A steadfast manager of the Central Overland stagecoach line and the Pony Express, the man called Slade could transform—especially when whiskey talked—into a ruffian bent on wrongdoing and self-destruction.
On the eve of the Civil War, on the sole street of Julesburg in the northeastern corner of what would become Colorado, two antagonists faced off for the first time. One was longhaired Jules Beni, the namesake hamlet’s hulking, swaggering French-Canadian boss. Old Jules was suspected of tampering with the mails and stealing horses from the Central Overland stagecoach line and its famous offshoot, the Pony Express. His younger, shorter opponent was the red-haired company agent who had arrived to replace him.
According to legend—for no stenographers or reporters were present to record the meeting—Beni glared at the smaller man and growled, “Your name Jack Slade?”
His adversary quietly answered, “Captain Slade.”
“Going to work for the Pony?” Beni pressed.
“That’s the idea,” said Slade.
“You won’t last long.”
“Maybe not,” replied Slade. “But while I do, the mails are going out on time.”
So powerful was the appeal of this David-and-Goliath confrontation (and there would be several other dramatic chapters to the story) that it assumed a life of its own. It was preserved and embellished by teamsters and stagecoach drivers, by bored cowboys swapping campfire conversation and by generations of Western writers entranced with its hero. In Hollywood it became the prototype for the classic movie showdown between Western gunslingers, one in a white hat, the other in a black hat.
Of course, in real life, things are never quite that clear-cut. Jack Slade also had his hidden demons, a dark side. The Beni-Slade tale might indeed bring to mind David and Goliath, but there was a bigger story to Jack’s life—Slade vs. Slade, sober good guy vs. drunken hard case. Call his personal struggle Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gone West.
It is true that Jack Slade was often noble and charismatic, and that he charmed the young Mark Twain upon their only meeting in 1861. In the 1850s and early 1860s, Slade was known as the “Law West of Kearny.” As a wagon master and stagecoach superintendent, he organized mobs of unruly men and animals into efficient teams capable of defying floods, droughts, blizzards, outlaws and hostile Indians. In a land devoid of courts and law enforcement—present-day Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming—he functioned as a benevolent feudal lord of the prairie, protecting settlers, emigrants, stagecoach passengers and the U.S. Mail. By maintaining order along the roughest division of the Central Overland stagecoach line—and also by helping to launch the fabled Pony Express—Slade enabled the federal government to stay in touch with the Far West at a time when California, with all its riches, threatened to secede from the Union. And once the war began, Slade’s presence enabled the gold and silver of the West to flow east to finance the Union cause.
Only a few years later, with the war still raging in the East, Slade the Goliath-slayer was a brawling drunk who could not manage himself, let alone stagecoach lines and wagon trains. When inebriated, he rode his horse into saloons, shot glasses off the shelves and picked fights with his best friends, one of whom he shot and wounded. On one occasion, he killed a sleeping dog; on another, he cut the ear off a mule. His name, as one acquaintance put it, “became synonymous for all that is infamous and cruel in human character.” The onetime Law West of Kearny ended up in Virginia City in what is now Montana, destined to die before his time as a victim of that region’s infamous vigilantes.
How could a gifted and courageous leader, a champion of public order, sink to such depths, becoming a threat to that order? Slade’s Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde transformation has mystified Western writers and historians for a century and a half. Alcoholism often reveals two sides to a person, and Slade was an alcoholic. Sometimes he was cool and collected; at other times he was boisterous and menacing. He was an individual who at critical moments could rise to the occasion like Dr. Jekyll. Yet even when acting as an upstanding citizen, he needed to exert a certain amount of Mr. Hyde ruthlessness to do his job well. And when he completed the difficult job of restoring peace to the Central Overland line, his decline—his descent into a world of drunken unruliness—accelerated like a runaway stagecoach.
The ingredients of a classic split personality probably existed from the start within Joseph Alfred Slade, born January 22, 1831. From his entrepreneurial father, who founded Carlyle, Ill., in 1818 and later served in the U.S. Congress, Slade inherited a gregarious personality and organizational skills. From his mother, he inherited a kindhearted and obliging nature but also what was described as “a fiery but quickly controlled temper.” Contemporaries who were older and bigger (Slade stood only 5 feet 8 inches) idolized Slade for his reckless courage even as they recoiled at his inability to hold his liquor.
