"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Sam Bass in fact and fiction

Texas outlaw

Sam Bass was born in Indiana, it was his native home
And at the age of seventeen, young Sam began to roam
Sam first came out to Texas, a cowboy for to be
A kinder-hearted fellow you seldom ever see

The legend of Sam Bass is pretty well known. Bass and John Wesley Hardin were the most famous outlaws of 1870s Texas. When Sam appeared on screen, such as in Calamity Jane and Sam Bass, when Howard Duff played him, it was preposterous twaddle historically and not very well done even from the point of view of Hollywood Westerns. So who was the real Sam Bass?

What did he look like?

There are many photographs said to be a likeness of Sam Bass but none is 100% reliable. If the pictures are indeed Bass, he was a respectable-looking, mustachioed, gentlemanly figure, reasonably handsome and the type who would look you straight in the eye.
Straight in the eye
He was reported to be about five foot eight, about 140 pounds with black hair and a sallow skin. He apparently walked with a stoop and spoke with a nasal twang. We know he was born in Mitchell, Indiana on July 21, 1851.


His parents died young and Sam left Indiana in about 1869 (if the Shakespearean verse quoted above is to be believed).
A young Sam. Possibly.
But there are precious few details of his youth.

The Denton Mare

Like many a sporting Westerner, Bass liked racehorses and we first meet him properly in Denton, Texas, where he was a teamster but then acquired “the Denton Mare”, Jenny. Ridden by the slight black jockey Charlie Tucker, Jenny made Sam money, and in San Antonio he went into business with a shady saloon man named Joel Collins. They drove some cattle up into Kansas, then headed for Deadwood.


Deadwood was of course famous in the 1870s as a wide-open mining town, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot to death in a saloon in 1876. Bass and Collins were even worse gamblers than Wild Bill and soon lost their cash. Robbing stages seemed an easy alternative to the gaming tables.

Stagecoach robbery

Unfortunately, they turned out not to be too good at that either. They teamed up with a fellow named Reddy, the Canadian Tom Nixon, a Missouri family man named Jim Berry, and Bill Heffridge, a Pennsylvanian with two wives (neither of whom was in Deadwood). The stage they chose pulled up but the team shied into Reddy’s (stolen) saddle horse and Reddy angrily blasted the driver, John Slaughter, off the box with his shotgun. The team bolted at this, and the stage hurtled into Deadwood with no driver, but passengers and strongbox intact. Company executives nailed Slaughter’s bloody vest to the stage depot door in a gruesome incentive to vigilantes.

Reddy’s partners in the gang, furious, debated killing him but they limited themselves to firing him. The reprieve didn’t do Reddy much good: he drifted back to Texas, to Fort Griffin, and there vigilantes lynched him for horse stealing.


Sam Bass and his gang continued stage robbing. They got $11 from one, a bag of peaches from another. They decided to have a go at trains.

Despite what Hollywood Westerns show, there was in fact a tiny number of actual train robberies in the late nineteenth century West. The Reno brothers carried out the first, in Seymour, Indiana, just after the Civil War, and famously the James gang and Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch robbed trains (usually the express car and not the passengers). And by the way, no one actually leaped from a horse onto a moving train so stuntmen would have been out of work if history were followed more scrupulously.
A staple of the Hollywood Western but actually quite rare
Anyway, Sam Bass and his crew had a go, at Big Spring, Nebraska on the night of September 18, 1875. They stopped the Union Pacific and this time they struck it rich. From the passengers (only the men; gallantly, they did not search the women) they got $13,000, four gold watches and a ticket to Chicago. But in the express car they found $60,000 dollars’ worth of new-minted double eagle twenty-dollar gold pieces.

Two of the gang, Heffridge and Sam’s erstwhile saloon partner Collins, were caught and shot to pieces by a sheriff’s posse and a group of soldiers, and one, Berry, was caught later in Missouri when the twenty-dollar pieces he was spending freely aroused suspicion and a posse shot him in the leg with a shotgun - he died of shock. But Sam Bass went back to Denton and lived it up.

Back in Denton

He formed a new gang and started in on stages again, but with equal lack of success, so he decided to have another go at a train. The gang got $20,000 from the Houston and Texas Central at Allen in 1878. There was much shooting when they held up the Hutchins train and later the Texas Central at Eagle Ford but fortunately no one was killed.
Distinguished gentleman
Bass became famous. The railroads were far from popular and many ordinary Texans were on Bass’s side, providing no help at all to the Pinkertons and the Texas Rangers chasing him. The Pinks and the Rangers were complemented by bounty hunters and unofficial posses out for the reward and centered on Dallas.


