On Aug. 2 or 3, 1861, Mark Twain was having breakfast at an Overland Company stagecoach station in Julesburg in the northeast corner of Colorado with Jack Slade and a “half-savage, half-civilized company of armed and bearded mountaineers, ranchmen and station employees.”
Joseph Alfred “Jack” Slade was a terror in the Rocky Mountains in the 1860s who had reportedly killed 26 men, women and children — even cutting off the ears of one of his victims and carried them in his pocket as a trophy.
But is it all true? Did Mark Twain and others have it all wrong or did they deliberately write fake news?
In his book “Roughing It,” Twain wrote, “Here was romance, and I sitting face to face with it! — looking upon it — touching it — hobnobbing with it, as it were! Here, right by my side, was the actual ogre who, in fights and brawls and various ways, had taken the lives of twenty-six human beings, or all men lied about him! …He was so friendly and so gentle-spoken that I warmed to him in spite of his awful history.
“It was hardly possible to realize that this pleasant person was the pitiless scourge of the outlaws, the raw-head-and-bloody-bones the nursing mothers of the mountains terrified their children with.”
Slade offered Twain the last of the coffee, which he politely declined. Slade insisted however and filled his cup — leaving the great writer fearful that he might be number 27 should his host suddenly rue giving up the last of the coffee.
Then Slade like a gracious host saw him off aboard the next coach.
“Montana Post” editor Thomas J. Dimsdale of Virginia City, Mont., serialized Slade’s story shortly after the events occurred.
“Those who saw him in his natural state only, would pronounce him to be a kind husband, a most hospitable host and a courteous gentleman,” Dimsdale wrote. “On the contrary, those who met him when maddened with liquor and surrounded by a gang of armed roughs, would pronounce him a fiend incarnate.”
Mark Twain quoted Dimsdale generously, but was the creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn being hoodwinked?
Slade lived in a Wild West before there was official law-and-order — except in the case of the area around Virginia City where the “law” was Sheriff Henry Plummer, allegedly an outlaw who headed a band of terrorizing thugs called “The Innocents.”
In 1862, gold was discovered along Grasshopper Creek in eastern Idaho. Thousands flocked in and Bannack was born. Then the biggest placer gold fields in the western U.S. were discovered at Alder Gulch 70 miles east.
When Henry Plummer’s application of the law came under increasing suspicion, the citizens formed the Vigilance Committee.
Whether in earnest pursuit of his duties or a mask for the Innocents, Plummer erected a gallows, only to have the vigilantes hang him and two companions on it on Jan. 10, 1864 — with Plummer being pulled up slowly and strangled to death rather than given the drop.
Plummer still has a reputation of being one the West’s worst gunslingers, who along with his desperadoes supposedly killed more than 100 while terrorizing mining camps in territorial Idaho and Montana.
Today, some historians claim he was a gentlemanly defender of the law who earned a bad rap primarily because three times he killed in self-defense.
Back to Jack Slade:
He was born in Carlisle, Ill., in 1832 and served in the Mexican-American War (1846-48). On the eve of the Civil War, he was working as Central Overland stagecoach superintendent of a 600-mile route on the lawless frontier.
He had a reputation for being a top-notch freight wagoner and stagecoach route manager. He was efficient and tough — brave enough to volunteer for highly dangerous missions through hostile Indian lands.
In due course, Slade wound up in Virginia City — then Idaho Territory — and settled on a ranch about 12 miles from town with his wife, Maria Virginia Dale, “a robust, fine-looking woman of great courage and very considerable beauty, of whom he was passionately fond.”
She stayed on the ranch most of the time while he was attending to business elsewhere.
Most historical accounts agree that it was liquor that unleashed the bad in Jack Slade.
Like a scene from a shoot ’em up western, he and his pals would ride into town after a drinking spree — shouting profanities, and with guns blazing, riddle saloons with bullet holes and demolish the furniture, and ride their horses into stores and shoot up the merchandise — as locals scrambled for cover and shopkeepers locked their doors and turned off the lights.
During calmer moments however — when he was sober and had the money — Slade would readily offer to pay for the damage. But that scarcely appeased the citizens who bitterly decried the continuing outrages.
One version of an oft-told story about Jack Slade allegedly occurred in Colorado in 1860 involving rancher Jules Beni, a big French-Canadian who also operated a stagecoach station and trading post he named “Julesburg.”
