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Twelve Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West, Volume 2
By Robert K. DeArment
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
JIM MOON ca. 1840–1881
He died a natural death. That is, it was perfectly natural for Jim to die as he did. He was not bloodthirsty when he was sober. Most of the time he was bloodthirsty.
—Denver Daily Times, June 17, 1881
As modern chroniclers of Wild West history have ably demonstrated, the killing records of notorious gunfighters have been greatly exaggerated, first in the contemporary press, and later in exciting novels and supposedly factual accounts. The death tolls of Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, John Wesley Hardin, Bat Masterson, and other celebrated gunfighters have been shown to total in the single digits rather than the dozens—and even scores—once claimed.
But the formidable reputation of Jim Moon, feared as a deadly gunfighter throughout the frontier during his lifetime, may well have been the most overblown in all western history. In a fifteen-year career in the West, he developed a wide reputation as a fighting man, a bully who terrorized towns from the Midwest to the Pacific coast, a fearsome gunman who made known killers hunt their holes.
And yet not a single instance has been found where this redoubtable gunman ever shot another man.
This is not to say that he never killed anyone, for the big Colt's six-shooters he carried were deadly weapons indeed. But Moon preferred to use them as bludgeons rather than shooting irons. In Denver, where he spent his last years, he is known to have battered one—and perhaps two—people so badly with his revolver that death resulted.
When a reporter for a Denver paper approached this notorious pistoleer and asked about "the motives and sensations of border shooting scrapes" in which he had been involved, Moon responded: "The first man you kill, it goes pretty hard with you for awhile, but after the second or third you don't mind knocking over one of these gunfighters any more than you would a sheep. The man who pulls a gun on you when you have nothing in sight is a cur. All you need to do is to walk right up to him, take it away and beat him over the head with it, so he won't try it again. Nearly all my men came for me. Of course, I went after some of them—had to."
This bulldozing tactic evidently worked well for Moon in many confrontations during the course of his career, but eventually he ran up against a man who used the gun in his hand and wrote finis to the life of the bully.
The best physical description of Moon was given by a Denver reporter who, viewing his body stretched out on the undertaker's cooling board, waxed almost poetic in his admiration:
From a medical standpoint there has seldom passed under the dissecting knife a finer specimen of humanity than James Moon—six feet in height, his proportions were as nearly perfect as possible, and when stripped his form resembled more that of an ancient Roman gladiator than of a man belonging to our present age—especially was this magnificent development noticeable in the chest, which was deep and square and measured forty-four inches. The upper and lower extremities were models of muscular development and symmetry, while the feet and hands were small, the former arched and the latter delicately shaped. The head was not in keeping with the magnificent proportions of the rest of the body. It was of bullet shape and covered with a red shock of hair cut short. The brow, though high, was lowering. The eyebrows, of a sandy color, were inclined to shagginess and helped to give a forbidding expression to the face. The eyes were small, ferret-like and grey. The nose short and inclined to turn upwards. The mouth, of medium size, with thin lips which were generally drawn tight, the upper lip being covered with a short, stubby mustache of a sandy color, otherwise he was clean shaven.
Most of what we know about Moon's origins and early years comes from his wife, who was interviewed extensively by the Denver press in 1881, when he was killed. She said his name was actually John Erba Wilcoxon, that he was born in Philadelphia about 1840, ran away from home at the age of fifteen, and changed his name to Jim Moon so his parents could not trace him.
Moon reportedly served in the Union army during the Civil War, but his penchant for belligerence inevitably led to trouble. Three Denver papers published on the same day gave three rather different accounts of his problems in the military service. One said that "he was in the army, but made an unruly soldier and was put in irons." Another said he got in a fight in the army, seriously injured his opponent, and arrived in Memphis in irons. Somehow he avoided a court-martial and received an honorable discharge. A third paper said he was arrested for attempting to kill another soldier; the intended victim was no less than the lieutenant colonel of the regiment.
