The Frontierado Holiday, which is coming up on Friday, August 7th, is about the myth of the Old West, not the grinding reality. Here’s another Frontierado Saga in honor of the season:
JOHN BULL – Very little is known about the early life of this mysterious British expatriate who became a famous gambler/ gunslinger. Even his name is in question – for obvious reasons – since “John Bull” had already been a standard nickname for British men in general for over a century.
Many accounts say the John Bull tag stuck to the Brit because he was so evasive about his real name, while other accounts claim his real name was John Edwin Bull or John C Bull. In my opinion it seems like a cosmically unlikely coincidence that an actual Englishman’s name would just HAPPEN to be John Bull, so I view it as an alias. Sort of like if an Irish gunslinger picked up the nickname “Paddy O’Rourke.”
The first accounts of him in the American West came in late 1861, when he took part in the Gold Rush to Elk Creek Basin back when Idaho was still technically part of Washington Territory. John Bull, giving his age as 25, claimed never to have engaged in anything as strenuous as prospecting, but said he had spent the last few years at multiple Boom Towns on the west coast, making a living as a card-player.
For the next few years nothing can be pieced together except tales about “John” winning some big pots, losing others, gunning down sore losers and sometimes fleeing gold or silver camps with angry, shooting victims of his card-sharp skills on his trail. In 1865 or 1866 Bull arrived in Virginia City, NV where he met notorious gambler/ gunslinger Langford “Farmer” Peel and played a well-known practical joke on the young Mark Twain.
By some accounts Peel and John Bull ran a scam on the gambling hall where the Farmer was serving as a Faro Dealer at the moment. Pretending not to know each other, Peel let Bull turn his original $10.00 into $600.00 (an enormous amount at that time), then the pair split the money. (See my look at Farmer Peel for a more detailed account of their friendship.)
For awhile the pair hit assorted Idaho mining camps, playing cards and slinging lead, then wandered down to Salt Lake City. By July of 1867 John Bull and Farmer Peel were in Helena, MT – Peel with his girlfriend Belle Neil, the famed lady gambler, Bull with an unnamed female friend of his own.
The pair were on the outs by then and on July 22nd their growing feud came to a head at the Bank Exchange Saloon. An argument led to John Bull blowing away the legendary Farmer Peel, either in a fair fight or in an ambush.
Montana’s notorious vigilante-turned-legitimate-lawman John Xavier Biedler, better known by the stylish nickname “X”, arrested John Bull. X also kept the Englishman safe from lynch-mobs consisting of the popular Farmer Peel’s many fans. At his trial John Bull was released after a hung jury of 9 to 3 in favor of conviction and hastily left Helena behind him.
Bull moved on to then-wild Cheyenne, WY, where Peel had never been, and was greeted as a celebrity by the rowdies and gamblers. The famed Farmer Peel had run up quite a body count in his day and as the man who put him in his grave John Bull was assumed to be a deadly gunman in his own right.
During this “honeymoon” period in Cheyenne some of the lesser gamblers and hellions even took it as a point of pride to say they had just lost some of their money to John Bull in his crooked Three-Card Monte scam.
When the railroad construction resumed in the Spring of 1868, John traveled along with the rest of the Hell On Wheels nomads, drinking, shooting and playing cards all the way to the historic linkup at Promontory Point, UT on May 10th, 1869. It seemed like the end of an era, and in the wild parties that the itinerant gamblers, laborers and rowdies held that night, Bull was said to have been swept up in the moment and married a young lady from a good family. (I have not been able to find her name, but all accounts of the John Bull Saga mention a wife.)
Our hero and his new bride settled in Chicago for a time – at 771 West Van Buren Street to be precise – but when the scale of their joint mistake hit the newlyweds, John took to wandering again. He would visit his wife from time to time and she bore him two children. Within a few years Bull’s wife passed away and he placed their offspring in foster homes.
Sometime in the early 1870s our man joined the gang of gamblers, con-men and gunslingers led by Canada Bill Jones in Omaha, NE. Other members of that gang included George Mehaffy, “Doc” Baggs, also known as “Sir Charles,” former wrestler Sherman Thurston, “Black Sheep” Bush (Jim Bush), the roguish brother of Denver hotel tycoon William H Bush, and the con-man known only as Grasshopper Sam.