Slade left his Illinois home in 1847 as a 16-year-old private in the army that occupied Santa Fe during the Mexican War. He was a small fry among soldiers described by one English observer as “the dirtiest, rowdiest crew I have ever seen.” No doubt Slade had to grow up fast. He drove Army wagons on the Santa Fe Trail between Santa Fe and Fort Leavenworth, Kan., learning a trade that would become his lifeblood.
In the 1850s, Slade worked as a wagon master on the Overland Trail between the Missouri River and California, meeting his future wife at the end of one run. Virginia Slade was a tall, striking, dark-haired former dance-hall girl who could match her husband’s hell-raising. In the summer of 1858, Jack led a train of more than 100 wagons that provided 465,500 pounds of provisions for the mail stations of John Hockaday’s new stagecoach line between St. Joseph, Mo., and Salt Lake City. That winter, Slade became the division agent (superintendent) for the westernmost stretch of Hockaday’s line, a 475-mile route from Salt Lake to Horseshoe Station in present-day Wyoming.
Hockaday’s supply train creaked to a halt over the winter, and when Slade rejoined it at Ham’s Fork Station in the spring of 1859, he found the wagons in chaos and at least some of the teamsters drunk and rebellious. In one encounter, Slade shot and killed teamster Andrew Ferrin—the only one of his killings verified beyond doubt. That said, there are conflicting accounts of this incident that speak to Slade’s dual personality. In one, he appears a decisive commander; in the other, a malevolent, trigger-happy drunk.
Support for the first account comes from William Ashton, Slade’s predecessor as division agent, who sent a dispatch to the Salt Lake City Valley Tan three days after the killing. He wrote: “From the best information I can get, Slade was justified in shooting him. Some of the men had broken into boxes containing liquors and, having helped themselves abundantly, were prepared to resist anything.” Frontier trader Granville Stuart, who was nearby when the shooting occurred, offered the contradictory account, stating, “The wagon boss had gotten drunk at Green River, about 15 miles back, was cursing the driver about some trifle, the driver had talked back, and the ‘boss,’ who was J.A. Slade, drew his revolver and shot the man dead.”
On close review, Slade’s killing of Ferrin was probably justified. Stuart, who would become involved in Montana Vigilante activities, described the aftermath of the shooting: “The teamsters dug a grave by the roadside, wrapped the dead man in his blankets and buried him. The train went on to Salt Lake, and nothing was done about the murder.” Had Slade shot Ferrin without justification, it is difficult to believe that frontier teamsters—a notoriously wild and defiant bunch—would have submitted so passively to his authority from that point on. Yet the story, embellished wherever bullwhackers, station agents and travelers gathered over campfires and in saloons, soon took wings along the Central Overland, creating a full-blown myth of Slade as a brutal man-killer. Slade himself encouraged such stories as a means of enhancing his effectiveness as a peacekeeper.
In the fall of 1859, Slade was transferred to the central division, the most dangerous stretch of the struggling stagecoach line, which in the interim had been sold, reorganized and renamed the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company. The Pony Express, a horseback relay system that would work with the stage line to deliver the mail, also began to take shape in 1859. Slade bought the right kind of horses (fast but tough) to make the Pony work (which it did from April 1860 until October 1861). But his main orders were to “clean up the line”—which meant, above all, replacing one Jules Beni, the corrupt and incompetent station keeper at Julesburg. Beni had been allowing his outlaw friends to steal company stock, which he would then “retrieve” for a reward charged to the company.
After taking over, Slade quickly established order by conspicuously capturing and hanging a few robbers and horse thieves and letting word of mouth drive out the rest. But in March 1860, his nemesis ambushed him as he entered the restaurant at Julesburg Station. Beni fired as many as a dozen times with both revolver and shotgun before fleeing to Denver. “I never saw a man so badly riddled,” said station keeper James Boner of Slade. “He was like a sieve.”
Remarkably, Slade survived this barrage. In a tribute to his value, the Central Overland transported him almost 1,000 miles by stagecoach and rail to St. Louis, where surgeons removed some of the lead from his body. By June, Slade was back at work, his domain as superintendent extended to cover nearly 500 miles from Julesburg west to the Rockies.
