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

Friday, May 26, 2017

Goodnight for Justice: Queen of Hearts (Hallmark TV, 2013)

Judge Goodnight rides again

The other day, when reviewing Angel and the Bad Man, the TV remake of the old John Wayne oater, I talked about the eyepatched villain of the piece played by Luke Perry. I didn’t know Mr. Perry then. Apparently he is an actor and producer, known for Beverley Hills, 90210, whatever that may be. But he has done quite a few Western TV movies and he has said, sensible chap, “I knew that I was going to do Westerns. I like ‘em.” He was one of the leads in Johnson County War, a (very) fictionalized account of that event for TV in 2002, and he also starred in A Gunfighter’s Pledge in 2008.
Gunslingin' judge
More recently he has starred in a series featuring one Judge John Goodnight, called Goodnight for Justice. I haven’t seen the first two of these but the third, subtitled Queen of Hearts, was on TV last night and I watched it. Perry is billed as executive producer and we read on screen that the movie was “based on characters by Luke Perry”.

The good news is that Perry got Rick(y) Schroder to be the villain in vol 3. Mr. Schroder has a good track record as a Westerner. We all remember him as young Newt in Lonesome Dove, of course. He has, er, slightly filled out since then but between then and now he did Blood River for TV in 1991, Ebenezer with Jack Palance in 1998, as well as smaller parts in various other TV oaters. Here he is Southern Colonel (he insists on being addressed as Colonel) Cyril Knox, evil gunman in a (rather ample) frock coat.
Evil Col. Ricky
The eponymous monarch is conwoman Lucy Truffaut, played by Katharine Isabelle, looking rather too 21st-century to be plausible in 1880s Wyoming but never mind. Col. Ricky is after her because she disfigured him with a broken bottle to the face, he who had survived the unpleasantness between the states and the Comanche wars without a scratch. He finally catches up with her and it seems her fate is sealed but fortunately for her there is a Pinkerton man (Ryan Robbins) in the saloon and she surrenders to him to avoid a fate worse than death or, er, death.

Col. Ricky has a gang, including an Apache tracker, and they attack the stage (a rather plush padded one) that Lucy and the Pink are on, but once again Lady Luck smiles on Lucy for Justice Goodnight happens along (he has just acquitted Butch Cassidy of horse theft) and he is very handy with a firearm and also chivalrous (he even agrees to share his bedroom with her).
He chivalrously saves her
Well, the evil colonel doesn’t give up, of course, and there are various adventures, including a Butch & Sundance-style leap from a clifftop into the water, and the odd couple fetch up on a sternwheeler. At the end (for of course there is a showdown) Goodnight’s new double-action revolver comes in handy because it will even shoot when wet.
Goodnight is a colorful name but I don’t think this Goodnight is related to Charles, the cattle baron. I suppose he may be. I haven’t seen the first two episodes. But it’s time I looked at the career of rancher Goodnight in our occasional series on the cattle barons of the old West (we’ve already done Print Olive, John Chisum and Shanghai Pierce). Watch this space then.

Hallmark TV movies are OK. No worse anyway than the myriad B-movie Westerns of yore. They are ‘safe’ and risk being on the bland side but they fill a gap in the market, I guess. This one is perfectly watchable and I might seek out the others.



Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Man Called Sledge (Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica/Columbia, 1970)

Sad, really


It is a truth universally to be recognized that James Garner was likeable. Everyone loves James Garner. Even your granny was a Maverick fan. But like so many greater or (usually) lesser American stars in the late 1960s and early 70s, when the big-screen Western was in decline, Jim set off to Europe to make an Italian ‘western’. He’d made some fairly minor but not at all bad big-screen oaters in the late sixties, such as Hour of the Gun (when he was Wyatt Earp) and Support Your Local Sheriff! But the allure of post-Eastwood spaghetti dollars was too strong.
On the plane to Spain with him were Dennis Weaver and Claude Akins. They were pretty popular too. See Dennis in a Stetson and you can’t help thinking of Chester in Gunsmoke. Claude was also a Western regular and one thinks particularly of his charismatic bad guy opposite Randolph Scott in Comanche Station or his killer being locked up by Sheriff John Wayne in Rio Bravo.

