Post-Civil War Texas produced many homicidal criminals, gun-men as they were sometimes called (the terms gunfighter and gunslinger were later nomenclature). Defeat in the war and subsequent occupation, as many Texans saw it, severe economic dislocation, the political restructuring of so-called Reconstruction which was detested especially by the poorer and less educated classes, a culture of violent feuding in which it was acceptable – even expected – that blood would be exacted for blood, the lack of an effective police force and the ubiquity of firearms and cheap liquor, whatever the reason or reasons may have been there was a remarkable number of killers. We think of Texas Jack Vermilion, Killin’ Jim Miller, King Fisher, Jim Courtright, Phil Coe or Pink Higgins (who was born in Georgia but did much of his killing in Texas), among others. None, however, have received as much attention as Bill Longley and John Wesley Hardin.
We looked at the life of Hardin back in September 2014. Today, though, I’d like to look at the other, Bill Longley.
Hardin and Longley were very alike in many ways. Longley was born in Austin County in 1851, Hardin in Bonham in 1853, so both were children of Reconstruction Texas, too young to fight in the war, though many close to them did. Both came from ‘respectable’ families: Hardin’s father was a Methodist circuit-riding preacher while Longley’s was a farmer who also preached, and who finally despaired of his son and disowned him. Both boys received a modest education but showed signs of violent temper in early youth and both grew up thinking it was perfectly acceptable, indeed, praiseworthy, to kill African-Americans. Both became remarkably proficient with firearms, especially the pistol. In later life, when their fame as murderers grew, both were self-justifying and delighted in press attention. They wrote often to the newspapers defending themselves and absolving themselves of guilt. The papers responded with an almost morbid fascination with them and their bloody careers. It reminds us of Jesse James.
Longley and Hardin actually met once. Hardin was barely seventeen when he came through Bonham and won twenty dollars playing seven-up. Hardin wrote that “a dark-looking man” came up to him and threatened him, thinking he was a spy, but then realized his mistake and invited him to the races the next day. It was Longley. They then played poker and Hardin won 300 dollars.
But there was no love lost between them. When Hardin was arrested and put on trial he said that he had never had anything to do with Longley, “only with men of honor”. Longley wrote scathingly of Hardin’s honor to the Nagodoches News: “I guess Hardin considers it brave and honourable take fifteen or twenty men … and go into Cuero and shoot to death one Rube Brown, the town marshall … And also, when him and Jim Taylor and Dickson killed poor Charley Webb in Comanche, one of the best and bravest of young men that the state of Texas afforded.”
Longley was shocked when he learned that Hardin had been sentenced to twenty-five years in the penitentiary while he, Longley, was condemned to hang. “Don’t you think it is hard,” Longley wrote, “to kill me for my sins and give Wes Hardin only twenty-five years?”
No one knows how many men each killed. Hardin claimed to have killed 42 but contemporary newspaper accounts attributed ‘only’ 27 deaths to him. Longley is often ‘credited’ with 32. Some like to keep a morbid count of these things (the ‘notches on the gun’ syndrome) but the biographers of both say it is impossible to be sure. What is very clear, though, is that both were extremely homicidal.
There are quite a few biographies of Bill Longley, for example Bloody Bill Longley: The Mythology of a Gunfighter by Rick Miller and David Johnson (University of North Texas Press, 2011) and you may have your favorite. I read Wild Bill Longley: Texas Gunslinger by Dick Brownson (Edward Gaskell/Shadow Press, 2011), which is available on Kindle. It seems well researched. There are a couple of reproaches I have: one, the author seems to have taken at face value Longley’s own rather tall tales when he recounted his exploits, and secondly there is quite a lot of imagining what Longley said and thought. But that’s par for the course in popular bios, I guess.
For numerous myths and legends have grown up about Longley that cannot be verified by any contemporary source. There are some hard facts, such as military records and judicial accounts, but many of these ‘events’ trace back to accounts that Longley himself gave, to newspapers and in letters, while imprisoned in Giddings in 1877. Some of these are probably false, while others could be true but lack any contemporary corroborating evidence. Newspapers were in any case prone to exaggerations in order to sensationalize the story.
