THE STORY OF THE OUTLAW
A STUDY OF THE WESTERN DESPERADO
WITH HISTORICAL NARRATIVES OF FAMOUS OUTLAWS; THE STORIES OF NOTED BORDER WARS; VIGILANTE MOVEMENTS AND ARMED CONFLICTS ON THE FRONTIER
BY EMERSON HOUGH
NEW YORK THE OUTING PUBLISHING COMPANY 1907
COPYRIGHT, 1905, BY THE CURTIS PUBLISHING COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1907, BY EMERSON HOUGH
Entered at Stationers' Hall, London, England
All Rights Reserved
THE OUTING PRESS DEPOSIT, N. Y.
The Story of the Outlaw
In offering this study of the American desperado, the author constitutes himself no apologist for the acts of any desperado; yet neither does he feel that apology is needed for the theme itself. The outlaw, the desperado—that somewhat distinct and easily recognizable figure generally known in the West as the "bad man"—is a character unique in our national history, and one whose like scarcely has been produced in any land other than this. It is not necessary to promote absurd and melodramatic impressions regarding a type properly to be called historic, and properly to be handled as such. The truth itself is thrilling enough, and difficult as that frequently has been of discovery, it is the truth which has been sought herein.
A thesis on the text of disregard for law might well be put to better use than to serve merely as exciting reading, fit to pass away an idle hour. It might, and indeed it may—if the reader so shall choose—offer a foundation for wider arguments than those suggested in these pages, which deal rather with premises than conclusions. The lesson of our dealings with our bad men of the past can teach us, if we like, the best method of dealing with our bad men to-day.
There are other lessons which we might take from an acquaintance with frontier methods of enforcing respect for the law; and the first of these is a practical method of handling criminals in the initial executive acts of the law. Never were American laws so strong as to-day, and never were our executive officers so weak. Our cities frequently are ridden with criminals or rioters. We set hundreds of policemen to restore order, but order is not restored. What is the average policeman as a criminal-taker? Cloddy and coarse of fiber, rarely with personal heredity of mental or bodily vigor, with no training at arms, with no sharp, incisive quality of nerve action, fat, unwieldy, unable to run a hundred yards and keep his breath, not skilled enough to kill his man even when he has him cornered, he is the archetype of all unseemliness as the agent of a law which to-day needs a sterner upholding than ever was the case in all our national life. We use this sort of tools in handling criminals, when each of us knows, or ought to know, that the city which would select twenty Western peace officers of the old type and set them to work without restrictions as to the size of their imminent graveyards, would free itself of criminals in three months' time, and would remain free so long as its methods remained in force.
As for the subject-matter of the following work, it may be stated that, while attention has been paid to the great and well-known instances and epochs of outlawry, many of the facts given have not previously found their way into print. The story of the Lincoln County War of the Southwest is given truthfully for the first time, and after full acquaintance with sources of information now inaccessible or passing away. The Stevens County War of Kansas, which took place, as it were, but yesterday and directly at our doors, has had no history but a garbled one; and as much might be said of many border encounters whose chief use heretofore has been to curdle the blood in penny-dreadfuls. Accuracy has been sought among the confusing statements purporting to constitute the record in such historic movements as those of the "vigilantes" of California and Montana mining days, and of the later cattle days when "wars" were common between thieves and outlaws, and the representatives of law and order,—themselves not always duly authenticated officers of the law.
No one man can have lived through the entire time of the American frontier; and any work of this kind must be in part a matter of compilation in so far as it refers to matters of the past. In all cases where practicable, however, the author has made up the records from stories of actual participants, survivors and eye-witnesses; and he is able in some measure to write of things and men personally known during twenty-five years of Western life. Captain Patrick F. Garrett, of New Mexico, central figure of the border fighting in that district in the early railroad days, has been of much service in extending the author's information on that region and time. Mr. Herbert M. Tonney, now of Illinois, tells his own story as a survivor of the typical county-seat war of Kansas, in which he was shot and left for dead. Many other men have offered valuable narratives.
In dealing with any subject of early American history, there is no authority more incontestable than Mr. Alexander Hynds, of Dandridge, Tennessee, whose acquaintance with singular and forgotten bits of early frontier history borders upon the unique in its way. Neither does better authority exist than Hon. N. P. Langford, of Minnesota, upon all matters having to do with life in the Rocky Mountain region in the decade of 1860-1870. He was an argonaut of the Rockies and a citizen of Montana and of other Western territories before the coming of the days of law. Free quotations are made from his graphic work, "Vigilante Days and Ways," which is both interesting of itself and valuable as a historical record.
The stories of modern train-robbing bandits and outlaw gangs are taken partly from personal narratives, partly from judicial records, and partly from works frequently more sensational than accurate, and requiring much sifting and verifying in detail. Naturally, very many volumes of Western history and adventure have been consulted. Much of this labor has been one of love for the days and places concerned, which exist no longer as they once did. The total result, it is hoped, will aid in telling at least a portion of the story of the vivid and significant life of the West, and of that frontier whose van, if ever marked by human lawlessness, has, none the less, ever been led by the banner of human liberty. May that banner still wave to-day, and though blood be again the price, may it never permanently be replaced by that of license and injustice in our America.
I THE DESPERADO 1
II THE IMITATION DESPERADO 14
III THE LAND OF THE DESPERADO 22
IV THE EARLY OUTLAW 35
V THE VIGILANTES OF CALIFORNIA 74
VI THE OUTLAW OF THE MOUNTAINS 98
VII HENRY PLUMMER 105
VIII BOONE HELM 127
IX DEATH SCENES OF DESPERADOES 137
X JOSEPH A. SLADE 145
XI THE DESPERADO OF THE PLAINS 154
XII WILD BILL HICKOK 167
XIII FRONTIER WARS 187
XIV THE LINCOLN COUNTY WAR 196
XV THE STEVENS COUNTY WAR 227
XVI BIOGRAPHIES OF BAD MEN 256
XVII THE FIGHT OF BUCKSHOT ROBERTS 284
XVIII THE MAN HUNT 292
XIX BAD MEN OF TEXAS 313
XX MODERN BAD MEN 340
XXI BAD MEN OF THE INDIAN NATIONS 371
XXII DESPERADOES OF THE CITIES 393
Plummer's Men Holding Up the Bannack Stage (Frontispiece)
The Scene of Many Little Wars 12
Types of Border Barricades 36
The Scene of Many Hangings 138
How the Rustler Worked 164
Wild Bill Hickok's Desperate Fight 172
John Simpson Chisum 198
Men Prominent in the Lincoln County War 218
The "Women in the Case" 222
The McSween Store and Bank 240
Billy the Kid 258
"The Next Instant He Fired and Shot Ollinger Dead" 272
Pat F. Garrett 294
A Typical Western Man-Hunt 302
The Old Chisum Ranch 330
The Old Fritz Ranch 358
A Border Fortress 358
The Desperado—Analysis of His Make-up—How the Desperado Got to Be Bad and Why—Some Men Naturally Skillful with Weapons—Typical Desperadoes.
Energy and action may be of two sorts, good or bad; this being as well as we can phrase it in human affairs. The live wires that net our streets are more dangerous than all the bad men the country ever knew, but we call electricity on the whole good in its action. We lay it under law, but sometimes it breaks out and has its own way. These outbreaks will occur until the end of time, in live wires and vital men. Each land in the world produces its own men individually bad—and, in time, other bad men who kill them for the general good.
There are bad Chinamen, bad Filipinos, bad Mexicans, and Indians, and negroes, and bad white men. The white bad man is the worst bad man of the world, and the prize-taking bad man of the lot is the Western white bad man. Turn the white man loose in a land free of restraint—such as was always that Golden Fleece land, vague, shifting and transitory, known as the American West—and he simply reverts to the ways of Teutonic and Gothic forests. The civilized empire of the West has grown in spite of this, because of that other strange germ, the love of law, anciently implanted in the soul of the Anglo-Saxon. That there was little difference between the bad man and the good man who went out after him was frequently demonstrated in the early roaring days of the West. The religion of progress and civilization meant very little to the Western town marshal, who sometimes, or often, was a peace officer chiefly because he was a good fighting man.
We band together and "elect" political representatives who do not represent us at all. We "elect" executive officers who execute nothing but their own wishes. We pay innumerable policemen to take from our shoulders the burden of self-protection; and the policemen do not do this thing. Back of all the law is the undelegated personal right, that vague thing which, none the less, is recognized in all the laws and charters of the world; as England and France of old, and Russia to-day, may show. This undelegated personal right is in each of us, or ought to be. If there is in you no hot blood to break into flame and set you arbiter for yourself in some sharp, crucial moment, then God pity you, for no woman ever loved you if she could find anything else to love, and you are fit neither as man nor citizen.