Sadly, the plot, writing and filming were all either slow or weak and sometimes both in the same scene. It was directed by Vic Morrow and Giorgio Gentili (uncredited), and Morrow co-wrote it with Frank Kowalski and Massimo D’Avak. Morrow was from the Bronx and had played a punk in Blackboard Jungle, thereafter being typecast as a B-movie heavy. This was his second of two movies as a director. It isn’t very good. Kowalski would write the story for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia but didn’t write anything else. He wasn’t very good either.

You know it’s a cheap spaghetti from the first second because of the crudely dubbed clip-clops as a horse walks along. All the sound and dubbing is lousy.

Garner eschews any Maverickan or Rockfordian charm to play Luther Sledge, the steely, ruthless and 1970-mustached leader of a gang who is after a load of gold (as was usually the case in spaghettis). After a stage robbery gone wrong in the first reel Sledge and his sidekick Mallory (Tony Young, the undercover cavalry agent in Gunslinger on TV) retire to the 3Ws saloon where, while Sledge is in bed with Rita (Laura Antonelli), Mallory gets shot in the back for winning at poker, and Sledge, in his scarlet long-johns, comes down and wipes out the other players, in pique.
Tough-guy Garner
There he meets Old Man (they only ever call him that), an elderly ex-con, the excellent John Marley, one of the better things about this picture, though the quality of the writing and directing is such that he can’t really do anything good. Marley was, you remember, Jane Fonda’s dad in Cat Ballou (as well as the movie man who becomes bedmates with a horse’s head in The Godfather). Old Man tells Sledge about a huge shipment of gold which is kept in a prison cell.

After failing to thwart the huge posse that guards the gold, led by a mountain man for some reason, Sledge gets the bright idea of getting incarcerated and of course his cell is right next to the one with the gold in. His accomplice Ward (Weaver) has posed as a US marshal (having the frock coat to prove it) and bizarrely insisted on being locked up with Sledge, and together they launch their scheme, letting the prisoners out so that while they are being shot down by guards Sledge’s gang can make off with the bullion.

Then of course gold fever infects the gang and greed destroys them leaving only the man called Sledge, regretful and disappointed.

Rather like the viewers.

It’s amazing to me now that people ever liked these spaghetti westerns (they don’t deserve a capital W). I never did, when they came out or since. They were so bad, what did anyone see in them? But they filled theaters for a year or two, I'll give them that. Oh well, no accounting for taste, I guess. I know there’s quite a following for the genre still.

Garner would fly back to become Nichols on TV and appear in all those Maverick spin-offs like Young Maverick, The New Maverick, Bret Maverick, Maverick, and so on. He sure milked the franchise. Weaver would appear in various weak TV remakes of Western classics like The Virginian and High Noon. Akins also only really got bit-parts in TV Westerns afterwards. It was all rather sad really.



Monday, May 22, 2017

Angel and the Bad Man (Hallmark TV, 2009)

OK, I guess

This TV movie is a remake of John Wayne’s Republic picture of 1947, Angel and the Badman. And it’s actually quite a faithful remake. Differences in characters and script are small; for example, the single Quaker girl Penelope has been replaced by a widow, Temperance (Canadian Deborah Kara Unger), with a son. The movie seems to have had the Wayne family imprimatur, for Brendan Wayne, one of Duke’s grandsons, takes a part.
The rather charming original
For me, a difference is also in the titles. The badman of the original has become a bad man in this one. That may seem splitting hairs but you know the Western idea of badman is a staple of the genre, and always has been. A badman is a good-bad man, one who may have crossed paths with the law but is actually knightly and true. Wayne himself did a good line in badmen – like his Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, a convict who is in fact the most decent and bravest man aboard. A bad man is, well, just a rotten egg.
On the DVD cover at least it's written as one word
Not that Lou Diamond Phillips in this new version is a rotter. In fact he is a classic gunslinger who comes round to a more peaceful and legal way of doing things. Maybe the movie makers (Nasser Group) and writer (Jack Nasser) just weren’t aware of the difference.
She nurses him back to health
I think the Nassers are Canadian. At any rate, like a later Nasser effort, Dawn Rider (another remake of an early Wayne oater) it was shot in British Columbia. Somewhere pretty chilly, I think, because you can see the breath of the actors when they speak, even indoors. It’s pretty terrain, though, and counts as a plus for the movie.

The director was Terry Ingram, who along with a large team won a Canadian Directors Guild award for another picture, but I know little about him (I think it’s a him). It’s his only Western but he acquits himself honorably.
It's lerve
It was shown on Hallmark so is, you know, family-friendly. Don’t expect too much violence and there’s no bad language or sex. But that doesn’t mean it’s bland. It does have its moments.

The original was a rather charming film, which Wayne himself produced. It was written and directed by Wayne buddy James Edward Grant, with Wayne buddy Yakima Canutt as second unit director and Wayne buddy Archie Stout at the camera. Wayne handled the role of Quirt Evans, a gunman who falls for the Quaker who nurses him after a gunshot wound, with real skill, and because it was Duke, somehow the ‘softening’ was more obvious. Mr. Phillips isn’t Wayne, of course, and he starts with a lesser stature. But he isn’t bad. He is pretty tough in the original gunfight in the opening scene, in which he dispatches three bad guys (not badmen) though receiving a hole in his Waynian cavalry shirt. And he manages the lovey-dovey stuff with some skill too. At 47 he was older than Wayne in the original. Duke was 40. Perhaps that’s why they changed a young girl to a widow.
Not Wayne - but OK
The original JE Grant story (which is not credited in the remake) had quite an interesting aspect as the hardened gunfighter first greets the Quaker idea that “only the doer is harmed by the evil act” with some cynical skepticism, even mockery, but gradually comes round to it and is, in fact, redeemed by the philosophy. The good woman redeeming the badman is of course a standard trope of the Western, right back to the silent days. William S Hart specialized in it – as did an actor in the 1947 Angel, Harry Carey Sr.

In common with most films that feature Quakers, the writer of this one goes for thees and thous in the script but doesn’t know the difference, using mostly thee even when it’s subjective. It sounds pretty silly.

I liked the villain Laredo, curiously billed as Loredo (Luke Perry, Wayne buddy Bruce Cabot in the original) in his first scene, in a dark and smoky saloon. His large eyepatch looked excellent. Funny how villainous an eyepatch makes a chap look. Must be why pirates wore them so much. Sadly, though, once he appeared in the daylight he wasn’t quite so convincing. In these TV movies everyone seems obviously to be wearing costumes. They never quite convince, somehow, as, well, clothes.
The bad men (not badmen)
Brendan Wayne is Randy, a pal of Quirt’s, in quite a small part but well handled.

Unfortunately, though, the part of the marshal, Wayne mentor Harry Carey Sr. in the original, has been almost written out, certainly reduced, and that is a disappointment. Still, fair dos, Winston Reckert, another Canadian, does a good job with the limited lines he has, projecting some character into the part.
 The Harry Carey part

There’s another 3:1 showdown in the last reel (if TV movies have reels) but this time of course Quirt does not puncture his shirt and instead he and Temperance go off to Oregon.

All in all Angel and the Bad Man is quite well done. These TV remakes of old Westerns never quite do it somehow but some are worthy efforts.  You could watch this one.



Saturday, May 20, 2017

Custer’s Last Stand (Stage & Screen Productions, 1936)

Only peripherally about Custer

There have been oh, so many screen portrayals of General GA Custer (left). This very year Christopher Atkins plays him in a tale of Deadwood, 1876, The Hard Ride. The very first was Francis Ford, brother of John Ford, in his Custer’s Last Fight (1912). And in between we have had countless others, including Dustin Farnum, Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Shaw, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. There have been heroic and dashing Custers, half-crazed megalomaniac Custers and sometimes, frankly, rather bland and anodyne Custers. You almost get the feeling that any Western set in the 1870s feels obliged to have a Custer, or at least talk about him in the script.

One of the least plausible of all Custers, though, was Frank McGlynn Jr.’s in 1936. I do rather have a soft spot for the 1930s talkie Western serials, which were immensely popular in those far-off pre-TV days, especially with youngsters. Their cliff-hanging formula brought the kids back in the following Saturday to see if – no, how – their hero would escape the apparently certain death he was destined for at the end of the previous episode, or chapter as they were rather quaintly called. Most were produced by Poverty Row studios with minimal budgets but no one minded. They were great fun.
However, few would claim the status of great art, or, indeed, any historical authenticity whatsoever.