Canada Bill’s gang was an interesting blend of the old and the new, crime-wise. They operated out west, but weren’t on the run like so many outlaw gangs. They plied their various illegal trades on the trains running in and out of Omaha and all along the rail lines PLUS they dominated crime in Omaha itself, where they owned certain politicians and law enforcement figures and operated almost openly.
John Bull’s role with the gang involved running his rigged card games under assumed names and fleecing well-to-do passengers. He would also serve to steer marks to other members of Canada Bill’s organization to be victimized in other cons and scams.
Just as the former wrestler Sherman Thurston served as non-fatal muscle for the gang, Bull was the gunman. If train passengers that the gang rooked out of money got too loud or threatened to tell the Railroad Detectives, John could plug them and dump the bodies off the train as it sped along. In the outfit’s Omaha base, our man could bring his gun to bear in any conflicts with civilians or rival criminals.
On the night of July 12th, 1873, John Bull and his pal George Mehaffy were accused of stabbing railroad employee Samuel Atwood outside Omaha’s Crystal Saloon for warning passengers away from the gang’s rigged games and other cons.
Around 4:30 AM on July 13th, Omaha City Marshal Gilbert Rustin and six deputies tried to arrest John at Jack Sullivan’s Saloon. Bull produced his pistol, hunkered down in the gambling room and vowed not to be taken until his gun was empty. While customers fled in a panic, our man drove away Rustin and his men in the resulting shootout.
The Englishman proceeded to get drunk and fall asleep, and was then arrested without resistance. Stabbing victim Samuel Atwood, meanwhile, was clinging to life, with his friends and coworkers saying that if he died they would form a lynch mob to drag John Bull and George Mehaffy from their cells and hang them.
Atwood fully recovered, tensions abated and at the preliminary hearing on July 28th Atwood identified Mehaffy as one of his attackers but not Bull. John was set free and George got out on bail.
On November 18th, 1873, John Bull and the rest of the Canada Bill Gang were among the criminal organizations with their thumbs in various illegal pies surrounding the staging and the betting on the Heavyweight Championship Fight between boxers Tom Allen and Ben Hogan. The British-born Allen had beaten Mike McCoole for the title and now boxing fans from New York on westward were congregating for this fight.
This was back when boxing was illegal in many jurisdictions and authorities were threatening to unleash the militia if they had to in order to stop the fight from being held. In order to circumvent the anti-boxing forces John Bull, his fellow criminals, the promoters, boxers, gamblers and spectators crossed the Missouri River and met up in Council Bluffs, IA.
From there they all boarded a specially hired eight-car train to travel the final ten miles to Pacific Junction, IA, where the fight was held. Tags for boxing matches were already being used and this one was billed as “The Big Mill Near The Big Muddy.” (Hey, it’s no “Thrilla in Manilla” but what can ya do?) There was a $2,000 purse, $10,000 in side bets and uncounted thousands in illegal wagers surrounding the event.
Nobody wound up happy. Tom Allen repeatedly knocked Ben Hogan down, but Hogan partisans – including John Bull and the Canada Bill organization – repeatedly claimed Allen was dishing out foul punches to the groin and that Hogan should be declared the winner.
In the end the challenger was down and could not get up, but the air of violence from the gamblers and other Ben Hogan advocates intimidated the referee Tom Riley from Kansas City. Riley ultimately estimated that his life would be in danger no matter who he declared the winner, so he pronounced the bout no contest and said all bets were off.
In the resulting uproar fights broke out with several people injured and one man killed, and the whole affair did nothing to improve boxing’s image in the United States.
In 1874 John Bull, Doc Baggs, George Mehaffy and Ben Marks were arrested and charged with robbing $440.00 from a victim named Wilkinson at an Omaha saloon. In SEPARATE trials in the months ahead, Bull, Baggs and Marks were acquitted but Mehaffy was found guilty. George skipped bail and disappeared into history.
By 1875 the criminal reign of Canada Bill and his gang throughout Omaha and all along the Union Pacific Rail Lines reached the breaking point. Literally hundreds of passengers filed complaints about swindles, armed intimidation and rigged card games. The crowning complaint came from a Union Pacific Board member who lost $1,200.00 to the gangsters.
Many of the gang members dispersed, John Bull among them. In 1876 he was working cards and gunning down foes in Deadwood, SD. May of 1877 found the Britisher on a stagecoach between Bismarck and Deadwood with Dr Henry Hoyt. That physician claimed to have witnessed some of Bull’s shooting skill during a stop where the stage driver pulled up to let the passengers stretch their legs.
