"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Virginian (TNT, 2000)

The second-best Virginian

The Virginian has been central to the myth of the West and was an early milestone on the road to the development of the whole Western genre. Owen Wister’s seminal novel came out in 1902, the year before what most people regard as the first Western movie. The first film treatment of The Virginian, a silent obviously, was not long delayed; it came out in 1914, was an early Cecil B DeMille effort and starred Dustin Farnum as the Virginian, Jack W Johnston as Steve and William Elmer as Trampas. This is, sadly, difficult to find now. Another silent movie version, longer and more sophisticated, and now available on DVD, was made in 1923, and starred matinée idol Kenneth Harlan as the Virginian, Pat O’Malley as Steve and Russell Simpson, no less, as Trampas.

Then came the talkies. In 1929 the greatest Virginian of them all was Gary Cooper and the Victor Fleming-directed film for Paramount (I have an old VHS but as far as I know it has not been released on DVD – a scandal) with Richard Arlen as Steve and Walter Huston as Trampas has never been equaled.


Paramount remade The Virginian after the Second War in 1946, in color, with Joel McCrea as the Virginian (he was good but no Coop), Sonny Tufts as Steve and a miscast Brian Donlevy as Trampas. It was alright but no more.

TV took up the baton in the 1960s but the series The Virginian, which began in 1962, bore little or no resemblance to the book or earlier films. The characters bore some of the same names but that was all. Recently there was a Canadian TV movie but it was pretty weak. By far the best TV treatment, and in fact the best cinematic version overall bar the 1929 one was Bill Pullman’s effort screened by TNT in 2000.

I say “Bill Pullman’s effort” because Mr. Pullman not only starred as the Virginian, he also directed and co-produced the movie.


Pullman was supported by a good cast: Harris Yulin (the corrupt Wyatt Earp from Doc) is the judge, infinitely more convincing than Ron Perlman in the 2014 Canadian one; Mr. Perlman might have been OK as Clay in Sons of Anarchy or Sanchez in the TV The Magnificent Seven but he was a hopeless Judge Henry. Mr. Yulin gives us a believably tough 1880s Wyoming rancher, ready to turn a blind eye but basically on the side of the angels. The Pullman film elevates Sam Balaam from the novel's minor character beaten by the Virginian for equine abuse into the antagonist, the chief rival rancher of the judge, and a very bad egg indeed. He is well played by Dennis Weaver, who gives us snarls, bully-boy tactics and cowardice aplenty.


The Molly is Diane Lane, well-known to 1980s and 90s Westernistas for her Little Britches in the 1981 Burt Lancaster movie, her Lorena in Lonesome Dove (the 1989 mini-series and the longer TV series) and her Susannah Moore (supposedly Jack McCall’s mother and Wild Bill’s lover) in Wild Bill in 1995. She’s OK as Molly Stark (the Wood seems to have been dropped) but of course it’s fundamentally a weak part and in the book she comes across as plain silly.


I liked John Savage as Steve. He had been Bittercreek Newcomb in Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Loney in the 1972 Jeff Bridges Western Bad Company and Slater in another Wyoming Western, HBO’s 1999 The Jack Bull. His Steve is like the one in the book, a basically decent fellow won over to the dark side by the bad guys.

Colm Feore is Trampas, surprisingly bland, I thought, though it may have been the writing (Larry Gross, who worked on Wild Bill and Geronimo: An American Legend, wrote up the screenplay from the Wister novel). Mr. Feore had a cameo General Sherman in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, film maker DW Griffith in And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (also for HBO) and, later, the Canadian independent movie Six Reasons Why, which really wasn’t very good. His Western CV isn’t that strong, though of course it’s difficult for any Western actor to have a strong Western CV these days, so it’s hardly his fault.


One of the best features is the great Gary Farmer (Nobody in Dead Man) as fat cowpoke Buster, who drives the hack that gets into difficulty crossing the river so that the Virginian can save Molly. And, for Virginian aficionados, James Drury has a small part bringing the Virginian the insulting challenge from Trampas just before the dénouement. So all in all the cast is rather good.

This version is darker than any of the others. There is somber music under it, often a string quartet or trio, there are no comic-relief episodes (this is one of the few treatments not to include the baby-swapping scene) and the lighting and wintry Alberta scenery combine to create an atmosphere of menace. It’s well done by Mr. Pullman.