Custer’s Last Stand, which appeared in fifteen chapters in the first weeks of 1936, is immensely entertaining. But it is historical tosh. In fact, it’s really a fraud because only the last two chapters deal with Little Bighorn at all; all the rest tell a tale of one of his scouts, Kit Cardigan (Rex Lease) and how he foils the skullduggery of ‘Keen’ Blade (Reed Howes), referred to as a ‘white renegade’, and bonds with the Indians and gets the (white) girl. Of course, being historical tosh doesn’t matter. The juvenile audience may, I suppose, have believed it all but I am sure that their parents knew better and the kids themselves, when older, laughed as they recalled the preposterousness.
And there are quite a few apparently Custer movies in which the general doesn't even appear at all, like Little Big Horn or 7th Cavalry. At least we get to see Custer in this one.

Stage & Screen Productions only lasted from 1933 – 36 but they produced such memorable epics as Captured in Chinatown and The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand, which doubtless thrilled the regular viewers. Custer’s Last Stand was ‘supervised by’ Louis Weiss, who also did the likes of The Cowboy and the Bandit, Pals of the Range and The Ghost Rider (these also with Rex Lease).

The director of Custer’s Last Stand was a certain Elmer Clifton (1890 – 1949), pictured left, who had acted in Westerns as early as 1914 and worked with DW Griffith in various capacities between 1913 and 1922, including appearances in The Birth of a Nation. He had then become quite a famous silent-movie director. But his career was on the wane and he had sunk to Poverty Row where he churned out cheapo flicks for quickie producers like Weiss.

As for the star Rex Lease, the IMDb bio tells us that in the 1920s “he made it into the co-star ranks of [silent movie] romantic drama, jazz-age comedy and rugged action. He made an easy transition into talking films and by the mid-'30s had become a minor league hero of dusty oaters and cliffhangers. His hero status fell aside rather quickly, however, and he soon found himself shuffled further back into the billing line, alternately playing the partner or nemesis of up-and-coming western stars Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and others. By the last two decades Rex was lucky to get any kind of billing at all. He had a durable career overall, nevertheless, appearing in well over 300 films. After a move into TV, he retired.” Rex is strapping and cheery in Custer’s Last Stand and was clearly entering into the spirit of the thing. He’s on a revenge mission, hunting down the killer of his father (played by himself in chapter one) and of course the killer turns out to be (no spoiler here) the evil Keen Blade.
Rex in his prime
There were also some other ‘big’ stars, or anyway former big stars. William Farnum, star of the 1914 version of The Spoilers and the 1918 Riders of the Purple Sage, once paid a princely $10,000 a week at Fox, ploddingly overacts as the Indian agent Fitzpatrick. Franklyn Farnum (no relation) has a small part as a frightened Major Reno. He was another silent star who found himself well down the rankings when talkies came along. But he did huge numbers of Westerns, from The Empty Gun in 1917 to a 1961 episode of Have Gun, Will Travel. He wasn’t bad, in fact. Have a look at him as the eponymous Ghost Rider.

And we have Ruth Mix (right) as Mrs. Custer. Ruth was Tom Mix’s daughter but I’m afraid that she appears to have inherited few of her dad’s thespian skills (such as they were). In fact she is amazingly bad as Libby, especially in the chapter ten cliff-hanger ending when an Indian creeps up behind her with a knife and she isn’t supposed to know but you see her eyes flicker as she verifies the actor is there.

Then there’s Bobby Nelson (the screen text can’t decide whether it’s Bobby or Bobbie and alternates), then 14, who plays an orphan boy traveling with ex-Confederate Major Trent (Josef Swickard) and his peroxide-blonde daughter Barbara (Nancy Caswell). Later in the serial Bobby/Bobbie is promoted and becomes the major’s grandson. Bobby Nelson was a successful child star who was also daring and cheerful in The Ghost Rider.

Rex’s sidekick is the scout Buckskin played by Milburn Morante aka Moranti (above), often the comic relief in B-Westerns (or C-ones) who was often a grizzled prospector, tramp, bartender or town drunk. He’s quite entertaining. You can see him sidekicking Rex in another screen outing, Fighting Caballero in 1935. He and Bobby/Bobbie often save Kit Cardigan’s bacon in Custer’s Last Stand.

Reed Howes (below) as the chief villain, in his fancy vest, tie-down double holster and caddish mustache, was another silent era star who earned a crust through the 1930s by playing villains in talkie B-Westerns.
Wm Farnum as Indian agent Fitzpatrick with Reed Howes as villain Blade
Other more ‘historical’ figures who feature are Wild Bill Hickok (Allen Greer), who is the marshal in the town; Buffalo Bill (Ted Adams) in full regalia; Sitting Bull (Howling Wolf – not the blues singer one); Crazy Horse (High Eagle); and buckskin-clad Calamity Jane (Helen Gibson). In fact the majority of the cast seem to wear buckskins. Yakima Canutt has a bit part as an Indian. But the Indians are mostly played by Indians, which is good.