Newspapers loved it and referred to “Sam Bass & Company”. They called it the “Bass War”. The multifarious hunters and the Bass gang only clashed once, though, and that was by accident. Sam Bass seemed invisible.
Looks a bit more outlawy
Already in January 1878 a sensational book appeared, the anonymous Life and Adventures of Sam Bass, The Notorious Union Pacific and Texas Train Robber: together with A Graphic Account of His Capture and Death--Sketch of the Members of His Band, With Thrilling Pen Pictures of Their Many Bold and Desperate Deeds, and the Capture and Death of Collins, Berry, Barnes, and Arkansas Johnson.
Thrilling Pen Pictures of Their Many Bold and Desperate Deeds
Read it here.

Bank robbery

With trains now closely guarded, Bass & Co decided to have a crack at a bank. Sam and two accomplices, Jackson and Barnes, targeted Round Rock, Texas. Unfortunately for them, though, one Jim Murphy finally ratted on them and the Texas Rangers were ready. Ranger Dick Ware was there, later to become a well-known deputy US marshal in El Paso, and Ranger George Herold, also to become an El Paso lawman. It was Herold who would shoot Sam Bass (though Ware got the credit).

Deputy Sheriff AW Grimes put a hand on Bass and said, “Say, Mister, are you carrying a gun?” It was the last thing he ever said. Realizing the game was up, the three outlaws left Grimes's body and raced for their mounts, but Dick Ware shot Barnes in the head and as for Bass, a storekeeper hit him with a lucky shot and then Herold shot him in the back as he mounted. Jackson bravely held up the assault by firing accurately to cover Sam’s escape and the two managed to get away. But Sam was severely, and, as it turned out, mortally wounded.

Death of Sam Bass

Jackson got away but early the next morning Bass staggered out of hiding and the Rangers found him lying under a tree. When asked for a confession and information on Jackson, Bass said, “It’s against my profession. If a man knows anything, it ought to die with him.”

Over the next few days Bass gradually began to feel better and it seemed he might recover but then his condition suddenly deteriorated. His last words were, “The world is bobbing around.” He died aged 27 on July 21, 1878, his birthday.

Sam met his fate at Round Rock, July the twenty-first
They pierced poor Sam with rifle balls and emptied out his purse
Poor Sam he is a corpse now and six feet under clay
And Jackson’s in the brushes, trying to get away.

Inevitably, Sam Bass appeared many times in books and on radio, TV and the big screen.


A 1936 episode on the radio drama Death Valley Days concentrated on Round Rock. In a 1944 radio episode of The Lone Ranger he died again. Bass's son was supposedly (and improbably, given Bass's age) the sheriff of Round Rock.


The 1949 Universal movie Calamity Jane and Sam Bass invented a torrid love affair between Sam and Calamity Jane (Yvonne de Carlo). Calamity and Sam were in fact in Deadwood at more or less the same time, so I guess it could have happened, though there is no evidence they ever even met.
De Carlo and Duff. Oh dear.
In the enjoyable but preposterous 1951 picture The Texas Rangers, Bass heads an unlikely gang made up of The Sundance Kid, John Wesley Hardin, Butch Cassidy and Dirty Dave Rudabaugh. Ranger John B Jones brings him to justice.
William Bishop was Sam Bass in 1951

On TV, Bass was portrayed by Don Haggerty, 40, in a 1954 episode of the Western television series Stories of the Century, which was about as accurate as those shows usually were, i.e. more bunkum. The following year there was an episode titled The Shooting of Sam Bass in the CBS series Tales of the Texas Rangers.  

In 1957, Chuck Connors was 35 when he played Bass in Sam Bass in NBC’s  Tales of Wells Fargo, and in 1959 the excellent Alan Hale Jr. (then 38) played Sam in the episode entitled The Saga of Sam Bass in Colt .45. In 1961, Bass was portrayed by Jack Chaplain in an episode of the NBC Western television series The Outlaws.