Yes, it looks like a made-for-TV movie. It’s something to do with the film stock, I’m not sure, and of course the regular fades-to-black to allow commercial breaks. But Lonesome Dove and later TV efforts like Deadwood have showed how good TV Westerns can be and paradoxically, these days they seem to have bigger budgets than Hollywood efforts.

The lynching is done in a barn and reminds me of that photograph of Killing Jim Miller and accomplices. Perhaps it was deliberate.


Pullman in his wedding coat looks ever so slightly like Gary Cooper. Praise indeed.

This Virginian is definitely worth a watch – as I said above, the best of them all apart from the 1929 talkie. Of course it makes significant changes from the plot in the book but which version doesn’t? And anyway, the book had some weaknesses.



Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Calamity Jane

An extraordinary woman

Martha Jane Canary or Cannary, known to us all as Calamity Jane, has suffered almost as much in history as she did in life. She herself (in her youth anyway) loved telling tall tales about her life and such stories abounded among her friends and acquaintances, and grew with the retelling. She was early the subject of sensational newspaper articles, then dime novels. In the twentieth century Hollywood took up her story and endless Janes – over thirty anyway - from Jean Arthur to Jane Russell to Doris Day to Anjelica Huston have added layers of interpretation and myth until a rich patina covers Martha Jane. It is difficult to discern the fact under the fiction.

Elegantly attired for the camera

Difficult but not impossible. There’s plenty of help at hand. There are several good, reliable biographies of Calamity. Just last month the excellent Richard W Etulain (whose book Telling Western Stories I commented on back in December last year) came out with The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane in the Oklahoma Western Biographies series. You can also read Linda Jucovy’s Searching for Calamity: The Life and Times of Calamity Jane (2012) and, also published in 2012, James D McLaird’s Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend. All three of these writers, and others, appear as talking heads in a quality 2014 documentary shown on the Franco-German channel Arte the other day, Calamity Jane: Wild West Legend, written and directed by Gregory Monro.

The documentary and the books highlight the position and status of women on the frontier. Most prairie women were drudges who worked from dawn to sundown, wore themselves out and died young: if they didn’t die in childbirth or catch a mortal disease they perished early from sheer hardship. Their identities were subsumed in those of their men – their fathers first, then their husbands. They were hardly people in their own right at all, even if pioneering Wyoming, where Jane spent most of her time, was the first to allow women the vote.

The real Jane

What made Jane stand out was her refusal to follow the conventions of the time. Not for her the woman’s life of household chores and field work. She smoked cigars, wore pants, was expert with firearms, rode astride and entered bars. We are used to seeing such things because of Hollywood but in reality it would have been shocking to most (men and women) to see. Most saloons were not the glossy palaces of Western movies but low dives, sometimes tents, with a ‘bar’ of planks across barrels and only men inside, and that men of the low kind. Women simply did not enter. Even prostitutes were usually in huts and cabins out back. Jane, however, was at home in these sordid saloons and could drink, swear and spit as well as the other patrons. She was in fact a lifelong alcoholic and it was booze that led to her ruinous state, especially towards the end of her life. It often got her thrown in jail. In the end she was on the street, one child dead and another given up for adoption, alone, sick and miserable.

She worked at whatever would earn her a few cents. She washed dishes, cooked, waitressed and once became an ox team driver. Certainly she also prostituted herself. It was not so surprising: despite her constant desire to be ‘respectable’, there were very limited options for an unmarried and destitute woman in 1870s Wyoming. She seems to have worked in a ‘hog ranch’, which was pretty well the lowest kind of brothel, no glitzy town bordello but a rude shack out of town where men knew they would find ugly women, but cheap. The site of Jane’s birth is nowadays occupied by a Premium Standard Farms hog farm but it, ahem, isn’t that kind of hog farm.

Calamity was no beauty. There are many photographs of her because she achieved considerable fame and notoriety but in none does she look graceful or pretty. However, although in movie after movie she is shown in buckskin jacket and pants, there are relatively few photographs of her in this garb. The vast majority of them show her in a dress.