As the individual retains an undelegated right, so does the body social. We employ politicians, but at heart most of us despise politicians and love fighting men. Society and law are not absolutely wise nor absolutely right, but only as a compromise relatively wise and right. The bad man, so called, may have been in large part relatively bad. This much we may say scientifically, and without the slightest cheapness. It does not mean that we shall waste any maudlin sentiment over a desperado; and certainly it does not mean that we shall have anything but contempt for the pretender at desperadoism.
Who and what was the bad man? Scientifically and historically he was even as you and I. Whence did he come? From any and all places. What did he look like? He came in all sorts and shapes, all colors and sizes—just as cowards do. As to knowing him, the only way was by trying him. His reputation, true or false, just or unjust, became, of course, the herald of the bad man in due time. The "killer" of a Western town might be known throughout the state or in several states. His reputation might long outlast that of able statesmen and public benefactors.
What distinguished the bad man in peculiarity from his fellowman? Why was he better with weapons? What is courage, in the last analysis? We ought to be able to answer these questions in a purely scientific way. We have machines for photographing relative quickness of thought and muscular action. We are able to record the varying speeds of impulse transmission in the nerves of different individuals. If you were picking out a bad man, would you select one who, on the machine, showed a dilatory nerve response? Hardly. The relative fitness for a man to be "bad," to become extraordinarily quick and skillful with weapons, could, without doubt, be predetermined largely by these scientific measurements. Of course, having no thought-machines in the early West, they got at the matter by experimenting, and so, very often, by a graveyard route. You could not always stop to feel the pulse of a suspected killer.
The use of firearms with swiftness and accuracy was necessary in the calling of the desperado, after fate had marked him and set him apart for the inevitable, though possibly long-deferred, end. This skill with weapons was a natural gift in the case of nearly every man who attained great reputation whether as killer of victims or as killer of killers. Practice assisted in proficiency, but a Wild Bill or a Slade or a Billy the Kid was born and not made.
Quickness in nerve action is usually backed with good digestion, and hard life in the open is good medicine for the latter. This, however, does not wholly cover the case. A slow man also might be a brave man. Sooner or later, if he went into the desperado business on either side of the game, he would fall before the man who was brave as himself and a fraction faster with the gun.
There were unknown numbers of potential bad men who died mute and inglorious after a life spent at a desk or a plow. They might have been bad if matters had shaped right for that. Each war brings out its own heroes from unsuspected places; each sudden emergency summons its own fit man. Say that a man took to the use of weapons, and found himself arbiter of life and death with lesser animals, and able to grant them either at a distance. He went on, pleased with his growing skill with firearms. He discovered that as the sword had in one age of the world lengthened the human arm, so did the six-shooter—that epochal instrument, invented at precisely that time of the American life when the human arm needed lengthening—extend and strengthen his arm, and make him and all men equal. The user of weapons felt his powers increased. So now, in time, there came to him a moment of danger. There was his enemy. There was the affront, the challenge. Perhaps it was male against male, a matter of sex, prolific always in bloodshed. It might be a matter of property, or perhaps it was some taunt as to his own personal courage. Perhaps alcohol came into the question, as was often the case. For one reason or the other, it came to the ordeal of combat. It was the undelegated right of one individual against that of another. The law was not invoked—the law would not serve. Even as the quicker set of nerves flashed into action, the arm shot forward, and there smote the point of flame as did once the point of steel. The victim fell, his own weapon clutched in his hand, a fraction too late. The law cleared the killer. It was "self-defense." "It was an even break," his fellowmen said; although thereafter they were more reticent with him and sought him out less frequently.
"It was an even break," said the killer to himself—"an even break, him or me." But, perhaps, the repetition of this did not serve to blot out a certain mental picture. I have had a bad man tell me that he killed his second man to get rid of the mental image of his first victim.
But this exigency might arise again; indeed, most frequently did arise. Again the embryo bad man was the quicker. His self-approbation now, perhaps, began to grow. This was the crucial time of his life. He might go on now and become a bad man, or he might cheapen and become an imitation desperado. In either event, his third man left him still more confident. His courage and his skill in weapons gave him assuredness and ease at the time of an encounter. He was now becoming a specialist. Time did the rest, until at length they buried him.
The bad man of genuine sort rarely looked the part assigned to him in the popular imagination. The long-haired blusterer, adorned with a dialect that never was spoken, serves very well in fiction about the West, but that is not the real thing. The most dangerous man was apt to be quiet and smooth-spoken. When an antagonist blustered and threatened, the most dangerous man only felt rising in his own soul, keen and stern, that strange exultation which often comes with combat for the man naturally brave. A Western officer of established reputation once said to me, while speaking of a recent personal difficulty into which he had been forced: "I hadn't been in anything of that sort for years, and I wished I was out of it. Then I said to myself, 'Is it true that you are getting old—have you lost your nerve?' Then all at once the old feeling came over me, and I was just like I used to be. I felt calm and happy, and I laughed after that. I jerked my gun and shoved it into his stomach. He put up his hands and apologized. 'I will give you a hundred dollars now,' he said, 'if you will tell me where you got that gun.' I suppose I was a trifle quick for him."
The virtue of the "drop" was eminently respected among bad men. Sometimes, however, men were killed in the last desperate conviction that no man on earth was as quick as they. What came near being an incident of that kind was related by a noted Western sheriff.
"Down on the edge of the Pecos valley," said he, "a dozen miles below old Fort Sumner, there used to be a little saloon, and I once captured a man there. He came in from somewhere east of our territory, and was wanted for murder. The reward offered for him was twelve hundred dollars. Since he was a stranger, none of us knew him, but the sheriff's descriptions sent in said he had a freckled face, small hands, and a red spot in one eye. I heard that there was a new saloon-keeper in there, and thought he might be the man, so I took a deputy and went down one day to see about it.
"I told my deputy not to shoot until he saw me go after my gun. I didn't want to hold the man up unless he was the right one, and I wanted to be sure about that identification mark in the eye. Now, when a bartender is waiting on you, he will never look you in the face until just as you raise your glass to drink. I told my deputy that we would order a couple of drinks, and so get a chance to look this fellow in the eye. When he looked up, I did look him in the eye, and there was the red spot!
"I dropped my glass and jerked my gun and covered him, but he just wouldn't put up his hands for a while. I didn't want to kill him, but I thought I surely would have to. He kept both of his hands resting on the bar, and I knew he had a gun within three feet of him somewhere. At last slowly he gave in. I treated him well, as I always did a prisoner, told him we would square it if we had made any mistake. We put irons on him and started for Las Vegas with him in a wagon. The next morning, out on the trail, he confessed everything to me. We turned him over, and later he was tried and hung. I always considered him to be a pretty bad man. So far as the result was concerned, he might about as well have gone after his gun. I certainly thought that was what he was going to do. He had sand. I could just see him stand there and balance the chances in his mind.
"Another of the nerviest men I ever ran up against," the same officer went on, reflectively, "I met when I was sheriff of Dona Ana county, New Mexico. I was in Las Cruces, when there came in a sheriff from over in the Indian Nations looking for a fugitive who had broken out of a penitentiary after killing a guard and another man or so. This sheriff told me that the criminal in question was the most desperate man he had ever known, and that no matter how we came on him, he would put up a fight and we would have to kill him before we could take him. We located our man, who was cooking on a ranch six or eight miles out of town. I told the sheriff to stay in town, because the man would know him and would not know us. I had a Mexican deputy along with me.
"I put out my deputy on one side of the house and went in. I found my man just wiping his hands on a towel after washing his dishes. I threw down on him, and he answered by smashing me in the face, and then jumping through the window like a squirrel. I caught at him and tore the shirt off his back, but I didn't stop him. Then I ran out of the door and caught him on the porch. I did not want to kill him, so I struck him over the head with the handcuffs I had ready for him. He dropped, but came up like a flash, and struck me so hard with his fist that I was badly jarred. We fought hammer and tongs for a while, but at length he broke away, sprang through the door, and ran down the hall. He was going to his room after his gun. At that moment my Mexican came in, and having no sentiment about it, just whaled away and shot him in the back, killing him on the spot. The doctors said when they examined this man's body that he was the most perfect physical specimen they had ever seen. I can testify that he was a fighter. The sheriff offered me the reward, but I wouldn't take any of it. I told him that I would be over in his country some time, and that I was sure he would do as much for me if I needed his help. I hope that if I do have to go after his particular sort of bad people, I'll be lucky in getting the first start on my man. That man was as desperate a fighter as I ever saw or expect to see. Give a man of that stripe any kind of a show and he's going to kill you, that's all. He knows that he has no chance under the law.