What to read

Wayne Gard wrote Sam Bass in 1969, Bryan Woolley wrote a biography of the same title in 1983, and in 1999 Sam Bass & His Gang by Rick Miller was published. Sam Bass’s career also appears in various collections of Western outlaw books, such as the very good The Shooters by El Paso author Leon Metz, which I have used for this post and to which I am indebted. There are various websites with pages devoted to Bass but I don’t know how reliable they are. Except this one, of course.


Friday, October 17, 2014

The Virginian (TNT, 2000)

The second-best Virginian

The Virginian has been central to the myth of the West and was an early milestone on the road to the development of the whole Western genre. Owen Wister’s seminal novel came out in 1902, the year before what most people regard as the first Western movie. The first film treatment of The Virginian, a silent obviously, was not long delayed; it came out in 1914, was an early Cecil B DeMille effort and starred Dustin Farnum as the Virginian, Jack W Johnston as Steve and William Elmer as Trampas. Another silent movie version, longer and more sophisticated, and now available on DVD, was made in 1923, and starred matinée idol Kenneth Harlan as the Virginian, Pat O’Malley as Steve and Russell Simpson, no less, as Trampas.

Then came the talkies. In 1929 the greatest Virginian of them all was Gary Cooper and the Victor Fleming-directed film for Paramount (I have an old VHS but as far as I know it has not been released on DVD – a scandal) with Richard Arlen as Steve and Walter Huston as Trampas has never been equaled.
Paramount remade The Virginian after the Second War in 1946, in color, with Joel McCrea as the Virginian (he was good but no Coop), Sonny Tufts as Steve and a miscast Brian Donlevy as Trampas. It was alright but no more.

TV took up the baton in the 1960s but the series The Virginian, which began in 1962, bore little or no resemblance to the book or earlier films. The characters bore some of the same names but that was all. Recently there was a Canadian TV movie but it was very weak. By far the best TV treatment, and in fact the best film version overall bar the 1929 one, was Bill Pullman’s effort screened by TNT in 2000.

I say “Bill Pullman’s effort” because Mr. Pullman not only starred as the Virginian, he also directed and co-produced the movie.
Pullman was supported by a good cast: Harris Yulin (the corrupt Wyatt Earp from Doc) is the judge, infinitely more convincing than Ron Perlman in the 2014 Canadian one; Mr. Perlman might have been OK as Clay in Sons of Anarchy or Sanchez in the TV The Magnificent Seven but he was a hopeless Judge Henry. Mr. Yulin gives us a believably tough 1880s Wyoming rancher, ready to turn a blind eye but basically on the side of the angels. The Pullman film elevates Sam Balaam from the novel's minor character beaten by the Virginian for equine abuse into the antagonist, the chief rival rancher of the judge, and a very bad egg indeed. He is well played by Dennis Weaver, who gives us snarls, bully-boy tactics and cowardice aplenty.
The Molly is Diane Lane, well-known to 1980s and 90s Westernistas for her Little Britches in the 1981 Burt Lancaster movie, her Lorena in Lonesome Dove (the 1989 mini-series and the longer TV series) and her Susannah Moore (supposedly Jack McCall’s mother and Wild Bill’s lover) in Wild Bill in 1995. She’s OK as Molly Stark (the Wood seems to have been dropped) but of course it’s fundamentally a weak part and in the book she comes across as plain silly.
I liked John Savage as Steve. He had been Bittercreek Newcomb in Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Loney in the 1972 Jeff Bridges Western Bad Company and Slater in another Wyoming Western, HBO’s 1999 The Jack Bull. His Steve is like the one in the book, a basically decent fellow won over to the dark side by the bad guys.

Colm Feore is Trampas, surprisingly bland, I thought, though it may have been the writing (Larry Gross, who worked on Wild Bill and Geronimo: An American Legend, wrote up the screenplay from the Wister novel). Mr. Feore had a cameo General Sherman in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, was film maker DW Griffith in And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (also for HBO) and, later, did the Canadian independent movie Six Reasons Why, which really wasn’t very good. His Western CV isn’t that strong, though of course it’s difficult for any Western actor to have a strong Western CV these days, they make so few, so it’s hardly his fault.
One of the best features is the great Gary Farmer (Nobody in Dead Man) as fat cowpoke Buster, who drives the hack that gets into difficulty crossing the river so that the Virginian can save Molly. And, for Virginian aficionados and as a little in-joke, James Drury has a small part bringing the Virginian the insulting challenge from Trampas just before the dénouement. So all in all the cast is rather good.