The intro screen text tells us that once gold was discovered in the Black Hills the government tried to prevent conflict but was unsuccessful because “the Hostile Attitude of the Indians … Left but One Alternative – WAR!” Despite this mendacious claim, most of the serial is in fact reasonably pro-Indian. There are bad Indians, of course, like the evil Young Wolf (Chief Thundercloud) who consorts with the white renegade Blade, but many of the Indians are noble and sage, or downright goody-goody like Red Fawn (Dorothy Gulliver). Unfortunately, though, they all have Ug-speak English in that caricature Indian way that was so common.

There’s some hooey about a magic medicine arrow that is inscribed with hieroglyphics that only Young Wolf and Red Fawn can read, and that tell the secret of a huge cave filled with gold. Naturally the whites, especially the evil Blade, want this arrow, and the wretched thing keeps on getting lost and found and changing hands until we are heartily sick of it.

The acting is wooden throughout and the dialogue clunky to a degree. It doesn’t detract from the entertainment value, if you can enter into the fun spirit of the serial. The visual quality of today’s print is, though, rather the worse for wear. It often jumps and the picture is faded and the sound poor.
Red Fawn is a goody Indian, so played by a white
The first episode is longer, a sort of pilot, I suppose, and the others come in at about twenty minutes each, though about fifteen once all the repeated titles and credits are discounted. There is a soundtrack of cheery cavalry tunes, especially Gary Owen.

The usual budget-busting tricks are evident, such as stock footage from other pictures. A lot is speeded up, such as when Kit saves a gal from falling beneath a herd of charging buffalo. There are a few stunts (Yak Canutt probably did those) and you can often see Rex’s stunt double deliberately keeping his Stetson over his face so as not to be recognized as he vaults onto a horse.

As Kit gets on the trail of the varmints who shot his pa the action hots up. He fights a duel over the desk of Blade’s tame crooked Judge Hooker (Walter James) and though we do not see the mortal shot (doubtless out of respect for the tender age of most of the audience) we see Kit emerge from the room with smoking gun so the judge evidently lost.
Hero Rex, his intended Nancy and villain Reed
The last two episodes are devoted to Custer’s last fight. Heretofore the general has only been peripheral to the plot with occasional appearances (in long hair and buckskins, natch). But now he rides out from Fort Henry (not Lincoln) to the strains of Gary Owen and is bravely annihilated. Of course he is the last to fall (he usually was in movies). There’s much confused whooping and shooting. Indian agent Fitzpatrick bears the news to the (now) Widow Custer, then bids a tearful farewell to Kit, who is off down south with Barbara Trent - oddly, really, because, how can I say this without appearing ungallant?, Barbara is far from the prettiest actress on the set, in fact she’s… But nay. Let me just suggest that he would have been better off with Red Fawn.

The bad Indian Young Wolf poetically falls on the magic arrow, ensuring his journey to meet the Great Spirit in the Happy Hunting Grounds (we are told) and leaving the arrow in the safe hands of goody Red Fawn who keeps the secret safe from the marauding greedy white men.
Don't worry, a goody has taken the bullets out of the firing squad's rifles
Kit gets his orders discharging him from the army and Buckskin wittily opines that them won’t be the last orders he obeys (now that he is getting married, you see). The End.

Silly, corny, cheap, this serial is still a whole lotta fun. Recommended.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Shanghai Pierce

Another in the occasional series on the cattle barons of the old West

They called him Shanghai

“I am Shanghai Pierce, Webster on cattle, by God, sir.”
Abel Pierce, when asked his name by a hotel clerk.

Abel Head Pierce was born in Rhode Island in 1834, the son of a blacksmith. He received a rudimentary school education. Aged fifteen, he was sent to work in the store of his mother’s brother, for whom he was named, but grocer Abel Head was so pious and sanctimonious, and so often told the lad that he would never amount to anything that the energetic and restless boy couldn’t stand it. When Chester Robbins, who also worked in the store, went off to Texas and loved it, the youth decided to do the same.
Shanghai Pierce in his Kansas days

He went to New York and stowed away on a steamer. When discovered he worked his passage and worked so hard that the crew were impressed. In June 1854, now six foot four inches, he found a job with “Bing” Grimes, a rancher who ran a slaughterhouse and packing business. Bing didn’t care for the cocky youth at first (especially because Abel set his cap at Grimes’s young sister) but the boy soon showed talent, intelligence and a willingness to work hard at any job, and Grimes promoted him. Gradually Abel began to do well and gather cattle on his own account. In fact he took his first year’s pay in cattle.