After his military service, Moon settled in Dubuque, Iowa, where he ran a saloon. But his violent nature led to another "bad scrape," and he had to "skip." He turned to professional gambling for a vocation and over the next dozen years became a prominent member of the western sporting crowd. In the turbulent Reconstruction years, he was active in Louisiana, Texas, and other southern states, and even spent some months dealing monte in Cuba.
When railroad lines stretched into Kansas in the late 1860s, opening up a viable market for Texas cattle and triggering the great long-horn trail drives to the Kansas railheads, Moon, along with a horde of other members of the sporting element, was on hand at Abilene, Newton, Wichita, and Ellsworth, the early cow towns. He caught the attention of a correspondent for the Topeka Daily Commonwealth, writing about the sporting crowd at Newton in 1871. Moon, said the newsman, had "more the style of the New York gambler than anyone in town." He described Moon as a "well proportioned, athletic man, with brown hair and mustache," the owner of a "tout ensemble that is decidedly prepossessing."
In the Kansas cattle towns Moon mixed with such sporting crowd notables as Dick Clark, "Rowdy Joe" Lowe, and Joe's paramour, "Rowdy Kate." For a time in Newton he partnered with Clark, keeping cases at the celebrated gambler's faro game, or dealing monte, but Clark soon realized that Moon was too hotheaded to go long without stirring up trouble, so he dissolved the association.
Lowe was about as volatile a character as Moon and was recognized throughout the sporting fraternity as a dangerous gunfighter, but on one occasion, according to a newspaper report, Moon made him hunt his hole.
[Lowe] went after Jim Moon, the faro dealer, but it is not believed he was very anxious to find the gambler. Moon had a reputation of being mighty handy with shooting irons himself, and when he heard that Lowe was after him, he sent around a tip that the vicinity was full of dangerous germs of the lead variety and Mr. Lowe might save some repairs to his hide by keeping out of reach. It was currently believed that this message completely bluffed the avenger of the vigilantes for he suddenly expressed a desire to make terms with Moon.
At Ellsworth, Moon met the woman who would become his constant companion the rest of his life and, ultimately, the cause of his sudden death. Emma DeMarr was only about sixteen years old when Moon first saw her at Ellsworth, where she was working in a hotel. Swedish by heritage, she was born in Lubeck, Germany, on March 15, 1857. Described as a blonde "with fair, clear skin, high cheek bones, very pretty teeth, and rather delicate hands," she spoke in a "broken, musical Swedish accent." At the age of fifteen (the same age as Wilcoxon/Moon when he ran away from home) she left her family, then residing in Leipzig, Germany, and went to Hamburg. There she boarded a ship for the United States. Landing in New York, she made her way to Ellsworth, Kansas, where she had friends. She later claimed she first met Moon at "picnics," adding, "It was love at first sight on his part, I think, at least he has often told me so."
It may not have been love at first sight for the Swedish girl, but she was inexorably attracted to the dashing, powerfully built gambler. The two began living together in Kansas, and when he left the cow towns to seek greener pastures in Colorado, she soon followed.
They remained for some time in Denver, always a good gambling mecca, and Moon worked the local gaming emporiums and went on frequent side trips to the mining camps and railroad towns of Colorado and Wyoming. In 1875 at Cheyenne he got into a fight, as was his wont, and had to leave town hurriedly. Having about worn out his welcome in that part of the country, Moon decided to move on west. He and Emma traveled together as far as Salt Lake City, where they separated. She went on to Los Angeles, while he worked the tables of Reno, Carson City, and Virginia City in Nevada, and San Francisco in California. They teamed up together again at Los Angeles, where he invested some of his winnings in a saloon called the Woodbine.
In November 1876 the two were married in Los Angeles by a Swedish Lutheran priest named Carl Peterson. The ceremony was performed "at the point of a pistol," or so Emma claimed in one of her moments of anger toward Moon.