This version is darker than any of the others. There is somber music under it, often a string quartet or trio, there are no comic-relief episodes (this is one of the few treatments not to include the baby-swapping scene) and the lighting and wintry Alberta scenery combine to create an atmosphere of menace. It’s well done by Mr. Pullman.

Yes, it looks like a made-for-TV movie. It’s something to do with the film stock, I’m not sure, and of course the regular fades-to-black to allow commercial breaks. But Lonesome Dove and later TV efforts like Deadwood have showed how good TV Westerns can be and paradoxically, these days they seem to have bigger budgets than Hollywood big-screen efforts.

The lynching is done in a barn and reminds me of that photograph of Killing Jim Miller and accomplices. Perhaps it was deliberate.
Pullman in his wedding coat looks ever so slightly like Gary Cooper. Praise indeed.

This Virginian is definitely worth a watch – as I said above, the best of them all apart from the 1929 talkie. Of course it makes significant changes from the plot in the book but which version doesn’t? And anyway, the book had some weaknesses.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Calamity Jane

An extraordinary woman

Martha Jane Canary or Cannary, known to us all as Calamity Jane, has suffered almost as much in history as she did in life. She herself (in her youth anyway) loved telling tall tales about her life and such stories abounded among her friends and acquaintances, and grew with the retelling. She was early the subject of sensational newspaper articles, then dime novels. In the twentieth century Hollywood took up her story and endless Janes – over thirty anyway - from Jean Arthur to Jane Russell to Doris Day to Anjelica Huston have added layers of interpretation and myth until a rich patina covers Martha Jane. It is difficult to discern the fact under the fiction.
Elegantly attired for the camera

Difficult but not impossible. There’s plenty of help at hand. There are several good, reliable biographies of Calamity. Just last month the excellent Richard W Etulain (whose book Telling Western Stories I commented on back in December last year) came out with The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane in the Oklahoma Western Biographies series. You can also read Linda Jucovy’s Searching for Calamity: The Life and Times of Calamity Jane (2012) and, also published in 2012, James D McLaird’s Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend. All three of these writers, and others, appear as talking heads in a quality 2014 documentary shown on the Franco-German channel Arte the other day, Calamity Jane: Wild West Legend, written and directed by Gregory Monro.

The documentary and the books highlight the position and status of women on the frontier. Most prairie women were drudges who worked from dawn to sundown, wore themselves out and died young: if they didn’t die in childbirth or catch a mortal disease they perished early from sheer hardship. Their identities were subsumed in those of their men – their fathers first, then their husbands. They were hardly people in their own right at all, even if pioneering Wyoming, where Jane spent most of her time, was the first to allow women the vote.
The real Jane
What made Jane stand out was her refusal to follow the conventions of the time. Not for her the woman’s life of household chores and field work. She smoked cigars, wore pants, was expert with firearms, rode astride and entered bars. We are used to seeing such things because of Hollywood but in reality it would have been shocking to most (men and women) to see. Most saloons were not the glossy palaces of Western movies but low dives, sometimes tents, with a ‘bar’ of planks across barrels and only men inside, and at that men of the low kind. Women simply did not enter. Even prostitutes were usually in huts and cabins out back. Jane, however, was at home in these sordid saloons and could drink, swear and spit as well as the other patrons. She was in fact a lifelong alcoholic and it was booze that led to her ruinous state, especially towards the end of her life. It often got her thrown in jail. In the end she was on the street, one child dead and another given up for adoption, alone, sick and miserable.

She worked at whatever would earn her a few cents. She washed dishes, cooked, waitressed and once became an ox team driver. Certainly she also prostituted herself. It was not so surprising: despite her constant desire to be ‘respectable’, there were very limited options for an unmarried and destitute woman in 1870s Wyoming. She seems to have worked in a ‘hog ranch’, which was pretty well the lowest kind of brothel, no glitzy town bordello but a rude shack out of town where men knew they would find ugly women, but cheap. The site of Jane’s birth is nowadays occupied by a Premium Standard Farms hog farm but it, ahem, isn’t that kind of hog farm.