The code of the West demanded Slade exact revenge for the shooting. The Central Overland’s new owner, Ben Holladay, impatiently implored him to “get that fellow Jules, and let everybody know you got him.” Yet for more than a year, while scourging his division of outlaws, Slade made no move to pursue Beni. Then, in August 1861, the 52-year-old Beni foolishly returned to Slade’s division to secure some stock, all the while spouting threats and boasting he was “not afraid of any damned driver, express rider or anyone else in the mail company.” Slade posted a $500 reward for his capture and sent four riders after him while Slade followed in a stagecoach.
According to the most reliable account of what happened next, two of Slade’s men, Nelson Vaughan and John Frey, overtook Beni, wounded him in a gunfight and captured him. They then bound Beni to a packhorse and started for Sochet’s ranch at Cold Spring Station (in present-day Wyoming). To their dismay, Beni died before they arrived. Fearful of losing the posted $500 reward—and of arousing Slade’s wrath—once at Cold Spring, they tied Beni in a seated position to the snubbing post in the corral. Soon thereafter Slade pulled into Cold Spring.
“I suppose you had to kill him,” Slade remarked, “and if you did, you do not get any reward.” Vaughan and Frey insisted Jules was not yet dead, only wounded.
“He’s out in the corral.”
When Slade walked out back to the corral and saw Jules’ inert body lashed to the fence, he said, “The man is dead.” Again Vaughan and Frey insisted that Beni was only playing possum. “I’ll see whether he’s playing possum,” Slade said, taking his knife and slicing off an ear. When Jules did not flinch, Slade remarked, “That proves it, but I might just as well have the other ear,” and took that as well. The gesture— the only barbaric act ever attributed to Slade, at least against a human—added yet another page to his legend.
After Beni’s death, Slade’s reputation was such that Mark Twain referred to him as “a man whose heart and hands and soul were steeped in the blood of offenders against his dignity.” Yet despite his Mr. Hyde–like mutilation of his nemesis, Slade had not gone off half-cocked after Beni and had most likely not been the one to actually kill him. Slade even turned himself in at Fort Laramie. Officers there did not press any charges; in fact, some of them had advised Slade to kill Beni.
Subsequent retellings of the Beni killing, explorer and Slade acquaintance Nathaniel Langford noted in 1890, were “false in every particular. Jules was not only the first, but the most constant aggressor.” Slade’s actions were those of a levelheaded and competent division agent who would broker no threat against his stage line. But in the aftermath, as Slade began indulging in his own fierce image, carrying one of Jules’ ears with him as a souvenir, cracks started to emerge in his professionalism.
Indians largely destroyed Slade’s division in a series of raids in the spring of 1862. Ben Holladay’s response that summer was to move the once-again renamed Overland Stage Company line some 300 miles south through what is now Colorado, placing Slade in charge of a 226-mile division that soon ran through Denver. For his headquarters, Slade selected an idyllic hidden valley, which he named Virginia Dale in honor of his wife, and which became a favorite camping site for wagon trains and (much later) tourists. Within a matter of weeks that summer, Slade supervised the transfer of livestock and equipment from his old line while scouting and opening stations on his new division, all with barely an interruption in mail delivery.
As the summer of 1862 gave way to fall, both Slade and Holladay had reason to believe they had turned a corner. Holladay had the safer, shorter and more lucrative mail route through Denver he had always coveted. The Overland Stage Company seemed financially stable at last. And to protect Slade’s new division, the Army built Fort Halleck (in what is now southern Wyoming) and installed a garrison there.
In Western novels or films, Slade’s story would have ended right there, with the accomplished 31-year-old frontiersman and his wife, Virginia (who waged unceasing warfare against Slade’s drinking habit), living happily ever after. He would now only have to tend to a division agent’s customary, mostly routine, duties—timetables would replace gunfights.
But Slade’s years on the Central Overland had hooked him on excitement and inured him to danger. The absence of adversity did not sit well with the enforcer once known as the Law West of Kearny. It would not do to quietly accept the bland image of a company manager consigned to domestic life in a picturesque valley. The old legend needed to be perpetuated.
Slade looked for ways to spice up his routine inspections between Virginia Dale and Denver. When the stage stopped to change horses, Slade would invite passengers inside for drinks and regale his guests with tales of his exploits. His most prominent props were his Colt revolver—which he often flourished and occasionally discharged—and Old Jules’ dried ears, which Slade usually carried as a watch charm or in his pocket.
Slade’s new role as celebrity superintendent did not mix well with an old flaw that had plagued him since the days when his freighting runs ended in the saloons of Atchison and Leavenworth: his inability to hold his liquor. One of his favorite pastimes in Denver, according to Overland Stage official Robert Spotswood, was saloon-wrecking: “He would shatter all the mirrors, drive everybody into the street and then shoot out the lights. Next day he invariably came and apologized—and paid the damages.”
On one occasion, Overland Stage paymaster David Street hoped to keep his friend Slade from wrecking a Denver saloon. “When Mr. Street arrived,” Spotswood recalled, “Slade had made a complete wreck of a saloon. Mr. Street tried to induce Slade to leave. Slade, apparently not recognizing him, shot him down, as it happened inflicting a wound that was not dangerous. Next day, when Slade was informed what he had done, he was nearly brokenhearted. He refused to go home until he heard that Dave was on the way to recovery.”
Slade was involved in at least half a dozen other drinking incidents. Throughout those months, the Overland Stage Company made no effort to replace or even reprimand him, which suggests the company still valued his services, or perhaps that it couldn’t find a better man for the job. On the frontier, steadfastness was a relative term, and Slade, for all his faults, remained one of the company’s most dependable managers.
“With the exception of times when he went on his sprees,” said Luke Voorhees, a Central Overland driver who worked for Slade, “he was a very good man to look after the best interests of the stage company at that period of the Wild West.” Even after Slade shot colleague David Street in Denver, Spotswood, Slade’s successor on the Denver branch of the Central Overland, noted: “No complaint was made against Slade by Mr. Street. Slade kept on in the employ of the company.”
Early in November 1862, Slade, in Mr. Hyde mode, went too far. Once again drunk, he and several of his men invaded the sutler’s store at Fort Halleck. According to one stage employee, Slade amused himself “by shooting holes through the canned goods, such as cove oysters, canned peaches and other luxuries, as they were called at that time.” He had destroyed government property, and a mere apology and reimbursement would not make amends. On orders of the Fort Halleck commandant, soldiers arrested Slade. In exchange for the Army’s agreement to drop the charges, the Overland Stage Company fired him on November 15.
The following summer, after a visit to his family in Illinois, Jack and Virginia gravitated to the newly discovered goldfields around Virginia City in recently created Idaho Territory (now Montana). Here Slade demonstrated his resourcefulness by running a freighting business, operating a dairy farm and carving a toll road out of a precarious hillside along the final stretch of the Bozeman Trail.
In the fall of 1863, he saved Virginia City from likely starvation by organizing a freighting expedition to retrieve a cargo of provisions a steamboat had unloaded at Fort Galpin on the Milk River—more than 350 miles to the north through uncharted territory. The expedition’s success made Slade a local hero, leaving him well off financially and in a celebratory mood as winter approached. So at a moment when everyone else around Virginia City seemed preoccupied with organizing vigilante companies to catch and hang robbers, Slade resumed his old destructive drinking habits.
When sober, Slade assisted the vigilantes in their work and remained on good terms with their leaders. But when drunk, he was not merely a threat to property, he was also an obvious threat to the vigilantes, Virginia City’s self-appointed guardians of civic order. These men were preoccupied above all with sending the message that they were not to be trifled with. That was precisely what Slade, under the influence, began to do, and very publicly, too.
Warnings and fines did nothing to stop his drunken antics. During a two-day binge in March 1864, he destroyed two brothels; slandered the vigilante leaders in a raunchy song; rode his horse into a saloon and forced a bottle of wine down its mouth; ended a theater performance with a command that the lead actress “take off the balance of her dress”; turned over a wagon’s worth of milk into the street; and took his friend Judge Alexander Davis temporarily hostage.