"Sometimes they got away with desperate chances, too, as many a peace officer has learned to his cost. The only way to go after such a man is to go prepared, and then to give him no earthly show to get the best of you. I don't mean that an officer ought to shoot down a man if he has a show to take his prisoner alive; but I do mean that he ought to remember that he may be pitted against a man who is just as brave as he is, and just as good with a gun, and who is fighting for his life."
Of course, such a man as this, whether confronted by an officer of the law or by another man against whom he has a personal grudge, or who has in any way challenged him to the ordeal of weapons, was steadfast in his own belief that he was as brave as any, and as quick with weapons. Thus, until at length he met his master in the law of human progress and civilization, he simply added to his own list of victims, or was added to the list of another of his own sort. For a very long time, moreover, there existed a great region on the frontier where the law could not protect. There was good reason, therefore, for a man's learning to depend upon his own courage and strength and skill. He had nothing else to protect him, whether he was good or bad. In the typical days of the Western bad man, life was the property of the individual, and not of society, and one man placed his life against another's as the only way of solving hard personal problems. Those days and those conditions brought out some of the boldest and most reckless men the earth ever saw. Before we freely criticize them, we ought fully to understand them.
The Imitation Desperado—The Cheap "Long-Hair"—A Desperado in Appearance, a Coward at Heart—Some Desperadoes Who Did Not "Stand the Acid."
The counterfeit bad man, in so far as he has a place in literature, was largely produced by Western consumptives for Eastern consumption. Sometimes he was in person manufactured in the East and sent West. It is easy to see the philosophical difference between the actual bad man of the West and the imitation article. The bad man was an evolution; the imitation bad man was an instantaneous creation, a supply arising full panoplied to fill a popular demand. Silently there arose, partly in the West and partly in the East, men who gravely and calmly proceeded to look the part. After looking the part for a time, to their own satisfaction at least, and after taking themselves seriously as befitted the situation, they, in very many instances, faded away and disappeared in that Nowhere whence they came. Some of them took themselves too seriously for their own good. Of course, there existed for some years certain possibilities that any one of these bad men might run against the real thing.
There always existed in the real, sober, level-headed West a contempt for the West-struck man who was not really bad, but who wanted to seem "bad." Singularly enough, men of this type were not so frequently local products as immigrants. The "bootblack bad man" was a character recognized on the frontier—the city tough gone West with ambitions to achieve a bad eminence. Some of these men were partially bad for a while. Some of them, no doubt, even left behind them, after their sudden funerals, the impression that they had been wholly bad. You cannot detect all the counterfeit currency in the world, severe as the test for counterfeits was in the old West. There is, of course, no great amount of difference between the West and the East. All America, as well as the West, demanded of its citizens nothing so much as genuineness. Yet the Western phrase, to "stand the acid," was not surpassed in graphic descriptiveness. When an imitation bad man came into a town of the old frontier, he had to "stand the acid" or get out. His hand would be called by some one. "My friend," said old Bob Bobo, the famous Mississippi bear hunter, to a man who was doing some pretty loud talking, "I have always noticed that when a man goes out hunting for trouble in these bottoms, he almost always finds it." Two weeks later, this same loud talker threatened a calm man in simple jeans pants, who took a shotgun and slew him impulsively. Now, the West got its hot blood largely from the South, and the dogma of the Southern town was the same in the Western mining town or cow camp—the bad man or the would-be bad man had to declare himself before long, and the acid bottle was always close at hand.
That there were grades in counterfeit bad men was accepted as a truth on the frontier. A man might be known as dangerous, as a murderer at heart, and yet be despised. The imitation bad man discovered that it is comparatively easy to terrify a good part of the population of a community. Sometimes a base imitation of a desperado is exalted in the public eye as the real article. A few years ago four misled hoodlums of Chicago held up a street-car barn, killed two men, stole a sum of money, killed a policeman and another man, and took refuge in a dugout in the sand hills below the city, comporting themselves according to the most accepted dime-novel standards. Clumsily arrested by one hundred men or so, instead of being tidily killed by three or four, as would have been the case on the frontier, they were put in jail, given columns of newspaper notice, and worshiped by large crowds of maudlin individuals. These men probably died in the belief that they were "bad." They were not bad men, but imitations, counterfeit, and, indeed, nothing more than cheap and dirty little murderers.
Of course, we all feel able to detect the mere notoriety hunter, who poses about in cheap pretentiousness; but now and then in the West there turned up something more difficult to understand. Perhaps the most typical case of imitation bad man ever known, at least in the Southwest, was Bob Ollinger, who was killed by Billy the Kid in 1881, when the latter escaped from jail at Lincoln, New Mexico. That Ollinger was a killer had been proved beyond the possibility of a doubt. He had no respect for human life, and those who knew him best knew that he was a murderer at heart. His reputation was gained otherwise than through the severe test of an "even break." Some say that he killed Chavez, a Mexican, as he offered his own hand in greeting. He killed another man, Hill, in a similarly treacherous way. Later, when, as a peace officer, he was with a deputy, Pierce, serving a warrant on one Jones, he pulled his gun and, without need or provocation, shot Jones through. The same bullet, passing through Jones's body, struck Pierce in the leg and left him a cripple for life. Again, Ollinger was out as a deputy with a noted sheriff in pursuit of a Mexican criminal, who had taken refuge in a ditch. Ollinger wanted only to get into a position where he could shoot the man, but his superior officer crawled alone up the ditch, and, rising suddenly, covered his man and ordered him to surrender. The Mexican threw down his gun and said that he would surrender to the sheriff, but that he was sure Ollinger would kill him. This fear was justified. "When I brought out the man," said the sheriff, "Ollinger came up on the run, with his cocked six-shooter in his hand. His long hair was flying behind him as he ran, and I never in my life saw so devilish a look on any human being's face. He simply wanted to shoot that Mexican, and he chased him around me until I had to tell him I would kill him if he did not stop." "Ollinger was a born murderer at heart," the sheriff added later. "I never slept out with him that I did not watch him. After I had more of a reputation, I think Ollinger would have been glad to kill me for the notoriety of it. I never gave him a chance to shoot me in the back or when I was asleep. Of course, you will understand that we had to use for deputies such material as we could get."
Ollinger was the sort of imitation desperado that looks the part. He wore his hair long and affected the ultra-Western dress, which to-day is despised in the West. He was one of the very few men at that time—twenty-five years ago—who carried a knife at his belt. When he was in such a town as Las Vegas or Sante Fe, he delighted to put on a buckskin shirt, spread his hair out on his shoulders, and to walk through the streets, picking his teeth with his knife, or once in a while throwing it in such a way that it would stick up in a tree or a board. He presented an eye-filling spectacle, and was indeed the ideal imitation bad man. This being the case, there may be interest in following out his life to its close, and in noting how the bearing of the bad man's title sometimes exacted a very high price of the claimant.
Ollinger, who had made many threats against Billy the Kid, was very cordially hated by the latter. Together with Deputy Bell, of White Oaks, Ollinger had been appointed to guard the Kid for two weeks previous to the execution of the death sentence which had been imposed upon the latter. The Kid did not want to harm Bell, but he dearly hated Ollinger, who never had lost an opportunity to taunt him. Watching his chance, the Kid at length killed both Bell and Ollinger, shooting the latter with Ollinger's own shotgun, with which Ollinger had often menaced his prisoner.
Other than these two men, the Kid and Ollinger, I know of no better types each of his own class. One was a genuine bad man, and the other was the genuine imitation of a bad man. They were really as far apart as the poles, and they are so held in the tradition of that bloody country to-day. Throughout the West there are two sorts of wolves—the coyote and the gray wolf. Either will kill, and both are lovers of blood. One is yellow at heart, and the other is game all the way through. In outward appearance both are wolves, and in appearance they sometimes grade toward each other so closely that it is hard to determine the species. The gray wolf is a warrior and is respected. The coyote is a sneak and a murderer, and his name is a term of reproach throughout the West.
The Land of the Desperado—The Frontier of the Old West—The Great Unsettled Regions—The Desperado of the Mountains—His Brother of the Plains—The Desperado of the Early Railroad Towns.
There was once a vast empire, almost unknown, west of the Missouri river. The white civilization of this continent was three hundred years in reaching it. We had won our independence and taken our place among the nations of the world before our hardiest men had learned anything whatever of this Western empire. We had bought this vast region and were paying for it before we knew what we had purchased. The wise men of the East, leading men in Congress, said that it would be criminal to add this territory to our already huge domain, because it could never be settled. It was not dreamed that civilization would ever really subdue it. Even much later, men as able as Daniel Webster deplored the attempt to extend our lines farther to the West, saying that these territories could not be States, that the East would suffer if we widened our West, and that the latter could never be of value to the union! So far as this great West was concerned, it was spurned and held in contempt, and it had full right to take itself as an outcast. Decreed to the wilderness forever, it could have been forgiven for running wild. Denominated as unfit for the occupation of the Eastern population, it might have been expected that it would gather to itself a population all its own.
It did gather such a population, and in part that population was a lawless one. The frontier, clear across to the Pacific, has at one time or another been lawless; but this was not always the fault of the men who occupied the frontier. The latter swept Westward with such unexampled swiftness that the machinery of the law could not always keep up with them. Where there are no courts, where each man is judge and jury for himself, protecting himself and his property by his own arm alone, there always have gathered also the lawless, those who do not wish the day of law to come, men who want license and not liberty, who wish crime and not lawfulness, who want to take what is not theirs and to enforce their own will in their own fashion.
"There are two states of society perhaps equally bad for the promotion of good morals and virtue—the densely populated city and the wilderness. In the former, a single individual loses his identity in the mass, and, being unnoticed, is without the view of the public, and can, to a certain extent, commit crimes with impunity. In the latter, the population is sparse and, the strong arm of the law not being extended, his crimes are in a measure unobserved, or, if so, frequently power is wanting to bring him to justice. Hence, both are the resort of desperadoes. In the early settlement of the West, the borders were infested with desperadoes flying from justice, suspected or convicted felons escaped from the grasp of the law, who sought safety. The counterfeiter and the robber there found a secure retreat or a new theater for crime."
The foregoing words were written in 1855 by a historian to whom the West of the trans-Missouri remained still a sealed book; but they cover very fitly the appeal of a wild and unknown land to a bold, a criminal, or an adventurous population. Of the trans-Missouri as we of to-day think of it, no one can write more accurately and understandingly than Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, who thus describes the land he knew and loved.[A]
[Footnote A: "The Wilderness Hunters." G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London.]
"Some distance beyond the Mississippi, stretching from Texas to North Dakota, and westward to the Rocky mountains, lies the plains country. This is a region of light rainfall, where the ground is clad with short grass, while cottonwood trees fringe the courses of the winding plains streams; streams that are alternately turbid torrents and mere dwindling threads of water. The great stretches of natural pasture are broken by gray sage-brush plains, and tracts of strangely shaped and colored Bad Lands; sun-scorched wastes in summer, and in winter arctic in their iron desolation. Beyond the plains rise the Rocky mountains, their flanks covered with coniferous woods; but the trees are small, and do not ordinarily grow very close together. Toward the north the forest becomes denser, and the peaks higher; and glaciers creep down toward the valleys from the fields of everlasting snow. The brooks are brawling, trout-filled torrents; the swift rivers roam over rapid and cataract, on their way to one or other of the two great oceans.
"Southwest of the Rockies evil and terrible deserts stretch for leagues and leagues, mere waterless wastes of sandy plain and barren mountain, broken here and there by narrow strips of fertile ground. Rain rarely falls, and there are no clouds to dim the brazen sun. The rivers run in deep canyons, or are swallowed by the burning sand; the smaller watercourses are dry throughout the greater part of the year.
"Beyond this desert region rise the sunny Sierras of California, with their flower-clad slopes and groves of giant trees; and north of them, along the coast, the rain-shrouded mountain chains of Oregon and Washington, matted with the towering growth of the mighty evergreen forest."
Such, then, was this Western land, so long the home of the out-dweller who foreran civilization, and who sometimes took matters of the law into his own hands. For purposes of convenience, we may classify him as the bad man of the mountains and the bad man of the plains; because he was usually found in and around the crude localities where raw resources in property were being developed; and because, previous to the advent of agriculture, the two vast wilderness resources were minerals and cattle. The mines of California and the Rockies; the cattle of the great plains—write the story of these and you have much of the story of Western desperadoism. For, in spite of the fact that the ideal desperado was one who did not rob or kill for gain, the most usual form of early desperadoism had to do with attempts at unlawfully acquiring another man's property.
The discovery of gold in California caused a flood of bold men, good and bad, to pour into that remote region from all corners of the earth. Books could be written, and have been written, on the days of terror in California, when the Vigilantes took the law into their own hands. There came the time later when the rich placers of Montana and other territories were pouring out a stream of gold rivaling that of the days of '49; and when a tide of restless and reckless characters, resigning or escaping from both armies in the Civil War, mingled with many others who heard also the imperious call of a land of gold, and rolled westward across the plains by every means of conveyance or locomotion then possible to man.
The next great days of the wild West were the cattle days, which also reached their height soon after the end of the great war, when the North was seeking new lands for its young men, and the Southwest was hunting an outlet for the cattle herds, which had enormously multiplied while their owners were off at the wars. The cattle country had been passed over unnoticed by the mining men for many years, and dismissed as the Great American Desert, as it had been named by the first explorers, who were almost as ignorant about the West as Daniel Webster himself. Into this once barren land, a vast region unsettled and without law, there now came pouring up the great herds of cattle from the South, in charge of men wild as the horned kine they drove. Here was another great wild land that drew, as a magnet, wild men from all parts of the country.
This last home of the bad man, the old cattle range, is covered by a passage from an earlier work:[B]
"The braiding of a hundred minor pathways, the Long Trail lay like a vast rope connecting the cattle country of the South with that of the North. Lying loose or coiling, it ran for more than two thousand miles along the eastern ridge of the Rocky mountains, sometimes close in at their feet, again hundreds of miles away across the hard table-lands or the well-flowered prairies. It traversed in a fair line the vast land of Texas, curled over the Indian Nations, over Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana, and bent in wide overlapping circles as far west as Utah and Nevada; as far east as Missouri, Iowa, Illinois; and as far north as the British possessions. Even to-day you may trace plainly its former course, from its faint beginnings in the lazy land of Mexico, the Ararat of the cattle range. It is distinct across Texas, and multifold still in the Indian lands. Its many intermingling paths still scar the iron surface of the Neutral Strip, and the plows have not buried all the old furrows in the plains of Kansas. Parts of the path still remain visible in the mountain lands of the far North. You may see the ribbons banding the hillsides to-day along the valley of the Stillwater, and along the Yellowstone and toward the source of the Missouri. The hoof marks are beyond the Musselshell, over the Bad Lands and the coulees and the flat prairies; and far up into the land of the long cold you may see, even to-day if you like, the shadow of that unparalleled pathway, the Long Trail of the cattle range. History has no other like it.
"This was really the dawning of the American cattle industry. The Long Trail now received a gradual but unmistakable extension, always to the north, and along the line of the intermingling of the products of the Spanish and the Anglo-Saxon civilizations. The thrust was always to the north. Chips and flakes of the great Southwestern herd began to be seen in the northern states. Meantime the Anglo-Saxon civilization was rolling swiftly toward the upper West. The Indians were being driven from the plains. A solid army was pressing behind the vanguard of soldier, scout and plainsman. The railroads were pushing out into a new and untracked empire. In 1871 over six hundred thousand cattle crossed the Red river for the Northern markets. Abilene, Newton, Wichita, Ellsworth, Great Bend, "Dodge," flared out into a swift and sometime evil blossoming. The Long Trail, which long ago had found the black corn lands of Illinois and Missouri, now crowded to the West, until it had reached Utah and Nevada, and penetrated every open park and mesa and valley of Colorado, and found all the high plains of Wyoming. Cheyenne and Laramie became common words now, and drovers spoke wisely of the dangers of the Platte as a year before they had mentioned those of the Red river or the Arkansas. Nor did the Trail pause in its irresistible push to the north until it had found the last of the five great trans-continental lines, far in the British provinces. The Long Trail of the cattle range was done. By magic the cattle industry had spread over the entire West."
[Footnote B: "The Story of the Cowboy," by E. Hough. D. Appleton & Co., New York.]
By magic, also, the cattle industry called to itself a population unique and peculiar. Here were great values to be handled and guarded. The cowboy appeared, summoned out of the shadows by the demand of evolution. With him appeared also the cattle thief, making his living on free beef, as he had once on the free buffalo of the plains. The immense domain of the West was filled with property held under no better or more obvious mark than the imprint of a hot iron on the hide. There were no fences. The owner might be a thousand miles away. The temptation to theft was continual and urgent. It seemed easy and natural to take a living from these great herds which no one seemed to own or to care for. The "rustler" of the range made his appearance, bold, hardy, unprincipled; and the story of his undoing by the law is precisely that of the finish of the robbers of the mines by the Vigilantes.
Now, too, came the days of transition, which have utterly changed all the West. The railroad sprang across this great middle country of the plains. The intent was to connect the two sides of this continent; but, incidentally, and more swiftly than was planned, there was builded a great midway empire on the plains, now one of the grandest portions of America.
