If ever a man talked himself into a hangman’s noose, it was Bill Longley. As with so many other notorious Texans in the mid-1870s, Longley had an ego as large as a room, and his boastful nature ultimately sealed his doom when he was finally held accountable for his crimes. And this raises a question as to whether or not Longley deserves to be discussed in the same breath with better-known shootists like Wild Bill Hickok, John Wesley Hardin or Ben Thompson. Rather than wearing the mantle of legendary gunfighter, perhaps he was nothing but a cold-blooded murderer.
Born in Austin County, on October 6, 1851, William Preston Longley was the sixth of 10 children produced by Texas Revolution veteran Campbell Longley and his wife, Sarah. He was raised on a farm near the small community of Evergreen, in what became Lee County, and received an average education for a boy at that time. When fully grown, he was a lanky 6-footer, with curly black hair, an angular face with high cheek bones and, most striking, small, piercing black eyes through which the menacing forces within Longley made themselves most evident.
After the Civil War, the Reconstruction Act of 1867 introduced the military occupation of Southern states, including Texas, and resulted in the displacement of elected officials at all levels by incompetent hacks to whom political favors were owed. The world as young Bill Longley and other Texans knew it was turned upside down. Fervent Unionists were now in control, and it was galling to the unprepared Texas communities to witness equally unprepared newly freed slaves awkwardly exercising their civil liberties, with both the Army and Freedman’s Bureau in place to make sure that the ex-slaves were not abused.
Considerable resentment grew as Texans began to accommodate to this new state of affairs. But many remained unreconstructed, especially younger men such as John Wesley Hardin and Bill Longley. Although too young to have fought in the war, they nevertheless felt compelled to keep the ex-slaves in what they perceived as their place. Longley dropped out of school and stopped attending to his chores on the family farm. He assumed the lifestyle of a hellion and, with some other youths in the area, preyed on black men when the opportunity arose. Stories survive of Longley and others disrupting traveling circuses by injudicious use of their pistols, as well as forcing confrontations with black men, usually with robbery in mind. The general community tended to overlook Longley’s rebellious nature, bad habits and predilection for trouble, at least until he finally killed someone.
In mid-December 1868, three former slaves — Green and Pryor Evans, brothers, and another known as Ned — left Bell County on horseback to travel south and visit friends and relatives in Austin County for Christmas. They passed through the Evergreen area, where Longley and several companions spotted them, especially eyeing the splendid horse ridden by Green Evans. The white men stopped the trio and proposed a swap for the horse, but the former slaves declined. A few minutes later, Longley and his group got the drop on the three travelers and forced them to ride into a remote creek bottom.
Fearing the worst, Green Evans spurred his mount and raced to escape. A volley of pistol balls followed him, one tunneling through his head and killing him. In the confusion, the other black men fled. Longley and his companions rifled the dead man’s pockets and then rode off.
When the former slave owner, Alfred Evans, of Salado in Bell County, rode to Evergreen to investigate, he ran into a wall of silence. Longley was generally credited with killing Green Evans, though he later claimed that all of them shot at the fleeing youth. No formal charges were ever brought in the matter, indicative of the community’s toleration of such lawlessness so long as the victims were ex-slaves. However, the danger of arrest by the military was sufficient to convince the 17-year-old Longley that he should leave the area. At this point, the story of Longley’s life becomes one of tangled fact and fiction, the product of tall tales spun by him after he was arrested years later. The following account hews to the facts as documented, and the reader will note significant gaps in which there is no account of his activities. According to Longley, he left his familiar stomping grounds and by the spring of 1869 found himself in northeastern Texas, not far from Texarkana. He claimed that he was grabbed by a mob that believed he was part of the gang of cutthroat Cullen Montgomery Baker, and that they hanged him on the spot, along with a man named Johnson. According to Longley, the vigilantes left right away, and Johnson’s brother shot the rope holding him and he dropped to the ground, barely alive. He then supposedly became one of Baker’s chief lieutenants. Of course, there are problems with this story — Baker was killed in January 1869, and there is no record that Longley was ever a part of that gang. However, one of the lasting legends about Longley was born.
