22. The Old West Was a Magnet for the Restless, the Troubled, and the Violent
Frank Hamer began his career in the dying days of classical Old West lawmen. Earlier, throughout the nineteenth century, the United States had relentlessly pushed its frontier westward in pursuit of what came to be termed the young republic’s Manifest Destiny. Settlers steadily populated vast swathes with a relentless stream of new arrivals who upped stakes and abandoned their homes out East – or across the oceans – in pursuit of dreams of greener pastures and a fresh start in the American West.
Unsettled frontiers tend to attract a disproportionate number of single young men, eager for adventure and new horizons, rowdy, rambunctious, and restless. In the absence of the social restraints that are typically imposed by families and neighbors in more established communities, such men frequently turn lawless. That was what happened in the Old West, where it often took many years between the initial settlement of new communities, and their settling down into the rut and norms of established civil society. In such a fluid and volatile environment, it took decades to establish effective law and order and finally tame the West.
21. The Often Blurry Line Between Lawmen and Outlaws
Because of the fluid situation, with a steady stream of newcomers pouring into a region with little established law enforcement, the Old West saw a boom in banditry. Many gave in to the temptation of easy riches in a region that abounded with readily portable wealth, be it cash, gold, cattle or horses. Violent criminals, many of whom frequently transitioned from outlaws to lawmen and back again, crossed and re-crossed the sometimes blurry line between criminals and crime stoppers multiple times during their lifetimes.
Stagecoaches were a primary target for outlaws because they frequently transported valuables and payrolls in their strongboxes, and required relatively little to rob aside from the robber’s audacity. More importantly, they could be halted in isolated locales, and that gave robbers time to flee before law enforcement arrived and attempted to track down the culprits. The arrival of the railroads added another lucrative target, albeit a more labor-intensive one, that required teamwork from a sizeable outlaw gang to subdue an entire train in order to rob its hold and passengers. And throughout, banks were a standby target of choice.
John King Fisher (1853 – 1884) started off as an Old West outlaw, but ended his days as a lawman. Born and raised in Texas, Fisher had turned bad at an early age. When he was fifteen years old, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment for horse theft but won early release because of his youth. Soon thereafter, he joined a group of bandits who raided across the border into Mexico and began to adopt a flamboyant persona. He dressed in flashy clothes, such as a black Mexican jacket embroidered with gold, a red sash, a wide sombrero, and sported silver-plated and ivory-handled pistols.
He styled himself a gunslinger and proved himself one when a dispute over the division of the loot triggered a shootout in which a teenaged Fisher killed three fellow bandits. After the gun smoke cleared, Fisher took over as gang leader, and over subsequent months, he killed seven more bandits to defend his leadership claim. In 1872, he bought a ranch on the Mexican border and used it as a base of operations for cattle rustling raids into Mexico. The Texas Rangers eventually raided the ranch and arrested Fisher, but released him upon his promise to cease raiding. He then tried his hand at legitimate cattle ranching, but ranch operations were frequently impeded by his violent temper.
19. A Violent Man Who Literally Got Away With Murder
In 1878, John King Fisher got into an argument with two Mexican cowboys and greatly escalated things when he smashed in the head of one with an iron rod and shot the other died when he tried to draw his pistol. He then shot two other Mexicans who had been sitting on a fence and simply watching. Since his victims were Mexican, and it was the Old West, nothing came of it. Nor did anything come of other instances when Fisher was arrested for violent acts and attempted murders, only to be released when witnesses refused to come forward or disappeared.
Although he was a notorious troublemaker, Fisher was nonetheless liked in the community, and by the 1880s he had transitioned from bandit to lawman. He served a brief stint as sheriff of Uvalde County in 1883, during which service he tracked down a pair of stagecoach robbers, shot one dead, and brought the other one in. The following year, Fisher went to see a play with a friend in San Antonio but was killed when a quarrel between his friend and the theater owner ended with Fisher and his friend ambushed in their theater box and cut down in a hail of bullets.
It is highly likely that John Wesley Hardin (1853 – 1895) was the deadliest outlaw gunslinger to have strode across the Old West. A trigger-happy killer who was eager to pull out a gun and blast away for any good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all, Hardin’s victims numbered in the dozens. He once shot a man for snoring too loud. According to his own claims, which might or might not have been exaggerated, he killed 42 men. Contemporary newspapers verified 27 killings that were attributed to Hardin.
Whatever the actual number of his victims, this murderer and all-around psychopath came from an unlikely background. The son of a Methodist minister and a member of a prominent Texas family that included a judge and a state legislator, Hardin was a bad ‘un from early on. His violent career began in 1867 when he stabbed a schoolmate. A year later, at age fifteen, he shot and killed an uncle’s former black slave in an argument over a wrestling match.
John Wesley Hardin fled to Sumpter, Texas, where claimed to have killed three Union soldiers in 1868 when they tried to arrest him. As he put it: “I waylaid them, as I had no mercy on men whom I knew only wanted to get my body to torture and kill. It was war to the knife for me, and I brought it on by opening the fight with a double-barreled shotgun and ended it with a cap and ball six-shooter. Thus it was by the fall of 1868 I had killed four men and was myself wounded in the arm“.