No beauty

She started life in 1852 in Mercer County, Missouri, on a farm. Her father was a gambler and her mother was a drinker. She didn’t stand much of a chance. She had little or no schooling and was illiterate. In 1864 her father moved the family to Virginia City, Montana, and then on to Salt Lake City, Utah. Her mother eventually died and her father absconded. Martha Jane wandered into Wyoming, was taken in by a foster family at the age of 12 but she was treated as a slave and broke out once too often. Frequenting soldiers, drunk and imprisoned, she was eventually shut out by the family and left to fend for herself. While this must have been a terrible plight in most ways, it did at least make her independent and free. She had no ties. She could go where she wanted, within the limit of her resources, and had no one to tell her what to do or how to behave.

She first became famous when she accompanied General Crook on the expedition that led to the first Rosebud. Though a woman in the ranks had been known, it was certainly not common and when she was discovered by the officers (the men certainly knew already) she was incarcerated in a military prison in Fort Laramie. It was there that Wild Bill and his party arrived and they agreed to take Jane with them to Deadwood. This began the famous association in people’s minds (especially Jane’s) between Hickok and Canary. There is in fact no evidence whatsoever that Bill and Jane were lovers, and still less husband and wife, however much Jane might have wished it. Hickok had recently married the widow Agnes Lake and his letters to her are moving and respectful. Though doubtless no saint, he had no interest in Jane. Jane was not in Deadwood when in 1876 he was shot by Jack McCall in Nuttall & Mann’s, despite what is inevitably shown in movies. But she got her wish in the end for when she died, in 1903, she was buried next to Bill. He was in no position to object.

In the last known photograph of Jane, in 1903, she stands smiling before the grave of Wild Bill

As for her nickname, she herself said (in her unreliable dictated ‘autobiography’ – a seven-page pamphlet) that in the 1872/73 campaign,

When fired upon Capt. Egan was shot. I was riding in advance and on hearing the firing turned in my saddle and saw the Captain reeling in his saddle as though about to fall. I turned my horse and galloped back with all haste to his side and got there in time to catch him as he was falling. I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Capt[.] Egan on recovering, laughingly said: 'I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.' I have borne that name up to the present time.

She was certainly already known by the name in 1875 because on her arrival in Deadwood, the July 15, 1876 edition of The Black Hills Pioneer reported, “Calamity Jane has arrived!”

The dime novelists took her up and in particular, starting already in 1877, she featured in the Deadwood Dick tales by Edward Wheeler, in the Beadle’s Pocket Library series. The adventures were, of course, purely fictional.

Two-gun Jane partners Deadwood Dick


The real Jane had relationships with a series of men, perhaps half a dozen. She married one, William P Steers (a marriage certificate was found), and had two children, a boy who died in infancy and a girl, Jessie, who survived. But Steers was violently abusive and the marriage did not last.

Very much down on her luck, Jane was ‘adopted’ by a prim society lady from Buffalo, NY, a Mrs. Josephine Brake, who took Jane East and forbade her strong drink. Mrs. Brake became her unofficial agent and got Jane work at $50 a week (a tidy sum) in Kohl and Middleton’s Barnumesque show and then Frederick Cummings’s Wild West Show. But Jane hated the shows, the East and sobriety in equal measure and the photograph of her taken at this time shows what is clearly a miserable person.

She obviously hated it

Eventually she could take it no more and drifted back West to (a much changed) Deadwood, selling photographs of herself and copies of the autobiographical pamphlet (which didn’t even spell her name correctly) and telling stories for a drink.

She died in a squalid hotel near Deadwood in 1903, an old woman in appearance but in fact only 47.

The year of her death was also the year of the first proper Western film. Her character appeared in three silent Westerns (played by Lucy Fox, Ethel Grey Terry and Mae Laurel) and then was prortrayed by Louise Dresser and Helen Gibson in talkies. Jean Arthur played her in the 1936 Cecil B DeMille farrago The Plainsman (with a stupendous Gary Cooper) and already the stereotype was established. Later Janes, such as Jane Russell and Yvonne de Carlo, bore no resemblance, in appearance or character, to the real Jane and the heights of absurdity were reached with Doris Day’s chirpy tomboy blonde in the 1953 musical.
Tomboy Doris

The closest we got on screen to the real Jane was, perhaps Robin Weigert in Deadwood but even that was hardly a faithful portrayal.

Robin was about the best

Jane did, however, appear many times in Westerns: every time a gal in pants rode astride or wore a sixgun, consciously or not Calamity Jane rode again.

Martha Jane Cannary (1852 - 1903)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Elfego Baca

Mexican American gunman of the old West

Much has been written of gunmen of the old West like Jesse James, Billy the Kid or John Wesley Hardin, and they have often appeared on the big and small screen, but much less well known are the Mexican-American gunfighters. Like black, Indian or mixed-race figures, they seem to have been written out of history. In the TV series Justified, Raylan’s boss Art talks of Bass Reeves (1838 – 1910) and says, “Good luck finding a movie about him!” In fact, almost as a response, perhaps, in 2010 the film Bass Reeves came out, made by Ponderosa Productions of San Antonio but that is very unusual. Rich rancher Print Olive had a black gunman named James Kelly, who was known, in the demeaning and today offensive language of the time, as “Print’s Bad Nigger”. In the ‘blaxploitation’ years a few movies featuring heroes of African origin came out and then there was the very bad Van Peebles film Posse. Deets was an enormously sympathetic figure in Lonesome Dove.  But really, the famous outlaws and gunslingers, the ones that appeared in dime novels, TV shows and movies, were of European extraction.

As for Mexicans, Joaquin Murieta (or Murrieta or Murrietta), the ‘Robin Hood’ of California in the 1850s, is so shadowy a figure that little is known about him for sure. We don’t even know for certain when he was born and when he died (perhaps 1829 to 1853). Across the border there were of course many Mexican bandits, as the Texas Rangers knew only too well, and the line dividing bandidos and revolutionaries was also not always distinct. In fiction O Henry’s Cisco Kid reached the screen (in watered-down form) many times. But in terms of classic gunfighters of the old West, there are virtually no Spanish-speaking characters.

Elfego in popular culture

Elfego Baca, however, was one. He is hardly a staple figure of the Hollywood Western, although Robert Loggia played him on TV in ten episodes shown on Walt Disney Presents from 1958 to 1960. There was a comic spin-off and episodes of the series were later edited into a 1962 movie titled Elfego Baca: Six Gun Law. The title song of the show concentrated on Baca fighting for right with his brains rather than his sixgun: “Elfego was wise, and Elfego was strong. Elfego, El Gato, who made right from wrong. And the legend is that, like El Gato the cat, Nine Lives had Elfego Baca.” Deathless poetry, huh?

Robert Loggia as Elfego Baca

In fact, though, although Baca did indeed become an attorney, politician and a wily old fox (not quite sure how feline he was), his youth featured a good deal more gunmanship than penmanship.

Early life

Elfego Baca was born in Socorro, NMT in 1865. His mother was an unusual woman: she loved to play baseball and in fact had to interrupt a game to give birth to Elfego on the ballpark. Baca père had a reputation as a hard case. He moved the family to Topeka, Kansas, where Elfego went to school and did well there. When, at fifteen, he went back to Socorro, he spoke better English than Spanish. Elfego’s father became marshal of Belen, a small settlement near Socorro, where he shot and killed two cowboys for hurrahing the town. This was judged excessive and he landed in jail but Elfego cut a hole in the roof and pulled his father out. Baca senior then disappeared, perhaps to Ysleta or San Elizario.

Elfego the ‘lawman’

By the age of nineteen, Elfego was already known to be good with guns. He elected himself a lawman, got hold of a mail-order badge and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps by arresting some cowpunchers who had treed the town of Frisco, NMT (now Reserve, about a hundred miles north-west of Silver City, not far from the Arizona line).

A young Elfego

His investigations revealed some of the Slaughter crew as the culprits, particularly a puncher named McCarty, who shot up the town at will. Elfego asked the alcade for a warrant but as, despite the star, Baca had no legal authority at all, it was refused. Undeterred, Elfego went in search of the cowboys, whom he found gathered in the street. He grabbed McCarty by the collar, stuck a pistol in his ear and dragged him off to the jail.

The Frisco Shootout

Later that day a group of Slaughter cowhands gathered before the jail and demanded McCarty’s release. Baca’s response was steely and measured: he said that he refused to discuss the matter, he would count to three and unless they dispersed immediately he would start shooting. He then counted quickly to three, pulled his pistol and commenced firing. One shot hit a cowboy in the leg, horses reared, the foreman’s mount threw him and rolled on him, fatally, and there was chaos. The punchers scattered.

