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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

When thoughts could kill: a timely review of angry youth + guns

[Blogger's Note: I'm cut to the quick at how timely these entries have been, where I have discussed some of the most famous multiple or serial killers of the Old West, from our region of Texas. The main ingredient for all of them (and Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and many more) was their youth, in an atmosphere of bullying, in a harsh, unsympathetic, even unjust culture. Then the temptation of the gun "as equalizer" in society seemed to trump moral upbringing, religious teaching, human empathy or plain common sense. An associate recently pointed out how studies show that young adults have not really developed mature powers of reason until way into their mid to late twenties... so that is some of the explanation of what happened in Aurora...]

"Mind is the Master power that moulds and makes,
And Man is Mind, and evermore he takes
The tool of Thought, and, shaping what he wills,
Brings forth a thousand joys, a thousand ills: —
He thinks in secret, and it comes to pass:
Environment is but his looking-glass."
...James Allen

Many of these Confederate "Dance" revolvers were manufactured near here in Anderson, Texas, during the War Between the States and afterwards were carried by the likes of outlaw "Wild Bill" Longley.

My father used to love to quote James Allen's famous essay, published in 1902. No doubt he heard his favorite quotation from it many times from his mother: "As a man thinketh, so is he." Never was that more true, than when handguns were invented. Suddenly men could carry mortal weapons on their hips, and on a whim, no matter the size or prowess of the offender, end the life of another. A bullet was simply a thought shot out of the muzzle of a pistol.

Young men in Texas after the "Civil War" had to struggle to control their tempers as the Federal Government swooped in and turned their world upside down. Their fathers humiliated, their fortunes lost, their pockets empty, their pride decimated, it is no wonder some of them turned to their own private wars.

The ushers of "Reconstruction": Accompanied by his wife, General George Custer camped in Hempstead, Texas, which was considered a good place to quell rebellion and establish order.

Soon young rebel punks led by veteran insurgents like Cullen Baker were spoiling for revenge and harrassing Union troops mercilessly.

Since many of these law enforcement officers were black or from the North, they became popular targets of angry thoughts sent from guns. One of the first men (boys!) to make a name for himself as he foiled and frustrated Reconstruction authorities was William P. "Wild Bill" Longley, of the Old Evergreen community near Giddings. He started his notorious killing spree by shooting numerous negroes who offended him or got in his way, with a .44 caliber Dance Bros. "cap and ball" revolver. Someone actually has that pistol, serial number 4, suggesting that it was made in the earlier East Columbia Dance Bros. factory before they moved to Anderson. Legend has it that he went to Houston as a youth to get himself a firearm, and after various escapades, including the mugging of a black Federal soldier, he came home with the Dance.

Wild Bill Longley bragged that he had killed more people than his rival, John Wesley Hardin. After wandering all over Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas, killing men of all colors that gave him trouble, Longley was finally apprehended and hung for killing a white man in Lee County. Tradition places his toll in human lives at 32.
This illustration from the National Police Gazette also illustrates the moral dilemma in the Victorian period, where almost any coverage of Western badmen turned into glorification.

John Wesley Hardin was a preacher's kid from east Texas, learning his hatred of negroes and Yankees from the "unreconstructed" around Polk, Trinity and Navarro Counties.

He had already killed four men by the age of 15. Hardin later reminisced that he hung around Brenham a lot in his early days, which seemed to be a Southern criminal hot spot and thus an early staging area for rebel malcontents. [Navasota had burned to the ground after a Confederate munitions warehouse explosion and was just a post-war disaster scene] Federal troops camped on the eastern edge of Brenham, and established their own safe zone known as "Camptown." It was an irresistible target. For three years the occupying army skirmished with the townsmen of Brenham, (who were no doubt reenforced by Texas' most able gunmen!) even burning down the incessantly agitating town newspaper and a whole city block with it. Many of the future legendary gunslingers and gamblers of the West converged in Brenham during those days, (1866-1869) as Hardin recalled seeing and gambling with Phil Coe, Ben and Billy Thompson, and King Fisher, all of whom led bloody trails and died violent deaths. And not far from Brenham, Hardin and Longley once met at a Lee County gathering, and all bets were that they would have immediately locked into a mortal bloodbath. Six foot-two Longley was about 19 and Hardin around 17. They gambled some inside of a corn crib, and the ever clever Hardin took Longley to the cleaners. After going to the local horse races together, they surprised everyone including themselves, and parted with no gunplay. If only they had killed each other, over 70 lives could have been saved.

Also the son of devout Christians, Longley confessed to killing a young fellow who stared at him too long (probably scared to death!) while he was trying to sleep, but Hardin supposedly topped that by killing a man in a next-door hotel room for snoring. ( He later defended himself indignantly, that all accounts about his evils had been exaggerated and that he had only dispatched one such snorer). Only after the "State Police" were disbanded and the Texas Rangers were reorganized did the crime wave in Texas begin to diminish. After a legendary outlaw round up, both of them were found hiding out of state and brought to justice. Fearless and cunning, both had since turned to posing as law abiding citizens, even assisting the local peace officers in Louisiana and Alabama in making arrests! Both had even killed suspects in the line of duty. Arrogant and verbose, Longley wrote widely circulated editorials from his cell, recalling that he had been unsuccessfully strung up by vigilantes once before, and fuming at the injustice that he got the death penalty while Hardin only got 25 years in prison.

Just 28 years old, Wild Bill gave a touching speech, thanked an old Lee County sweetheart for a flower she pinned on his lapel, and then was hung in Giddings before a massive crowd of 4000 well-wishers. In the end, he admitted his wrongs, admitted that his kind of law would never do in a civilized society, and agreed that he was getting what he deserved. But he had failed to make his case, as he was buried just as he had lived, just outside the boundaries of respectable society, and outside the boundary of the town cemetery. Even paupers and those of ethnic origins were treated with more respect. His family did not attend his hanging or his funeral. Someone once put a large chunk of petrified wood over his grave, which has disappeared.

Hardin took advantage of his incredible popularity and studied law books and, in between prison escape attempts, became a lawyer. He was released early from Huntsville Prison as a reformed man, by adoring Southerners who considered him a folk hero. He had gotten away with around three dozen murders, killing perhaps a half-dozen of the despised Reconstruction era Texas State Police, various town deputies, bounty hunters in Florida, and even faced down Abilene Marshal Wild Bill Hickok. Hardin kicked the dust off of his feet and moved out west to El Paso, where he resumed a life of gambling, debauching and bullying, until a frightened deputy whom he had threatened put an angry .45 caliber "thought" into the back of his head. No charges were filed.

The only safe place to contain Wild Bill Longley's thoughts was the grave.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

YOU sound like a YANKEE ,disparaging Will Longley & Wes Hardin, back in the day , only ones with ANY rights were yankee cavalry & nigger po-lice
"Reconsruction" was brutality& genocide aganst White Southerners......

SPIRIT of '61