Within a year of that triple homicide, he killed another soldier. In 1871, the fugitive Hardin decided to try his hand at becoming a cowboy on the Chisholm Trail. He killed seven people en route, including two men in a card game, and an Indian “just for practice“. He killed another three men when he got to Abilene, Kansas. Later that year, he walked up to two black policemen who were looking for him, and shot them both, killing one and wounding the other. He was well on his way to becoming the deadliest outlaw of the Old West.
16. This Old West Outlaw Worked Hard to Hone His Lethality
John Wesley Hardin worked hard to perfect his skills as a gunslinger. He carried his pistols in holsters sewn into his vest, with the butts pointed inwards across his chest. He crossed his arms to draw, which he deemed the quickest way to get his pistols into action, and he practiced his draw technique every day. He also kept on steadily piling up the corpses, and on his 21st birthday in 1874, he quarreled with a deputy sheriff and shot him dead.
That killing of a lawman led to a $4000 “Dead or Alive” reward placed on Hardin (today, that would be the equivalent of over $86,000). He chose discretion over valor and fled Texas with his wife and daughter. He eventually settled in Florida, and under an assumed name, set himself up as a businessman. That peaceful interlude lasted until 1877 when Texas Rangers caught up with Hardin on a train in Pensacola. He tried to draw a revolver, but it got snagged on his suspenders, and the Rangers pistol-whipped him into submission.
In 1878, John Wesley Hardin was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 25 years behind bars. He made numerous escape attempts, including a tunnel into the prison armory, but they all failed. He eventually adapted to prison life, settled down, began to read theological books, and was put in charge of the prison’s Sunday school. He also studied law while behind bars. That changed attitude helped him get a pardon, and in 1894, Hardin was released from prison after he had served 17 years of his sentence.
Upon his release, he took and passed Texas’ bar exam, and became a licensed lawyer. He moved to El Paso in 1895 to start a law practice but got into trouble when he quarreled with John Selman, a lawman who had arrested a prostitute friend of Hardin. Heated words were exchanged, and that night, as Hardin was playing dice in a local saloon, Selman walked up to him from behind, shot him in the back of the head, then pumped three more bullets into him as lay on the ground.
14. The Deadly Psychopath Who Took on the Most Famous Lawman of the Old West
Old West killer Frank Stilwell (1856 – 1882) was a psychopath who made a living as both an outlaw and as a lawman. He was once served tea instead of coffee by a cook in Arizona and shot him dead to express his displeasure. In 1879, he staked a claim and worked a mine in Mojave, Arizona, but got into an argument with another miner over claim-jumping. To end the argument, Stilwell grabbed a rock and smashed in his rival’s face until he was dead. He was arrested for murder, but the charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence.
In 1881, Stilwell was hired as a Cochise County sheriff’s deputy, but was fired for “accounting irregularities”. Soon thereafter, he robbed a stagecoach near Tombstone, Arizona, and was tracked down and arrested by lawmen Wyatt and Virgil Earp. Stilwell produced alibi witnesses, and the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. The Earps, in their capacity as US Marshalls, then charged Stillwell with the federal crime of interference with a mail carrier. It created a perception that Stillwell was being persecuted, and led to the assassination of Wyatt’s brother, Morgan Earp.
13. Frank Stillwell Discovered That Tangling With Wyatt Earp Was a Bad Idea
Witnesses saw Frank Stillwell fleeing the scene of Morgan Earp’s shooting, and Wyatt Earp formed a posse to hunt the suspects. Soon thereafter, Wyatt learned that Stillwell planned to murder his other brother, Virgil, in Tucson when the train carrying his and Morgan’s coffin to California stopped there. Wyatt formed an escort to accompany Virgil, and on March 20, 1882, he spotted Stillwell and two associates waiting in ambush near Tucson’s train station. Stillwell and his friends ran for their lives when they spotted Wyatt, but Stillwell stumbled.
By the time Stillwell got back on his feet, Wyatt Earp was upon him. “I ran straight for Stilwell,” he later recounted. “It was he who killed my brother. What a coward he was. He couldn’t shoot when I came near him. He stood there helpless and trembling for his life. As I rushed upon him he put out his hands and clutched at my shotgun. I let go both barrels, and he tumbled down dead and mangled at my feet.”
12. The Other Old West Outlaw Who Got on Wyatt Earp’s Wrong Side
Old West outlaw John Peters Ringo (1850 – 1882), better known as Johnny Ringo, was born in Indiana, and his family moved to Missouri in 1856. When Ringo was fourteen, the family upped stakes and moved to California, but en route in Wyoming, his father inadvertently killed himself when he stepped off a wagon with a loaded shotgun that was accidentally discharged. The buckshot entered through the right side of his face, and blew out the top of his head as it exited.
Ringo Sr. was buried in Wyoming, and the family continued on to California, where Johnny Ringo lived until the 1870s. He eventually moved to Mason County, Texas, and became involved in a spate of vigilante lawlessness known as the “Mason County War“. Next, he became associated with the Cochise County Cowboys, an outlaw group in Tombstone, Arizona, and of the corrupt Tombstone Sheriff’s office. He is best known for his hostility to and adverse run-ins with lawman Wyatt Earp and his associates, which eventually spelled Ringo’s doom.
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