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whispering smith

Whispering Smith

WHISPERING SMITH – James L Smith, aka Whispering Smith, led an action-filled life that bore little resemblance to the squeaky clean image of the man depicted in the movie, radio and television series based on his law enforcement career. Smith was a relentless lawman whom I often describe as “the Dirty Harry of the Old West.”

Whispering Smith was born in 1838 and by 1860 was making a living as a riverboat gambler up and down the Mississippi, where he acquired his famous nickname. He had his first gunfight in the form of a duel with a gambler named Larry Boyle on the Belle of Memphis. When the Civil War broke out James joined the Union Army, as did other future gunfighters like Wild Bill Hickok, Bear River Tom, Long-Haired Jim Courtright and others.

After the war he next surfaced in New Orleans, LA, as part of the city’s Metropolitan Police Force in 1868. By 1873 Smith had made detective and married his sweetheart Anna Mannion.

Whispering Smith was often involved in shootouts with criminals all over New Orleans and was suspected of frequently acting outside the law to blow away miscreants too slippery to be caught red-handed. Grand Juries investigated Smith’s actions on a few occassions and after he was exonerated yet again in January of 1876 James and Anna decided to head further west where he hoped for a law enforcement career less encumbered by legal niceties.

For years he worked as a Railroad Detective for the Union Pacific Railroad, arresting con men and tracking down train robbers in Nebraska, Wyoming and Utah. In 1879 he was reassigned to the Nebraska to Dakota Territory Line and used his guns against outlaws robbing trains and stagecoaches as well as plundering horses and supplies from Native Americans on the reservation the train passed through. As in New Orleans, Whispering Smith was occassionally suspected of involvement in vigilante justice when outlaws proved too slick to bring to trial.

In 1880 Smith helped recover stolen gold bullion worth $125,000 (by 1800’s money) after a train robbery in Sidney, NE and bring the felons to justice. That saga, which included attempts to kill Whispering Smith by crooked lawmen in the pay of local outlaws, was as intricate and involved as the Clanton/ Earp war in Tombstone. In 1881 Smith left railroad work but served in various law enforcement capacities for the rest of his life. Those jobs ranged from Chief of Police on Indian Reservations to Stock Detective for cattle concerns to a clash with Bat Masterson in Denver over illegal boxing clubs.

Everywhere he was followed by clouds of suspicion because of his repeated tendency to go beyond the law in bringing down his quarries. Always a heavy drinker, James became a confirmed alcoholic after the turn of the century. He enjoyed brief publicity from time to time through newspaper interviews but died penniless in 1914, committing suicide by swallowing lye. By some accounts Whispering Smith was the inspiration for Max Brand’s fictional gunslinger Whistling Dan.  

FOR A LOOK AT POKER ALICE, BEAR RIVER TOM, KID CURRY AND RATTLESNAKE DICK CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2012/07/15/four-forgotten-gunslingers-with-cool-nicknames-2/ 

© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.     





  1. Amen! Lee Van Cleef would have been a great star for a Wispering Smith movie.

  2. Adria

    What a sad ending for such an interesting figure.

  3. Very good post. This man was haunted by a lot of demons, many of them self-created.

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