The sharing of six-shooters was no holiday.
The Christmas season, at least a modern-day Christmas, is largely secularized and dominated by gifts and decorated fir trees. On the frontier in the 19th century, most missionaries and settlers tried to celebrate that holiday as best they could, though brightly packaged gifts and grandly decorated trees were often lacking (see related story, P. 48). Maybe even a few Western gunfighters experienced nostalgia for the home fires and loved ones during the holiday season. But for more than one of them, Christmas was just another time to share his six-shooter.
In taking a journey with the Old West Ghost of Christmas Past, one quickly learns that a number of gunfights occurred right on December 25 and several more just prior to the holiday. Take Christmas Day 1862, for instance, when the well-armed Thomas Coleman Younger, better known as Cole, was out for revenge.
Coming of age in the Younger clan, from Lee’s Summit, Mo., seemed to usually come by way of the six-shooter. Cole was 18 that Christmas, and the Civil War was still heating up. He had been serving with William Clark Quantrill’s Missouri bushwhackers, a Southern-leaning guerrilla band, since the beginning of 1862. Cole was the seventh of 14 children. His younger brother John would be just 15 when he gunned down a man named Gilcrease after an argument in Independence, Mo., in January 1866; John would be acquitted on grounds of self-defense. Brother Jim was also with Quantrill at the end of the war, and was still only 20 when he helped the James-Younger Gang rob a bank in Russelville, Ky., on March 21, 1868. Bob Younger was too young to fight in the Civil War, but he too would become a gun-toting outlaw by age 19.
The Younger brothers’ father, Henry, was killed by jayhawkers while on a July 20, 1862, business trip to Kansas City. Sometime late in 1862, Cole found out that the men who had shot down his father were spending Christmas in Kansas City. He gathered five of his confederates—George Todd, Zach Traber, George Clayton, Abe Cunningham and Fletcher Taylor—and hunted for the killers in various drinking establishments for most of December 25. It was close to midnight before any of them saw real action. A fight broke out in a Main Street saloon, and Cole killed a man seated at a card table before fleeing. Cole and his brothers would go on to become costars of the James-Younger Gang. Cole, for one, spent many years in prison and lived until March 21, 1916. It’s safe to say that most of his Christmases were peaceful.
Although John Wesley Hardin was the son of a Methodist circuit preacher, Christmas was just as good as any other day for him to kill a man. Born in Bonham, Texas, on May 26, 1853, Hardin became one of the most prolific gunfighters of the Old West. Legend has it that Hardin had anywhere between 30 to 40 notches on his gun. In his autobiography, he put the number killed at 44.
Hardin’s Christmas Day killing (other dates have been given for this event) came on December 25, 1869, after he had already killed five or 10 other men in his young life. Hardin was gambling at a house near Towash, Texas, when he got into an argument with another player, Benjamin Bradley. After Bradley drew a knife and perhaps a six-shooter, too, the unarmed Hardin made an early departure from the game. But Hardin was not one to forgive and forget. He promptly armed himself, and later that same day encountered Bradley on a Towash street. Exactly who was the aggressor at that point is uncertain, but the two men began exchanging gunshots. Bradley got by far the worst of it—taking a bullet in the head and another in the chest. Hardin went on the run because of the Bradley killing, but, according to one account, charges against him for the crime were dismissed several years later. Hardin was free to kill some more, though his killing ways were curtailed after he was captured in 1877 and sent to prison. He became a free man again on February 17, 1894, but his days on this earth were numbered. Lawman John Selman shot Hardin in the back of the head, apparently without warning, inside El Paso’s Acme Saloon on August 19, 1895.
Ben Thompson, another Texas gunfighter (though born in England), was not considered nearly as coldblooded as Hardin, but he still participated in about 14 gunfights, including one on Christmas 1876. That night, Thompson and his friend Jim Burditt attended the crowded Capitol Theater in Austin. The owner of this variety theater, Mark Wilson, had recently ejected Burditt for disturbing the peace in the very same place. When someone filled with rowdy Christmas spirit set off a string of firecrackers in the theater, Wilson falsely accused Burditt and threatened to have him arrested. Thompson spoke up for his friend, and Wilson told him to mind his own business. Things continued to heat up, and Wilson produced a shotgun that he had hidden away behind his bar. Somebody apparently cried out a warning to Thompson, who ducked just before Wilson fired. Thompson then responded with three quick shots from his sixshooter, each slug finding its target. Wilson died on the spot. Bartender Charley Matthews fired a Winchester, but the bullet only grazed Thompson’s hip. Thompson answered with a bullet that knocked out several of the bartender’s teeth and lodged in his neck; though hideously wounded, Matthews survived. At his trial the following spring, the jury deliberated for only a few minutes before acquitting Thompson.
On December 25, 1876, the very night Thompson killed Wilson, another notable Texas gunfighter, John King Fisher, was involved in his own holiday confrontation a horse ride away in Zavala County, Texas. A cowboy named William Dunovan quarreled with Fisher over some now-forgotten matter, and Fisher celebrated Christmas by peppering the cowboy with three bullets. Fisher and Ben Thompson happened to bump into each other in Austin on March 11, 1884, and the two gunfighters bought each other several rounds of drinks. They then took the train to San Antonio, where they paid a fateful visit to the Vaudeville Variety Theater. Two years before, Thompson had killed Jack Harris, a partner in that theater. While in a booth watching the vaudeville show, Fisher and Thompson were ambushed by at least half a dozen men. King never got off a shot and went down with 13 bullets in his body. Thompson was shot nine times.
Although hardly in the hard case class of Hardin and not nearly as well known as the Younger brothers, Ben Thompson or King Fisher, outlaws Alvin and Will Odle had their own deadly Christmas clash. On December 25, 1889, the Odle brothers, known rustlers and accused murderers, decided to venture away from their hideout across the Rio Grande in Mexico to attend a party in Barksdale, Texas. They never made it. Outside Vance, Texas, three Texas Rangers—Bass Outlaw, Ira Aten and John Hughes—and Deputy Sheriff Will Terry ambushed them in the dark. How much the Odle boys resisted is uncertain, but both were soon blasted off their horses; Will died instantly, and Alvin breathed his last a few minutes later. One source says that Bass probably shot down both brothers.
Sometimes Western gunfighters couldn’t wait until Christmas for their fun. For example, on December 19, 1880, Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett or one of the law officers with him at Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory, shot and killed Tom O’Folliard, a Billy the Kid associate. Four days later, Garrett and his posse caught up with the Kid and others at an old stone forage station at Stinking Springs (near present-day Taiban, N.M.). The Kid’s friend Charlie Bowdre died in the shootout there, while Billy himself was captured along with Billy Wilson and Dave Rudabaugh. Eight years earlier, on December 23, 1872, “Bully” Bill Brook quarreled with a Santa Fe Railroad man in Dodge City, Kan., and shot him dead. Another December 23 shootout occurred in 1890 in Fort Worth, Texas, when saloon owner Charles Wright fired a shotgun at gambler Luke Short, hitting him in the leg. Wright fled, but not before Short shot him in the wrist.
When it came to gunplay, Christmas Eves on the frontier were apparently quieter than either December 23s or Christmas Days. We are happy to report that on December 24, 1881, outlaw Jesse James, going by the alias of Tom Howard at the time, was not involved in a robbery or a shootout. According to one of the more joyous Jesse James legends, the famous outlaw delighted his two children by appearing at their newly rented home in St. Joseph, Mo., as none other than Santa Claus, having borrowed the appropriate costume from a nearby church. True or not, that was Jesse James’ last Christmas Eve.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.