropriation of funds followed Earp, even when he was the law. So, he’d move on.
Earp is listed in the city directory for Peoria, Illinois, during 1872 as living in the house of Jane Haspel, who operated a brothel from that location. In February 1872, Peoria police raided the Haspel brothel, arresting four women and three men. The three men were Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, and George Randall.
Later, Earp moved on to Wichita marshal's office on April 21, 1875. Then he moved on to Dodge City, Kansas, where he managed to finagle a job as assistant marshal. In December, 1879, Earp arrived in Tombstone, Arizona. His brother, Virgil, was deputy US Marshal in Tombstone so it was just a matter of time before Wyatt became a lawman, once again.
Came October of 1881 and the now famous gunfight at the OK Corral. An old, long story shortened, Wyatt and his pals were eventually found not guilty of murder and released. In 1882, Earp left the Arizona territory for good.
He would move to Gunnison, Colorado, where he opened a faro saloon and dealt faro. He also took up with a new woman, Josie Marcus, with whom he would return to Gunnison and live together for the next 46 years.
Earp spent the next decade running saloons and gambling concessions and investing in mines in Colorado and Idaho, with stops in various boom towns. In 1886 Earp and Josie moved to San Diego and stayed there about four years.
The Earps moved back to San Francisco during the 1890s so Josie could be closer to her family and Wyatt closer to his new job, managing a horse stable in Santa Rosa. Earp eventually moved to Hollywood, where he met several famous and soon to be famous actors on the sets of various movies. On the set of one movie, he met a young extra and prop man who would eventually become John Wayne. Wayne would later tell Hugh O'Brian that he based his image of the Western lawman on his conversations with Earp.
Wyatt died of chronic cystitis in 1929 at age 80.
James Butler Hickok
Consider Wild Bill Hickok, the so-called “Prince of Pistoleers.” Students of Western lore generally agree that Wild Bill got a cut from the sporting houses of Abilene, Kan., while town marshal there. How else could he have gambled heavily, drunk the best whiskey the town afforded and dressed in such fancy style? Certainly not on the $50 or so a month the town council paid him.
Hickok was a good man with a gun, but not consistent. In his celebrated duel with Dave Tutt in Springfield, Mo., in 1865, Wild Bill displayed the cool nerve and accurate marksmanship his legion of admirers claim was always his. Hickok killed Tutt at an estimated range of 75 yards; Bill on one side of the town square, Dave on the other. Tutt, tensed and nervous, drew first and got off four shots – all misses—before Bill, steadying his 1860 Army Colt with both hands, fired one shot that drilled Tutt dead center.
Black Jack Ketchum
Another of our gunslingers was a fella who if he didn’t have bad luck he’d have had no luck at all. Enter Black Jack Ketchum.
Jack started out life in a rough manner. His daddy died when he was only five years old. His mom went blind before she died when Jack was only 10. He was the youngest of eight kids, six boys and two girls.
He became a fairly successful outlaw, holding up trains. But, in the end, his bad luck prevailed. A shotgun blast to one of his arms resulted in an amputation; later, he was found guilty of ‘feloniously attacking a train,” and ordered to hang by a judge. (The verdict was later to be found unconstitutional but Jack’s luck still wasn’t the best. He was already dead). His hanging was to be held at Clayton, New Mexico. On the day of his hanging the local lawmen were selling tickets to watch his hanging. Stores closed, people came from miles around.
At his hanging an inexperienced hangman miscalculated the hanging procedure and Jack was decapitated while being hanged. The doctor pronounced him dead and then sewed his head back on. It was on April 16, 1901, that they hanged Black Jack Ketchum . . .1:13pm. And at 2:30pm, he was buried in Clayton’s Boot Hill.
The gunfighter era was an outgrowth of the Civil War. Some outlaws were spawned of the Civil War as were Quantrill's Raiders. Statistically, the average year of birth was 1853. The average year of death was 1895. About 1/3 of all gunmen died of "natural causes." Many gunmen did not die violently and lived a normal life span (70 years or so). Of those who did die violently (shot or executed), the average age of death was 35. The gunfighters-turned-lawmen lived longer lives than their persistently criminal counterparts (though many would drift back and forth from lawman to outlaw, then back again).
Most professional gunfighters died in states or territories where the most shootings occurred: Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, California, Missouri, and Colorado.
The "occupations" of the various gunmen were often those that used firearms in ordinary pursuits. They often carried firearms as a job requirement. There were 110 gunmen who were law officers, 75 who were cowboys, 54 as ranchers, 46 as farmers, 45 as rustlers, 35 as hired guns, but also men who had been soldiers, miners, scouts, teamsters, actors, butchers, bounty hunters, etc.
Gunfighting peaked in the 1870s: Six fights in TX and KS in 1870, 22 in 1871, 13 in 1872, 27 in 1873, 14 in 1874, 13 in 1875, 22 in 1876, 21 in 1877, 36 in 1878, 14 in 1879. In the 1880s: 25 in 1880, 27 in 1881, 15 in 1882, 9 in 1883, 17 in 1884, 7 each in 1885-6, 20 in 1887, 10 in 1888, and nine in 1889. 1895-96 were bad years, 19 fights in each, but then it began to taper off.