Calamity was no beauty. There are many photographs of her because she achieved considerable fame and notoriety but in none does she look graceful or pretty. However, although in movie after movie she is shown in buckskin jacket and pants, there are relatively few photographs of her in this garb. The vast majority of them show her in a dress.
No beauty
She started life in 1852 in Mercer County, Missouri, on a farm. Her father was a gambler and her mother was a drinker. She didn’t stand much of a chance. She had little or no schooling and was illiterate. In 1864 her father moved the family to Virginia City, Montana, and then on to Salt Lake City, Utah. Her mother died and her father absconded. Martha Jane wandered into Wyoming, was taken in by a foster family at the age of 12 but she was treated as a slave and broke out once too often. Frequenting soldiers, drunk and imprisoned, she was eventually shut out by the family and left to fend for herself. While this must have been a terrible plight in most ways, it did at least make her independent and free. She had no ties. She could go where she wanted, within the limit of her resources, and had no one to tell her what to do or how to behave.

She first became famous when she accompanied General Crook on the expedition that led to the first Rosebud. Though a woman in the ranks had been known, it was certainly not common and when she was discovered by the officers (the men certainly knew already) she was incarcerated in a military prison in Fort Laramie. It was there that Wild Bill Hickok and his party arrived and they agreed to take Jane with them to Deadwood. This began the famous association in people’s minds (especially Jane’s) between Hickok and Canary. There is in fact no evidence whatsoever that Bill and Jane were lovers, and still less husband and wife, however much Jane might have wished it. Hickok had recently married the widow Agnes Lake Thatcher and his letters to her are moving and respectful. Though doubtless no saint, he had no interest in Jane. Jane was not in Deadwood when in 1876 he was shot by Jack McCall in Nuttall & Mann’s, despite what is inevitably shown in movies. But she got her wish in the end for when she died, in 1903, she was buried next to Bill. He was in no position to object.
In the last known photograph of Jane, in 1903, she stands smiling before the grave of Wild Bill
As for her nickname, she herself said (in her unreliable dictated ‘autobiography’ – a seven-page pamphlet) that in the 1872/73 campaign,

When fired upon Capt. Egan was shot. I was riding in advance and on hearing the firing turned in my saddle and saw the Captain reeling in his saddle as though about to fall. I turned my horse and galloped back with all haste to his side and got there in time to catch him as he was falling. I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Capt[.] Egan on recovering, laughingly said: 'I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.' I have borne that name up to the present time.

She was certainly already known by the name in 1875 because on her arrival in Deadwood, the July 15, 1876 edition of The Black Hills Pioneer reported, “Calamity Jane has arrived!”

The dime novelists took her up and in particular, starting already in 1877, she featured in the Deadwood Dick tales by Edward Wheeler, in the Beadle’s Pocket Library series. The adventures were, of course, purely fictional.
Two-gun Jane partners Deadwood Dick

The real Jane had relationships with a series of men, perhaps half a dozen. She married one, William P Steers (a marriage certificate was found), and had two children, a boy who died in infancy and a girl, Jessie, who survived. But Steers was violently abusive and the marriage did not last.

Very much down on her luck, Jane was ‘adopted’ by a prim society lady from Buffalo, NY, a Mrs. Josephine Brake, who took Jane East and forbade her strong drink. Mrs. Brake became her unofficial agent and got Jane work at $50 a week (a tidy sum) in Kohl and Middleton’s Barnum-esque show and then Frederick Cummings’s Wild West Show. But Jane hated the shows, the East and sobriety in equal measure and the photograph of her taken at this time shows what is clearly a miserable person.
She obviously hated it
Eventually she could take it no more and drifted back West to (a much changed) Deadwood, selling photographs of herself and copies of the autobiographical pamphlet (which didn’t even spell her name correctly) and telling stories for a drink.

She died in a squalid hotel near Deadwood in 1903, an old woman in appearance but in fact only 47.

The year of her death was also the year of the first proper Western film. Her character appeared in three silent Westerns (played by Lucy Fox, Ethel Grey Terry and Mae Laurel) and then was prortrayed by Louise Dresser and Helen Gibson in talkies. Jean Arthur played her in the 1936 Cecil B DeMille farrago The Plainsman (with a stupendous Gary Cooper as Wild Bill) and already the stereotype was established. Later Janes, such as Jane Russell and Yvonne de Carlo, bore no resemblance, in appearance or character, to the real Jane and the heights of absurdity were reached with Doris Day’s chirpy tomboy blonde in the 1953 musical.
Tomboy Doris
The closest we got on screen to the real Jane was, perhaps Robin Weigert in Deadwood but even that was hardly a faithful portrayal.
Robin was about the best
Jane did, however, appear many times in Westerns: every time a gal in pants rode astride or wore a sixgun, consciously or not Calamity Jane rode again.

