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University of Oklahoma Press
Deadly Dozen: Twelve Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West

Deadly Dozen: Twelve Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West

by Robert K. DeArment


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Deadly Dozen: Twelve Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West

Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday—such are the legendary names that spring to mind when we think of the western gunfighter. But in the American West of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thousands of grassroots gunfighters straddled both sides of the law without hesitation. Deadly Dozen tells the story of twelve infamous gunfighters, feared in their own times but almost forgotten today.

Now, noted historian Robert K. DeArment has compiled the stories of these obscure men. DeArment, a life-long student of law and lawlessness in the West, has combed court records, frontier newspapers, and other references to craft twelve complete biographical portraits. The combined stories of Deadly Dozen offer an intensive look into the lives of imposing figures who in their own ways shaped the legendary Old West.

More than a collective biography of dangerous gunfighters, Deadly Dozen also functions as a social history of the gunfighter culture of the post-Civil War frontier West. As Walter Noble Burns did for Billy the Kid in 1926 and Stuart N. Lake for Wyatt Earp in 1931, DeArment—himself a talented writer—brings these figures from the Old West to life.

John Bull, Pat Desmond, Mart Duggan, Milt Yarberry, Dan Tucker, George Goodell, Bill Standifer, Charley Perry, Barney Riggs, Dan Bogan, Dave Kemp, and Jeff Kidder are the twelve dangerous men that Robert K. DeArment studies in Deadly Dozen: Twelve Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806137537
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/07/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 260
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Robert K. DeArment is a University of Toledo, Ohio, graduate whose field of interest is nineteenth-century American history with special emphasis on outlaws and law enforcement in the frontier West. He is the author of Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

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Deadly Dozen

Twelve Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West

By Robert K. DeArment


Copyright © 2003 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-3753-7




"A desperate man when excited"

On August 25, 1862, two determined-looking men rode into a little mining camp called Gold Creek in Montana Territory. The leader, a small man with dark eyes and coal-black beard, was armed with a double-barreled shotgun and a Colt's navy revolver. He said his name was John Bull and that he and Fox, his companion, were on the trail of thieves who had stolen six valuable horses in Elk City, Idaho. The miners told him that three strangers answering the description of the thieves had arrived in camp a few days before with six horses. The newcomers, giving their names as C. W. Spillman, William Arnett, and B. F. Jermagin, had opened a Spanish monte game in a tent saloon.

Bull, Fox, and a group of miners went after the suspects. Spillman, described in the journal of James Stuart, one of the miners, as a "rather quiet, reserved, pleasant young man," was collared without incident. Miners guarded him while Bull, Fox, Stuart, and others sought out Arnett and Jermagin. They found them running their monte game. "Arnett was dealing and Jermagin was 'lookout' for him," Stuart wrote in his journal that night. Brandishing his shotgun, Bull stepped into the tent saloon "and ordered them to 'throw up their hands.' Arnett, who kept his Colt's navy revolver lying in his lap ready for business, instantly grabbed it, but before he could raise it, Bull shot him through the breast with a heavy charge of buckshot, killing himinstantly. Jermagin ran into a corner of the room, exclaiming, 'Don't shoot, don't shoot, I give up.' He and Spillman were then tied and placed under guard till morning." When the miners buried Arnett the next day they found the monte cards in his left hand and the pistol in his right gripped so tightly in his dead fingers that they could not be removed, so they lowered him into the grave still clutching the tools of his trade.

The miners convened a court to hear the case. Jermagin convinced a jury that he had no part in the horse theft, that he had joined Arnett and Spillman on the trail, and his only crime was one of bad association. He was acquitted and ordered to leave the camp. The jury convicted Spillman and sentenced him to death. An hour later the miners carried out the execution and buried the "pleasant young man" beside Arnett.

The incident on Gold Creek is notable for several firsts. According to Montana pioneers Granville Stuart and N. P. Langford, the monte game in the tent saloon was the first professional gambling operation in the territory, and the hanging of Spillman was the first execution. It is also the first record we have of John Bull, a gunman who over the next forty years would be known and feared throughout the West as one of the deadliest.