This building of the trans-continental lines was a rude and dangerous work. It took out into the West mobs of hard characters, not afraid of hard work and hard living. These men would have a certain amount of money as wages, and would assuredly spend these wages as they made them; hence, the gambler followed the rough settlements at the "head of the rails." The murderer, the thief, the prostitute, the social outcast and the fleeing criminal went with the gamblers and the toughs. Those were the days when it was not polite to ask a man what his name had been back in the States. A very large percentage of this population was wild and lawless, and it impressed those who joined it instead of being altered and improved by them. There were no wilder days in the West than those of the early railroad building. Such towns as Newton, Kansas, where eleven men were killed in one night; Fort Dodge, where armed encounters among cowboys and gamblers, deputies and desperadoes, were too frequent to attract attention; Caldwell, on the Indian border; Hays City, Abilene, Ellsworth—any of a dozen cow camps, where the head of the rails caught the great northern cattle drives, furnished chapters lurid enough to take volumes in telling—indeed, perhaps, gave that stamp to the West which has been apparently so ineradicable.
These were flourishing times for the Western desperado, and he became famous, and, as it were, typical, at about this era. Perhaps this was due in part to the fact that the railroads carried with them the telegraph and the newspaper, so that records and reports were made of what had for many years gone unreported. Now, too, began the influx of transients, who saw the wild West hurriedly and wrote of it as a strange and dangerous country. The wild citizens of California and Montana in mining days passed almost unnoticed except in fiction. The wild men of the middle plains now began to have a record in facts, or partial facts, as brought to the notice of the reading public which was seeking news of the new lands. A strange and turbulent day now drew swiftly on.
The Early Outlaw—The Frontier of the Past Century—The Bad Man East of the Mississippi River—The Great Western Land-Pirate, John A. Murrell—The Greatest Slave Insurrection Ever Planned.
Before passing to the review of the more modern days of wild life on the Western frontier, we shall find it interesting to note a period less known, but quite as wild and desperate as any of later times. Indeed, we might also say that our own desperadoes could take lessons from their ancestors of the past generation who lived in the forests of the Mississippi valley.
Those were the days when the South was breaking over the Appalachians and exploring the middle and lower West. Adventurers were dropping down the old river roads and "traces" across Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, into Louisiana and Texas. The flatboat and keel-boat days of the great rivers were at their height, and the population was in large part transient, migratory, and bold; perhaps holding a larger per cent. of criminals than any Western population since could claim. There were no organized systems of common carriers, no accepted roads and highways. The great National Road, from Wheeling west across Ohio, paused midway of Indiana. Stretching for hundreds of miles in each direction was the wilderness, wherein man had always been obliged to fend for himself. And, as ever, the wilderness had its own wild deeds. Flatboats were halted and robbed; caravans of travelers were attacked; lonely wayfarers plodding on horseback were waylaid and murdered. In short, the story of that early day shows our first frontiersman no novice in crime.
About twenty miles below the mouth of the Wabash river, there was a resort of robbers such as might belong to the most lurid dime-novel list—the famous Cave-in-the-Rock, in the bank of the Ohio river. This cavern was about twenty-five feet in height at its visible opening, and it ran back into the bluff two hundred feet, with a width of eighty feet. The floor of this natural cavern was fairly flat, so that it could be used as a habitation. From this lower cave a sort of aperture led up to a second one, immediately above it in the bluff wall, and these two natural retreats of wild animals offered attractions to wild men which were not unaccepted. It was here that there dwelt for some time the famous robber Meason, or Mason, who terrorized the flatboat trade of the Ohio at about 1800. Meason was a robber king, a giant in stature, and a man of no ordinary brains. He had associated with him his two sons and a few other hard characters, who together made a band sufficiently strong to attack any party of the size usually making up the boat companies of that time, or the average family traveling, mounted or on foot, through the forest-covered country of the Ohio valley. Meason killed and pillaged pretty much as he liked for a term of years, but as travel became too general along the Ohio, he removed to the wilder country south of that stream, and began to operate on the old "Natchez and Nashville Trace," one of the roadways of the South at that time, when the Indian lands were just opening to the early settlers. Lower Tennessee and pretty much all of Mississippi made his stamping-grounds, and his name became a terror there, as it had been along the Ohio. The governor of the State of Mississippi offered a reward for his capture, dead or alive; but for a long time he escaped all efforts at apprehension. Treachery did the work, as it has usually in bringing such bold and dangerous men to book. Two members of his gang proved traitors to their chief. Seizing an opportunity they crept behind him and drove a tomahawk into his brain. They cut off the head and took it along as proof; but as they were displaying this at the seat of government, the town of Washington, they themselves were recognized and arrested, and were later tried and executed; which ended the Meason gang, one of the early and once famous desperado bands.
From the earliest days there have been border counterfeiters of coin. One of the first and most remarkable was the noted Sturdevant, who lived in lower Illinois, near the Ohio river, in the first quarter of the last century. Sturdevant was also something of a robber king, for he could at any time wind his horn and summon to his side a hundred armed men. He was ostensibly a steady farmer, and lived comfortably, with a good corps of servants and tenants about him; but his ablest assistants did not dwell so close to him. He had an army of confederates all over the middle West and South, and issued more counterfeit money than any man before, and probably than any man since. He always exacted a regular price for his money—sixteen dollars for a hundred in counterfeit—and such was the looseness of currency matters at that time that he found many willing to take a chance in his trade. He never allowed any confederate to pass a counterfeit bill in his own state, or in any other way to bring himself under the surveillance of local law; and they were all obliged to be especially circumspect in the county where they lived. He was a very smug sort of villain, in the trade strictly for revenue, and he was so careful that he was never caught by the law, in spite of the fact that it was known that his farm was the source of a flood of spurious money. He was finally "regulated" by the citizens, who arose and made him leave the country. This was one of the early applications of lynch law in the West. Its results were, as usual, salutary. There was no more counterfeiting in that region.
A very noted desperado of these early days was Harpe, or Big Harpe, as he was called, to distinguish him from his brother and associate, Little Harpe. Big Harpe made a wide region of the Ohio valley dangerous to travelers. The events connected with his vicious life are thus given by that always interesting old-time chronicler, Henry Howe:
"In the fall of the year 1801 or 1802, a company consisting of two men and three women arrived in Lincoln county, Ky., and encamped about a mile from the present town of Stanford. The appearance of the individuals composing this party was wild and rude in the extreme. The one who seemed to be the leader of the band was above the ordinary stature of men. His frame was bony and muscular, his breast broad, his limbs gigantic. His clothing was uncouth and shabby, his exterior weather-beaten and dirty, indicating continual exposure to the elements, and designating him as one who dwelt far from the habitations of men, and mingled not in the courtesies of civilized life. His countenance was bold and ferocious, and exceedingly repulsive, from its strongly marked expression of villainy. His face, which was larger than ordinary, exhibited the lines of ungovernable passion, and the complexion announced that the ordinary feelings of the human breast were in him extinguished. Instead of the healthy hue which indicates the social emotions, there was a livid, unnatural redness, resembling that of a dried and lifeless skin. His eye was fearless and steady, but it was also artful and audacious, glaring upon the beholder with an unpleasant fixedness and brilliancy, like that of a ravenous animal gloating on its prey. He wore no covering on his head, and the natural protection of thick, coarse hair, of a fiery redness, uncombed and matted, gave evidence of long exposure to the rudest visitations of the sunbeam and the tempest. He was armed with a rifle, and a broad leathern belt, drawn closely around his waist, supported a knife and a tomahawk. He seemed, in short, an outlaw, destitute of all the nobler sympathies of human nature, and prepared at all points of assault or defense. The other man was smaller in size than him who lead the party, but similarly armed, having the same suspicious exterior, and a countenance equally fierce and sinister. The females were coarse and wretchedly attired.
"These men stated in answer to the inquiry of the inhabitants, that their name was Harpe, and that they were emigrants from North Carolina. They remained at their encampment the greater part of two days and a night, spending the time in rioting, drunkenness and debauchery. When they left, they took the road leading to Green river. The day succeeding their departure, a report reached the neighborhood that a young gentleman of wealth from Virginia, named Lankford, had been robbed and murdered on what was then called and is still known as the "Wilderness Road," which runs through the Rock-castle hills. Suspicion immediately fixed upon the Harpes as the perpetrators, and Captain Ballenger at the head of a few bold and resolute men, started in pursuit. They experienced great difficulty in following their trail, owing to a heavy fall of snow, which obliterated most of their tracks, but finally came upon them while encamped in a bottom on Green river, near the spot where the town of Liberty now stands. At first they made a show of resistance, but upon being informed that if they did not immediately surrender, they would be shot down, they yielded themselves prisoners. They were brought back to Stanford, and there examined. Among their effects were found some fine linen shirts, marked with the initials of Lankford. One had been pierced by a bullet and was stained with blood. They had also a considerable sum of money in gold. It was afterward ascertained that this was the kind of money Lankford had with him. The evidence against them being thus conclusive, they were confined in the Stanford jail, but were afterward sent for trial to Danville, where the district court was in session. Here they broke jail, and succeeded in making their escape.