In 1860 Abel was joined by his younger brother Jonathan. History has sometimes overlooked Jonathan in favor of the more famous brother but in fact Jonathan Pierce was vital to Abel’s career. Quieter, more modest, happy to keep out of the limelight, he proved a highly talented bookkeeper and shrewd businessman. It was steady Jonathan who often ‘picked up after’ Shanghai when the blustering bigger brother’s rashness led to problems.
Jonathan E Pierce (1839 - 1915), later in life
Civil War

Though they were Rhode Island Yankees, when the Civil War came Abel and Jonathan joined the Confederate forces, Shanghai being sent to the Matagorda peninsula and Jonathan to the Brownsville area. They both returned without a scratch but they found to their anger that in their absence Grimes had sold their cattle but paid them in worthless Confederate paper money. They had to start all over again.

El Rancho Grande

The two brothers established El Rancho Grande, not so much legally owned land as open range they ‘adopted’ to gather some of the numerous unbranded wild cattle that roamed Texas after the war and ship them to market through ports like Indianola. The ‘sphere of influence’ of El Rancho Grande became huge and Shanghai boasted that his drift fence was the Gulf of Mexico. He said he owned a hundred thousand cattle. The final ranch house (they built several) was sited east of the future town of Blessing and was an impressive mansion.
Rancho Pierce
When the Chisholm Trail and others opened up the market to Texas cattle the Pierces had large herds driven north to the Kansas railheads, but they never stopped shipping out through Texas ports.

Soon after the war they both married, well. Abel wed Fannie Lacey, daughter of a rich and well-known neighbor, and Jonathan married Fannie’s sister Nannie. Shanghai and Fannie had two children, Jonathan and Nannie four.

Another young cattleman, George W Saunders, described Shanghai as follows:

My first recollection of Mr. Pierce was just after the close of the Civil War when he sought fat cattle all over south Texas. I remember seeing him many times come to our camp where he had contracts to receive beeves. He was a large, portly man, always rode a fine horse, and would be accompanied by a Negro who led a pack horse loaded with gold and silver which, when he reached the camp, was dumped on the ground and remained there until the cattle were classed and counted out to him; then he would empty the money on a blanket and pay it out to the different stock men from whom he had purchased cattle. He would generally buy 200 or 300 head at a time. … We all looked on him as a redeemer, and were glad to sell our cattle at any price, as money was scarce in those reconstruction days before the northern trail started.

GW Saunders also wrote:

Mr. Pierce was a loud talker and no man who ever saw him or heard him ever forgot his voice or appearance. He was a money maker, empire builder, and a wonder to his friends.

The largesse with silver and gold that Saunders mentioned didn’t mean that Pierce was a spendthrift. In fact his parsimony was legendary. Some said that he arrived in Texas with 75 cents to his name and the following year he still had 60 cents left. After completion of a cattle drive where he netted 25,000 dollars he added a note to his ranch boss to collect 50 cents from a cowboy he had loaned a pair of socks to.

But he could be generous. He once bought the lumber for a church that was being constructed. Later while riding by the church a visitor once asked, "Do you belong to that Church, Mr. Pierce?" The reply was, "No, that church belongs to me."

And he was perfectly ready to spend on himself, especially food, wine and fine tailoring.
As to how Abel got the name Shanghai, there are various theories. One says he acquired the name because of his long neck which made people compare him to a Shanghai rooster, another because the Shanghai rooster was long-legged and Pierce’s height meant that he often had too-short trousers and looked 'leggy'. It may also have had something to do with the rooster’s strutting and its boastful mien.


This was a time when ranchers suffered much from rustlers. Not content with roping in unbranded mavericks, many Texans cut out branded cattle and slaughtered them for tallow and hides or sold them on. These depredations were also mixed up in the vicious blood feuds that Texas was riven by. The Pierces and their neighbors were the targets of the five Lunn brothers, who were ‘in with’ the Suttons of the infamous Sutton-Taylor feud. Shanghai and a posse of neighbors caught three of the Lunns and two other men red-handed and also found branded hides in their possession. In the rough manner of the times, the ranchers hanged all five men from the limbs of a dead tree.