John Edwin Bull was born in England in 1836. Nothing is known of his early life or when he came to the United States. He was twenty-five years old and already a seasoned boom camp veteran when he joined the 1861 rush to the Elk Creek Basin, one of many stampedes he would experience. It is unlikely that Bull ever panned a creek or swung a pick in a mine; it was as a professional gambler that he appeared in a succession of boom camps over the next four decades.

We hear of him next in 1866 at Virginia City, Nevada, where he teamed up in a gambling operation with a colorful character known as "Farmer" Peel. Like Bull, Langford M. Peel was an Englishman by birth. Ten years older than his countryman, and already a well-known frontier personality, Peel's nickname "Farmer" evidently resulted from the Westerners' strong sense of irony. They called this tall, dangerous fighting man "Farmer" for the same reason they called a bald-headed man "Curly." Arriving in the States at an early age, Peel joined the American army in 1843 when he was seventeen. After serving a five-year enlistment as a bugler in Company B of the First Dragoons, he took a promotion to sergeant and signed up for another five years. During his ten years in the army Peel married and had a son whom he named after his first sergeant. He served throughout the Mexican War and distinguished himself in a number of frontier Indian-fighting engagements. In 1846 at Coon Creek, Kansas, he was one of twenty dragoons attacked by a large war party. Before being driven off, the Indians killed or wounded a dozen soldiers. Peel personally killed three warriors in this fight. In the fall of 1849 he was at Fort Kearny, Nebraska, where he participated in several sharp skirmishes with Pawnee war parties and downed three more Indians. In 1853 he and three other soldiers were cut off from their buffalo-hunting camp by fifty Indians, but managed to fight off the warriors.

After leaving the army Peel established a home for his family at Leavenworth, Kansas, but returned to the frontier, this time as a professional gambler. For the next fourteen years he was one of the most widely known figures in the boomtowns of the West, renowned both as a gambler and a deadly gunman. A tall, well-built man with blond hair and beard and chilly blue eyes, Peel could quickly turn violent when provoked.

In 1858 at Salt Lake City, Utah, he tangled with a faro dealer named Oliver Rucker. The two gamblers drew pistols and opened fire. Both were hit and fell to the floor where they continued to shoot until their weapons were empty. With three bullets in his body, Peel crawled over to Rucker and drove a Bowie knife into his heart. Believing he was dying himself, Peel gasped out to bystanders: "I've got a wife in Leavenworth City. Write and tell her I fit to the last minute; eye, and I fit to the last minute."

Against all odds Peel recovered. He spent several years in the mining camps of California before turning up in booming Virginia City, Nevada, where he declared himself "chief" of the Comstock sporting crowd. Mark Twain, at the time a young newsman in Virginia City, later described the phenomenon of the desperado "chief": "In a new mining district ... a person is not respected until he had 'killed his man.' That was the very expression used. If an unknown individual arrived, they did not inquire if he was capable, honest, industrious, but-had he killed his man? ... It was tedious work struggling up to a position of influence with bloodless hands, but when a man came with the blood of half a dozen men on his soul, his worth was recognized at once and his acquaintance sought. In Nevada, for a time, the lawyer, the editor, the banker, the chief desperado, the chief gambler, and the saloon-keeper, occupied the same level of society, and it was the highest." A desperado known as "El Dorado Johnny" Dennis rashly challenged Peel's claim to the title of "chief" and became one of the six victims Peel reportedly dispatched in Nevada.

John Bull's professional association with Langford Peel placed him well up in the Virginia City sporting hierarchy. Mark Twain would remember Bull, however, primarily because of a practical joke the gambler played on him. On a cold night in November 1866 Twain and his agent were walking back to Virginia City after the writer had delivered a lecture at Gold Hill, a neighboring camp. Suddenly six masked and elaborately disguised men leaped from the darkness. Brandishing pistols, they demanded Twain's money or his life. The highwaymen relieved Twain of $125 in coin and a gold watch valued at more than three hundred dollars. Twain described the leader as "small and spry," but, with the disguise, did not recognize John Bull.

Two days later Twain was boarding a stagecoach for California when Bull and his cohorts appeared and with feigned formality presented him with his stolen belongings and the masks and disguises they had worn. Alfred Doten, who witnessed the scene, noted in his journal that "Mark was considerably taken down [and] talked to the boys quite profanely till the stage drove off. Rather heavy on Mark. They were only trying, however, to play even on him for some of his practical jokes in former times."