The fact remains that even if half of his adventures throughout the West were true, it was a remarkable career of lawlessness, with much ‘Wild West’ action packed into a short life (Longley was hanged five days after his twenty-seventh birthday).
William Preston Longley was born on Mill Creek in Austin County, Texas, the sixth of ten children of Campbell and Sarah Longley, and raised in Evergreen, Lee County. According to Rick Miller, Longley dropped out of school and began living a wild life, drinking, and running in the company of others of a similar disposition.
He grew into a handsome young man of six foot (1.83 m) with slender build (he weighed maybe 150 lbs./68 kg) and jet black hair. As an adult he wore a mustache and goatee, looked thin, even gaunt, and reminds me much of Doc Holliday.
In 1867 Longley and some friends, drunk, held up a circus that came to Evergreen, made the clowns ‘dance’ by shooting at their feet and, according to Justice James Brady, “drove the deputy sheriff away and robbed the freedmen of their pistols and their money.” In December 1868 Longley shot and killed a former slave named Green Evans. Longley later wrote, “Some killed for a grudge then some for a woman and some because they liked it” and you get the distinct impression that Longley considered himself to be in that last category. He also said, “You kill one man and then another and after that it’s easy.”
In 1869, Longley and his brother-in-law, John Wilson, called by Brownson “a hardened, pugnacious and wanton character”, embarked on a crime spree through southern Texas. Together they robbed settlers and in one instance killed another freed slave, Paul Brice, in Bastrop County, after which they stole his horses. They also killed a freed slave woman by the name of Pinir Green. Drifting around Texas, Longley became acquainted with noted gambler Phil Coe. In March 1870, a $1,000 reward for the capture of Longley and Wilson was offered by the Union military authority.
Brownson opines that Longley’s “attitude toward Negroes would today be termed pathological, bordering on insanity” but Longley was not the only one killing freedmen. Brownson tells us “Freedmen were being murdered by enraged secessionists to such an extent that in a report of inspection of the Freedman’s Bureau affairs in Texas, General EM Gregory, who had organized the bureau, declared that Negroes and Union men were trembling for their lives. Criminals responsible, he claimed, were always acquitted in the courts.”
Longley also killed an Army sergeant in charge of a detachment of the Sixth Ohio Regiment by shooting him in the belly with a pistol but that didn’t stop Bill, wanted though he was, from going back to his family farm in Evergreen. Longley always seemed to pine for home, when on the run, though his welcome there grew more and more threadbare until eventually his father forbade him to return. When eventually Bill was arrested, Campbell Longley did not attend either the trial or the execution.
Bill Longley crossed over into the relative safety of Arkansas and fell in with a certain Tom Johnson but Johnson was a horse thief and the pair was taken by vigilantes. Although Longley protested his innocence (he later wrote, “I may be a killer, I may be a murderer, but I never stole a horse”, a rather Western claim to decency) the vigilantes hanged them both. Remarkably, however, one of the departing lynch mob turned to empty his revolver into the swaying corpses before leaving and a shot severed the rope strangling Longley and, though Johnson’s neck was broken, Bill survived. Longley said he now joined up with the gang of notorious Cullen Baker, riding with the terrorizing band for six months. Their particular targets were Negroes, carpetbaggers and Northern sympathizers, but they weren’t too fussy. Baker’s record shows him to have been a psychopathic killer, if skilled guerrilla leader, who shot down anyone who angered him, regardless of their loyalties.
This at least was the story Longley told. But it is the most clearly false of the tall tales he recounted. Baker was already dead and his band dispersed by the time Longley claimed this happened. Brownson describes the episode as Longley told it, but Miller and Johnson disprove it convincingly.
Once again the homesick Longley returned to the family farm but troops were on the lookout for him. A certain Charles Tyler had married Bill’s eldest sister and the couple had left for Utah to join a Mormon community. It seemed sensible for Bill to catch them up and accompany them there. Military authorities or bounty hunters were unlikely to find him in the distant territory. Longley joined a trail herd (as Hardin would too) for a dollar a day and became helper at the chuck wagon. Unfortunately Longley got into an argument with the trail boss, an irascible and drunken man named Rector, and Longley shot him six times in the chest.
