Their names still reverberate through the American consciousness–Jack Slade, Wild Bill Hickok, John Wesley Hardin, Bill Longley, Clay Allison, Kid Curry, Ben Thompson, Luke Short, Billy the Kid. These and dozens of other gunslingers like them plied their trade in the Great Plains from Texas and New Mexico in the south to the Dakotas and Montana in the north. They have been romanticized, demonized, and mythologized. Their number of gunfights and killings has been both wildly exaggerated and greatly underestimated. Most deserve their reputations; some don't. They have been written about in the liveliest of narrative and psychoanalyzed in the dullest of prose. They remain figures of legendary proportions, and they continue to capture the American fancy. Why they do so is obvious. The gunslingers put their lives on the line– again and again. Their bravery and coolness under fire, for good or ill, were awe inspiring.
Wild Bill Hickok and Dave Tutt warily eyed each other from opposite sides of a town square. The night before they had argued when Tutt insisted on keeping Hickok's watch as collateral for a gambling debt. Hickok told Tutt not to appear in public wearing the watch if he valued his life. Now Tutt stood across the square, the watch prominently displayed. Suddenly, the two men drew their guns and fired. Hickok's round buried itself in Tutt's heart, and Tutt slumped to the ground dead. Apart from the Civil War and Indian fighting, Dave Tutt was the second of seven men shot to death by Hickok during his days in the West.
Yet Hickok was by no means the leading man killer in the Great Plains. John Wesley Hardin, Bill Longley, and Jim Miller had at least eleven or twelve kills each, and Kid Curry (Harvey Logan) had nine. Some would credit Billy the Kid (Henry McCarty) with six or seven and possibly as many as nine. Several others, including John Selman, Dallas Stoudenmire, and Ben Thompson, had five or six.
These and other gunslingers came from a wide variety of backgrounds and worked in various capacities during their lives on the Plains. Some spent most of their adult lives operating on the side of the law, a few stayed entirely outside the law, and many existed in an extralegal ambiguity resulting from Reconstruction, or feuding ranchers, or political factions criminalizing their opposition. Hickok was born in a small town in Illinois to a father who both farmed and operated a small store, Billy the Kid (Henry McCarty) in New York City to Irish immigrants, Thompson in England to parents who immigrated to the United States, Hardin in Texas to a Methodist minister who rode the circuit, Selman in Arkansas to an English immigrant father, Kid Curry to an Iowa farming couple who died when he was young. Some of the gunslingers had a hardscrabble childhood; others lived a middle-class existence. They nonetheless had much in common. They were brave, had nerves of steel, were expert marksmen, and were fierce when provoked. Some of their gunfights were almost formal affairs of honor, others were drunken saloon brawls, some were part of shootouts involving several participants, and a few, when an enemy's guard was down, were executions.
Another thing most had in common was a violent death. Hickok, Billy the Kid, Hardin, Selman, Kid Curry, Stoudenmire, and Thompson (and most others) were shot to death. Longley and Miller (and a few others) were hanged. Rare was the gunslinger who lived to a ripe old age and died of natural causes. Wyatt Earp did so at eighty, Bat Masterson at sixtyeight.
Roger D. McGrath Thousand Oaks, California
Miller, Nyle H., and Joseph W. Snell. Great Gunfighters of the Kansas Cowtowns, 1867–1886. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
O'Neal, Bill. Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.
Rosa, Joseph G. The Gunfighter. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.