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Fireworks in the Old House Saloon

By J.R. Sanders
9/26/2018 • Wild West Magazine

A drover and gambler shot it out.

The 1884 Independence Day weekend in Dodge City, Kansas, was winding down from a four-day hullabaloo replete with picnics, band concerts, horse races, fireworks and the topper—a genuine Mexican bullfight (see “Western Enterprise” in this issue). The bunting had been pulled down, the last skyrocket fired and the final bull dispatched, but the fiesta’s real finale came in one of Front Street’s popular saloons, where a besotted cowman and a testy gambler bumped horns and sparked their own deadly fireworks.

Kyle Bingham (“Bing”) Choate was a 25-year-old drover, similar to many of the men who brought Longhorns up the cattle trails to Dodge, yet different in one respect: Bing was the son of a prominent south Texas rancher. James Monroe Choate, old-blood Texian and Confederate Army veteran, operated a huge cattle-raising concern out of Goliad. If not one of the fabled cattle kings, Monroe Choate was at least a prince.

By contrast, Dave St. Clair was a nobody. He was a young, dandified member of another of Dodge’s transient populations: the itinerant gamblers who haunted sporting houses above and below “the deadline.” A month earlier, Marshal Bill Tilghman had arrested St. Clair and another gambler over a row in which the two drew pistols but no blood. St. Clair’s placid appearance likely served him as both gambler and gunman.

Choate had come up from Texas leading 11,000 head and had stayed for the Independence Day festivities. Around 1 a.m. on July 6, he and several friends wandered into the Old House Saloon— owned by Dodge’s former law-and-order mayor, A.B. Webster—probably to cool throats raw from cheering and choked with arena dust. Choate’s companions included Texas cattlemen John L. Rutledge, W.H. Shanklin and J.Y. Bell, plus local cattle buyer Tom Marshall.

One of the saloon’s occupants at that young hour was Dave St. Clair. He was running a game—probably faro—and at some point formed the impression, accurate or not, that one of the Choate party had steered a player away from his game. Gamblers considered such “back-capping” a serious breach of etiquette, and St. Clair wasn’t long in calling the Texans on it. He stepped outside with George Masterson (a younger brother of Dodge’s famous Bat). Choate and company had preceded them, and lounged a few feet away. St. Clair asked Marshall outright what he thought of “knockers” (no anatomic reference, but gamblers’ slang for complainers or kibitzers), volunteering his own salty opinion about them. Marshall bit the hook, asking if the insult was aimed at him or any of the Texans. St. Clair replied that his remark meant “any that the shoe would fit.”

The oblique answer set the cowboys to grumbling among themselves as St. Clair and Masterson went back inside. The dandy gambler had scarcely returned to his table when the cowmen filed back in full of bug juice and bile. With alcoholic swagger, Choate bellied up to the bar and slapped a pistol snatched from Marshall’s pocket onto the mahogany. Loudly declaring himself “the fastest fighting son-of-a-bitch in town,” he fixed a watery evil eye on Dave St. Clair. The gambler did not acknowledge the challenge. Satisfied nonetheless, Choate handed the handgun to bartender Mac Shelton (in compliance with Dodge’s no-firearms-in-town ordinance), and he and his group walked back out.

Shortly, Rutledge reentered the Old House for a private talk with St. Clair, and it went well. It looked like trouble might be avoided. But then Choate returned, now carrying a cane in one hand and a Navy Colt in the other. He poked and prodded St. Clair with the stick, cocked the six-shooter, and berated him in language unsuited to polite company. Probably for the onlookers’ benefit, St. Clair folded his arms and maintained a calm expression while the Texas drover ranted.

At length, Bing Choate ran out of steam, and luck. He stowed the six-shooter in his waistband and seemed about to leave the saloon when St. Clair decided to call the turn. Given “an even break,” he coolly stated, he’d take the drunken drover’s pistol and “shove it”—specifying up which orifice. His threat to make Choate a human holster caused Bing’s eye to narrow. “You would, would you?” said Choate as he reached for his six-shooter. He didn’t get the barrel past his trouser band before St. Clair produced his own handgun and fired. The single shot hit the drover in the chest, spun him toward the door and dropped him. Game to the last, Choate tried to raise his Colt while he lay on the floor. Assistant Marshal Ben Daniels, a Johnny-come-lately witness to the shooting, snatched away the gun. There was nothing left for Bing Choate to do but die.