In reality, Longley continued to rampage in south-central Texas, now accompanied by his older brother-in-law, John Wilson. They killed a freedman named Paul Brice in Bastrop County, then took his horses and reportedly killed a black woman near Evergreen. In March 1870, a $1,000 reward was offered for both of them by military authorities, describing them as murderers and horse thieves, although accounts of many of their crimes have not survived. Longley later claimed that Wilson was killed and buried in Brazos County in the spring of 1870, even though there is some evidence that he was killed in Falls County in 1874. All of this was enough to force Longley out of Texas, and he headed north, perhaps on a cattle drive. In May 1870, he joined a gold-hunting expedition leaving Cheyenne, in Wyoming Territory, and headed into the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. However, a treaty with the Sioux prohibited mining activities in the mountains, and a cavalry unit intercepted the gold-hunting party, which promptly disbanded. Longley found himself stranded and penniless, so on June 22, 1870, he enlisted for five years as a trooper in Company B of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, stationed at Camp Stambaugh in the mountains near the mining towns of South Pass and Atlantic City on the Continental Divide.
The primary duty for troops at this new post was scouting for the continuing Indian threat, but as with any Army post, there was a structured lifestyle. Longley quickly found military life not to his liking. He deserted two weeks later, but was caught, returned and court-martialed for desertion. Pleading guilty, he was sentenced to two years at hard labor. Wearing a 24-pound ball and chain, he began serving his sentence in the newly built stockade at Camp Stambaugh. However, four months later, in December, when a harsh winter overtook the post with 20-foot snowdrifts, his company commander took pity on the young man, and Longley was released to resume his military duties. Private Longley was recognized as a skilled marksman, so he became a regular member of hunting parties that combed the mountains for provisions for the post. One sergeant, though, recalled Longley as ‘an idle boaster, a notorious liar and a man of low instinct and habits, but tolerated on account of his good nature, gift of gab, and excellent marksmanship.’ Longley later denied he was ever in the U.S. Army, falsely claiming that he had been a teamster and had killed an officer with whom he shared a kickback scheme.
The young soldier tolerated Army life in the mountains of Wyoming for only another 18 months, then deserted again in June 1872, this time for good. Where he went or what he did is not known, but he turned up in Texas in February 1873, when it was reported that he and others had murdered a black man named Price in Brown County. In July of that year, he was in Bell County, where his parents had moved and were now farming along the Lampasas River. Someone spotted him carrying a pistol, which was illegal, and he was later indicted for that, although not arrested.
Two weeks later he was arrested in Kerr County when he was found with remnants of Frank Eastwood’s gang of horse thieves. Vigilantes, grown tired of the depredations of Eastwood and his men, had about decimated the gang, and Longley had the bad luck of being with some of the gunfighters fleeing the mob. Identified as wanted for murder, Longley was taken to Austin by Mason County Sheriff J.J. Finney, who hoped to claim any reward. However, when the reward was not forthcoming from the state of Texas because it had been offered by the military during Reconstruction, Finney apparently released his prisoner, allegedly for payment of some money by one of Longley’s cousins.
Longley once again took to the road, but he showed up at his parents’ farm in Bell County at Christmastime 1874. With his 15-year-old brother Jim in tow, he rode down to his old stomping grounds at Evergreen in Lee County to visit an uncle, Cale Longley. Once there, the two brothers learned that their cousin, ‘Little Cale,’ was dead, supposedly killed by an old boyhood friend of Bill’s, Wilson Anderson. Uncle Cale urged Bill to avenge his cousin’s death by killing Anderson.
Although there was some evidence that Little Cale had actually gotten drunk with Anderson, then rode his horse into a tree, revenge blinded the boy’s father. Jim tried to get Bill to let that side of the family do their own killing, but on the afternoon of March 31, 1875, the two Longley brothers rode over to Anderson’s farm and found him plowing in the field. Bill Longley rode up to him, told him that he was going to kill him, then shot him twice with a shotgun. Bill and Jim then rode off, eluding a hastily gathered posse.
