The Texas Ranger was El Paso’s first real lawman.
Before he arrived in El Paso, Mark Ludwick had been a farmhand, artist, harness maker and boiler operator. Standing 5-foot-6, with brown hair, hazel eyes and an unassuming countenance, he looked like the furniture dealer he would later become. But in 1879 he was the hard-riding, sharpshooting Texas Ranger who brought law to the Texas border town.
Ludwick was born on October 31, 1847, in Bates County, Mo., a battlefield in the bloody civil war waged along the Kansas-Missouri border. His family raised him amid a conflict marked by escalating butchery and savage reprisal among proslavery bushwhackers, Free Soil jayhawkers, Union troops, local militia, provost marshals, revenge-seeking Radicals and unreconstructed ex-Confederates. The Ludwicks were Confederates, although Mark wore a blue militia uniform in the war’s last months, perhaps to establish the family’s loyalty to the winning side.
After the war, Ludwick tried to make a go of various trades in war-ravaged Missouri, the Texas Hill Country and Arizona Territory, but no place or occupation held him. He was in Silver City, New Mexico Territory, in January 1878 when he heard talk of “rioting” Mexicans in El Paso County. For reasons unknown, he decided to join the fray. The so-called Salt War was nearly over when he reached the border city of El Paso, the Tejano insurgents having already fled across the Rio Grande. But a sheriff’s posse of New Mexico outlaws, free to commit murder and mayhem against the citizenry, filled the power vacuum in El Paso County. Into this anarchy stepped Mark Ludwick. On January 10, he enlisted in the Texas Rangers.
Lieutenant James A. Tays commanded Ludwick’s outfit, the Detachment of Company C. Tays’ older brother was Lieutenant John B. Tays, whose men had surrendered to the Tejano insurgent army, the only such event in Texas Ranger history. The unit’s misfortune did not stop there. During the ensuing year, one sergeant brutally killed another, three Rangers deserted, one went AWOL to fight in the Lincoln County War in New Mexico Territory and another was discharged for drunkenness. One Ranger was shot dead when another’s revolver fell from his pocket at a dance. James Tays’ questionable leadership in an Indian skirmish got another man killed and endangered the lives of several more. Five prisoners in custody escaped, including future Arizona badman Curly Bill Brocius.
El Paso had long been a favorite spot for badmen. Sandwiched between Old and New Mexico, it attracted killers and thieves seeking to elude the law. Its notoriety as a criminal haven would grow after the railroad arrived in 1881. But in 1878, criminality reached the level of racketeering due to an unholy alliance between Sheriff Charles Kerber and New Mexico Territory’s rustling kingpin, John Kinney. While the sheriff and his deputies looked the other way, and Tays’ Texas Rangers bumbled about, “Kinney men” became proto-racketeers, adding intimidation and extortion of El Paso’s merchants to their usual routine of rustling and murder. Hampering the Rangers’ effectiveness was the presence of rustler moles, giving the Kinney band an edge in any war on crime.
The tide began to turn on Election Day 1878. Kinney’s lawless bunch first attempted to intimidate voters into reelecting Kerber and then tried the same tactics on Ludwick (now a first sergeant, having succeeded Tom Zickefoose) when he showed up with 10 Rangers. But the lawman had grown up in a world dominated by lawlessness. He’d lived among those who were expert at doing their worst. Thus, the threats failed to cow him, and it was Kinney’s men who backed down, giving El Paso its first honest election since the Civil War. Kerber was soundly defeated, and Kinney left town, undermining the remaining outlaws’ position in the county.
In December 1878, budget cutbacks prompted Tays’ resignation, leaving Sergeant Ludwick and just 15 men to keep a lid on El Paso, where desperadoes had fostered a siege mentality. On January 11, the lawman met with local merchants, promising to break up the outlaw gang. For starters, he obtained warrants against three rustler-racketeers, including former Texas Rangers Fred Northcutt and “Red” Cartledge. The problem, Ludwick reported to Major John B. Jones, was that “the desperadoes never show themselves in daylight, but make their raids at night when unsuspecting parties are un armed.” Ludwick promptly assigned five men to watch El Paso overnight.
Then, on January 16, in broad daylight, Northcutt and Cartledge opened fire on the Ranger quarters. This was not the mindless hurrah of rowdies, but an expression of contempt by men who had taken the measure of their former comrades. As bullets pinged against the door and zipped through the windows, Sergeant Ludwick ordered Rocky Mathews, George Loyd and Calisto Benevides to saddle up. Spotting the Rangers’ movement, the outlaws spurred their horses south. Undeterred by danger, and in violation of orders, Ludwick and his men chased their former companions across the Rio Grande and several miles toward Paso del Norte (modern Juárez, Mexico). The pursuit brought the Rangers to a large house, where the sergeant spotted Red Cartledge dismounting. The outlaw was the first to pull the trigger, but his shots missed. With the rustlers about to gain the safety of the house, Ludwick rapidly returned fire. The first round from his Winchester passed through Cartledge’s saddle horn into his head. In an instant, Ludwick turned his aim on the dismounting Northcutt. The sergeant’s second shot struck the former Ranger’s body, doubling the number of dead desperadoes.
The excitement was not over, as outraged Mexicans quickly surrounded the Rangers. Local authorities allowed Ludwick’s men to return to Texas but tossed the sergeant in jail until merchant Solomon Schutz paid the bail. Once released, Ludwick renewed his pressure, sweeping through the rustlers’ hideouts and arresting suspects.
Ludwick’s audacity and accuracy under fire proved a turning point for El Paso’s Texas Rangers and the county’s future. Seventeen leading citizens recognized this when they advised Major Jones: “For several months, our town and surroundings [have] been infested by a band of thieves… so strong as to defy all authority up to the present time. They have been permitted to exercise their infernal profession without molestation until last week 1st Sergeant Ludwig [sic]…determined to put a stop to these marauders.”
The citizens petitioned Jones to appoint Ludwick to permanent command, but Jones wanted a new man, George W. Baylor. Disappointed, the sergeant resigned in September and headed back to Hill Country, where he married Molly Howard. He stayed out of law enforcement, living a “normal” life until his death in San Antonio at age 89.
Under Mark Ludwick, El Paso’s Texas Rangers stopped being more dangerous to themselves than to desperadoes. Times in El Paso remained “squally,” as Ludwick put it, but something had changed. Citizens understood it, as did criminals. No longer would outlaws hide behind the sheriff. And no longer would they openly defy the Rangers without fear of retribution. With firmness, courage and two shots, Ludwick had declared that laws, not outlaws, would ultimately prevail in El Paso.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.