So Longley left the herd, with a friend named Tom Davis, crossing Indian Territory alone. They had to drive off some Indians who tried to steal their horses and Davis was wounded by an arrow. Later, at a store near Abilene, Longley and Davis got into it with two Texans with a reward on their heads. Longley shot one, McClellan, from his horse but as the man fell his pistol discharged, fatally wounding the storekeeper. Longley and Davis took the other man, Shelley, to Abilene, to claim the reward. So Bill Longley preceded John Wesley Hardin into the cow town (this was a few months before Wild Bill Hickok became marshal there).
Davis decided to hang around in Abilene while Longley used the money he had gained to travel on by train, to Leavenworth. But there in a saloon he got into another quarrel, with a drunken soldier who was insulting Texas and Texans, and Longley shot him dead with a Dance revolver. He evaded the pursuit of the trooper’s angry friends and hastily boarded a steam ferry on the Missouri river, on the far bank taking a train for Omaha, but at St Joseph he was arrested. Details of the Leavenworth saloon killing had been telegraphed there. Imprisoned, he managed to bribe a guard with his remaining money, and flee. He set off on foot, receiving food and shelter at farms (word of him had spread but there was no love for the soldiery in that country) and eventually, having cut his long hair and wearing false whiskers, he took another train at Atchison. He got to Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory.
In many ways Longley’s time in Wyoming was the most remarkable of his career – at least if his own account is to be believed, and that’s quite a big if. Cheyenne was a tough place. Longley wrote in a letter to his parents “If enough people here get down on a man they just take him out and string him up and later they have a big spree on the strength of it.” In a saloon Longley heard about a gold-mining expedition going into the Black Hills, in spite of a military decree forbidding white incursions and the express order of President Grant. 130 men, including Longley, under the command of William Kuykendall, who later became a judge, set off into the territory. Kuykendall described the inhabitants of that region as “savage and merciless Indians” and felt perfectly justified in breaking the Fort Laramie Treaty. The expedition towed a six-pounder cannon.
It was a disaster. Miners were picked off by Indians, guards were not posted or fell asleep and eventually the remnants of the party were escorted out of the territory by a military escort. No gold had been found. Kuykendall claimed in his memoirs (1917) that “We had driven an entering wedge” and that later expeditions would not have been possible without him. It was nonsense.
You’re in the Army now
At Camp Stambaugh Longley did something remarkable: he enlisted for five years as a private in the US Cavalry, and under his own name (it can be seen today in the preserved muster rolls). He was wanted by military authorities and had killed at least two soldiers. He must have assumed that no one would check, and he was evidently right.
But a man like Longley was highly unlikely to stay the course for five years. In less than two weeks he deserted. Even that he didn’t do well: the very next day he was captured by a platoon of soldiers. He was court-martialed and sentenced to hard labor, wearing a ball and chain, for two years. Thanks, however, to a very understanding Lt James Whelan, he only served three months and resumed military duties.
According to some reports he got into a crooked deal with the quartermaster, selling half the corn rations for the mules he was in charge of, and then selling off the mules themselves, claiming they had died of natural causes. In June 1872 he deserted again.
He now opened a saloon in a nearby mining camp with a partner named Tom Johnson. “There was no law at all,” Longley said later, in a strange lament for a killer on the run. “It was simply the rule of claw and tooth and the weakest went to the wall.” The winter was very severe. On Christmas Day there were drunken knifings and gunfights, with seven men dead. He abandoned the enterprise and decided to take his chance among the Indians.
Life among the Shoshone
If Longley is to be believed he now lived for almost a year with a people he called the Snake Indians (a collective name then given to the Northern Paiute, Bannock, and Shoshone Native American tribes). He said he was surprised how readily the village he came across accepted him. He taught the Indians to shoot (they had several captured pistols) and in return they taught him to use tomahawk and bow. He participated in raids on the Sioux and the Crow to capture horses and, he claimed, himself led a raid on Camp Stambaugh to steal Army horses. But he tired of the life, as he did of everything, and left, riding south towards New Mexico, wanting to return to Texas. He got into a fight with some Mexican bandits and fell heavily when trying to jump a ravine, killing his horse and knocking himself unconscious. He was found and nursed by a young Mexican woman named Dolores Gomez. Romance bloomed. But once again he was on his way.
