Bad behavior cost him the job, but he later got back his badge.
As the mining camp of Telluride on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies boomed in the 1880s, the usual assortment of crooked gamblers, muggers, stickup men and rogues of all sorts descended on it. The town fathers needed a tough fighting man as city marshal. In 1888 they turned to Jim Clark, a big, burly 47-year-old with a wide reputation as a formidable fighting man with fists or guns.
Clark had no previous experience as a lawman but plenty of experience with the lawless class. Born in Missouri’s Clay County in 1841, James Clark was still quite young when his father died prematurely and his mother married a man named Cummings. The young man rejected his stepfather’s name and retained the surname “Clark.” As a teen he also showed little respect for the property rights of his stepfather, stealing one of his mules and heading for the wilds of Texas with a boyhood friend. In San Antonio he and his pal sold the mule and bought six-shooters, new clothes and boots that a contemporary described as “high top…with stars on the front.” The clothes and boots would wear out over the years, but the six-shooter would be a part of Clark’s apparel the rest of his life. Brandishing his new weapon, Clark committed his second felony, relieving a rancher outside San Antonio of $1,400. When he returned to Clay County, his mother abetted in his crimes by concealing the ill-gotten cash for him, but his stepfather never spoke to him again.
Tradition has it a schoolteacher named William Quantrill boarded at the Clark home and became quite friendly with young Jim Clark. When the Civil War broke out, Quantrill enlisted into his Confederate guerrilla band this 20-yearold admirer who had grown into a big, broad-shouldered bear of a man and a crack shot with pistol or rifle. Clark later claimed he was a favored lieutenant of the infamous partisan leader and conducted secret missions for him. Later newspaper editors accepted this fiction and added, with no reliable evidence, that during the war and subsequent bandit period Clark rode with the outlaw gang of fellow Quantrill partisans the James and Younger brothers, killing more than a score of men. The same journalists reported Clark also found time to serve as a government scout and Indian fighter.
Clark may well have fought as a Confederate guerrilla during the war, for in later years he made no secret of his deep-seated Southern sympathies, but historians recording the activities of Quantrill, the James boys and the Younger brothers, both during and after the conflict, have found no mention of Clark’s participation. Newsmen evidently confused the name Cummings, the surname of Clark’s stepfather and mother, with the history of a well-documented veteran of the guerrillas and the James gang named Jim Cummins.
Other contemporary newspaper accounts claimed Clark participated in stagecoach robberies in the Black Hills in the 1870s, but his name hasn’t turned up in histories of that period.
How Jim Clark spent the years between the end of the war and his 1887 appearance in Telluride, Colo. remains a mystery. By the time he showed up in that mining boomtown, however, he was reckoned, as the papers noted, a gunman of the first order, “one of the best shots in the world.” He first took a menial job as a ditchdigger, bending his powerful back to excavate for a pipeline into town. But when he noticed the town peace officers seemed incapable of controlling the rowdies and toughs terrorizing the citizenry, he strode into the mayor’s office and said, “If you give me a special appointment as a policeman or special deputy I will arrest those fellows for you.” Presented with a badge, he marched out into the street and began collecting troublemakers, cracking them over the head with his six-shooter and dragging them to the hoosegow. Impressed that Clark had restored order without firing a shot, the city fathers promptly dismissed the city marshal and installed Clark in the office until voters confirmed their decision in a special July 1888 election.
One veteran of Telluride’s early years recollected: “I remember Jim Clark, the town marshal. He was a good marshal, but he was a very brutal man. He knew he had lots of enemies, so he kept a Winchester rifle in each of four stores just to have one handy in a hurry, and he carried two guns in his pants. He was a dead shot and kept in practice by shooting out the letters in the signs on the Lone Tree Cemetery fence.” Another old-timer, son of a Telluride storekeeper, related how Clark served as a bill collector for his father. “A lot of Cornish miners traded at our store, and when they owed us money, they’d duck away from it as they came by. My father would tell Jim who they were, and he’d walk around town and spot them when they were drinking or gambling. All he had to do was tap them on the shoulder and mention father’s name, and they’d hotfoot it to the store and pay up. Jim used to come in the store whenever he wanted a hat, and he never paid for one either. I guess he thought he was entitled to them.”
Cyrus Wells “Doc” Shores, sheriff of Colorado’s Gunnison County, first met Jim Clark during the winter of 1888–89 and described him as “a large, efficient-looking brown-eyed man with a dark mustache.” He was, said Shores, “sort of a legendary figure.…I had heard, among other things, that he was a great fighting man, and physically a strong man—in fact a real fighter with a gun or any other way.” Clark was, Shores admitted, an impressive figure of a lawman, but he had also heard that he had ridden with the likes of Quantrill and the James boys. Worse, it was suspected he still “stood in” with outlaws, tipping road agents to gold shipments by stagecoach to enable lucrative holdups and then sharing in the proceeds.
On June 24, 1889, three men held up the Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride, making off with $20,750. The three were identified as Tom McCarty, Matt Warner and a 23-year-old cowboy named Robert LeRoy Parker, later to become legendary under the alias “Butch Cassidy.” Marshal Clark was conspicuously out of town when the stickup occurred, and it was widely believed he was complicit in the crime and a recipient of part of the loot.
Such suspicions, compounded by his frequent violent outbursts of temper and brutal treatment of arrestees, lost him his job. A man named A.M. McDonald replaced him as city marshal.
Clark went to Leadville where he remained several years, working in the mines and frequently giving vent to his violent temper. One of these outbursts almost cost him his life. On Christmas Eve 1889 he got into an altercation with Mike McGreavey, who pulled a pistol, pushed the muzzle into Clark’s stomach and eared back the hammer. But as he pulled the trigger, a bystander knocked down his arm, and the bullet went into Clark’s leg instead of his gut.
Clark worked for a time as a detective for the Denver & Rio Grande Express Co., but by 1893 the ruffian crowd had again taken over Telluride, and city officials called him back as city marshal. He served in that capacity until the night of August 6, 1895, when an unseen and never identified assassin gunned him down on the streets of Telluride. Ironically, the man who had fought for the Confederacy and always espoused the “Lost Cause” was buried in the Grand Army of the Republic section of Telluride’s Lone Tree Cemetery.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.