The two brothers rode as far north as Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) before young Jim became homesick. They turned around and, after a brief incarceration in the small town of Van Alstyne, where they became infested with body lice, returned to Bell County in July. Bill soon left again, but Jim was arrested for the murder of Anderson, for which he was later acquitted. Another reward was offered for the capture of Bill Longley.
The wanted Bill Longley could not afford to stay in one place, and he adopted one alias after another to stay ahead of the law. In late 1875, he wrote a letter to a friend, Lee County Sheriff James M. Brown, who had purchased the Longley farm at Evergreen, that reflected his realization that the life he was leading was a doomed one, but he nevertheless remained defiant: ‘I expect to get killed sometime but you may bet your sweet life that I will keep the flys [sic] off of the son of a bitch that does it while he is at it.’ Longley rode north to Waco in McLennan County, where, using the name Jim Patterson, he took a job at the farm and cotton gin of John Sedberry. Along with a companion, Robert Rushing, he engaged in occasional robbery and assault, but he was not arrested. On the crisp, cold evening of November 13, 1875, he was part of a drunken foxhunt and got into an argument with a young man named George Thomas. Words led to a fistfight, which didn’t settle the dispute for Longley. He acquired a six-shooter and shot Thomas three times, killing him. Longley was subsequently indicted for shooting him in the back. Stealing a horse, he was once again on the lam.
He next turned up in Uvalde County, in the Dry Frio Canyon, in late 1875 or January 1876 using the name Jim Webb. He became acquainted with William ‘Lou’ Shroyer, a Pennsylvania native and former Union soldier who also had a reputation as a bad man. Lou Shroyer suspected Webb’s true identity, even allegedly conspiring to capture or kill Longley for the reward. Longley somehow learned of this and was able to get himself deputized at the town of Uvalde to go arrest Shroyer. Taking with him a hastily recruited deputy, William Hayes, Longley returned to the Dry Frio Canyon to set his plan in motion. On January 10, 1876, they told Shroyer that they had killed a cow and wanted him to share in some of the meat. Shroyer agreed, bringing with him a pack of dogs that he owned. Longley’s idea was to get the drop on him as they rode along. Shroyer, however, sensed trouble, and when guns were drawn he raced off, the two deputies in pursuit. Shroyer’s horse was shot, and Shroyer in turn killed Longley’s horse, then retreated into a glade of trees, followed closely by his dogs. Then Hayes took a bullet in the thigh, and his horse spooked and ran off with him. The two remaining combatants traded shots. Shroyer, lying in some tall grass, finally called out that he wanted to talk to Longley, and Longley walked toward him. According to Longley, Shroyer then tried to raise his weapon, and Longley killed him. If Longley was ever in a legitimate gunfight, this was the one, and he later gleefully relished the details.
Longley fled Uvalde County, and by mid-February 1876 he was at the other end of Texas, in tiny Delta County, east of Dallas. Going by the name of William Black, he stayed with farmer Thomas P. Jack in the small village of Ben Franklin. He quickly became enamored of Jack’s 16-year-old daughter, Rachel Lavinia, whom he later called ‘Miss Louvenia.’ Deciding to stay in the community, he entered into a sharecropping arrangement with farmer William Roland Lay, who was also a preacher. At the same time, he discovered that he had a rival for Miss Louvenia’s affections in young Mark Foster, who was Mrs. Lay’s nephew. This led to chilly relations with the Lay family.
Longley later claimed that he kept finding anonymous notes left for him, warning him to get out of the area. Finally, he forced a confrontation with young Foster and whipped him with both a quirt and a pistol. Charges of false imprisonment (rather than assault) were made against ‘William Black’ and Thomas Jack, and on June 6, 1876, they were both jailed at Cooper, the Delta County seat. Early in the morning six days later, Longley burned a hole in the jail door and escaped. Blaming the Reverend Lay for his predicament, Longley armed himself with a shotgun and lay in wait at the Lay farm. As dawn broke, and Lay was milking a cow, Longley cold-bloodedly dispatched him to his eternal reward with a full blast of turkey shot. Once again the outlaw fled.