The next morning a justice of the peace tried McCarty and fined him five dollars for disturbing the peace. Outside, the released McCarty and his fellow cowboys wanted revenge and one shot at Baca, who ran for it, seeking refuge in the only possible cover, a jacal whose residents Baca expelled. There then followed one of the most extraordinary sieges in Western history (and legend).

The building was of upright posts chinked with mud. It was an unimpressive refuge from a fusillade. But it had a floor dug out about eighteen inches below ground level and that’s what saved Baca. He was able to lie down and be protected from the hail of bullets from perhaps eighty guns that punctured the cabin. The door alone had nearly 400 bullet holes and a broom stick was hit eight times. Baca fired back as far as his meager store of ammunition permitted and killed at least one attacker, a certain Jim Herne.

The cowboys tossed torches on the dirt roof but these did not take. They threw dynamite and it shattered part of the jacal but no one knew if Baca had survived and they were unwilling to rush the place to find out. The next morning they saw smoke rising from the broken chimney as Baca calmly cooked himself some breakfast.

The second day there was sporadic firing. Many cowboys returned to their ranch. Late in the day a deputy named Ross, whom Baca trusted, brokered a deal. Baca was to come out and stand trial. No one would harm him. Elfego agreed as long as he could keep his guns.

He languished in jail in Socorro for four months and then was acquitted in a trial in Albuquerque.

Baca shoots back

There’s a statue of Baca on the spot of the siege now. He’s the one who has come out of the shootout best.

Lawyer and (real) peace officer

In jail, Baca decided to reform himself.

First, he married. A son and five daughters followed and he became a true family man. He became an official law officer, arresting, among others, the outlaws Jose Chavez y Chavez and, later, Jose Garcia. In 1894 Baca was admitted to the New Mexico bar and practiced successfully as an attorney, especially for the defense. He became an articulate proponent of rights for Mexican Americans. He ran for office and was successively a mayor, county clerk, school superintendent assistant district attorney and DA.


He was interested in the Mexican revolution and was named General Huerta’s representative. When General Jose Salazar crossed into New Mexico to recoup and gather his forces for a possible coup, he was arrested for violation of neutrality laws. It was Elfego Baca who defended him.

Jose Salazar (right) with his lawyer Baca

He got Salazar transferred to the jurisdiction of a civilian court. Salazar was imprisoned in Albuquerque, whence he escaped, possibly (though there is no proof of this) with the complicity of Baca, and fled into Mexico.

Shooting in El Paso

In El Paso in 1915 Baca got into a confrontation with one Celestino Otero, a supporter of a rival Mexican faction, when he agreed to meet Otero at a café, and as Baca stepped out of his automobile, Otero shot him. The bullet struck him in the groin but it didn’t stop Baca, who was heeled, and he shot Otero twice in the heart. Baca quickly recovered and was acquitted of the murder of Señor Otero.

Sheriff Baca

Now in his fifties, Baca was elected sheriff of Socorro County. He was said to be the best sheriff the county ever had.

Said to be Baca's badge

Later he was the muscle at the infamous Tivoli saloon in Juarez, until he busted the son of the Juarez police chief…

Attorney Baca

As an old man he returned to his legal work, being unwilling to retire. All sorts of stories are told about him, such as the one (apocryphal or not) in which received a telegram from a client in El Paso. "Need you at once," it said. "Have just been charged with murder." To which Baca is supposed to have replied with a telegram saying, "Leaving at once with three eyewitnesses”.

Elfego Baca died in 1945, aged eighty. He was one of the most colorful characters of the old West. And it’s time we had a decent movie about him.


There are quite a few books on Baca. In 1928 a sensational biography came out, Law and Order Ltd.: The Rousing Life of Elfego Baca of New Mexico by Kyle Crichton. There’s a facsimile edition available now with a foreword by Stan Sager, who also wrote Viva Elfego! in 2002. Elfego Baca in Life and Legend by Larry D Ball was published in 1992 and two years later Incredible Elfego Baca by Howard Bryan came out. More recently there was Elfego Baca, The Mexican Gunfighter by Alton Pryor, which appeared last year. I haven’t read these, so I don’t know how good they are but in any case there’s no shortage of reading matter if you want to know more.

Plenty to read

There’s a chapter in Leon Metz’s The Shooters (Berkley, 1976), to which I am indebted for this post.