Of course, all these picaresque adventures need to be taken with a pinch of salt. They may have happened but Longley was not the most reliable or trustworthy of historians…
In Kansas, he got into a card game and shot dead a young man named Charlie Stuart after accusing him of cheating. Later he learned that Stuart’s father had put a bounty of $1500 on his head, and he dreamed up a scheme with a couple of men he met to pretend to turn him in and share the reward, and it worked. Or so Longley said.
He got into another scrape with a counterfeiter in Oklahoma but once again bribed a lawman to let him go. Finally Longley arrived back in Texas.
Back in Texas
He learned that the Longleys now lived in Bell County, and Bill’s father reluctantly took him back. He worked solidly on the farm, and it is interesting that Longley’s wild adventures were punctuated by periods of great steadiness and hard work. Often on his travels he got work on farms and always impressed his employers with the quantity and quality of the work he did. But it never lasted. There would inevitably be an explosion of crime and violence. There always was.
It was at this time that Longley became involved in the notorious Taylor-Sutton feud, like Hardin on the Taylor side. On the run again, Bill got work at a Taylor ranch in DeWitt County. Who sheds a Taylor’s blood, by a Taylor’s hand must fall was the family motto. We have no details though. Brownson says “All that can be established about Longley’s involvement is that he rode for the Taylors.”
He next emerges in Brown County working for a cattle herder named Willis Johnson. Another murder of a Negro in a store led to more wanderings – there was a troop of Negro soldiers in the area. He was sheltered by farmers in Coleman County. A party of riders came up. He killed one of the group, fearing capture. “To this day,” Longley admitted, “I do not know who those men were.” Shoot first and ask questions later seemed to be Longley’s approach.
In Mason County, at the horse races, the local sheriff, Finley, recognized Longley from descriptions that had been circulated: Sinewy, six ft. tall, dark hair and eyes, soft moustache, going heavily armed.
Finley was sure that the man who gave his name as ‘William Henry’ was indeed Longley. But Finley didn’t want to risk trying to capture him alone, and sought help. This allowed Longley to escape, but a posse followed and caught him. He was taken to Fredericksburg where a mob seemed likely to lynch him, but Finley stood his ground. However, Longley had committed no known crime in Mason County and when Longley’s cousin William Patterson arrived with 563 dollars in gold, he was released.
Back home yet again, Bill’s father forbade him to speak to his sister and brothers and said it would be better for everyone if he left and never returned. In Frio County he got a horse from a Mexican but the steed turned out to be stolen. Finding the Mexican again, Longley shot him dead.
In Madison County he was challenged to a duel by the brother of a girl he had allegedly assaulted, and accepted but never turned up at the appointed place and time. In Fort Ewell he got into a quarrel with a gambler named Dave Clark and wounded him with two bullets. He killed yet another Negro on the Sabine River. And so it went on.
The Anderson murder
Finally, though, in Bastrop County, Longley was told that one of his cousins, Caleb Longley, had been killed by one Wilson Anderson. Without trying to verify the accusation or finding out if Anderson was being questioned by the authorities on the matter, Longley set out for Anderson’s farm, unwisely telling various people on the way that he was off “to hunt up Anderson”. He found the man plowing, leveled a shotgun at him and pulled the triggers. There are fanciful stories told, such as that the farmer groaned “Oh God, why did you shoot me?” and Longley replied, “Just for luck”, and that Anderson had been singing a favorite hymn of Longley’s so he waited until it was finished before shooting him, but Longley himself did not say this and there were no other witnesses; so they must be just legends.
Instead of remaining silent about the killing, Longley bragged about it. He even wrote to Sheriff Brown (who had actually bought the old Longley place in Evergreen), self-righteously and self-pityingly, confessing to the crime and claiming it was justice.
You all know that Wils Anderson did kill little Cale and why in the hell does outsiders want to take a hand in it for? Why not just say it is dog eat dog and all of you go on about yor business.