Where Longley went after this killing is uncertain. He reportedly freed two Lee County desperado friends of his, Jim and Dick Sanders, from the custody of a Grayson County deputy sheriff. The three of them rode south and disarmed a Milam County deputy, Matt Shelton, on their way back to Lee County. More and more lawmen were now becoming interested in Longley’s whereabouts, and the Texas Rangers were maintaining general lookout.
In the spring of 1877, Longley adopted the alias ‘Bill Jackson’ and found work with farmer W.T. Gamble near Keatchie in Louisiana’s De Soto Parish. As he established himself as a hardworking farmhand, Jackson became close friends with a local constable, June Courtney, even occasionally assisting him in making arrests. But Courtney came across a circular from Texas describing the wanted Bill Longley, and the description fitted his friend Jackson. The constable contacted Sheriff Milt Mast, in Nacogdoches County, across the Sabine River in Texas. Mast sent a letter to the Lee County district clerk, W.A. Knox, asking for more particulars, and Knox provided them in a May 18 letter: ‘Longley is today the worst man in Texas….You will have to take the advantage of him — he will fight and is a good shot.’
Mast and his deputy, Bill Burrows, consulted with Courtney, the reward uppermost in their minds. On June 6, 1877, Courtney asked Bill Jackson to come to the house from the field in order to help him make an arrest. The unarmed Longley was quickly surrounded by the three lawmen, securely manacled and whisked to Texas without benefit of extradition proceedings. Within days he was in the rickety, escape-prone Lee County jail, to be held for the 1875 murder of Wilson Anderson. Now Longley began in earnest to promote his legend as the deadliest gunfighter to ever prowl the Texas prairie, and unwittingly to seal his fate. The jailed man wrote letters to the Giddings Tribune detailing his gunfighting exploits, and other Texas newspapers picked up the stories. He not only claimed that he had killed an Army quartermaster in Wyoming Territory and had ridden with Cullen Baker but also boasted that he had killed a total of 32 men, a number that he said entitled him to be considered ‘the most successful outlaw that ever lived in Texas.’ Longley was primarily competing for the title against noted gunman John Wesley Hardin, who would be captured in Florida in August and who reportedly had killed only 28 men. While most newspapers cast a jaundiced eye at Longley’s claims, the boasts nevertheless took hold in the public mind, and he became a notorious figure. Longley shamelessly claimed that while he had killed men, he had never ridden with horse and cattle thieves or had ever stolen anything. Of course, this was far from the truth.
Longley thought about escaping, once writing young brother Jim about a plan to bribe his guards and flee the country. But Lee County Sheriff Jim Brown was determined that his prisoner would stay put. Samuel Kenada, a new attorney from nearby Washington County, was appointed to defend Longley, though he had never tried a murder case before. The trial was set for September 3, 1877, in a temporary courthouse in Giddings, and Sheriff Brown recruited a strong guard to foil any attempt to rescue the prisoner.
On September 3, the entire day was occupied in picking a jury. Experienced prosecutor Seth Shepherd took repeated advantage of Kenada’s inexperience. It took only one day for the prosecution to present its case, and the jury took just an hour and a half to return a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. It was death for Bill Longley. Since the county jail was so flimsy, Longley was quickly transferred to the Galveston County jail, pending the outcome of his appeal of the death sentence. This turn of events seemed to sober Longley as he contemplated that he had literally come to the end of his rope. While escape was still in the back of his mind, his thoughts turned to the choices he had made in his life that brought him to this point. The impact of his behavior on his aged and heartbroken parents in Bell County, who did not attend the trial or visit him in jail, weighed heavily on him. His letters became religious tomes, and he used his own experiences to illustrate the folly of a wasted life. ‘My first step was disobedience,’ he noted; ‘next whisky drinking; next, carrying pistols; next, gambling, and then murder, and I suppose the next step will be the gallows.’ Belatedly and in vain, he tried to disavow the earlier boasts of wanton killing that he had adopted as his legacy. In somber letters to brother Jim, he reflected on where his crimes had brought him and what a better life was on the other side. When Hardin was finally tried for the 1875 shooting of Brown County Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb and received a 25-year prison sentence, Longley was outraged at the difference in punishment: ‘Don’t you think it is a one-sided thing to kill me for my sins and only give Hardin 25 years in prison?’