So long, e-pards.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Dallas Stoudenmire

Down in the west Texas town of El Paso

Dallas Stoudenmire (1845 – 1882) was one of the most colorful and interesting of the gunfighter-lawmen of the old West, though he is far less known today than the likes of Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. He would make a great novel (I must write one some time) or Deadwoody TV series. El Paso, TX in the 1870s and 80s was a wide-open town that is just asking to be ‘Westernized’ and Stoudenmire’s story has many of the ingredients of the classic Western. In fact I might call the series El Paso and take the audience through from Stoudenmire to John Selman and John Wesley Hardin. It would be compulsive viewing, I have no doubt, and must ask one of the Davids (Milch, Simon or Chase) or maybe Kurt Sutter about it one day.

Or I could just concentrate on Stoudenmire and call it Dallas, which might be a good name for a TV series.


Dallas Stoudenmire was born in Aberfoil, Alabama, one of nine children. At the start of the Civil War he enlisted in the Confederate army, three times, twice being discharged when it was discovered he was only fifteen, but eventually he was allowed to serve as a private in Company F, 45th Alabama Infantry. He was several times wounded. At war’s end he drifted west, working as a sheep farmer, wheelwright, proprietor, merchandiser and carpenter. He may have gone to Mexico for a while. Certainly he spoke good Spanish.  He then joined the Texas Rangers.

Dallas Stoudenmire

Six foot four, with green eyes and brown hair, he was a snappy dresser and a ladies’ man but quickly also gained a reputation for being violent when drunk. He wore two guns, in the Texas style, and was said to be equally good with either, though he was predominantly left-handed.


He served as town marshal in Socorro, NMT in 1878. It was while he was there that his brother-in-law, Doc Cummings, convinced him to go to El Paso. Samuel M Cummings is an interesting fellow too. A big man, fond of his drink and prone to explosive anger, he had much in common with Dallas.
Despite his nickname, there is no evidence he ever practiced medicine. He was an hotelier and in El Paso he opened a restaurant, The Globe, which advertised “No dust, no noise, no flies”, which, if true, was quite an achievement. Doc had married Dallas’s sister in 1874 and they had a daughter. He was intensely loyal to his brother-in-law and enjoyed acting as his unofficial deputy when Dallas became marshal of El Paso.

Wide-open town

In early 1881, when Stoudenmire arrived there, El Paso had grown from being a dusty adobe village into a thriving border town. Lawlessness increased rapidly and a succession of early town marshals, corrupt or incompetent, had done nothing to deal with that.

El Paso in 1881

The one point of continuity was the deputy who served them, Bill Johnson, an alcoholic. The town elders jumped at the chance of hiring an experienced marshal, good with his guns, and Stoudenmire was appointed. Within three days the street would echo to gunfire.

The Mannings

Leading lights in the town were the Manning brothers, George Felix (also known as ‘Doc’, but this time because he was a physician), Frank and James. Doc Manning was an educated man who played the violin but was still no shrinking violet. He had a temper and knew how to use a gun. Brother Frank had run ‘hell on wheels’ tent saloons as the railroad approached El Paso and when it arrived, he opened the Manning Saloon (on the site of the present day Paso Del Norte Hotel). James was also a saloon owner, and had aspirations as a politician, helping set up the El Paso Times and running (unsuccessfully) for mayor. They were all heavy drinkers, far from scrupulous and dangerous when crossed.

Dispossessed lawmen

The Mannings palled up with George Campbell, the disgruntled former marshal who had been fired by the town council.
Doc Manning with George Campbell

Campbell was another heavy drinker and his resentment at his successor Stoudenmire gradually built into a visceral hatred. Another who hated Stoudenmire was the drunken deputy Johnson whom the new marshal fired, humiliating him on the street by turning him upside down to get the keys to the jail.

Mexicans and Texas Rangers

Into the mix we add Mexicans, angry at the presumed murder of two of their countrymen by an ex-Texas Ranger, Chris Peveler, and Frank Stephenson, a hog rustler. Seventy-five Mexicans, armed and ready for a fight, rode into El Paso on April 14, 1881. The Rangers were based at Ysleta, ten miles to the south-east. They were hated by the Mexicans but even among many Anglos they had a reputation in El Paso as drunken blowhards, and Marshal Stoudenmire, despite his former Ranger status, had no time for them at all. “They ran most ingloriously when called to the scratch,” he averred.