Martha Jane Cannary (1852 - 1903)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Elfego Baca

Mexican American gunman of the old West

Much has been written of gunmen of the old West like Jesse James, Billy the Kid or John Wesley Hardin, and they have often appeared on the big and small screen, but much less well known are the Mexican-American gunfighters. Like black, Indian or mixed-race figures, they seem to have been written out of history. In the TV series Justified, Raylan’s boss Art talks of Bass Reeves (1838 – 1910) and says, “Good luck finding a movie about him!” In fact, almost as a response, perhaps, in 2010 the film Bass Reeves came out, made by Ponderosa Productions of San Antonio but that is very unusual. Rich rancher Print Olive had a black gunman named James Kelly, who was known, in the demeaning and today offensive language of the time, as “Print’s Bad Nigger”. In the ‘blaxploitation’ years a few movies featuring heroes of African origin came out and then there was the very bad Van Peebles film Posse. Deets was an enormously sympathetic figure in Lonesome Dove.  But really, the famous outlaws and gunslingers, the ones that appeared in dime novels, TV shows and movies, were of European extraction.

As for Mexicans, Joaquin Murieta (or Murrieta or Murrietta), the ‘Robin Hood’ of California in the 1850s, is so shadowy a figure that little is known about him for sure. We don’t even know for certain when he was born and when he died (perhaps 1829 to 1853). Across the border there were of course many Mexican bandits, as the Texas Rangers knew only too well, and the line dividing bandidos and revolutionaries was also not always distinct. In fiction O Henry’s Cisco Kid reached the screen (in watered-down form) many times. But in terms of classic gunfighters of the old West, there are virtually no Spanish-speaking characters.

Elfego in popular culture

Elfego Baca, however, was one. He is hardly a staple figure of the Hollywood Western, although Robert Loggia played him on TV in ten episodes shown on Walt Disney Presents from 1958 to 1960. There was an accompanying comic, and episodes of the series were later edited into a 1962 movie titled Elfego Baca: Six Gun Law. The title song of the show concentrated on Baca fighting for right with his brains rather than his sixgun: “Elfego was wise, and Elfego was strong. Elfego, El Gato, who made right from wrong. And the legend is that, like El Gato the cat, Nine Lives had Elfego Baca.” Deathless poetry, huh?
Robert Loggia as Elfego Baca
In fact, though, although Baca did indeed become an attorney, politician and a wily old fox (not quite sure how feline he was), his youth featured a good deal more gunmanship than penmanship.

Early life

Elfego Baca was born in Socorro, NMT in 1865. His mother was an unusual woman: she loved to play baseball and in fact had to interrupt a game to give birth to Elfego on the ballpark. Baca père had a reputation as a hard case. He moved the family to Topeka, Kansas, where Elfego went to school and did well there. When, at fifteen, he went back to Socorro, he spoke better English than Spanish. Elfego’s father became marshal of Belen, a small settlement near Socorro, where he shot and killed two cowboys for hurrahing the town. This was judged excessive and he landed in jail but Elfego cut a hole in the roof and pulled his father out. Baca senior then disappeared, perhaps to Ysleta or San Elizario.

Elfego the ‘lawman’

By the age of nineteen, Elfego was already known to be good with guns. He elected himself a lawman, got hold of a mail-order badge and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps by arresting some cowpunchers who had treed the town of Frisco, NMT (now Reserve, about a hundred miles north-west of Silver City, not far from the Arizona line).
A young Elfego
His investigations revealed some of the Slaughter crew as the culprits, particularly a puncher named McCarty (not Billy the Kid), who shot up the town at will. Elfego asked the alcade for a warrant but as, despite the star, Baca had no legal authority at all, it was refused. Undeterred, Elfego went in search of the cowboys, whom he found gathered in the street. He grabbed McCarty by the collar, stuck a pistol in his ear and dragged him off to the jail.

The Frisco Shootout

Later that day a group of Slaughter cowhands gathered before the jail and demanded McCarty’s release. Baca’s response was steely and measured: he said that he refused to discuss the matter, he would count to three and unless they dispersed immediately he would start shooting. He then counted quickly to three, pulled his pistol and commenced firing. One shot hit a cowboy in the leg, horses reared, the foreman’s mount threw him and rolled on him, fatally, and there was chaos. The punchers scattered.

