John King Fisher (1853 – 1884) turned bad at an early age. Born and raised in Texas, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment at age fifteen for horse theft, but won early release because of his youth. Soon thereafter, he joined bandits who raided across the border into Mexico. He adopted a flamboyant persona, dressing in flashy clothes, such as a black Mexican jacket embroidered with gold, a red sash, a wide sombrero, and sporting silver-plated and ivory-handled pistols.
He styled himself a gunslinger and proved himself one when a dispute over sharing the loot led to a shootout. It ended with a teenage Fisher killing three fellow bandits. After the gun smoke dissipated, Fisher took over as gang leader, and during the ensuing months, he defended and held on to his leadership claim by killing seven more of his criminal underlings.
In 1872, John King Fisher 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 stop raiding. He then tried his hand at legitimate cattle ranching, but ranch operations were frequently impeded by his violent temper.
In 1878, he escalated an argument with two Mexican cowboys by smashing the skull of one with an iron rod, and shooting the other dead when he tried to draw his pistol. He then shot two other Mexicans who had been sitting on a fence and simply watching. 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 disappeared or refused to come forward.
Although John King Fisher was a notorious troublemaker, he was well-liked in the community. So well-liked, in fact, that by the 1880s he had transitioned from bandit to lawman. In 1883, he served briefly as acting sheriff of Uvalde County, during which stint of service he tracked down a stagecoach robbing duo, shooting one dead and bringing in the other.
A year later, Fisher’s end came when he went to see a play with a friend in San Antonio, and a quarrel erupted between his friend and the theater owner. It ended in gunfire, with Fisher and his buddy ambushed in their theater box and cut down in a hail of bullets.
Clay Allison (1841 – 1887) of Tennessee fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the war, he moved west, where he gained a reputation as a dangerous man and lethal gunslinger. His first brush with fame – or infamy – occurred in 1870, when he led a mob that broke into a New Mexico jail, seized a deranged man accused of murdering numerous people, including his own daughter, and lynched him.
Allison’s fame grew in 1874, when a notorious gunman tried to kill him while the two were dining together in a saloon. Allison drew faster, and shot him dead. His reputation was further enhanced during a range war in New Mexico, known as “The Colfax War“, between established settlers and new titleholders who accused the settlers of squatting. Allison sided with the settlers, and took part in the lynching of a pro-landowner gunslinger.
The lynched man’s family vowed revenge on Clay Allison, but when an uncle of the victim cornered Allison, the latter proved quicker on the draw and shot him dead. Allison was arrested for murder, but charges were dropped after an inquiry determined that he had acted in self-defense.
In 1876, a constable in Las Animas, Colorado, informed Allison that it was illegal to carry guns within the town limits. The result was a gunfight that left the constable dead. Allison was charged with manslaughter, but charges were dropped because the constable had fired first. Surprisingly, for a man so violent, Allison died in a routine accident in 1887 when he fell off a wagon, and its wheel rolled over and snapped his neck.
In 1877, a cook in Arizona served Frank Stilwell (1856 – 188) tea instead of coffee, so Stilwell shot him dead. In 1879, he staked a claim and worked a mine in Mojave, Arizona, and got into an argument with another miner over claim-jumping. Stilwell ended the argument by grabbing a rock and smashing his rival’s face until he was dead. He was arrested for murder, but charges were dropped for lack of evidence.
In 1881, Stilwell was hired as a Cochise County sheriff’s deputy, but was canned 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 Marshals, then charged Stillwell with the federal crime of interference with a mail carrier. It created a perception that Stillwell was being persecuted, and led soon thereafter to the assassination of Wyatt’s brother, Morgan Earp.
Stillwell was seen fleeing the scene of Morgan Earp’s shooting, and Wyatt Earp formed a posse to hunt the suspects. Soon thereafter, Wyattlearned that Stillwell planned to murder his other brother, Virgil, in Tucson when the train carrying him and Morgan’s coffin to California stopped there. Wyatt formed an escort to accompany Virgil, and on March 20th, 1882, 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 he 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.”
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading