The two Englishmen had been partners in Virginia City.
Colonel Alexander M. Woolfolk, editor of The Helena Independent, was at his desk preparing a July 1882 edition when a stranger walked into the small newspaper office in Montana’s territorial capital.The bearded man stood silently at first, staring with cold blue eyes at the editor. Finally he pulled off his hat and spoke, in an English accent, “Do you not know me?” Woolfolk couldn’t quite place the weathered face and crooked smile. “My name is Bull,” the stranger said. “John Bull, the man you successfully defended 15 years ago for killing Langford Peel.”
The name and face came back to the startled Woolfolk, a part-time lawyer who had successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Before him, he now realized, was the face of a man he had long ago rescued from the noose. Just a few months earlier the Independent had reported John Bull “gone to his last account.” But here the man was, alive and well, and Woolfolk was pleased.“His brow had become furrowed,” the editor wrote, “his heavy beard and hair streaked with gray, but in his eye there still shone the same look of desperate courage which had so impressed us years ago when, a mere boy, he had startled the territory by meeting in mortal combat and overcoming the most desperate desperado of the mountains.” In fact, Bull had shot from ambush his onetime gambling partner and fellow Englishman, Langford M. “Farmer” Peel.
Langford Peel had never been a farmer. Friends had given him the nickname as a joke, knowing he was too wild to settle down and raise crops. His wanderings had made him infamous as far west as Nevada. The great Mark Twain, who collected stories from saloon keepers for Roughing It, lists “Farmer Pease [sic]” in that 1872 book along with other famous killers who had each made the grade by “killing his man.” This was, as Twain explained, the standard by which a man’s reputation was measured in the West, and without a reputation a man might suffer “the galling sense of being held in indifferent repute by his associates.”
Born in Liverpool, England, in 1831, Peel had immigrated to America with his father, who joined the Army and enlisted his young son in training to become a bugler. Langford, who grew to 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, served in the Mexican War and claimed to have killed six Plains Indians. His Army buddy Sergeant Percival G. Lowe described Peel as the “best specimen” of a soldier, adding that he was a “perfect horseman, possessing unlimited courage and endurance…a man to be relied on and trusted in every emergency.” Peel once rescued a fellow soldier from an Indian ambush.
But somehow Peel’s Army career soured, and he received a discharge in 1856. He became a gambler in Leavenworth City, Kan., where, according to a contemporary, he was admired both for lending money to the down and out and for his “dexterity with the revolver.” He drifted west in 1857 with the Mormon Expedition but soon found himself destitute in Salt Lake City.
The following September Peel had a run-in with faro dealer Oliver Rucker, who owed him money. Given the cold shoulder by Rucker, Peel had secured a $25 loan from another gambler and staked it on a turn at Rucker’s faro table. Pushing away the money, Rucker said, “I don’t want your game,” and Peel came after him with a heavy chair. Rucker fled the saloon safely, only to meet Peel later in the street. Revolvers drawn, the men fired simultaneously and went down, bleeding. Peel crawled over to Rucker’s prone body to finish off his foe with a bowie knife. He then turned to bystanders and made what he thought was a dying request: “I’ve got a wife in Leavenworth City. Write and tell her I fought to the last minute.”
But only Rucker died from his wounds; Before authorities could arrest Peel for murder, friends had whisked him out of town. He recovered and next surfaced in Virginia City, Nev., in 1866. Peel promptly pronounced himself “chief” of the town’s lawless element, by virtue of his reputation, as one contemporary wrote, for being able to “fire at the drop of a hat and hit a dollar 10 paces away every time.” Although Peel wasn’t particularly looking to fight again, the town was loaded with young men out to make their reputations. At a local saloon, one Dick Paddock challenged Peel, who calmly walked out to the street and put two bullets into Paddock’s chest. Next came “El Dorado” Johnny Dennis, who went to the barber shop for a trim, a shave and a shoeshine before calling out Peel, who was dealing three-card monte at a gambling house. A classic standoff in the street ended with El Dorado looking sharp for his own funeral.
Peel’s gambling partner in town was none other than John Bull. Virginia City journalist Mark Twain had a close encounter with Peel’s partner one cold night when the air was rife with fear from a series of recent stagecoach robberies. Twain was walking through the mining district when a group of desperadoes appeared. One of the masked men stepped up to him and stuck a revolver in his face. “Your watch! Your money!” the man barked.When Twain protested, the holdup man accused him of wanting “the head shot off you awful bad.”The masked man was Bull, who had already met Twain and wanted to play a joke on the newspaperman. The next day, when Twain boarded a stage, an unmasked Bull and his boys showed up and theatrically returned the $125 and gold watch taken from Twain in the holdup.
Peel and Bull soon left town themselves, much to the relief of law-abiding citizens. The duo made their presence felt in the mining camps of Montana Territory. But their friendship disintegrated on the night of July 22, 1867, at Greer Brothers’ Exchange Saloon on Main Street in Helena, when they had a heated exchange over a placer mining claim on Indian Creek. Peel pulled his revolver, and Bull raised his hands.
“I am not heeled,” Bull said.
“Go, then, and heel yourself,” said Peel, slapping his partner.
“Peel,” said Bull. “I’ll come back, sure.”
Bull returned to his hotel. Doubting his chances against a hardened killer like Peel, Bull wrote letters to his next of kin and made out a will. He then oiled his worn-out six-shooter, worked up his nerve and went out into the night to find the Farmer. Bull wasn’t looking for a fair fight. It was midnight when he saw Peel strolling down the street, a girlfriend on his right arm.Without so much as a warning, Bull came out of the shadows and fired a shot. Peel went for his own gun, but the girl, spooked by the gunfire, had grabbed his shooting arm. Before Peel could jerk his arm free, Bull fired again. This time Peel went down. Bull then walked over to his fallen partner and, standing directly over him, fired a round right into Peel’s face.
Bull was arrested and charged with murder. Thanks to his defense by parttime lawyer Colonel Woolfolk, nine jurors voted to acquit Bull, convinced that his quarrelsome partner deserved to die. Peel’s friends swore revenge as the freed Bull slipped out of town. Peel’s grave was marked with a wooden tombstone inscribed in black letters:
IN LIFE, BELOVED BY HIS FRIENDS AND
RESPECTED BY HIS ENEMIES.
VENGEANCE IS MINE, SAITH THE LORD.
I KNOW THAT MY REDEEMER LIVETH.
This was the gospel of Langford Peel, which chroniclers of the West have regarded over the years as a unique take on the Bible, a subtle exhortation to friends to exact redemption with a bullet. But that redemption would not come, and Peel, thanks to Percival G. Lowe’s Five Years a Dragoon, is mostly remembered as a gallant bugler.
As for Bull, after fleeing Helena, he stayed on the move, apparently living off a reputation as a notorious gunfighter. The Helena newspaper reported him dead in late spring 1882, but then in July he visited editor Woolfolk. Bull soon disappeared again. In Spokane, Wash., in 1898, a drinking companion shot him four times, but Bull again beat the odds and survived. In 1929, at age 93, he died peacefully in British Columbia. He had outlived Peel by more than 60 years.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.