Even so, Virginia City’s vigilantes declined to act against Slade; instead, a company of more than 400 miners from nearby Nevada City marched en masse into Virginia City on March 10, secured the town, arrested him and hanged him from the crossbeam of a corral even as Slade, still drunk, pleaded pathetically for a last chance to see his wife. His executioners, terrified by Slade’s ferocious if overblown reputation, “were afraid to let him go,” one observer explained. “They feared that he would kill them if he was released.” Slade supporters in the crowd held out hope that Virginia Slade, riding the eight miles from their cabin at Spring Dale, could convince the vigilantes to spare her husband’s life. She arrived too late. This “dreadful tragedy,” one observer wrote that night, ended “the life of one who might have been a useful member of society, and who might have been beloved by this and other communities.”
What, then, caused Slade’s downfall? The question plagues historians to this day. “After years of contention with desperate men,” one of Slade’s friends astutely observed, “he became so reckless and regardless of human life that his best friends must concede that he was at times a most dangerous character.” In his 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson painted the first vivid portrayal of the psychopathology of a split personality. In 1889 a federal attorney named John Clampitt, after investigating Slade’s career, exonerated him of any guilt and blamed his wildness instead on “the fiery compounds he poured into his system,” which “clouded his mind [and] dethroned his reason.” Others blamed the infectious lead from Jules Beni’s shotgun that festered within Slade’s body (and perhaps his brain) for the last four years of his life. The harshness of the frontier no doubt accelerated his decline.
Slade was hardly the first man to break under the pressures of the overland transportation business. John Jones, founding general superintendent of the Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Express Company, resigned in 1859 after just three months on the job. Ben Ficklin, who helped launch the Pony Express, quit after less than nine months as the Central Overland’s general superintendent. William Russell, president of the Central Overland, was driven to such financial desperation that he landed in jail for fraud. John Hockaday—whose ambitious empire, as late as April 1859, comprised a stagecoach line with a U.S. Mail contract, an overland freighting concern and a major dry goods store in Salt Lake City—was observed only a year later “in a state of medical and physical debility which disqualifies him from bestowing any attention whatever to his business.”
In contrast, Slade, by the time of his arrival at Virginia Dale in mid-1862, had shouldered the burdens of the Central Overland stage line, as well as its predecessor, its successor and the Pony Express, for nearly four long years. He had singlehandedly supervised the line’s longest and most dangerous divisions. In the process, he had led a massive wagon train full of vital Central Overland supplies, subdued a drunken insurrection by teamsters on his supply train, been ambushed and left for dead, recuperated from near-fatal injuries in mere months, and witnessed the destruction and abandonment of his extraordinary network of relay stations.
“That he lived through it all was a miracle,” remarked his Virginia City acquaintance Nathaniel Langford. “A man of weaker resolution, and less fertility of resource, would have been killed before the close of his first year’s service.” The relevant question, then, is not why Slade cracked in the fall of 1862, but why it didn’t happen sooner. “As I see him, Slade was a responsible manager who happened to be an alcoholic,” said Western writer and retired engineer Kenneth Jessen. “I had a couple of guys like that working for me at Hewlett-Packard. We’d send them off to a clinic for a few weeks of rehab, and they’d come back fine. But in the Old West, the only response was to hang him.”
Perhaps a better explanation is that, more than two years after Beni ambushed him, Slade suffered a delayed case of what is now called “posttraumatic stress disorder.” Retired U.S. medical officer John DeShazo says: “Slade undoubtedly suffered from this effect. An explanation for his erratic behavior may be that he recovered physically but bore mental scars that were not properly treated. In military medicine, we have learned how to help wounded soldiers recover mentally as well as physically, but in Slade’s day only a little was understood about the physical effects of a bullet wound, and nothing about the mental. He was left to his own devices, perhaps only his whiskey, to deal with it.” DeShazo adds that Ben Holladay worsened Slade’s mental state by pushing him into another fight, “which is probably the last thing anyone wants to do who has been shot.”
The greatest irony of Jack Slade’s brief life is that as a responsible Dr. Jekyll, he helped impose order on the early Wild West but ultimately couldn’t cope with the new, more orderly world he had helped to create. Sober or otherwise, traumatized or otherwise, tempting fate recklessly as an unhinged Mr. Hyde was what Slade was all about. But then, that was what the opening of the West was all about.
Dan Rottenberg is the author of Death of a Gunfighter: The Quest for Jack Slade, the West’s Most Elusive Legend (to be released in a paperback edition in March 2010). For more about the book and Slade, visit www.deathofagunfighter.com.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.