There is no question that Moon was extremely jealous and could fly into one of his murderous tantrums if another man paid Emma any attention. A gambler named Cal Somers who knew the couple in California later testified that Moon "was considered a bully and a fighter. Do not know of his killing anyone, but have seen him have his gun out many times.... He was always in trouble and people dreaded him.... He kept a gambling place, called the woman 'his girl' and kept her locked up in a room with chains on the doors and paid $5 a day for keepers."
Predictably, Moon's volcanic temper got him into brawls in which he usually acquitted himself well. In one he reportedly took on twenty adversaries, "seriously injuring some," but the incident cost him his gambling saloon, and again he had to pull stakes and leave.
By 1878 Moon had acquired a sizable quantity of cash, $12,000 by Emma's estimate, and she informed him that she wanted to spend some of it on a trip to Europe to see her family. Moon, with all his faults, was never a tightwad, and he agreed. In the spring of that year the couple came back east as far as Cheyenne. There they separated, Emma going on alone to New York and an Atlantic liner. In Ireland, she took another vessel to Sweden, where her parents had moved. Moon joined her there later. After spending some time with Emma's family, the couple took in the Paris Exposition and a tour of Europe. Emma said that Moon spent $7,000 on the trip. "He bought me everything I wanted, and we had an awful good time. Besides making me several presents, he also gave my mother, sisters and other relatives money and valuable presents. Oh, he was very good to all of us."
Jim and Emma returned from their European sojourn in July 1878 and went once again to Denver. There he invested some of his remaining capital in a combination saloon and restaurant he called the Oyster Ocean. As a partner in the enterprise he took in John Bull, another veteran of the western gambling circuit.
An Englishman by birth, Bull was four years Moon's senior, and had been living by his wits and dexterity with cards since before the Civil War. He was also known as a deadly gunfighter, having killed Langford Peel, another celebrated gambler-gunman, at Helena, Montana, in 1867.
On the evening of October 14, 1880, Moon and Bull were in the Oyster Ocean with their womenfolk when two Denver police officers, Assistant Chief John Holland and a patrolman named Merrill, entered. They had been summoned by a man named Lamar, who complained that he had been abused and struck in the establishment by Moon, who was intoxicated. Seeing the officers, the always hair-triggered Moon quickly engaged in another of the donnybrooks that marked his career. But, as Moon later recounted the story, this one was more farcical than potentially fatal. "I was in the bar-room," he said,
when the officers Holland and Merrill came in and Bull was standing by me counting some money. Our wives were sitting at a table eating. Nothing was said to the officers until they started to go out.... I heard Holland say to my wife, "It will make you sick."
I stepped out and said I did not want my wife insulted.
Holland replied, "I don't know that she is your wife."
I then told him to get out of the house. After some words he pulled a gun and I jumped him and grabbed the gun. We had a scuffle and fell upon the floor. The women fired plates, cups and saucers, some of which hit me.
The officers finally beat a retreat from the shambles of a restaurant littered with shattered furniture and broken chinaware. According to a Denver newspaper report, Holland was "dragged out bleeding profusely about the head from the deep wounds and taken to Comfort's on the opposite corner, where he was put to bed seriously injured."
Officer Merrill called for reinforcements, and a paddy wagon arrived. "Whistles were blowing on every corner and finally a majority of the night force was assembled at Moon's." No arrests were made, however. A large crowd that had gathered watched as Jim Moon, armed with "a small howitzer," stood in the doorway of the Oyster Ocean and held the police at bay. He kept his revolver "at full cock" and leveled at the officers as he, Bull, and their women climbed into a hack. "The driver whipped up his horses and the party was off, having defied fifty citizens and a whole platoon of police!" Later Moon and Bull surrendered to authorities and paid fines.