A feeble attempt at escape was thwarted in early March 1878, and then on March 13 the court of appeals affirmed Longley’s conviction, finding that his trial had been fair and further noting that the opinion ‘probably concludes the career of one of the most noted malefactors of the state, whose imputed exploits have contributed largely to the most sanguinary chapters of her annals.’ Clearly, the legend of violence that Longley had chosen for himself was uppermost on the appellate judges’ minds.
In July, as Longley waited in the Galveston jail for court to convene in Giddings so that he finally could be sentenced, he converted to Catholicism. A petition effort was underway in Nacogdoches asking that the governor commute his sentence to life, and an uncle in California, Alexander ‘Pres’ Longley, sent a letter to President Rutherford B. Hayes asking for a presidential pardon. But none of this was to any avail. A heavily manacled Bill Longley was returned in August to Giddings, and on September 6, District Judge E.B. Turner ordered his execution for October 11. A contrite Longley pronounced himself ‘ready to abide by the decision of the jury.’ As Longley once more entered the Lee County jail, Sheriff Brown busied himself with tightening security to head off any escape or rescue attempt. On the night before his scheduled execution, Longley wrote his brother Jim: ‘I don’t dread this at all. Tomorrow this time I will be in a much better place.’
When Friday, October 11, 1878, dawned, it was murky and rain was threatening. Thousands of people poured into the tiny Giddings community to see Longley’s hanging. Two priests met with the condemned man throughout the morning, and after they left Longley asked some jailers to join him in singing ‘Amazing Grace.’ He carefully dressed in a black suit, with a white shirt and black tie, then combed his long hair and goatee before donning a broad-brimmed low-crown hat. On his lapel he wore a blue rosette arrangement. Beneath his shirt on a cord hung a small Catholic medal. Only one family member visited him, a 10-year-old niece, and when he kissed her goodbye, even the strongest hearts in the jail were touched.
Shortly after noon, Sheriff Brown placed Longley in an enclosed ambulance wagon for the slow ride to the waiting gallows, escorted by heavily armed guards on foot. At the gallows, cigar firmly clamped in his mouth, Longley took a seat under the gallows and drank some water that was brought for him. In addition to the guards on foot, armed horsemen intently watched the massive crowd. At 2:15, the sheriff, Longley and others began to mount the scaffold. When the rickety stairs appeared to shake or almost give way, Longley warned the others before proceeding up the steps. Attended by two priests, Longley stood as the death warrant was read by Brown. Then Longley discarded his cigar and briefly addressed the crowd, announcing that he thought God had forgiven him and asking that none of his friends attempt to take any revenge. None of Longley’s family attended the execution.
After praying with the priests, he kissed them, then kissed his friend Brown on the cheek. Longley took his place over the trapdoor, the noose was placed around his neck, and a black hood was drawn over his head. Brown looked around for his hatchet with which to cut the rope holding the trapdoor. ‘Where’s my hatchet?’ the sheriff asked. From under the hood, Longley asked: ‘What do you want with a hatchet? Are you going to split my head open?’ The rope was cut, and Longley plummeted through the opening, but the sheriff had miscalculated and Longley hit the ground hard but remained standing. It took but a second for the sheriff and a deputy to haul up the dangling Longley. Longley emitted several moans, and attempted to raise his pinioned feet and arms several times, but he slowly strangled to death. After 11 minutes he was pronounced dead by three doctors. Brown then placed the body in a coffin, and it was taken to the town cemetery and buried outside the consecrated portion, where there were scores of other anonymous graves, mostly of black and Hispanic men and women who had not been allowed to be buried in the cemetery.
Longley was given credit by the press for ‘dying game,’ but his boasts lived on and became part of Texas gunfighter lore. One newspaper referred to him as ‘Bloody Bill,’ and the stories he had spun gradually became accepted as fact. The nickname ‘Wild Bill,’ though often seen today, was never used by him; it was the product of a Texas historian, T.U. Baker, in the 1920s.