Add heat, dust, machismo, firearms everywhere and, especially, booze, and you have an explosive atmosphere.

The inquest

An inquest was held into the slaying of the two Mexicans. Rancher John Hale, a Mannings ally, defended Peveler and Stephenson. The interpreter, Gus Krempkau, was thought by many Anglos in his translations to have favored the Mexican case. Tensions rose. The inquest was adjourned. Outside, a drunken Campbell snarled that “Any American that is a friend of a Mexican ought to be hanged.” When Krempkau said that he hoped Campbell didn’t mean him, Campbell retorted, “If the shoe fits, wear it.” Defender Hale, who had been drinking heavily, called to Campbell, “I got him, George!” and fired, hitting Krempkau under the heart and knocking him down.

Blood and gunsmoke in the street

Stoudenmire heard the shot and came running, pulling one of his guns from a pocket (he did not wear holsters). He saw Hale with a smoking pistol, aimed his long-barreled gun carefully at Hale, squeezed the trigger like a professional and, in a classic display of the accuracy of late nineteenth century handguns, shot a bystander. Hale took cover behind a pillar but was unlucky to peek out just as Stoudenmire was drawing another bead, and received a bullet right in the forehead.

Campbell was screaming “This is not my fight!” Krempkau, on the ground and with a mortal wound, fired at Campbell, hitting him in the foot and gun hand. Stoudenmire then shot him in the belly. So in less than half a minute, four men lay dead or dying in the dirt.

The town divided into pro- and anti-Stoudenmire camps. The Mannings kept ex-deputy Bill Johnson’s resentment fueled with free liquor. Three days after the street gunfight Stoudenmire and Doc Cummings were doing the rounds and at the intersection of El Paso and San Antonio Johnson waited behind a pile of bricks (American wood and brick building was gradually replacing the old adobe) with a big shotgun and, obviously, a bottle of whiskey. As the brothers-in-law arrived, Campbell stood and fired but was too drunk to hit either. Stoudenmire and Cummings drew their pistols and shot him to pieces.

Others started shooting and someone hit Stoudenmire in the heel but the marshal charged them nevertheless and they scattered. Things quietened. But everyone knew another bout of violence was only a matter of time.

Doc goes down

Although Marshal Stoudenmire had an official deputy, ex-Ranger James Gillett (an interesting fellow himself, though we’ll tell his story another time), Doc Cummings was more and more his brother-in-law’s back-up. In February 1882 Doc was officially deputized to go with a Kansas sheriff into Mexico in pursuit of a rapist (though the result of their hunt is unknown). On his return, Doc found that both Stoudenmire and his chief deputy were down with influenza. On recovery, Dallas headed for Columbus, Texas, where he was to marry Miss Isabella Sherrington. With Gillett still abed, Doc was the law in El Paso.

Stoudenmire's deputy and successor James Gillett, ex-Texas Ranger

Doc appears to have decided to clear out the Mannings before Dallas returned. Already drunk as a skunk, Doc asked Jim Manning to drink with him but Manning refused on the grounds that he was a recovering alcoholic. Still, he agreed to “sip some cider”. Doc accused Jim and the other Mannings of getting others, like Hale and Johnson, to do their dirty work and get Dallas. When Jim denied it, Doc called him a liar and asked Jim if he was “fixed”. Jim removed his coat to show that he was unarmed and said that he “would do anything to settle this in a quiet way.” They went outside where Doc was distracted by a passer-by and Jim ducked back into the saloon, where he procured a pistol. As Cummings came back in, Jim said, “Alright, Doc, we’ll have this out” and the bar room was filled with acrid smoke and booming noise as both went for their guns. Two bullets hit Doc Cummings and he staggered out onto the sidewalk, falling into El Paso Street, where he died.

This account comes from the inquest. However, there are some curious discrepancies. Doc was said to have fired twice and indeed, there were two empty chambers in his pistol, but they were on opposite sides of the cylinder. Jim Manning admitted shooting Doc twice, yet only one round had been fired from his gun. Was Manning protecting a third gunman? At any rate, Manning was acquitted of murder and walked free. Now the town awaited the return of the marshal…

Peace accord

Newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Stoudenmire returned to El Paso but married bliss had not softened the marshal. He had a habit of drunkenly re-enacting his part in the so-called Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight. The pro-Manning El Paso Lone Star editorialized that streets could be “deluged with blood at any moment”. Town elders tried to patch up a peace and on April 16 the El Paso Herald printed a “treaty” the warring participants had signed:

We the undersigned parties having this day settled all differences and unfriendly feelings existing between us, hereby agree that we will hereafter meet and pass each other on friendly terms, and that bygones shall be bygones.”