A surviving Lunn brother brought charges against the ranchers, and Shanghai was summoned to appear before the Matagorda County Court. Knowing he was in serious danger, Shanghai, whose wife and infant son had just died, quickly sold a ranch for gold, handed over control of the business to Jonathan and traveled north to Kansas.


He declared that he had gone north to “hunt society” and he strutted about Abilene, spending freely and resplendent in fine tailoring and with a dashing walking cane. He was a local sensation.
John Wesley Hardin: gunning for Shanghai?
Shanghai must have been nervous nevertheless. The noted killer John Wesley Hardin had come to Kansas (also to escape awkwardness back in Texas) and he was a known associate of the Sutton clan. Ben Thompson, too, who was a partner of Phil Coe in the Bull’s Head saloon in Abilene, was lethal with a pistol and a friend of Hardin’s. Shanghai removed to Ellsworth.

Screen Shanghais

All this would really make a splendid Western movie. In fact Shanghai Pierce has not appeared that often on the screen. He featured in a 1957 episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Big Bellyache, played by Roy Roberts. It’s on YouTube and you can watch it here. Shanghai, who, we are told, “kinda specializes in down-and-out show gals”, is in Dodge with a bad stomach ache and will only consult the cranky old doc there. In fact he wants to kidnap him and take him to Texas. He also doesn’t like Marshal Earp, who shoots up two of his henchmen. Luckily the doc operates successfully for appendicitis and he and Wyatt live to tell the tale.
Roy Roberts as Shanghai
In 1960 Shanghai turned up in The Legend of Lily, an episode of Laramie, impersonated by George Tobias.
George Tobias as Shanghai
And in 1976 Howard Keel did the honors in Seventy-Two Hours, an episode of The Quest.
Perhaps most famous was Ted De Corsia’s portrayal on the big screen in Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1957. Wyatt has to deal with his shenanigins in Dodge.
Ted De Corsia as Shanghai
None of these Shanghais came close to the real one and it’s time for a really good one to figure largely in a Western movie or HBO series or something.

Cattle baron

Pierce journeyed to Omaha where he met Herman, one of the remarkable Kountze brothers, whose banking interests went from New York right across the West. Together they bought cheap railroad land grant certificates and combined them into huge tracts in Texas. In this way Shanghai managed to encircle the lands of his old enemy Bing Grimes, and prevent Grimes’s access to unbranded cattle. Bing eventually accepted defeat and started a new ranch in Indian Territory, leaving Shanghai lord of all he surveyed.

In 1875 Shanghai was married again, to Hattie James.
Shanghai's letterhead
Pierce got railroads built through his lands to facilitate the shipping of cattle and he built three stations, modestly naming them after himself.

Shanghai was something of a scientific rancher. In his efforts to solve the mystery of Texas fever he experimented by removing ticks and concluded that the ticks caused the fever. He toured Europe in search of a breed of cattle immune to ticks, and returned with a conviction that Brahman cattle were most likely to be tick-free, and in 1900 Brahmans were introduced to El Rancho Grande.

In the last year of his life, 1900, the Pierce holdings suffered badly from the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, from bank failure and from railroad stock. It is said that Pierce lost $1.25m. Shanghai expired from a cerebral hemorrhage, aged 66, the day after Christmas that year.

Shanghai ordered his gravesite statue long before his death so he would have time to appreciate it. He did of course beat the sculptor down in price to $2250 from $2500. It still stands today in the cemetery at Hawley, Texas as a reminder of the towering figure of the great cattleman.
You can read about Shanghai Pierce in Howard R Lamar’s biography of Charlie Siringo (Siringo worked for the Pierces for a time) Charlie Siringo’s West, An Interpretative Biography, University of New Mexico Press, 2005. Mari Sandoz, in her 1958 book The Cattlemen, talks surprisingly little about Pierce but is quite colorful when she does so. “Old Shang had always been a wild man,” she writes, “but since his wife and baby son died he was more than ever the lone and angry wolf, riding the range with his Winchester slung to the saddle, brooking no interference.” There is also Shanghai Pierce, A Fair Likeness by Chris Emmett, 1953.

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