But Longley’s tale was not yet fully told. Nearly nine years after Bill’s hanging, his father, Campbell Longley, was quoted in an innocuous 1887 newspaper article, saying that the hanging had been a hoax, that a rich uncle in California, ‘Pres’ Longley, had provided $4,000 to bribe Sheriff Brown and his deputies, and that a special harness had been used to fake the hanging. Bill Longley was then supposed to have become a successful landholder and cattleman in Central America. Notwithstanding that Pres Longley was a ne’er-do-well and that $4,000 wouldn’t go very far to convince Brown and all his deputies to keep their mouths shut, the story nevertheless became part of Longley’s legacy — the man who had been hanged three times and lived to tell about it.
The story was never refuted, and no one stepped forward with the facts of the execution. The family story behind Campbell Longley’s statement was that his wife, Sarah, had never accepted the fact that one of her children was a cold-blooded murderer and had been hanged. Because of her fragile mind-set, the family conspired to keep Bill Longley alive, even concocting letters from him in Utah Territory, where he was supposedly staying with a sister. Campbell Longley’s story was only a furtherance of that family conspiracy, and he likely regretted that it was picked up by the press and reported statewide. Sarah Longley died in April 1890 at age 68, and the story of the many lives of Bill Longley died out…for nearly 100 years, at least.
In 1988, Louisiana native Ted Wax wrote Dead Men on the Bayou?, a small book in which he contended that Campbell Longley’s story was true and that Bill Longley had surfaced in Iberia Parish, La., in 1886 under the alias John Calhoun Brown, Wax’s grandfather. Brown became wealthy in the timber business and died in 1923. Wax based his claim on having seen a manuscript (later discarded) written by his mother that stated Brown was indeed Bill Longley. Wax said there were also photographic similarities, and a New Orleans attorney was of the opinion that there were similarities in handwriting.
Wax interested Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist, in his story. Owsley and geoarcheologists Drs. Brooks and Suzanne Elwood hunted for three years in the Giddings cemetery for either the remains of Bill Longley or an empty hole filled with rocks as part of the hanging hoax. A number of unmarked graves were located and legally excavated, but none contained a body that fitted the description of Bill Longley. Part of the effort involved using a photograph taken in the 1920s of what was purported to be Bill Longley’s grave.
Finally, in July 1998, using a computer to match up the old photo with new photos of the cemetery, the spot was located where the older photograph had to have been taken…right by an historical marker announcing that Longley had been buried in the cemetery. An excavation of that site turned up the skeleton of a Caucasian man fitting Longley’s physical description. The man had suffered from periodontal disease, as well as a broken leg, perhaps resulting from the fall from the scaffold. Just as intriguing, the researchers found on the skeleton a Catholic medal that had been worn around the man’s neck on a cord. Also found was a small piece of artificial material with the design of a leaf that could have been from the rosette Longley wore. The remains were removed to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., for attempts at DNA and skull reconstruction identification. Finally, in June 2001, it was announced that the remains taken from the Giddings cemetery were indeed those of Bill Longley, and his bones were subsequently reinterred in Texas.
When it comes to the Old West, there has been a tendency to gloss over and neglect facts in order to make the fascinating gunfighters objects of myth and legend. Both Jesse James and Billy the Kid have been inaccurately portrayed as Robin Hoods, noble figures who turned to crime because of some great social injustice. But there were some figures who truly possessed the legendary nerve and pluck necessary to see them through dangerous times. Wild Bill Hickok was just such a figure, and all the evidence points to his living up to some of the claims. However, when the facts are examined, ‘Bloody Bill’ Longley doesn’t pass muster. His one real gunfight — with Lou Shroyer in the Dry Frio Canyon — started out as an attempted ambush and turned into a gunfight only because Shroyer realized what was happening. Longley’s other killings, such as the ambush of the Reverend Lay while he was milking a cow, more accurately reflect the nature of the man and strongly suggest that he was merely a cold-blooded murderer, not a legendary gunfighter.
This article was written by Rick Miller and originally appeared in the February 2002 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!