They were near a prairie dog colony and some of the passengers were fruitlessly trying to shoot the dogs as they briefly poked their heads out of their holes. According to Dr Hoyt, John Bull was supposedly the only one to succeed at that near-impossible shooting feat.
In the opening months of 1879 Bull was in Denver, CO. He was arrested or admonished multiple times as the year rolled on, for shootings, public drunkenness ($12.00 fine) and for brawling with a man named C.C. Joy, who definitely kicked our man’s butt.
That same year, John was in a Denver saloon called Murphy’s Exchange, known as “The Slaughterhouse” because of the many killings committed there. A policeman showed up to arrest the Brit for one of his offenses but he shot and wounded the officer. Multiple lawmen showed up as backup and toted Bull off to jail. The resolution of that legal issue is unknown but our man stayed at large in Denver.
In 1880 John Bull and his new criminal compatriot Jim Moon opened a Denver restaurant, saloon and gambling den called The Oyster Ocean. The hulking Moon was actually a former Union Army soldier named John Wilcoxon and had been dishonorably discharged after nearly killing a fellow soldier in a fight.
On October 14th of that year the short-tempered Jim Moon got into a fight with a pair of Denver cops in the Oyster Ocean. Things escalated and soon John Bull had been forced to come to his partner’s aid and ultimately the pair wound up exchanging gunfire with an entire paddy wagon full of policemen.
For awhile there was a standoff as Bull and Moon held their positions in the doorway of their establishment, armed with two pistols each, holding off the lawmen. Negotiations dragged on and finally John and Jim surrendered when promised they would simply face the usual fine for shooting off firearms.
October 31st of 1880 saw an anti-Chinese riot break out in Denver. Moon and John Bull – or in some accounts, just Moon – grabbed guns and fought off the wild mobs, preventing them from entering and destroying a Chinese laundry. Later that same night the friends used their guns to protect sixteen Chinese people from the mobs by holding off the rioters outside the Arcade casino, in which the Asians were hiding.
In April of 1881 John Bull opened a restaurant and gambling hell called the Turf Exchange on Larimer Street. In late May, Moon was shot to death by gambler Clay Wilson in the Arcade casino after Jim attacked Clay for supposedly flirting with Moon’s wife.
By January 1882 Black Sheep Bush, a fellow alum from the Canada Bill Gang in Omaha, was staying at the Turf Exchange and accidentally shot John in the foot in an upstairs gaming room. Surprisingly, Bull held no grudge and Bush suffered no retribution.
Before the year was out, John had lost the Turf Exchange in a poker game. Our Brit was once again a wandering gambler, playing rigged card games on board Northern Pacific Railroad lines this time between Minneapolis and Seattle. He also frequented saloons and casinos throughout the Pacific Northwest, occasionally gunning down men while bystanders claimed not to have seen anything.
By the early 1890s John Bull claimed to have returned home to England for a few years around Queen Victoria’s 1887 Jubilee. Together with a con-man named Frank Pine, he claimed to have sold shares in worthless Old West mines to several British suckers for $25,000.00, then returned to America to live off the funds in retirement.
(Bull also claimed to have dined with Prince Edward while in England but I’m skeptical. At least he didn’t claim Lily Langtree was there, too.)
The year 1898 was the beginning of the end for John Bull. The sixty-three year old gambler emerged from the People’s Theater in Spokane, WA with its manager Fiskey Barnett. Whatever the reason was for the hostility between them is not known but both men were packing guns. Barnett suddenly shoved the lit end of his cigar into Bull’s face near the eye, then while he howled with pain, Fiskey drew his gun and shot the Englishman.
John pulled his own gun and half-blindly fired it off. When both men had emptied their pistols, a woman was down with a bullet through her lung, Barnett had had a finger shot off and Bull had been shot in the left arm, the groin, the chin and the neck.
The injured woman recovered weeks later, Fiskey was fined $10.00 for shooting a firearm within the city limits and charges against John Bull were waived, since he was expected to die. Doctors had to amputate his left arm and removed the other bullets from his body except for the one in his neck, which had lodged against his windpipe.
The tough Brit lived on, however, and in 1921 when the bullet began irritating his windpipe, John had it removed by a doctor in Excelsior Springs, MO. He even recovered from THAT surgery and died in Vancouver, Canada on September 9th, 1929.
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