"They were next heard of in Adair county, near Columbia. In passing through the country, they met a small boy, the son of Colonel Trabue, with a pillow-case of meal or flour, an article they probably needed. This boy, it is supposed they robbed and then murdered, as he was never afterward heard of. Many years afterward human bones answering the size of Colonel Trabue's son at the time of his disappearance, were found in a sink hole near the place where he was said to have been murdered.
"The Harpes still shaped their course toward the mouth of Green river, marking their path by murders and robberies of the most horrible and brutal character. The district of country through which they passed was at that time very thinly settled, and from this reason, their outrages went unpunished. They seemed inspired with the deadliest hatred against the whole human race, and such was their implacable misanthropy, that they were known to kill where there was no temptation to rob. One of their victims was a little girl, found at some distance from her home, whose tender age and helplessness would have been protection against any but incarnate fiends. The last dreadful act of barbarity, which led to their punishment and expulsion from the country, exceeded in atrocity all the others.
"Assuming the guise of Methodist preachers, they obtained lodgings one night at a solitary house on the road. Mr. Stagall, the master of the house, was absent, but they found his wife and children, and a stranger, who, like themselves, had stopped for the night. Here they conversed and made inquiries about the two noted Harpes who were represented as prowling about the country. When they retired to rest, they contrived to secure an axe, which they carried with them into their chamber. In the dead of night, they crept softly down stairs, and assassinated the whole family, together with the stranger, in their sleep, and then setting fire to the house, made their escape. When Stagall returned, he found no wife to welcome him; no home to receive him. Distracted with grief and rage, he turned his horse's head from the smoldering ruins, and repaired to the house of Captain John Leeper. Leeper was one of the most powerful men in his day, and fearless as powerful. Collecting four or five men well armed, they mounted and started in pursuit of vengeance. It was agreed that Leeper should attack 'Big Harpe,' leaving 'Little Harpe' to be disposed of by Stagall. The others were to hold themselves in readiness to assist Leeper and Stagall, as circumstances might require.
"This party found the women belonging to the Harpes, attending to their little camp by the roadside; the men having gone aside into the woods to shoot an unfortunate traveler, of the name of Smith, who had fallen into their hands, and whom the women had begged might not be dispatched before their eyes. It was this halt that enabled the pursuers to overtake them. The women immediately gave the alarm, and the miscreants mounting their horses, which were large, fleet and powerful, fled in separate directions. Leeper singled out the 'Big Harpe,' and being better mounted than his companions, soon left them far behind. 'Little Harpe' succeeded in escaping from Stagall, and he, with the rest of his companions, turned and followed on the track of Leeper and the 'Big Harpe.' After a chase of about nine miles, Leeper came within gun-shot of the latter and fired. The ball entering his thigh, passed through it and penetrated his horse and both fell. Harpe's gun escaped from his hand and rolled some eight or ten feet down the bank. Reloading his rifle, Leeper ran to where the wounded outlaw lay weltering in his blood, and found him with one thigh broken, and the other crushed beneath his horse. Leeper rolled the horse away, and set Harpe in an easier position. The robber begged that he might not be killed. Leeper told him that he had nothing to fear from him, but that Stagall was coming up, and could not probably be restrained. Harpe appeared very much frightened at hearing this, and implored Leeper to protect him. In a few moments, Stagall appeared, and without uttering a word, raised his rifle and shot Harpe through the head. They then severed the head from the body, and stuck it upon a pole where the road crosses the creek, from which the place was then named and is yet called Harpe's Head. Thus perished one of the boldest and most noted freebooters that has ever appeared in America. Save courage, he was without one redeeming quality, and his death freed the country from a terror which had long paralyzed its boldest spirits.
"The 'Little Harpe' afterward joined the band of Meason, and became one of his most valuable assistants in the dreadful trade of robbery and murder. He was one of the two bandits that, tempted by the reward for their leader's head, murdered him, and eventually themselves suffered the penalty of the law as previously related."
Thus it would seem that the first quarter of the last century on the frontier was not without its own interest. The next decade, or that ending about 1840, however, offered a still greater instance of outlawry, one of the most famous ones indeed of American history, although little known to-day. This had to do with that genius in crime, John A. Murrell, long known as the great Western land-pirate; and surely no pirate of the seas was ever more enterprising or more dangerous.
Murrell was another man who, in a decent walk of life, would have been called great. He had more than ordinary energy and intellect. He was not a mere brute, but a shrewd, cunning, scheming man, hesitating at no crime on earth, yet animated by a mind so bold that mere personal crime was not enough for him. When it is added that he had a gang of robbers and murderers associated with him who were said to number nearly two thousand men, and who were scattered over the entire South below the Ohio river, it may be seen how bold were his plans; and his ability may further be shown in the fact that for years these men lived among and mingled with their fellows in civil life, unknown and unsuspected. Some of them were said to have been of the best families of the land; and even yet there come to light strange and romantic tales, perhaps not wholly true, of death-bed confessions of men prominent in the South who admitted that once they belonged to Murrell's gang, but had later repented and reformed. A prominent Kentucky lawyer was one of these.
Murrell and his confederates would steal horses and mules, or at least the common class, or division, known as the "strikers," would do so, although the members of the Grand Council would hardly stoop to so petty a crime. For them was reserved the murdering of travelers or settlers who were supposed to have money, and the larger operations of negro stealing.
The theft of slaves, the claiming of the runaway rewards, the later re-stealing and re-selling and final killing of the negro in order to destroy the evidence, are matters which Murrell reduced to a system that has no parallel in the criminal records of the country. But not even here did this daring outlaw pause. It was not enough to steal a negro here and there, and to make a few thousand dollars out of each negro so handled. The whole state of organized society was to be overthrown by means of this same black population. So at least goes one story of his life. We know of several so-called black insurrections that were planned at one time or another in the South—as, for instance, the Turner insurrection in Virginia; but this Murrell enterprise was the biggest of them all.
The plan was to have the uprising occur all over the South on the same day, Christmas of 1835. The blacks were to band together and march on the settlements, after killing all the whites on the farms where they worked. There they were to fall under the leadership of Murrell's lieutenants, who were to show them how to sack the stores, to kill the white merchants, and take the white women. The banks of all the Southern towns were to become the property of Murrell and his associates. In short, at one stroke, the entire system of government, which had been established after such hard effort in that fierce wilderness along the old Southern "traces," was to be wiped out absolutely. The land was indeed to be left without law. The entire fruits of organized society were to belong to a band of outlaws. This was probably the best and boldest instance ever seen of the narrowness of the line dividing society and savagery.
Murrell was finally brought to book by his supposed confederate, Virgil A. Stewart, the spy, who went under the name of Hues, whose evidence, after many difficulties, no doubt resulted in the breaking up of this, the largest and most dangerous band of outlaws this country ever saw; although Stewart himself was a vain and ambitious notoriety seeker. Supposing himself safe, Murrell gave Stewart a detailed story of his life. This was later used in evidence against him; and although Stewart's account needs qualification, it is the best and fullest record obtainable to-day.[C]
[Footnote C: "Life and Adventures of Virgil A. Stewart." Harper and Brothers, New York. 1836.]
"I was born in Middle Tennessee," Murrell personally stated. "My parents had not much property, but they were intelligent people; and my father was an honest man I expect, and tried to raise me honest, but I think none the better of him for that. My mother was of the pure grit; she learned me and all her children to steal as soon as we could walk and would hide for us whenever she could. At ten years old I was not a bad hand. The first good haul I made was from a pedler who lodged at my father's house one night.
"I began to look after larger spoils and ran several fine horses. By the time I was twenty I began to acquire considerable character, and concluded to go off and do my speculation where I was not known, and go on a larger scale; so I began to see the value of having friends in this business. I made several associates; I had been acquainted with some old hands for a long time, who had given me the names of some royal fellows between Nashville and Tuscaloosa, and between Nashville and Savannah in the state of Georgia and many other places. Myself and a fellow by the name of Crenshaw gathered four good horses and started for Georgia. We got in company with a young South Carolinian just before we reached Cumberland Mountain, and Crenshaw soon knew all about his business. He had been to Tennessee to buy a drove of hogs, but when he got there pork was dearer than he calculated, and he declined purchasing. We concluded he was a prize. Crenshaw winked at me; I understood his idea. Crenshaw had traveled the road before, but I never had; we had traveled several miles on the mountain, when we passed near a great precipice; just before we passed it, Crenshaw asked me for my whip, which had a pound of lead in the butt; I handed it to him, and he rode up by the side of the South Carolinian, and gave him a blow on the side of the head, and tumbled him from his horse; we lit from our horses and fingered his pockets; we got twelve hundred and sixty-two dollars. Crenshaw said he knew of a place to hide him, and gathered him under the arms, and I by his feet, and conveyed him to a deep crevice in the brow of the precipice, and tumbled him into it; he went out of sight. We then tumbled in his saddle, and took his horse with us, which was worth two hundred dollars. We turned our course for South Alabama, and sold our horse for a good price. We frolicked for a week or more and were the highest larks you ever saw. We commenced sporting and gambling, and lost every cent of our money.
"We were forced to resort to our profession for a second raise. We stole a negro man, and pushed for Mississippi. We had promised him that we would conduct him to a free state if he would let us sell him once as we went on our way; we also agreed to give him part of the money. We sold him for six hundred dollars; but, when we went to start, the negro seemed to be very uneasy, and appeared to doubt our coming back for him as we had promised. We lay in a creek bottom, not far from the place where we had sold the negro, all the next day, and after dark we went to the china-tree in the lane where we were to meet Tom; he had been waiting for some time. He mounted his horse, and we pushed with him a second time. We rode twenty miles that night to the house of a friendly speculator. I had seen him in Tennessee, and had given him several lifts. He gave me his place of residence, that I might find him when I was passing. He is quite rich, and one of the best kind of fellows. Our horses were fed as much as they would eat, and two of them were foundered the next morning. We were detained a few days, and during that time our friend went to a little village in the neighborhood, and saw the negro advertised, with a description of the two men of whom he had been purchased, and with mention of them as suspicious personages. It was rather squally times, but any port in a storm; we took the negro that night to the bank of a creek which runs by the farm of our friend, and Crenshaw shot him through the head. We took out his entrails and sunk him in the creek; our friend furnished us with one fine horse, and we left him our foundered horses. We made our way through the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, and then to Williamson county, in this state. We should have made a fine trip if we had taken care of all we got.
"I had become a considerable libertine, and when I returned home I spent a few months rioting in all the luxuries of forbidden pleasures with the girls of my acquaintance. My stock of cash was soon gone, and I put to my shift for more. I commenced with horses, and ran several from the adjoining counties. I had got associated with a young man who had professed to be a preacher among the Methodists, and a sharper he was; he was as slick on the tongue as goose-grease. I took my first lessons in divinity from this young preacher. He was highly respected by all who knew him, and well calculated to please; he first put me in the notion of preaching, to aid me in my speculations.
"I got into difficulty about a mare that I had taken, and was imprisoned for near three years. I shifted it from court to court, but was at last found guilty, and whipped. During my confinement I read the scriptures, and became a good judge of theology. I had not neglected the criminal laws for many years before that time. When they turned me loose I was prepared for anything; I wanted to kill all but those of my own grit; and I will die by the side of one of them before I will desert.
"My next speculation was in the Choctaw region; myself and brother stole two fine horses, and made our way into this country. We got in with an old negro man and his wife, and three sons, to go off with us to Texas, and promised them that, if they would work for us one year after we got there, we would let them go free, and told them many fine stories. The old negro became suspicious that we were going to sell him, and grew quite contrary; so we landed one day by the side of an island, and I requested him to go with me round the point of the island to hunt a good place to catch some fish. After we were hidden from our company I shot him through the head, and then ripped open his belly and tumbled him into the river. I returned to my company, and told them that the negro had fallen into the river, and that he never came up after he went under. We landed fifty miles above New Orleans, and went into the country and sold our negroes to a Frenchman for nineteen hundred dollars.
"We went from where we sold the negroes to New Orleans, and dressed ourselves like young lords. I mixed with the loose characters at the swamp every night. One night, as I was returning to the tavern where I boarded, I was stopped by two armed men, who demanded my money. I handed them my pocketbook, and observed that I was very happy to meet with them, as we were all of the same profession. One of them observed, 'D—d if I ever rob a brother chip. We have had our eyes on you and the man that has generally come with you for several nights; we saw so much rigging and glittering jewelry, that we concluded you must be some wealthy dandy, with a surplus of cash; and had determined to rid you of the trouble of some of it; but, if you are a robber, here is your pocketbook, and you must go with us to-night, and we will give you an introduction to several fine fellows of the block; but stop, do you understand this motion?' I answered it, and thanked them for their kindness, and turned with them. We went to old Mother Surgick's, and had a real frolic with her girls. That night was the commencement of my greatness in what the world calls villainy. The two fellows who robbed me were named Haines and Phelps; they made me known to all the speculators that visited New Orleans, and gave me the name of every fellow who would speculate that lived on the Mississippi river, and many of its tributary streams, from New Orleans up to all the large Western cities.
"I had become acquainted with a Kentuckian, who boarded at the same tavern I did, and I suspected he had a large sum of money; I felt an inclination to count it for him before I left the city; so I made my notions known to Phelps and my other new comrades, and concerted our plan. I was to get him off to the swamp with me on a spree, and when we were returning to our lodgings, my friends were to meet us and rob us both. I had got very intimate with the Kentuckian, and he thought me one of the best fellows in the world. He was very fond of wine; and I had him well fumed with good wine before I made the proposition for a frolic. When I invited him to walk with me he readily accepted the invitation. We cut a few shines with the girls, and started to the tavern. We were met by a band of robbers, and robbed of all our money. The Kentuckian was so mad that he cursed the whole city, and wished that it would all be deluged in a flood of water so soon as he left the place. I went to my friends the next morning, and got my share of the spoil money, and my pocketbook that I had been robbed of. We got seven hundred and fifty dollars of the bold Kentuckian, which was divided among thirteen of us.
"I commenced traveling and making all the acquaintances among the speculators that I could. I went from New Orleans to Cincinnati, and from there I visited Lexington, in Kentucky. I found a speculator about four miles from Newport, who furnished me with a fine horse the second night after I arrived at his house. I went from Lexington to Richmond, in Virginia, and from there I visited Charleston, in the State of South Carolina; and from thence to Milledgeville, by the way of Savannah and Augusta, in the State of Georgia. I made my way from Milledgeville to Williamson county, the old stamping-ground. In all the route I only robbed eleven men but I preached some fine sermons, and scattered some counterfeit United States paper among my brethren.
* * * * *
"After I returned home from the first grand circuit I made among my speculators, I remained there but a short time, as I could not rest when my mind was not actively engaged in some speculation. I commenced the foundation of this mystic clan on that tour, and suggested the plan of exciting a rebellion among the negroes, as the sure road to an inexhaustible fortune to all who would engage in the expedition. The first mystic sign which is used by this clan was in use among robbers before I was born; and the second had its origin from myself, Phelps, Haines, Cooper, Doris, Bolton, Harris, Doddridge, Celly, Morris, Walton, Depont, and one of my brothers, on the second night after my acquaintance with them in New Orleans. We needed a higher order to carry on our designs, and we adopted our sign, and called it the sign of the Grand Council of the Mystic Clan; and practised ourselves to give and receive the new sign to a fraction before we parted; and, in addition to this improvement, we invented and formed a mode of corresponding, by means of ten characters, mixed with other matter, which has been very convenient on many occasions, and especially when any of us get into difficulties. I was encouraged in my new undertaking, and my heart began to beat high with the hope of being able one day to visit the pomp of the Southern and Western people in my vengeance; and of seeing their cities and towns one common scene of devastation, smoked walls and fragments.
"I decoyed a negro man from his master in Middle Tennessee, and sent him to Mill's Point by a young man, and I waited to see the movements of the owner. He thought his negro had run off. So I started to take possession of my prize. I got another friend at Mill's Point to take my negro in a skiff, and convey him to the mouth of Red river, while I took passage on a steamboat. I then went through the country by land, and sold my negro for nine hundred dollars, and the second night after I sold him I stole him again, and my friend ran him to the Irish bayou in Texas; I followed on after him, and sold my negro in Texas for five hundred dollars. I then resolved to visit South America, and see if there was an opening in that country for a speculation; I had also concluded that I could get some strong friends in that quarter to aid me in my designs relative to a negro rebellion; but of all people in the world, the Spaniards are the most treacherous and cowardly; I never want them concerned in any matter with me; I had rather take the negroes in this country to fight than a Spaniard. I stopped in a village, and passed as a doctor, and commenced practising medicine. I could ape the doctor first-rate, having read Ewel, and several other works on primitive medicine. I became a great favorite of an old Catholic; he adopted me as his son in the faith, and introduced me to all the best families as a young doctor from North America. I had been with the old Catholic but a very short time before I was a great Roman Catholic, and bowed to the cross, and attended regularly to all the ceremonies of that persuasion; and, to tell you the fact, Hues, all the Catholic religion needs to be universally received, is to be correctly represented; but you know I care nothing for religion. I had been with the old Catholic about three months, and was getting a heavy practice, when an opportunity offered for me to rob the good man's secretary of nine hundred and sixty dollars in gold, and I could have got as much more in silver if I could have carried it. I was soon on the road for home again; I stopped three weeks in New Orleans as I came home, and had some high fun with old Mother Surgick's girls.