Longley also wrote:
I still alone tread the living land destitute of friends but goddam the world and every sons of a bitch that dont like me for I am a wolf and it is my night to howl.
Six months after the murder of Anderson Longley turned up north of Waco and got work on the farm of a Captain Sedbury. Like other employers before him, Sedbury was impressed by the diligence of the man. But there he got into an argument with a fellow hand named George Thomas and shot him dead on the doorstep of a general store. So once again he was on the run. He sheltered at a Mexican place but one of the Mexicans stole Longley’s horse and though he returned it when Longley hit him on the head with a pistol butt, Longley shot him dead anyway for the effrontery.
At the next farm he discovered that the owner, Sawyer, who was wanted himself, had recognized Longley and written to the sheriff offering to split the reward. Longley shot him with a rifle. Amazingly, Longley took Sawyer’s body to Uvalde slung over a horse and claimed the 500-dollar reward on Sawyer, and the sheriff paid it. He even gave Longley (now calling himself James Webb) warrants for other fugitives.
In February 1876 Longley was in the northern part of Delta County where he (now William Black) fell for a farmer’s daughter and the farmer liked him and got him work on a neighboring farm belonging to the Reverend Roland Lay. Longley was industrious, as ever, but the clergyman’s nephew was sweet on the girl too, and Lay told Longley he must go. Things became angry and Longley slashed a Lay man who tried to run him off across the face with a riding whip. Longley was arrested for assault and imprisoned but he made a fire in his cell and escaped in the confusion. He went back to the Lay farm and shot Lay with a shotgun. “He fell backwards and I left him.” A posse was raised but failed to find ‘Black’.
In light of the Lay killing, the reward for Longley’s capture was now doubled, and the Texas Rangers, newly reconstituted, were after him too. Opinion had swung against him, many believing that Anderson was innocent of Caleb’s death. Astonishingly, Longley once again returned to his family but was only allowed to stay the night. Longley drifted into Louisiana.
There he once again impressed with his hard work and also made friends with a Junius Courtney, the local constable. ‘Will Jackson’ (as Longley was now) helped Courtney make several arrests but Courtney grew suspicious and wrote to a Texas sheriff he knew, Milton Mast, who replied with a detailed description of Longley (in the days when photos were rare and impossible to transmit), in effect identifying ‘Jackson’ as Longley, “the worst man in Texas”. Mast and his deputy William Burrows set off to meet Courtney, with a photograph. It was confirmed: Courtney’s assistant was Bill Longley.
On May 13, 1877 William Longley was arrested and taken by wagon back to Texas. Two days later he was in prison in Henderson and was then taken by train to Overton and thence to Houston, the place where Longley had bought his first revolver, a Dance, eleven years before. His Dance was now in the hands of Sheriff Mast. When Longley finally arrived for trial in Giddings, Lee County, on May 18, rewards for his capture amounted to $1050.
Longley was put on trial for the murder of Wilson Anderson. Reporters were allowed to visit Longley in his cell and he made the most of it. They found him cocky and boasting that no jail could hold him for long. Most of the time waiting for the trial to begin was spent talking and writing to newspaper reporters. The Galveston News printed a long article under the title The Arch Desperado of the West, which Longley doubtless enjoyed. The writer described how Longley had “asserted his rights to liberty and freedom under magna charta through the prowess of his own right arm”. The article contained errors and exaggerations, such as that he had been sentenced to be shot by a court martial in Wyoming, then to 30 years in the penitentiary. Eventually, so many reporters came to interview Longley that Sheriff Mast banned such visits.
The trial began on September 3rd. The courthouse was packed. It was over in two days. The jury swiftly returned to pronounce Longley guilty of murder in the first degree. “Well the blow is over,” said Longley, “the die is cast and I am condemned without the sympathy of a single person.” Well, boo hoo.
It does seem true that Longley’s defense attorney was pretty bad, witnesses were of dubious probity and the jury was probably pretty prejudiced. The fact remains that Longley had casually destroyed upwards of thirty lives and committed many other crimes besides, so his self-pity and bitter complaints do ring a bit hollow. “That jury murdered me in colder blood than ever I did a man.” Mmmm.