Stages on Beni’s lines were constantly being robbed — noticeably those carrying money or valuables — and it looked like an inside job.
He was fired and replaced by Jack Slade.
Beni was a loud-mouth bully and also a rustler who publicly threatened to kill Slade and once almost did — ambushing him and then emptying his revolver (some say pistol) into him along with a shotgun blast and leaving him to die — while offering instructions for his forthcoming burial.
But Slade didn’t die.
While he was recovering, Beni was arrested and awaiting trial, only to be released on condition he leave town and never return. A year later he was back.
When Slade heard it, knowing that there were no lawmen or courts available, he went to the military at Fort Laramie, Wyo., for advice. They suggested he catch Beni and kill him first!
And that’s what he did.
He sent four men ahead after Beni while he followed in a stagecoach. They caught him, tied him to a fence post at the stage station where — if the story is true — Slade tortured him for a day, shooting off his fingers one at a time before executing him and cutting off his ears.
He reportedly used one as a watch fob and sold the other for drinking money.
Slade seemed to be getting “ugly and hard, and to exult in terrorizing the hard men of those hard towns,” one report said, “he would strike a man in the face while drinking with him (and) would rob his friends while playing cards.”
Finally, town-folks and vigilantes had enough. They agreed that the best thing to do with Jack Slade was to hang him.
On March 9 or 10, 1864, they caught him, threw a rope over the beam above a corral gatepost, and placed a dry goods box as a platform below.
Slade begged to see his wife, but the request was denied.
As armed guards marched him to the place of execution, all the bravado he was famous for was gone.
“The doomed man had so exhausted himself by tears, prayers and lamentations, that he had scarcely strength left to stand under the fatal beam,” repeatedly exclaiming, “My God! my God! must I die? Oh, my dear wife!”
Then they kicked the box away.
It was probably more than he deserved. Though he certainly killed at least one man — Andrew Ferrin — he is probably innocent of most of the other charges that paint his reputation as a villain of the Old West.
Slade’s downfall was undoubtedly the bottle and the inexcusable behavior it unleashed.
His body was laid out in a darkened room at the Virginia Hotel awaiting arrival of his wife. “Her grief and heart-piercing cries were terrible evidences of the depth of her attachment for her lost husband, and a considerable period elapsed before she could regain the command of her excited feelings.”
In a final irony, Jack Slade’s body was placed in a tin coffin filled with alcohol and kept by his wife at the ranch until spring, when she carried it by stagecoach to Salt Lake City for temporary burial.
She intended to ship the body back to his hometown in Illinois, but then met another man, married him and forgot about Jack.
He’s still in Salt Lake.
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Contact Syd Albright at
Early courts in the West…
“Another powerful incentive to wrong-doing is the absolute nullity of the civil law in such cases. No matter what may be the proof, if the criminal is well liked in the community ‘Not Guilty’ is almost certain to be the verdict, despite the efforts of the judge and prosecutor.”
— ? Thomas J. Dimsdale, “Vigilantes of Montana” (1865)
Mark Twain wrote…
In Overland City, Mo., “We had heard drivers and conductors talk about only three things — ‘Californy,’ the Nevada silver mines, and this desperado Slade… a man whose heart and hands and soul were steeped in the blood of offenders against his dignity; a man who awfully avenged all injuries, affront, insults or slights…on the spot if he could.”
Montana vigilante oath…
“We the undersigned uniting ourselves in a party for the laudable purpos [sic] of arresting thievs [sic] & murderers & recovering stollen [sic] property do pledge ourselves upon our sacred honor each to all others & solemnly swear that we will reveal no secrets, violate no laws of right & never desert each other or our standard of justice so help us God as witness our hand and seal this 23 of December ad 1863.”
— Montana Historical Society
Mark Twain called Jack Slade “an outlaw among outlaws… the most bloody, the most dangerous and the most valuable citizen that inhabited the savage vastnesses of the mountains.”
There are so many interpretations of the Jack Slade story that historians may be searching for the truth for a very long time.
Justice for Henry Plummer at last…
After 129 years, Sheriff Henry Plummer received a posthumous trial. On May 7, 1993 Montana’s Twin Bridges Public Schools initiated a trial in the Virginia City, courthouse.
The twelve jury members were split 6-6 on the verdict, and Judge Barbara Brook declared a mistrial. Had Plummer been alive, he would have been freed and not tried again.