Daring rustler and train robber ‘Red’ McNeil taunted territorial lawmen with his written words.
In early 1889, Pete Jacoby of Winslow, Arizona Territory, found the long-sought hideout of outlaw W.R. “Red” McNeil in a narrow canyon and reported his discovery to the local authorities. A posse, including future Coconino County Sheriff John Francis, went to investigate. As the lawmen approached a lonely cabin, they spotted their quarry on the opposite bank of Clear Creek. But McNeil’s Winchester rang out first, holing Jacoby’s hat and creasing his scalp. Both sides took cover for a gun battle that lasted more than an hour but resulted in no casualties. When things quieted down, Francis and the others made their way to McNeil’s cabin, where they found the following note:
Dear Friends: I hope you will not be insulted at the reception I gave you, for you see that it was my birthday, and I thought I would celebrate it with a pyrotechnical exhibition on a small scale. I have so few visitors here, that I am glad to have some one come around, no matter what his business is. I am always ready to welcome him by firing a few shots from my Winchester as a salute. Some people do not admire this type of greeting—but they cannot see a joke. People say the train has been robbed. This is terrible. Who robbed it? I do hope and trust that you, gentlemen, will do all in your power to capture the guilty parties. Run them to their rendezvous, give them no quarter. Such depredations should be stopped at once. With best wishes, I remain yours, ’til Clear Creek runs dry. P.S.—You, gentlemen, owe me a box of .44-caliber cartridges.
Red McNeil obviously had a way with words, though he seemed to prefer poetry to prose. At least three times he left poems for pursuing lawmen. His literary contributions, if not his robberies, put him on a par with the infamous Charles E. Boles (aka Black Bart), who between 1875 and 1882 successfully robbed 27 California stagecoaches in 28 attempts and twice left behind doggerel verse. Details of McNeil’s life are sketchy, but several of his crimes and poems are a matter of record. Black Bart clearly wasn’t the only rhyming robber who left his mark on the Wild West.
William McNeil, future Poet Bandit of Arizona Territory, was most likely born during or shortly after the Civil War. He claimed he was from a wealthy Boston family and had studied for the priesthood at university. But friend Bill Lee said McNeil was orphaned early and raised by relatives. At age 14, McNeil reportedly took up cowboying in Texas. Exactly when and why he turned to a life of crime is unknown, but by the late 1880s, the 20-something cowboy was a wanted man. His many aliases included Wallace, Howe, King, Dayton, Fisher and Dunlap.
On December 27, 1887, Phoenix Marshal Frank Wells and Deputy Marshal Joe Cottreall questioned a suspicious stranger, who became more and more nervous. Convinced the young man was the outlaw Red McNeil, Wells took him without a fight and jailed him. McNeil was described as about 5 foot, 10 inches, slim, with a sharp aquiline nose, a small moustache and a light complexion.
Three days later, Apache County lawman James Denny Houck arrived in Phoenix to return McNeil to St. Johns, where he faced charges of cattle rustling, wrecking one train near Navajo and robbing another in the Tonto Basin. But McNeil had flown the coop. How he got out is uncertain, but he took at least one horse from the stables of Tantan & Keller and headed southeast toward Florence.
Pinal County Deputy Sheriff James Thomas tracked McNeil from Florence and found him in mid-January 1888, working on a ranch near Duncan. Thomas seized him, along with a stolen horse, and took him to the Florence jail. McNeil didn’t stay long. Although heavily shackled and under guard in the jail yard, he darted through a gate left ajar when a load of wood was delivered. McNeil hustled down Main Street, crossed a ditch and disappeared into the fields beyond. “He is evidently adept in getting out of the clutches of the law and is as cunning as he is depraved,” the Florence Arizona Weekly Enterprise concluded in a January 28, 1888, article about his escape.
Four months later, on May 30, Adolph Schuster was closing the store he ran with his brother Ben in Holbrook when a lone cowboy showed up to buy supplies. Adolph was obliging, but as he reached for an item on a high shelf, the “customer” pulled a gun and ordered him to open the safe. Adolph did so, but McNeil was in for a shock when Ben came out of the back room with a loaded shotgun. McNeil made a quick exit, but not before catching some buckshot in his back; scraps of the robber’s shirt were found in the door.
The next morning, posse members learned they were dealing with an unusual robber, one who could express himself with more than his six-gun. They found this McNeil missive tacked to a large tree on the Little Colorado River:
I’m the prince of the Aztecs;
I am perfect at robbing a store;
I have a stake left me by Wells Fargo,
And before long I will have more.
On trains I have made a good haul—
Stages are things I hate—
My losses are always small,
My profits exceedingly great.
I will say a few words for my friends,
You see I have quite a few;
And though we are at dagger’s ends,
I would like to say, “How d’ye do.”
There are McKinney and Larsen,
Who say that robbers have no honor.
I think in a test of manhood,
They’d have to stand back in a corner,
There are my friends, the Schusters;
For whom I carry so much lead;
In the future, to kill this young rooster,
They will have to shoot at his head.
Commodore Owens says he wants to kill me;
To me that sounds like fun.
’Tis strange he’d thus try to kill me,
The red-headed son-of-a-gun.
He handles a six-shooter neat,
And hits a rabbit every pop;
But should he and I happen to meet,
We’ll have an old-fashioned Arkansas [hop].
My friends, I will have to leave you,
My warhorse is sniffing the breeze,
I wish I could stay here to see you—
Make yourselves at home, if you please.
I will not say very much more,
My space is growing so small—
You’re always welcome to my share.
What’s that? “Much obliged.” Not at all.