Twain later admitted that the incident cured him of his penchant for pranks. "Since then," he said, "I play no practical jokes on people and generally lose my temper when one is played on me."

A few months after this affair, Bull and Peel moved their gambling operation to new fields. They were at Belmont, Nevada, and then Salt Lake City, where they had a disagreement and briefly severed their partnership. By the summer of 1867 they had apparently resolved their differences and were teamed again in a gambling enterprise at Helena, Montana. On the night of July 22, 1867, the partners were seated together in a game at Greer Brothers' Exchange Saloon when the smoldering discord was somehow rekindled. The two men jumped to their feet, shouting insults. Peel slapped Bull in the face with his left hand and reached for his gun with his right. Bull threw up his arms, protesting that he was unarmed. Peel told him to go and heel himself and come back fighting.

Bull retreated to his rooms where he sat down and composed letters to his family and friends. He spelled out directions for the disposition of his property in the event of his death. Then he carefully oiled and loaded his six-shooter.

For some time after the eruption in the Exchange Saloon Peel kept a wary eye on the door and his six-gun within easy reach. When Bull failed to appear he relaxed, convinced that the little gambler lacked the sand to face him in a gunfight. Finally, he checked out of the game and sauntered down the street to the gambling saloon of Ed Chase, three doors away. There he met faro dealer Belle Neil, his current mistress. Belle took Peel's right arm and the couple stepped out of Chase's into Helena's Main Street.

Suddenly John Bull was there. Without warning he turned loose his six-gun. Peel staggered, struck by a bullet. He tried to reach for the pistol in his pocket, but Belle, screaming, clutched his arm in a tight grip. Bull fired again and Peel collapsed. According to one witness, Bull then walked up to Peel and deliberately fired a bullet into his head, making certain he was dead.

News of the shooting spread quickly throughout Helena. When he first heard the report, John Xavier "X" Beidler, the celebrated Montana vigilante and lawman, did not believe it. Peel, he said, "was such a rattler that I didn't think he would be killed." It was Beidler who took Bull into custody and jailed him. Later that night there were some tense moments when an angry crowd of Peel supporters closed in on the jail, but Beidler's deputies stood firm and averted the lynch threat. Indicted for murder, Bull stood trial. The jury, split nine to three for conviction, could not agree. Released, Bull lost no time getting out of Helena.

He went to Cheyenne, Wyoming, at the time becoming notorious as the wildest of the wild end-of-track towns on the westward-building Union Pacific Railroad. Here was gathered the hell-on-wheels sporting crowd: the gamblers, con men, whiskey peddlers, madams, whores, pimps, pickpockets, footpads, and strong-arm robbers who had followed track construction all the way from Omaha. John Bull arrived on this scene like a conquering hero. All members of the frontier sporting gentry were familiar with the name and reputation of Langford Peel, and the man who had dispatched him was an instant celebrity. Men pumped his hand, women threw their arms around him, he could not pay for a drink, and suckers fought to lose their money in his rigged three-card monte games. It was just like the obsequiousness accorded Langford Peel in Virginia City so well described by Mark Twain: "The desperado stalked the streets with a swagger ... and a nod of recognition from him was sufficient to make a humble admirer happy for the rest of the day.... When he moved along the sidewalk in his excessively long-tailed frock-coat, shiny stump-toed boots, and with dainty little slouch hat tipped over left eye, the small-fry roughs made room for his majesty; when he entered the restaurants, the waiters deserted bankers and merchants to overwhelm him with obsequious service; when he shouldered his way to a bar, the shouldered parties wheeled indignantly, recognized him, andapologized."

An aura of glamour had begun to form around the Western gunman. Certain of the Plains Indians believed that when a brave slew a man in battle he acquired from his vanquished enemy the personal credits of that warrior, and the victor's status was enhanced in direct proportion to the bloody distinction of his fallen foe. This concept was incorporated into the gunfighter mystique. When John Bull killed Langford Peel, reputed slayer of many men, he stepped into the higher echelons of frontier celebrity. As far as is known, after Peel, Bull never killed another man, but that brief moment of violence in Helena firmly established his reputation as a deadly gunman; it was a reputation that would remain with him throughout his long career.