St. Clair submitted to arrest without a fuss. He was jailed pending a hearing, as much for his own safety as to prevent flight; newspapers as far away as Colorado Springs reported threats of a lynching. Choate’s body was carried to Dr. Charles Milton’s office, where Milton determined that St. Clair’s .45-caliber bullet had glanced off a rib and torn through Choate’s lower heart, stomach, left kidney and liver before exiting.

The following day, a coroner’s inquest convened at the Ford County Courthouse in Dodge. St. Clair testified on his own behalf; the coroner also heard testimony from Choate’s pals, plus Daniels, Masterson and several others. Although St. Clair naturally painted his conduct in rosy hues, he was honest in admitting the provocations he’d offered. Likewise, though Choate’s amigos put their best shine on his actions, most agreed he’d been drunk and belligerent, had assaulted St. Clair, and had brandished a handgun. They generally denied Choate was armed at the fatal instant (or conveniently “did not see” a weapon in his hand), but more impartial witnesses’ testimony bolstered St. Clair’s self-defense claim. Daniels and Deputy Sheriff Nelson Cary (another latecomer to the scene) testified that Choate was holding a gun when he died. That was enough; the jury voted 5 to 1 for justifiable homicide.

On Wednesday, July 9, St. Clair faced a preliminary hearing before Judge Rufus G. Cook, who admitted the inquest testimony. The only additional witness heard was an M.L. Robinson, who detailed the abuse hurled at St. Clair, adding that Choate held a six-shooter at his side as he “punched St. Clair in his face” with a cane and threatened to kill him. Robinson likewise mentioned the gambler’s threat to lodge Choate’s Colt in his nether opening, but confirmed that Choate was the armed aggressor.

Robinson’s detailed testimony clinched it. Prosecutor James Whitelaw said, “Technically and from a legal standpoint, he [St. Clair] may be guilty of an offense, and in my judgment is,” but conceded there was no basis for charging him. He admitted that the evidence, including that “from the warm friends of the deceased,” indicated that the defendant had reason to fear for his life. When the hot air dissipated, Judge Cook released Dave St. Clair without even a misdemeanor concealed-weapons charge.

Although Choate was blamed for his own early departure, local newspapers considered the affair evidence of the town’s fabled tolerance for the rowdy and rambunctious. Dodge City Times editor Nicholas Klaine, perennial drumbeater for local reform, wryly noted, “The gambling business has been dull since the murder of Choate.” The Arkansas City (Kan.) Traveler published a short, unsympathetic report concluding: “The officers say they don’t know who is to blame. Probably the man who was so awkward as to get in the way of a bullet aimed at him by a card sharp.”

The shooting typified the sort of gin-fueled, spur-of-the-moment violence that had birthed Dodge’s bloody image, and that reformers sought to stamp out. The local press beseeched officers to begin upholding the ordinance against carrying firearms in town. Nick Klaine’s Times article “The Murder,” declared Dave St. Clair “an acknowledged ‘game’ with a pistol,” and played up Choate’s youth—never mind that St. Clair was about the same age. Klaine railed, “Perhaps after the gambling table has offered a few more victims some efforts may be used to stamp out the sources of so much blood, disorder, and crime.” Bowing to the pressures such bombast created, Marshal Tilghman and his policemen began enforcing the town’s gun-carrying ban in earnest, both above and below the deadline—an unprecedented move.

Bing Choate’s body was placed “in a neat metallic case” and sent by train back to Goliad, where his family buried him and moved on. Dave St. Clair likewise wasted no time in moving on. The Globe Livestock Journal reported that after Judge Cook cleared him, St. Clair “left the city on the night train.” Maybe he worried about retaliation; Dodge was still full of angry Texans. Possibly, with the outcry for reform, he feared for his livelihood. Perhaps he simply had the itchy feet typical of the frontier gambler. In any case, where Dave St. Clair went from Dodge City goes unrecorded. He had fired the final salute to Dodge’s ambitious Fourth of July and, little did he know, that shot helped tame “the wickedest little city in America.”

 

Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here

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