Wichita, Dodge City and Leadville employed a variety of novel tactics to keep gun-toting riffraff from disturbing the peace…sometimes the tactics actually worked.
When Sam Botts, a recent addition to the Wichita police, tried to arrest a drunken road grader armed with a six-shooter on a hot July day in 1874, he was interrupted by the click of gun hammers. Botts turned to face a phalanx of six-shooters in the hands of Hurricane Bill Madden and his notorious Texas gang.
Almost instantaneously, the town resounded with the clanging of a huge iron triangle that hung outside the courthouse at First and Main streets. The peals aroused some 50 members of the citizen police, a quasi-legal group formed earlier that summer, who surrounded the astonished Texans. Marshal Bill Smith bustled onto the scene and urged the citizen police to disperse, fearful that an attempted arrest would result in bloodshed. But attorney Seth Tucker, a prominent citizen in town, spat out: “I don’t care for trouble. I am used to it. Point me the man you want, and I’ll arrest him, kill or get killed.”
“All right,” Smith conceded. “Arrest Hurricane Bill.”
Tucker leveled his shotgun and said: “William, I want you. You are under arrest.”
Hurricane Bill made a move to draw his sidearm, but the ominous growl of Tucker’s voice, “Lay down your weapons,” and the doom waiting in the double-ought barrel of his shotgun brought him to his senses.
“You can have me.”
Towns that sprang up on the Western frontier in the post–Civil War era faced the threat of gun violence from genuine outlaws, unruly cowboys and trigger- happy fortune seekers with a variety of tactics. An adhoc town vigilance committee was one form of defense. More or less stringent supervision of sidearms was another. And removing gambling parlors, dance halls and brothels from the center of town was perhaps the most effective defense of all. More often than not, town officials resorted to some combination of all three tactics to keep gun-toting riffraff from disturbing the peace.
Wichita enjoyed a geographic quirk it used to protect its established businesses and law-abiding citizens. The grazing grounds for the thousands of cattle driven to market lay to the west of the town, on the other side of the Arkansas River, and the Douglas Avenue bridge alone connected them with the trail to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe stockyards on the far east side. Every cowboy entering town had to pass over the bridge. As early as June 1872, the first and greatest year of the cattle drive, the city council empowered the mayor to appoint as special policemen the toll keepers on the bridge, “whose duty it shall be to take possession of and safely keep all firearms carried by parties crossing the bridge into the city of Wichita.” The council allowed expenditure for 50 brass or tin checks to be given in exchange for the firearms temporarily surrendered.
In addition, there were efforts to move gambling concessions and dance halls, prime venues for gunplay, across the Arkansas to West Wichita, also called Delano. By August 1873, the city council had succeeded in limiting parts of the vice district to this ghetto, though prostitution continued to flourish in town. While the removal of the sporting crowd advantaged the trade of respectable businesses, the Delano dance halls were squeezed together cheek by jowl, sparking a sensational gun duel between rival proprietors Rowdy Joe Lowe and Red Beard on October 27, 1873. Inevitably, several bystanders stepped in the way of stray bullets, Rowdy Joe was nicked in the neck, and Red, recklessly inebriated during the chaotic clash, took a shotgun blast to the midsection, from which he died. Rowdy Joe went on trial for murder, was acquitted and shook the dust of Wichita from his feet before he had to face further charges.
By 1874, however, gambling was back within the city limits and so were most of its purveyors. Fees extorted from gamblers, whores and saloonkeepers were too tempting for the merchants to forego, since the proceeds from vice meant there was no need for license taxes on other businesses. Meanwhile, the toll keepers seemingly became lax in enforcing the no-gun rule, which allowed the shenanigans of Hurricane Bill and his motley crew. The spectacular murder that year of a black laborer on Main Street, following a fracas with cowboys, took place in full view of hundreds of spectators. The murderer and his party were walking arsenals, and the marshal and townsfolk stood by helplessly as they escaped.
Dodge City, Kan., started out in 1872 as a wild outpost of buffalo hunters and soldiers, small in numbers but marked by many violent deaths per capita, so much so that townsfolk formed a vigilance committee in February 1873 to support Marshal Bully Brooks. However, the chief peril attached to vigilantism soon became apparent: men with agendas other than adherence to the law infiltrated the committee. The result was a series of intimidations and killings in the spring that were of dubious legitimacy, climaxing with the June 3, 1873, murder of William Taylor.