Gradually, however, Longley became resigned to his fate – though as mentioned above his equilibrium was badly damaged when he heard that Wesley Hardin’s life had been spared. On October 5 Longley, now in Galveston jail, wrote a long and frankly entertaining letter to Sheriff Mast. “I will be here till next March [the date of Longley’s appeal decision] and if you or Bill [Burrows] have any business in Galveston I want you to come and see me at my office and you will be apt to find me in my office for I am so busy that I seldom walk out in town.”
There is no surviving record of Longley’s appeal but it clearly failed for the execution was set for Friday October 11, 1878. Longley spent his last days writing letters, portraying himself as a romantic figure, a man who saw himself as a victim, one whose good intentions had been thwarted by others, a man forced into situations not of his making.
Smoking a cigar on the scaffold, Longley made a short speech which included the words “I deserve this fate. It is a debt I owe for my wild, reckless life.” The hanging was bungled and Longley writhed and groaned for eleven minutes. Some spectators laughed. The body was buried on the edge of a local cemetery, away from the graves of late respectable citizens, though over the years, as the graveyard filled up, Longley came to lie close to a judge.
Bill Longley on the screen
Bill Longley has not appeared in Western movies or TV shows in the way John Wesley Hardin has. There was no Raoul Walsh-directed biopic of Longley with Rock Hudson like The Lawless Breed. The most famous screen Longley was Rory Calhoun, the title character in The Texan, a TV series which aired on CBS from 1958 to 1960, and which we reviewed in August this year. Rory’s Longley bore no resemblance to the real one, except that he came from Texas and wandered the West. The Texan, like many lone cowboys on the big screen or small, roamed about doing good, righting wrongs and defending minorities. Gleefully shooting African-Americans was not really his thing.
There had to be a Stories of the Century episode (S1 E18) about Longley, of course. Railroad detective Matt Clark captured every other desperado of the Wild West, so why not Longley. The show isn’t very good. It just takes a couple of factoids about the Texan’s life but 95% is bunkum. A stocky and clean-shaven Douglas Kennedy in his mid-50s plays Longley, and in 1876 he escapes from a hard-labor party by killing two soldiers – Longley didn’t. Matt is after him because he stole $50,000 from a railroad depot. Actually, Longley never robbed banks or express offices or the like. The writers invent a Longley sweetheart, Mamie (Marlo Dwyer) who is a trapeze artist and Matt’s colleague Frankie Adams (Mary Castle) gets a job in the circus to get near to her. At one point Jim Davis dresses up as a clown. The episode is even more preposterous than the usual ones. Eventually Longley is captured (Sheriff Mast, played by John Halloran, makes an appearance, but it’s Matt who does the capturing) and Longley smokes a cigar in Giddings before going to the scaffold. A bit of a yawn, really.
In 1958, Steve McQueen played Longley in NBC’s Tales of Wells Fargo S2 E23. This also invented a girl for Bill, this time Marge (Jacqueline Holt). Bill wants to run off to Mexico with her and live happily ever after. He cooks up a scheme with an accomplice, Jess (Steve Rowland, director Roy Rowland’s son, often a baddy) by which Jess will bring Bill in and claim the reward of $5000 (there was of course never such a big reward out for Longley), which Jess and Bull will then share. This appears to be based on the Charlie Stuart affair, mentioned above in the More killing paragraph. It works, but Jess double-crosses Bill, taking both the money and Marge. Jim Hardie catches up with Bill and they do a deal, to capture Jess and recover the money, and Bill keeps his part of the bargain. “In my book,” says Jim in his usual voiceover at the end, “he was a man of honor.” McQueen is a blond Longley in a frock coat.
Longley figures prominently in Louis L’Amour’s 1959 novel The First Fast Draw, a highly fictionalized version of Cullen Baker’s life. Longley is a major character in The Pistoleer, a 1995 novel by James Carlos Blake.
Do leave a comment if you know of any other fictional Longleys, and I’ll add them.
Until then, so long, e-pards, and happy trails.