This relatively minor ruckus was often exaggerated in later published accounts of Moon's misdeeds. A dispatch from Denver printed in several newspapers throughout the West some months later asserted that at the time of the Oyster Ocean fracas, Moon had "defied the whole Denver police force to arrest him, and whipped the whole force single-handed. When under the influence of liquor Moon was a perfect demon." And a newspaperman would write that
Moon, while seated with a friend and two women at a restaurant and having rather a merry time, was ... insulted by a lieutenant and officer of the police. He beat both of them nearly to death with the chinaware and chairs, hurried his three companions into a hack, which he ordered to a halfway house outside the city limits, and held his impromptu blockhouse a week with a double-barreled shotgun against the combined police and sheriff's force. He surrendered only when liberty was guaranteed him.
But the incident in the Oyster Ocean was merely a forerunner to other violent episodes in Denver involving Jim Moon. Only two weeks later, on October 31, a serious race riot broke out in Denver. When rumors spread within the city about attacks on white women by Chinese, drunken mobs moved into the Chinese section, attacking all Asians in sight. Denver's chief of police at the time was David J. Cook. As founder and head of the Rocky Mountain Detective Agency and general of the Colorado militia, Cook was the most highly respected law enforcement figure in the state. But when the disturbance broke out he was hard-pressed to bring it under control.
At the height of the riot he came upon Jim Moon, standing in the doorway of a Chinese laundry, a six-shooter gripped in each hand.
"So you're in this, too," Cook demanded.
"Not by a damned sight," Moon retorted. "I'm here to guard my Chinamen. They do my shirts and do 'em damned well. I've got a dozen Chinks in here and anybody who tried to get 'em will have to do it over my dead body."
Nobody attempted to go through Moon to get at those Chinese. A newspaper report said that at the Chinese laundry, Moon, "revolver in hand," faced down a mob of about a hundred rioters. "Knowing his record the crowd fell back." When the mob moved on to other sections, Moon volunteered to assist the police in their efforts to quell the disturbance and, as General Cook later admitted, "acquitted himself most creditably."
For the part he had played in the Chinese riot, Moon was lauded as a hero, especially in the sporting community, but his newfound heroic celebrity lasted only a week. In the early morning hours of November 8 he went into one of his fits of murderous rage and committed the only homicide that can be attributed to him with certainty.
As newspaperman E. D. Cowan told the tale some years later, "a bad man from Breakenridge pulled a six-shooter on Moon in a gambling room. He captured it and hit his assailant over the head with the butt. The blow knocked the Breakenridge killer down a flight of stairs, and when the body was taken to the morgue the neck was found to have been broken."
This account was badly distorted and differed substantially from eyewitness testimony presented at the coroner's inquest into the death of one Samuel Hall, the "bad man from Breakenridge." According to that testimony, Moon in the early hours of November 8 was standing at the bar of the Arcade, a prominent saloon and gambling house on Larimer Street in the heart of Denver's tenderloin district, drinking with Henry Scott, Frank Marshall, A. McPhee, George Bunch, and Samuel Hall. Said to be "a quiet man when sober, but very foul-mouthed when a little tipsy," Sam Hall announced loudly that "he had often heard of Moon and was disappointed at seeing him. He went on using abusive epithets and telling how many men he knew who could lick Moon. The latter was also under the influence of liquor and resented these insults by giving worse ones in return." The dispute moved to the street outside the saloon and soon escalated into violence. In blind anger, Moon pulled a revolver from his coat pocket and struck Hall on the head, at the same time shouting, "God damn you, fight! Get your pistol!" Hall staggered, but did not go to the ground at once. Moon struck him again with his gun, and Hall fell to the gutter, but in a moment struggled to his feet. Moon then delivered three more blows to Hall's head, and he went down for good. When Marshall attempted to interfere in the beating, Moon turned the pistol on him and threatened to shoot him if he did not stand clear. Police arrived, but no arrests were made at that time. Hall's friends carried him to his room, where he was attended by a physician, who determined that Hall's skull had been fractured.
Excerpted from Deadly Dozen by Robert K. DeArment. Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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