Several vigilantes had hired wagons from Taylor to transport them and their dance hall girls on a frolic about town. When Taylor refused to force his exhausted mules to keep making the trips, John Scott and William Hicks wounded him and then dragged him away from the druggist attending to his wounds and finished the job, spraying him with a dozen bullets as he begged for his life. Taylor had been the personal cook for the post commander in nearby Fort Dodge, and troopers were soon on the hunt for Hicks, whom they arrested, and Scott, who fled after hiding out overnight in an ice chest. Other vigilantes, including whoremaster Tom Sherman, joined Scott in flight.
Dodge first became a cattle mart in 1875, electing a city government that November. On Christmas Eve, the City Council issued an ordinance that prohibited the discharge of any firearm within the city limits and made it illegal for anyone other than a city officer to carry a concealed weapon. Later, a ban was placed on carrying any weapon. At both ends of North Front Street, the town’s main artery, the marshal erected signs (sharing space with an ad for Prickly Ash Bitters) that informed all and sundry of the no-firearms law.
Railroad tracks neatly split Front Street in two, and it was no accident the warning signs went up on the north side, where the respectable members of the merchant class had their business addresses. On the other side of the tracks—called South of the Deadline—a different code of conduct prevailed, with implicit approval of the authorities. The south side was a swath of low saloons, dance halls and cribs where cowboys could blow off steam and the gun law was loosely enforced.
The case of Ed Masterson is a telling example of how such laxity sometimes backfired. In November 1877, while serving as assistant marshal, Masterson was called to still a disturbance at his brother Bat’s Lone Star Dance Hall. There, he confronted a Georgian named Bob Shaw with a gallon of bust-head in his gut and a hefty widow-maker in his hand who was about to send Texas Dick, a petty thief, to eternity. When Ed told Shaw to hand over his weapon, he ended up with a bullet through his breast. Still, he somehow subdued Shaw, prompting the Dodge City Times to opine: “The nerve and pluck displayed by officer Masterson reflects credit both upon himself and the city.”
Masterson recovered and was promoted to the post of marshal. On April 9, 1878, he again ventured to the vice ward of the south side and relieved a drunken herder who was raising a ruckus in a dance hall of his six-shooter. Masterson handed the revolver to a trail boss who promptly returned it to his rider. While disarming the man a second time, Masterson took a bullet to the abdomen that proved fatal. Ed Masterson, the most admirable of Dodge City lawmen, fell victim to an economic imperative. Local merchants wanted cash-rich Texas cattlemen to think of Dodge as a hospitable town where they could indulge in a promiscuous shoot if the spirit moved them.
In 1880 the polestar of fortune-seekers nationwide was the silver mines of Leadville, Colo., where a city of 30,000 souls bedded in the shadow of Mount Elbert. Monuments such as the Tabor Grand Opera House, proclaimed the finest theater in the West, bespoke the city’s ambition to stand as a bastion of civilization in a raw land. But on May 26, 1880, a call for a general strike among the silver miners threw the prosperity, the very existence, of Leadville into doubt. Grievances demanded an eight-hour day, a pay raise from $3.50 to $4 per shift and the dismissal of tyrannical pit bosses. In response, the Eastern capitalists who owned the mines vowed to make no concessions and resorted to a vigilantism refined to the highest degree, an alliance of national, state and local interests using gun law to squash incipient union organizing efforts.
There had been no effective check on the carrying of firearms by the miners, and when a few mines tried to continue operations, armed forays were made against the “scabs” and shots echoed throughout the peaks and valleys. Egged on by a local newspaper and superintendents in the pay of Eastern interests, the “better class” of citizens—mostly prosperous merchants—organized a Committee of Safety, numbering several hundred, and appealed to Governor Frederick Pitkin for reinforcements from the National Guard. The governor complied.
The climax of the conflict came on the afternoon of June 12 as the strikers and the vigilance committee staged countermarches in Leadville. A drunken mine broker, Major A.V. Bohn, charged into the ranks of 500 strikers, cursing and shouting for them to get out of his way, while flourishing a saber above their heads. He was engulfed, amid cries of “Pull him down,” and “Kill the son of a bitch.” Only a mad rush by a squad of police officers, who dragged Bohn from his horse and hustled him to the police station under protective guard, saved the major’s life. Soon afterward, mounted squads of the Colorado National Guard galloped into town to augment the citizens’ Committee of Safety. Union leaders were forced to flee the county, on pain of death should they stay, and the strike was broken. Ironically, the law of the gun rather than gun laws blasted the utopian challenge to the hierarchy of a frontier community. It happened even as the citizens dreamed of leaving the resort to arms behind, a tarnished relic of primitive days, and of basking in the silvery glow of the prestige riches could bring.
Frequent Wild West contributor Roger Jay of Baltimore is completing a book on Wyatt Earp and the frontier underworld. Also see Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism, by Richard Maxwell Brown.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.