Digging Texas Outlaws
Wild West outlaws died young and left good looking corpses, but is that any reason to keep digging them up?
It’s a craze in the name of “historical” curiosity that has seen the supposedly-final resting places of guys like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jesse James, and, most recently, Wild Bill Longley, disinterred and subjected to the prying eyes of DNA experts, reporters, and the more morbid Western buffs amongst us.
Before Bill Longley’s remains were exhumed from the Giddings Cemetery and subjected to the latest is-he-or-isn’t-he test, 21 graves were opened and perused in error. According to history, William Preston Longley was buried in Giddings after being hung for one of his 32 murders in 1878. (Longley had to be hanged twice because the first time, the hangman used the wrong length of rope, and the killer dropped through the gallows’ trap door and hit the ground, neck sore but not snapped). But legend has it Longley’s friends rigged a fake execution and aided his escape from Giddings, after which the outlaw lived to a ripe old age under another name. Similar legends persist about Jesse James, the Wild Bunch, and Billy the Kid.
Researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio will examine the grave’s remains and perform DNA testing to try to confirm that they indeed belonged to Longley. One part of the body the people in San Antonio don’t have is the skull—which was sent to the Smithsonian, where experts will attempt a facial reconstruction.
Searching for the truth about Bill Longley has always been tangled in ambiguities. A racist killer, thug, and pathological liar, one of the kindest things that can be said about the man is that he was probably exaggerating when he claimed to have killed 32 men. By far the best book on Longley’s murderous career is contained in Bloody Bill Longley, by Rick Miller.
John Wesley Hardin is another Texas gunslinger whose corpse must be spinning from all the fuss over whether it should remain where it has been since his death in 1896—Concordia Cemetery in El Paso—or be moved to Nixon. The Nixon camp, which includes some descendants and Nixon-area residents who think Hardin’s new grave would be a dandy tourist attraction, contend that Hardin was a family man, and should be moved to Nixon where he can lie next to the grave of his first wife. (Jane Bowen Hardin died in 1894, while Hardin was serving 16 years in Huntsville for murder.) The El Paso camp feels Hardin should stay where he is because the El Paso of the late 1890s was obviously Hardin’s kind of town—a place where gambling, drinking, prostitution, and aging gunfighters flourished. After being released from prison, Hardin showed no inclination to retire to the Nixon area, which held plenty of bad memories for him. Hardin, in fact, remarried and spent even less time with his children than he had before he was incarcerated. That is, very little.
Hardin didn’t kill anyone in El Paso. The fact is he was hitting the bottle so heavily at that time he probably couldn’t shoot straight if he wanted to. But the locale did add to his legend. On August 19, 1896, Hardin was shot from behind by El Paso Constable John Selman (himself a multiple murderer and ex-criminal) in the Acme Saloon. Bolstering its claim as not only the place where Hardin fell but where he shall remain, El Paso recently convinced the state to erect a historical marker at Hardin’s gravesite.
In the latest round of legal wrangling over Hardin’s corpse, the county of El Paso filed an injunction against the Nixon camp, which stipulates that the latter must prove they have the authority to move the body, including permission from the owner of the cemetery and the owner of the grave. That seems unlikely, but the matter will be brought up in El Paso County Court sometime in August.
For the past several years, August 19th has been celebrated in El Paso with reenactments of Hardin’s death, tours of his favorite haunts, and a suitably irreverent six-shooters-and-champagne celebration at the cemetery.
If it’s western lawman lore you dig, August definitely promises to be a red-letter month. This year, the Texas Rangers celebrate their 175th anniversary, and August 21-22, the Texas Ranger Museum and Hall of Fame will host a symposium on the Rangers, featuring formal presentations by leading Texas history experts, including Harold Weiss, Chuck Parsons, Mike Cox, and Thomas Knowles, author of the official Texas Rangers history tome, They Rode for the Lone Star (which should be published in December). Other events include a shooting demonstration ranging from black powder guns to the latest in Texas Ranger ordnance, and a keynote address by senior ranger Captain Bruce Casteel. Call 254-750-8631 for details.
Visit Bill Longley’s grave
Visit John Wesley Hardin’s grave
The Heat is a Killer
The tortuous heat of summer can be a rude awakening for anyone visiting Texas, even a native returning from a few years in cooler climes. For Sam Bass, a native of the Denton area, June and July of 1878—exactly 120 years ago—must have seemed like a cruelly warm welcome home. Bass and his gang had netted $60,000 in a train robbery in Big Springs, Nebraska, and were re-entering Texas with lawmen hot on their trail.
On June 13, 1878, a posse led by Texas Ranger June Peak and Sheriff W. F. Eagan caught up with the Bass gang at Salt Creek, Texas. In the shoot-out that ensued, the lawmen killed a gang member named Arkansas Johnson and captured all of the gang’s horses. The surviving outlaws escaped on foot and made it to Denton riding stolen horses.
During his flight through Denton, Bass asked a young black man named Andy Nelson to show him the quickest route to the lower crossing of the Trinity River. Years later, Nelson would recount this harrowing incident in an interview with field operatives with the Works Progress Administration ( WPA).
Bass concocted a plan to rob the bank at Round