11. Sharing a Jail Cell With the Deadliest Outlaw of the Old West
In the 1870s a young Johnny Ringo moved to Mason County, Texas, where trouble erupted between newly arrived German settlers and natural-born English-speaking Americans. It began in 1875 when a predominately German mob dragged a pair of American cattle rustlers from a local jail, and lynched them. That triggered a cycle of violence in which Ringo joined the American side in a campaign of terror against the newcomers. Lowlights in the ensuing Mason County War included the murder and scalping of a German sheriff’s deputy before his body was thrown down a well.
Ringo was front and center in the violence and participated in multiple murders. The Texas Rangers were eventually called in to reassert law and order. By late 1876, after about a dozen men had been killed, the violence petered out and came to an end. Ringo was arrested, but broke out of jail and went on the lam. He was arrested once again, and for a while shared a cell with notorious Old West killer John Wesley Hardin. The historic record is spotty about what happened next, but while Ringo’s accomplices were convicted, he appears to have been acquitted.
Upon his release from jail, Johnny Ringo worked as a constable for a short time, before he moved on to Arizona. In 1878, he offered whiskey to a man seated next to him in a bar, but when the man declined, Ringo shot off his ear. Soon thereafter, he arrived in Tombstone, where he joined the Cochise County Cowboys and began an antagonistic relationship with Wyatt Earp and his associates. The Earps suspected Ringo’s involvement in an 1881 ambush that left Virgil Earp crippled, and in the murder of Morgan Earp on March 18, 1882. Soon thereafter, Wyatt Earp, a deputy US Marshall, formed a federal posse to hunt down those deemed responsible for shooting his brothers.
Ringo was deputized by Tombstone’s corrupt Sheriff in an attempt to shield him from the Earps by making him a lawman. Within weeks, many of Ringo’s friends had been killed or fled the area. Although he denied any involvement in the shootings of Virgil and Morgan Earp, Ringo deemed it advisable to leave Tombstone until things calmed down. In April, the Earps left town, and by June, Ringo had returned. A month later, his body was discovered beneath a tree with a bullet hole in the head. The death was ruled a suicide, but many suspected that Wyatt Earp had surreptitiously returned to exact vengeance – a theory confirmed years later by Wyatt’s widow, who wrote in her memoirs that her husband had killed Johnny Ringo.
9. An Old West Vendetta That Gave Birth to a Legend
Frank Eaton (1860 – 1958), birth name Francis Boardman Eaton and better known as “Pistol Pete”, was born far from the Old West in Hartford, Connecticut, on October 26th, 1860. When Frank was eight years old, his family moved to Kansas. Unfortunately, some neighbors did not like the new arrivals. In 1868, only three years after the end of the Civil War, tensions were still running high. Eaton Sr., an abolitionist and Union Army veteran, got on the wrong side of some former Confederates, still bitter about their side’s defeat.
The upshot was that six former guerrillas, who had ridden with Quantrill’s Raiders during the war, shot Frank’s father in cold blood in front of his son. To cap off the murder, they then proceeded to horse whip young Frank with a quirt. Mose Beaman, an elderly neighbor and friend of Frank’s father, urged the kid to make it his life’s mission to exact vengeance. As he told him: “My boy, may an old man’s rest upon you, if you do not try to avenge your father“.
Old Mose Beaman did not waste any time before he proceeded to prepare young Frank Eaton to avenge his father’s murder. He gave the then-eight-year-old Frank an old Navy Colt Revolver and began to teach him the ins and outs and finer points of how to handle a gun. The kid took to it like a duck to water, and before long, he demonstrated that he could shoot the heads off rattlesnakes with either hand, simply by “point firing”. When he turned fifteen, Frank headed to Fort Gibson, a US Army cavalry fort in Oklahoma, to learn more about firearms.
He was too young to enlist in the Army, but nonetheless managed to earn some money with odd jobs around the fort. He reportedly competed with the military installation’s best marksmen and outshot them all. That prompted their commander to bestow upon young Frank the nickname “Pistol Pete“. Soon thereafter, Pistol Pete learned that two of his father’s killers, Doc Ferber and Shannon Campsey, were living in a cabin near Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, in the Cherokee Nation. So he headed there to get started on the settlement of accounts.
The remote Indian Territory known as the Cherokee Nation was notorious as a safe haven for criminal fugitives from nearby states. However, local Cherokee lawmen were reluctant to go after white outlaws because that often led to messy entanglements with federal authorities. So when they learned that Frank Eaton was after two white fugitives in their territory, the Cherokees figured he could solve a problem for them without a jurisdictional headache, and guided him to their hideout. When Eaton rode into the clearing where Shannon Campsey had his cabin, Campsey grabbed a rifle. Frank called out “Hello, Shan – don’t you know me?”
Campsey began to take aim, but before he could draw a bead, Frank whipped out a pistol and shot him dead. He found his other target, Doc Ferber, as he tended cattle nearby, and killed him as well. Pistol Pete had just earned the first two notches on his pistol. Doc Ferber and Shannon Campsey had been known cattle thieves, and gunning them down favorably impressed the local Cattleman’s Association. So they hired Frank as a detective. That gave him the perfect cover to go after the rest of his father’s killers and continue the exaction of vengeance. Within three months, he put paid to three more of them.