This peace accord did not, however, lessen the marshal’s drinking and general belligerency, and religious folk were especially displeased at his habit of using the church bell for target practice. The town council probably wanted Stoudenmire out but were afraid of him. When the El Paso Times suggested that he resign, Stoudenmire stormed into its offices and threatened to run the editor out of town. (Fascinating, by the way, that such a small town could support so many newspapers).

The lawman loses his badge

In May 1882 the council met to fire Stoudenmire, but their courage crumbled when the marshal appeared, twirling his revolvers, and they adjourned without any resolution.

But on May 29, sober for once, Marshal Stoudenmire realized he had lost the town and resigned. The city fathers heaved a sigh of relief and accepted the resignation, passing a resolution thanking the marshal for his “loyal and faithful service”. They named Gillett as his successor.

Deputy US Marshal

Really, Stoudenmire should then have left El Paso. But instead on July 13 he became a Deputy US Marshal with his base in the town.

For a few months all was quiet. But on September 17 a drunken Stoudenmire looked into the Manning Saloon as he was searching for a wanted man he thought might be there. Satisfied that the fugitive wasn’t present, Stoudenmire staggered off to a brothel. The next morning, hung over, Stoudenmire heard that the Mannings were armed and looking for him for having broken the treaty and come armed to their saloon.

Again, peace emissaries tried to patch things up. All parties declared that they wanted peace but if the other wanted to fight, they were up for it. But all agreed to meet later that day, September 18, at 5.30 pm and sign another treaty.

Death in the afternoon

Stoudenmire stepped into the Manning Saloon (perhaps a neutral location would have been better) and found Doc and Jim Manning there but no Frank. Jim stepped out to find Frank and that left just Doc and Dallas. Almost immediately hot words were exchanged and both men went for their guns. A brave bystander stepped between them but may have caused the death of one because Stoudenmire was thrown off balance and Doc’s bullet smashed into his left arm, severing an artery, and then ricocheted up into his chest. A second shot hit Stoudenmire again but lodged against some papers and a picture he carried in a pocket. Still, the impact was enough to knock the man through the saloon doors into the street.

Outside, Stoudenmire got out his other pistol and fired at Doc Manning as he came out of the saloon, hitting him in the arm and sending his gun flying. Doc rushed him, and they grappled together in the dirt. Now Jim came running back and drew an old triggerless sawed-off Colt. He thumbed the hammer and fired, but missed, shattering a barber’s pole. His second shot, however, hit Dallas just above the ear. It was over.

Both Doc and Jim Manning were acquitted at Ysleta in separate murder trials.

What happened to the Mannings?

In April 1883 Frank Manning (who had not been present at the death of Stoudenmire) replaced James Gillett as city marshal. He didn’t last long; he was dismissed for shaking down a storekeeper. He prospected in Arizona. In 1922 he was committed to a mental hospital and died in 1925. Doc Manning moved to Flagstaff and practiced medicine there despite his crippled arm. He died in 1925 too. Jim moved up to Washington State and died of cancer in 1915. Before he died, Stuart N Lake offered to write his biography but Jim declined and suggested that Lake contact Wyatt Earp instead. The result was Frontier Marshal, and fame for Earp. Jim died an unknown.

An elderly Doc Manning in Flagstaff

It was not the end of death in the saloons of El Paso, though, as any student of the life and death of John Selman and John Wesley Hardin will know.

What to read

The authority for Dallas Stoudenmire’s life (as for those of Hardin, Selman and Pat Garrett) is the El Paso historian Leon Metz. His Dallas Stoudenmire: El Paso Marshal (The Pemberton Press, 1969) is the definitive biography. Mr. Metz also included a chapter on Stoudenmire in his popular paperback The Shooters (Berkley, 1976) and like all his writing, it is properly researched as well as readable. I have used it as the main source for this post.

A good Western story, though, isn’t it?