"I collected all my associates in New Orleans at one of my friend's houses in that place, and we sat in council three days before we got all our plans to our notion; we then determined to undertake the rebellion at every hazard, and make as many friends as we could for that purpose. Every man's business being assigned him, I started for Natchez on foot. Having sold my horse in New Orleans with the intention of stealing another after I started, I walked four days, and no opportunity offered for me to get a horse. The fifth day, about twelve o'clock, I had become very tired, and stopped at a creek to get some water and rest a little. While I was sitting on a log, looking down the road I had come, a man came in sight riding a good-looking horse. The very moment I saw him I determined to have his horse if he was in the garb of a traveler. He rode up, and I saw from his equipage that he was a traveler. I arose from my seat and drew an elegant rifle pistol on him, and ordered him to dismount. He did so, and I took his horse by the bridle, and pointed down the creek, and ordered him to walk before me. We went a few hundred yards and stopped. I hitched his horse, then made him undress himself, all to his shirt and drawers, and ordered him to turn his back to me. He asked me if I was going to shoot him. I ordered him the second time to turn his back to me. He said, 'If you are determined to kill me, let me have time to pray before I die.' I told him I had no time to hear him pray. He turned round and dropped on his knees, and I shot him through the back of the head. I ripped open his belly, and took out his entrails, and sunk him in the creek. I then searched his pockets, and found four hundred and one dollars and thirty-seven cents, and a number of papers that I did not take time to examine. I sunk the pocketbook and papers and his hat in the creek. His boots were brand new, and fitted me very genteelly, and I put them on, and sunk my old shoes in the creek to atone for them. I rolled up his clothes and put them into his portmanteau, as they were quite new cloth of the best quality. I mounted as fine a horse as ever I straddled, and directed my course to Natchez in much better style than I had been for the last five days.
"I reached Natchez, and spent two days with my friends at that place and the girls under the Hill together. I then left Natchez for the Choctaw nation, with the intention of giving some of them a chance for their property. As I was riding along between Benton and Rankin, planning for my designs, I was overtaken by a tall and good-looking young man, riding an elegant horse, which was splendidly rigged off; and the young gentleman's apparel was of the gayest that could be had, and his watch-chain and other jewelry were of the richest and best. I was anxious to know if he intended to travel through the Choctaw nation, and soon managed to learn. He said he had been to the lower country with a drove of negroes, and was returning home to Kentucky. We rode on, and soon got very intimate for strangers, and agreed to be company through the Indian nation. We were two fine-looking men, and, to hear us talk, we were very rich. I felt him on the subject of speculation, but he cursed the speculators, and said he was in a bad condition to fall into the hands of such villains, as he had the cash with him that twenty negroes had sold for; and that he was very happy that he happened to get in company with me through the nation. I concluded he was a noble prize, and longed to be counting his cash. At length we came into one of those long stretches in the Nation, where there was no house for twenty miles, on the third day after we had been in company with each other. The country was high, hilly, and broken, and no water; just about the time I reached the place where I intended to count my companion's cash, I became very thirsty, and insisted on turning down a deep hollow, or dale, that headed near the road, to hunt some water. We had followed down the dale for near four hundred yards, when I drew my pistol and shot him through. He fell dead; I commenced hunting for his cash, and opened his large pocketbook, which was stuffed very full; and when I began to open it I thought it was a treasure indeed; but oh! the contents of that book! it was richly filled with the copies of love-songs, the forms of love-letters, and some of his own composition,—but no cash. I began to cut off his clothes with my knife, and examine them for his money. I found four dollars and a half in change in his pockets, and no more. And is this the amount for which twenty negroes sold? thought I. I recollected his watch and jewelry, and I gathered them in; his chain was rich and good, but it was swung to an old brass watch. He was a puff for true, and I thought all such fools ought to die as soon as possible. I took his horse, and swapped him to an Indian native for four ponies, and sold them on the way home. I reached home, and spent a few weeks among the girls of my acquaintance, in all the enjoyments that money could afford.
"My next trip was through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland, and then back to South Carolina, and from there round by Florida and Alabama. I began to conduct the progress of my operations, and establish my emissaries over the country in every direction.
"I have been going ever since from one place to another, directing and managing; but I have others now as good as myself to manage. This fellow, Phelps, that I was telling you of before, he is a noble chap among the negroes, and he wants them all free; he knows how to excite them as well as any person; but he will not do for a robber, as he cannot kill a man unless he has received an injury from him first. He is now in jail at Vicksburg, and I fear will hang. I went to see him not long since, but he is so strictly watched that nothing can be done. He has been in the habit of stopping men on the highway, and robbing them, and letting them go on; but that will never do for a robber; after I rob a man he will never give evidence against me, and there is but one safe plan in the business, and that is to kill—if I could not afford to kill a man, I would not rob.
"The great object that we have in contemplation is to excite a rebellion among the negroes throughout the slave-holding states. Our plan is to manage so as to have it commence everywhere at the same hour. We have set on the 25th of December, 1835, for the time to commence our operations. We design having our companies so stationed over the country, in the vicinity of the banks and large cities, that when the negroes commence their carnage and slaughter, we will have detachments to fire the towns and rob the banks while all is confusion and dismay. The rebellion taking place everywhere at the same time, every part of the country will be engaged in its own defence; and one part of the country can afford no relief to another, until many places will be entirely overrun by the negroes, and our pockets replenished from the banks and the desks of rich merchants' houses. It is true that in many places in the slave states the negro population is not strong, and would be easily overpowered; but, back them with a few resolute leaders from our clan, they will murder thousands, and huddle the remainder into large bodies of stationary defence for their own preservation; and then, in many other places, the black population is much the strongest, and under a leader would overrun the country before any steps could be taken to suppress them.
"We do not go to every negro we see and tell him that the negroes intend to rebel on the night of the 25th of December, 1835. We find the most vicious and wickedly disposed on large farms, and poison their minds by telling them how they are mistreated. When we are convinced that we have found a bloodthirsty devil, we swear him to secrecy and disclose to him the secret, and convince him that every other state and section of country where there are any negroes intend to rebel and slay all the whites they can on the night of the 25th of December, 1835, and assure him that there are thousands of white men engaged in trying to free them, who will die by their sides in battle. We have a long ceremony for the oath, which is administered in the presence of a terrific picture painted for that purpose, representing the monster who is to deal with him should he prove unfaithful in the engagements he has entered into. This picture is highly calculated to make a negro true to his trust, for he is disposed to be superstitious at best.
"Our black emissaries have the promise of a share in the spoils we may gain, and we promise to conduct them to Texas should we be defeated, where they will be free; but we never talk of being defeated. We always talk of victory and wealth to them. There is no danger in any man, if you can ever get him once implicated or engaged in a matter. That is the way we employ our strikers in all things; we have them implicated before we trust them from our sight.
"This may seem too bold, but that is what I glory in. All the crimes I have ever committed have been of the most daring; and I have been successful in all my attempts as yet; and I am confident that I will be victorious in this matter, as in the robberies which I have in contemplation; and I will have the pleasure and honor of seeing and knowing that by my management I have glutted the earth with more human gore, and destroyed more property, than any other robber who has ever lived in America, or the known world. I look on the American people as my common enemy. My clan is strong, brave, and experienced, and rapidly increasing in strength every day. I should not be surprised if we were to be two thousand strong by the 25th of December, 1835; and, in addition to this, I have the advantage of any other leader of banditti that has ever preceded me, for at least one-half of my Grand Council are men of high standing, and many of them in honorable and lucrative offices."
The number of men, more or less prominent, in the different states included: sixty-one from Tennessee, forty-seven from Mississippi, forty-six from Arkansas, twenty-five from Kentucky, twenty-seven from Missouri, twenty-eight from Alabama, thirty-three from Georgia, thirty-five from South Carolina, thirty-two from North Carolina, twenty-one from Virginia, twenty-seven from Maryland, sixteen from Florida, thirty-two from Louisiana. The transient members who made a habit of traveling from place to place numbered twenty-two; Murrell said that there was a total list of two thousand men in his band, including all classes.