McNeil, under the alias James Howe, made his way east to the W.S. Ranch near Alma, New Mexico Territory, seeking food and a place to rest. Ranch manager William French was suspicious of the cowboy’s string of horses with the well-known Hashknife brand, but McNeil assured French he had received the horses in lieu of pay. The stranger dispelled further doubts by entertaining French and his crew—not with a poetry reading but with expert mouth organ playing and clog dancing.
French and most of his men left the following day to gather cattle. Soon a rider brought bad news from ranch headquarters —the thoroughbred sire, Pow-a-Sheik, had disappeared from his locked box stall, and the clogger was gone, too. French offered a $1,000 reward for McNeil and the return of the stallion. He sent posters to lawmen and newspapers throughout the Southwest.
French led a group of his men toward Clifton, Arizona Territory, in search of clues but found nothing and soon turned around. Back at the W.S. Ranch, French found a grubby envelope, postmarked Clifton, which contained one of the wanted posters, crudely altered. “William French” was now the wanted man, and William McNeil was the one offering a $1,000 reward. The ranchman admitted in his memoirs that the altered poster somewhat abated his anger toward the humorous thief.
That didn’t keep French from pressing his pursuit of the valuable horse. He and another man headed west through the mountains on a nearly impassable old Indian trail to “Stuttering” Johnson’s cabin on the Little Blue River. Johnson told them McNeil had been there a couple weeks earlier, claiming that his horse had fallen and died along the trail. Johnson had bought McNeil’s saddle, blanket and bridle. Leaving Johnson’s cabin, French and his partner backtracked and found the carcass of Pow-a-Sheik below an especially steep trail section. As the horse was lost, and catching McNeil wouldn’t bring him back, French retracted the reward and resumed ranching.
Others, however, kept watch for the self-styled “Red-Headed Rooster.” Among them was Apache County Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens, who had earned mention in McNeil’s verse (along with two men who had served as deputies, Joseph T. McKinney and H.A. Larsen). One day in mid-September 1888, Owens came upon some cowboys and asked to share their campfire. They obliged, and one of them shared his blankets with the weary sheriff that night. Owens arose early the next morning, but the cowboys had already gone. A poetic note from the blanket sharer explained that he was an early riser and couldn’t wait for the sheriff to wake up. The final words were:
Pardon me, sheriff
I’m in a hurry;
You’ll never catch me
But don’t you worry.
The note was signed “‘Red’ McNeil.” Of course, newspapers across the territory had a good time pointing out how the intrepid sheriff had slept alongside his quarry without recognizing him.
Soon after that close call with the posse near his Clear Creek hideout, McNeil decided to leave Arizona Territory for a while and arranged for a guide across Indian country to Colorado. Before he left, he dropped off another of his “poetical effusions” in Winslow:
Here’s where Clear Creek deeply flows,
From the melted mass of Mogollon snows;
Here I lived and fain would roam
O’er the country that I, for years, called home.
Hunted continually, like some wild beast,
Until I reached my ranch, I knew no peace.
While strolling on the canyon side,
Three men on the opposite side I spied.
They were officers—bold, brave men.
Who dared to brave the lion in his den.
They little dreamed of the danger near,
Until a report, which startled all,
Quickly followed by a whistling ball.
Nothing could excel the leader’s grace
As he threw his rifle to his face,
And as my carbine rang out, crack,
He quickly sent an answer back.
In fighting, these officers were well skilled,
Yet strange to say, none were killed.
But among the pines birds whispered that
A bullet pierced Jacob[y]’s hat;
And as the battle held its course,
Another struck John Francis’ horse.
Although my name is badly smudged,
Toward these men I hold no grudge
And hope some day a free man to stand
And grasp my combatants by the hand.
Despite McNeil’s misdeeds, he was not considered a particularly dangerous man or a hardened criminal. Indeed, a description of him in the May 16, 1889, St. Johns Herald suggests that people rather liked him: “McNeil has a bit of humor and originality in his general makeup. He likes to let the people know, in his own way, that they have had the honor of entertaining the most daring outlaw that now enjoys his liberty in Arizona. He is no ordinary rustler and, except when he holds up a train, has no pals—preferring to play a lone hand. There is something to admire in such daredevil recklessness, when it is known he has never shed the blood of his fellow man.”
On August 6, 1889, McNeil, under the alias Edward Dayton, and a partner robbed the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad near Thompson Springs, Utah Territory. On the run for a month, the pair turned up in Ogden, where McNeil was arrested for robbing Maden’s Saloon. The newspapers noted that while being searched, the suspect was mainly concerned authorities keep track of his mouth organ. His partner was arrested later that day and placed in the same cell, where they discussed their exploits, not realizing the man in the adjacent cell was a detective. When confronted with the evidence from their own mouths, both men confessed to the train robbery and were convicted.
McNeil entered the Utah Territorial Penitentiary on September 26, 1889, and was released from the pen on June 3, 1899. During his stint, prison officials changed his name in the records from Edward Dayton to William McNeil, perhaps on his own admission. True to form, he put his time behind bars to good use and studied to become a hydraulic engineer. Many years later, McNeil showed up at the Schuster store in Holbrook and told Adolph (Ben was dead by then) that he had no hard feelings about being shot in the back. He later paid a visit to Adolph in Los Angeles, though he never offered to repay the money he stole.
But for those two meetings recorded by the Schuster family, McNeil seemingly vanished. It has yet to be determined what he did upon release or when and where he died. Perhaps he went straight, giving up his life of crime—and poetry.
Rita Ackerman has written three articles for Wild West and is the author of O.K. Corral Postcript: The Death of Ike Clanton. Suggested for further reading: The Hash Knife Brand, by Jim Bob Tinsley; The Hashknife: The Early Days of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, Limited, by Robert H. Carlock; and Recollections of a Western Ranchman, by Captain William French.
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.