The next morning a justice of the peace tried McCarty and fined him five dollars for disturbing the peace. Outside, the released McCarty and his fellow cowboys wanted revenge and one shot at Baca, who ran for it, seeking refuge in the only possible cover, a jacal whose residents Baca expelled. There then followed one of the most extraordinary sieges in Western history (and legend).

The building was of upright posts chinked with mud. It was an unimpressive refuge from a fusillade. But it had a floor dug out about eighteen inches below ground level and that’s what saved Baca. He was able to lie down and be protected from the hail of bullets from perhaps eighty guns that punctured the cabin. The door alone had nearly 400 bullet holes and a broom stick was hit eight times. Baca fired back as far as his meager store of ammunition permitted and killed at least one attacker, a certain Jim Herne.

The cowboys tossed torches on the dirt roof but these did not take. They threw dynamite and it shattered part of the jacal but no one knew if Baca had survived and they were unwilling to rush the place to find out. The next morning they saw smoke rising from the broken chimney as Baca calmly cooked himself some breakfast.

The second day there was sporadic firing. Many cowboys returned to their ranch. Late in the day a deputy named Ross, whom Baca trusted, brokered a deal. Baca was to come out and stand trial. No one would harm him. Elfego agreed as long as he could keep his guns.

He languished in jail in Socorro for four months and then was acquitted in a trial in Albuquerque.
Baca shoots back
There’s a statue of Baca on the spot of the siege now. He’s the one who has come out of the shootout best.

Lawyer and (real) peace officer

In jail, Baca decided to reform himself.

First, he married. A son and five daughters followed and he became a true family man. He became an official law officer, arresting, among others, the outlaws Jose Chavez y Chavez and, later, Jose Garcia. In 1894 Baca was admitted to the New Mexico bar and practiced successfully as an attorney, especially for the defense. He became an articulate proponent of rights for Mexican Americans. He ran for office and was successively a mayor, county clerk, school superintendent assistant district attorney and DA.
He was interested in the Mexican revolution and was named General Huerta’s representative. When General Jose Salazar crossed into New Mexico to recoup and gather his forces for a possible coup, he was arrested for violation of neutrality laws. It was Elfego Baca who defended him.
Jose Salazar (right) with his lawyer Baca
He got Salazar transferred to the jurisdiction of a civilian court. Salazar was imprisoned in Albuquerque, whence he escaped, possibly (though there is no proof of this) with the complicity of Baca, and fled into Mexico.

Shooting in El Paso

In El Paso in 1915 Baca got into a confrontation with one Celestino Otero, a supporter of a rival Mexican faction, when he agreed to meet Otero at a café, and as Baca stepped out of his automobile, Otero shot him. The bullet struck him in the groin but it didn’t stop Baca, who was heeled, and he shot Otero twice in the heart. Baca quickly recovered and was acquitted of the murder of Señor Otero.

Sheriff Baca

Now in his fifties, Baca was elected sheriff of Socorro County. He was said to be the best sheriff the county ever had.
Said to be Baca's badge
Later he was the muscle at the infamous Tivoli saloon in Juarez, until he busted the son of the Juarez police chief…
Attorney Baca
As an old man he returned to his legal work, being unwilling to retire. All sorts of stories are told about him, such as the one (apocryphal or not) in which received a telegram from a client in El Paso. "Need you at once," it said. "Have just been charged with murder." To which Baca is supposed to have replied with a telegram saying, "Leaving at once with three eyewitnesses”.

Elfego Baca died in 1945, aged eighty. He was one of the most colorful characters of the old West. And it’s time we had a decent movie about him.


There are quite a few books on Baca. In 1928 a sensational biography came out, Law and Order Ltd.: The Rousing Life of Elfego Baca of New Mexico by Kyle Crichton. There’s a facsimile edition available now with a foreword by Stan Sager, who also wrote Viva Elfego! in 2002. Elfego Baca in Life and Legend by Larry D Ball was published in 1992 and two years later Incredible Elfego Baca by Howard Bryan came out. More recently there was Elfego Baca, The Mexican Gunfighter by Alton Pryor, which appeared last year. I haven’t read these, so I don’t know how good they are but in any case there’s no shortage of reading matter if you want to know more.
Plenty to read
There’s a chapter in Leon Metz’s The Shooters (Berkley, 1976), to which I am indebted for this post.

So long, e-pards.