When railroad construction resumed in the spring of 1868, Bull moved west with the hell-on-wheels gang and stayed with it to the historic linkup of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah. About this time he married. His bride was apparently an estimable lady, ill suited to the half-world of the itinerant gambler. Bull took her to Chicago and rented rooms for her in the boarding house of Addison Snell, at 771 West Van Buren Street. She eventually bore him two children. Henry Hoyt, a young doctor who lived for a time in the same boarding house, described Mrs. Bull as a "beautiful young woman," who, in explanation of her husband's long absences, said that he was "a traveling man." A few years later this woman died and Bull placed his children in foster homes.

Bull was indeed "a traveling man." For years he crisscrossed the Northwest, working his crooked gambling games on trains, stagecoaches, and riverboats. From time to time he would settle in a lively town with a large transient population and tolerant law enforcement. During the early 1870s he operated in Omaha, working with a gang of sharpers led by William "Canada Bill" Jones, notorious in Western towns and rivers for a generation. Other sure-thing men in the Omaha crowd were George Devol, who would later write a book recounting his gambling experiences; Charles "Doc" Baggs, a sartorially resplendent bunco steerer; Ben Marks, talented young sharper from Council Bluffs; W. E. Train, who claimed to be a nephew of George Francis Train, writer, eccentric, and onetime candidate for president; Sherman Thurston, a former wrestler who acted as strong-arm man for the gang; Jim Bush, black sheep brother of wealthy Denver hotelman William H. Bush; and assorted lesser lights Bill Lawrence, George Mehaffy, Jim Shotwell, Jack Sullivan, John J. Doyle, and a scam artist remembered only as "Grasshopper Sam."

This gang worked marks on trains running out of Omaha and within the city itself. Bull's role was usually that of steerer to a skin game. His polite manner, educated speech, austere good looks, well-trimmed black beard, and immaculate dress gave him the appearance of a successful professional man, one who could be trusted. Approaching a mark, he would flash a roll of greenbacks he had just won, he said, at the three-card monte game of Canada Bill or one of his understudies. Appealing to the mark's greed, Bull would then steer the sheep to his shearing. If tempers flared when victims realized they had been robbed, calm usually was restored when one of the gang dropped the word that the dark-bearded "professional man" was actually John Bull, the noted gunman and mankiller.

Shortly before midnight on July 12, 1873, Samuel Atwood, a railroad employee, was stabbed outside Harry Clayton's Crystal Saloon in Omaha. Witnesses charged John Bull and George Mehaffy with attacking Atwood because he was warning railroad passengers to avoid the gang's skin games. Six Omaha policemen led by City Marshal Gilbert Rustin conducted a search for the gamblers. At 4:30 in the morning they located Bull in Jack Sullivan's saloon. Posting his men at the doors, Marshal Rustin went in to make the arrest. Pulling what a newspaper report called "a large navy revolver a foot long," Bull covered the officer and refused to go with him. Knowing Bull "to be a desperate man when excited," Rustin "thought it better to work the matter gently," and withdrew.

Bull appeared to be very excited. Waving his pistol, he went into Sullivan's gambling room and declared he was "in a hell of a fix," but would not be taken until his gun was empty. The patrons scrambled for the exits and Bull soon had the place to himself. His excitement apparently abated quickly, for he sat down in a chair and promptly went to sleep. When awakened by a friend later, he quietly submitted to arrest.

Sam Atwood's fellow railroad workers were enraged by the attack on him and, as he lay near death, organized a protest. Reported the Omaha Bee of July 16: "Last evening the employees of the Union Pacific shops held a meeting for the purpose of forming a vigilance committee. There were several hundred men present. From a reliable party who was at the meeting we learn that in case young Atwood dies, they intend to have summary vengeance upon the men who are now confined in jail, and who are supposed to have stabbed him. Atwood's death was expected last night, and had he died, the vigilance committee ... would have proceeded to the jail, and attempted to take Bull and Mehaffy out, to have punished them, as they thought best."


Excerpted from Deadly Dozen by Robert K. DeArment. Copyright © 2003 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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