For his next target, Frank Eaton went after Doc Ferber’s brother, John. However, karma caught up with him before Pistol Pete did. The night before Eaton reached him, John Ferber was caught cheating at a poker game – a big no-no anywhere, but especially in the Old West – and killed. Eaton attended the funeral, to make sure that he was dead before he headed out after the next targets on his revenge list. They were the brothers Jim and Jonce Campsey, who had a ranch in the Ozarks.
Frank found the siblings at home, challenged them to a duel, and shot both dead. The last survivor of his father’s killers was now Wyley Campsey, and Frank made it his life’s mission to find him. In the meantime, in 1885, Frank served as a scout in a campaign against Geronimo, and almost got scalped for his troubles. Afterward, he reportedly got a job as a deputy US Marshall under “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory and shot dead six more men in the line of duty.
In 1887, Frank Eaton learned that the last target on his vengeance list, Wyley Campsey, was running a saloon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. So he headed west to visit payback upon him. Soon as Eaton entered Campsey’s saloon, he shouted at him: “fill your hand, you son of a bi**h!” As his target reached for a gun under the bar, Frank shot him twice in the heart. Simultaneously, two of Campsey’s employees opened fire on Eaton and hit him in the leg and arm.
Eaton survived his wounds, settled down in Perkins, Oklahoma, married, and raised a family. He lived to the ripe old of 98 before he died in 1958. As he aged, youngsters loved to visit the Old West legend’s home, listen to his yarns, and watch his lightning-quick draw. In 1923, students at Oklahoma A&M College, now Oklahoma State University, asked Pistol Pete to pose as the school’s mascot. New Mexico State University and the University of Wyoming followed suit, and also adopted Pistol Pete’s likeness as their mascot.
John Wesley Hardin, discussed in a previous entry, could be seen as representative of the early era of Old West outlaws. The close of that era’s notorious outlaws is bookended by the likes of James Brown Miller (1861 – 1909), who was also known as “Deacon Jim” because he neither smoked nor drank and regularly attended the Methodist Church. Another of his nicknames was “Killer Miller”, because, well… for a seemingly straitlaced teetotaler, Miller sure killed a whole lot of people.
Deacon Jim put on an air of respectability and liked to go about impeccably dressed. However, he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, having killed a dozen people in gunfights. He reportedly gunned down many more during a topsy-turvy and violent career in which he made a living as an outlaw, lawman, and killer for hire. Frank Hamer, another figure whose career bookended the Old West era, albeit on the side of the good guys, was the most famous Texas Ranger. Deacon Jim, who also served as a Texas Ranger, was the most infamous one.
Deacon Jim Miller was born in Van Buren, Arkansas, but his family moved to Texas when he was a year old, and he grew up in the Lone Star Republic. The family settled in Austin, where his father worked as a stonemason, but he died when Miller was a child, and somewhere along the line, something went wrong with young Jim. At age eight, according to some accounts, he killed his own grandparents, although no conclusive historic proof has emerged to support that.
Whether or not he had actually done in his grandparents, Miller grew into a violent young man, and one of his earliest documented murders was of his brother in law, whom Miller detested. On July 30, 1884, after an argument, Miller returned with a shotgun, and shot him to death as he lay asleep on his porch. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life behind bars. However, the case was appealed, and the conviction was reversed on a technicality.
When Deacon Jim Miller got out of jail, he got a job as a hired hand in a ranch owned by a cousin of John Wesley Hardin. In 1887, his boss was killed by Ballinger’s City Marshal. Soon thereafter, the Marshal was ambushed by somebody who blasted him with a shotgun, and suffered severe injuries. The lawman survived, but lost an arm to amputation. Miller was the prime suspect, but there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him for the attempted murder.
Miller then relocated to the Texas-Mexico border, where he became a deputy sheriff in Reeves County, and then became town marshal of Pecos. He was a killer cop, and gained a reputation as a repeat murderer of Mexicans, whom he invariably claimed to have shot them as they “tried to escape”. In 1894 he got into a feud with the county sheriff, who shot him in the arm, the groin, then emptied his six-shooter into his chest. Deacon Jim survived because he had been wearing a steel plate over his chest.
The cloud that hung above Deacon Jim Miller and his problematic reputation did not prevent him from landing a job as a Texas Ranger. No sooner had he been hired by the most famous law enforcement outfit of the American West, than he began to advertise his availability as a killer for hire. He charged $150 per hit and used his Ranger authority to get away with literal murder. As his reputation grew, so did his fees, until he eventually came to charge thousands of dollars per murder. He had no scruples about killing lawmen, including Pat Garret, who had killed Billy the Kid.
In 1909, Miller was hired to kill a popular rancher from Ada, Oklahoma, named Allen Bobbit. Miller shot Bobbit, but he lived long enough to name his killer. Miller and three accomplices were arrested, but the evidence seemed weak. That led many Ada residents and friends of the murdered Bobbit to fear that his killers might get acquitted. So they formed a mob, broke into the jail where the accused were held, and lynched Deacon Jim Miller and his accomplices in the early morning hours of April 19th, 1909.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading