The Frontierado Holiday is coming up this Friday, August 7th! Balladeer’s Blog will be squeezing in some more seasonal posts until that grand event kicks off on the upcoming three-day weekend. Frontierado focuses on the myth of the Old West, not the grinding reality.
WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS STARTED IN DODGE CITY – The Las Vegas in this article is Las Vegas, NEW MEXICO, not the more famous Las Vegas in Nevada. This lesser known Las Vegas held a degree of renown from the 1846-1848 war with Mexico onward. Its earliest history dated back to the 1600s.
On the 4th of July in 1879 the first train reached Las Vegas from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. At least half a dozen times a day trains would stop in the city and with all this new activity Las Vegas increased exponentially in size and population almost immediately. Many shady types from Dodge City settled in Vegas.
With business of all kinds soaring, so too did crime. The summer of ’79 saw plenty of infamous gunslingers, gamblers and outlaws from Dodge City and other locales arrive in town on the railroad. Doc Holliday and Kate Elder, Mysterious Dave Mather, Dutch Henry, the Durango Kid, Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, California Jim and many others made Las Vegas their temporary home.
Doc Holliday and Kate Elder’s stay was particularly short. July 19th, 1879 saw Doc get into a gunfight with local gunman Las Vegas Mike Gordon, with Holliday killing Gordon via three bullets through his midsection. Parochial pride resulted in a lynch mob being assembled to hang Doc, so Holliday and Kate soon boarded another train and returned to Kansas.
By this time Hyman G Neill, better known as Hoodoo Brown, was running Las Vegas as an archetypal Crooked Town Boss. Hoodoo, a former lawyer, opera singer and Union Major during the Civil War, was simultaneously Vegas’ Mayor, Justice of the Peace and Coroner. Obviously those three offices made it very easy for Hoodoo Brown to run his growing criminal empire while making sure the “lawmen” he hired supported HIS interests and not the citizens’.
On August 18th and 30th of 1879 two Barlow & Sanderson stage coaches were robbed by members of what was already being called the Dodge City Gang. Arkansas Dave, Bull Shit Jack, Jordan L Webb and Slap Jack Bill were arrested but – given Hoodoo Brown’s influence – were not convicted. City Marshal Joe Carson was also implicated in the deeds but nothing was done.
October 14th of that same year brought a train robbery near Las Vegas with thousands of dollars being stolen. By now Hoodoo Brown was already whispered to be in charge of perverting justice in Vegas, so the railroad hired THE Charlie Bassett to investigate. With a handful of men the honest Bassett did what he could but the crime was never solved.
Hoodoo Brown was sitting atop a criminal enterprise like Al Capone in Chicago decades later. As Coroner he even stacked the Coroner’s Juries with his thugs, a very useful way of getting murders ruled as “accidents” or “death from natural causes.”
Popular New Mexico Governor Miguel Otero once wrote that in just one month 29 people were killed in and around Las Vegas.
At its peak the Dodge City Gang consisted of:
Mysterious Dave Mather – This already notorious gunslinger was one of Hoodoo Brown’s pocket lawmen, serving as Deputy Marshal.
Joe Carson, John Joshua Webb and Tom Pickett – This trio were also dirty lawmen owned by Hoodoo Brown.
Six-Shooter Bill – Also called California Jim, this outlaw was famous for what became a Western cliche: shooting his guns in the vicinity of a victim’s feet to make them “dance.”
Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh – The overlooked desperado whose reputation was destroyed by the way he was portrayed in Young Guns II. (Much like Kid Curry’s name became a joke to generations of moviegoers when he was depicted getting kicked in the balls by Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.)
Dutch Henry Borne – This outlaw ran rustling and horse-stealing gangs around the West and was so successful that “Dutch Henry” became a slang term for a stolen horse.
Bull Shit Jack Pierce and Slap Jack Bill Nicholson – These men were just two of the dozens of outlaws in the Dodge City Gang but their nicknames amuse the hell out of me so I listed them here while leaving out guys like John Clancy, Jim Dunagan and other nickname-deficient hombres.
One of the ways that Hoodoo Brown’s Dodge City Gang remained in power during their reign of terror was by not allowing firearms to be carried in Las Vegas. Only THEY and their corrupt lawmen allies were permitted to have guns on them. This successfully stifled any potential defiance.
On January 22nd, 1880, William Randall, James West, John Dorsey and T.J. House were partying in Las Vegas and refusing to turn in their guns. At the saloon called The Variety Hall, City Marshal Joe Carson and Deputy Marshal Mysterious Dave Mather tried to get the foursome to cave in and hand over their firearms.
A shootout resulted, with Mather gunning down West and Randall and with Carson shot to death by one or more of the four outsiders. Dorsey and House managed to shoot their way out of the Variety Hall and fled Las Vegas on horseback.
Mysterious Dave was promoted to City Marshal to replace the slain Joe Carson and rounded up a posse to hunt down Dorsey and House. By February 5th the seven-man posse traced the duo to the home of Juan Dominguez in Buena Vista, NM, less than three dozen miles north of Las Vegas. The posse demanded that the pair surrender, promising them safety and a fair trial back in Vegas. Dorsey and House naively complied.
The two were arrested and placed in the Old Town Jail, where hours later a lynch mob, with no interference from Las Vegas’ “lawmen,” dragged them from their cells. They took Dorsey and House to the Plaza Windmill (left), site of many Vegas lynchings, but before the pair could be hanged, Marshal Joe Carson’s widow showed up armed and shot them to death.
March 2nd of 1880 brought freighter Michael Kelliher to Las Vegas, glad-handing everyone, buying drinks and otherwise spreading around his obvious wad of cash. John Joshua Webb and other Dodge City Gang badge-wearers showed up at Goodlet & Roberts’ Saloon, where Kelliher was then celebrating.
Accounts vary, but the Las Vegas men somehow provoked an incident in which Kelliher was shot to death by Webb and the money he had left over – $1,900 (an ENORMOUS amount in 1880 terms) – was turned over to Town Boss Hoodoo Brown.
The law-abiding citizens of Las Vegas were getting more and more disgusted with the way the criminal element was running their city. Like people in other western locations, especially in Montana and California, they began forming a Vigilante army to do what their politicians and lawmen were too corrupt to do.
On April 8th, 1880, an anonymous ad was run in the city’s newspaper, the Las Vegas Optic –
“To Murderers, Confidence Men, Thieves:
The citizens of Las Vegas have tired of robbery, murder, and other crimes that have made this town a byword in every civilized community. They have resolved to put a stop to crime, if in attaining that end they have to forget the law and resort to a speedier justice than it will afford. All such characters are therefore, hereby notified, that they must either leave this town or conform themselves to the requirements of law, or they will be summarily dealt with. The flow of blood must and shall be stopped in this community, and the good citizens of both the old and new towns have determined to stop it, if they have to HANG by the strong arm of FORCE every violator of the law in this country.“
Given the deadly success (and excesses) of Vigilante justice in other parts of the West, Hoodoo Brown and the rest of the Dodge City Gang scattered and relocated within months, after a few gang members turned up dead.
Obviously more criminals would pursue their careers in Las Vegas in the future, but in 1881 an odd diversion hit Vegas. Billy the Kid had been killed on July 14th in Fort Sumner, NM and his trigger finger was cut off. The finger (or what was ALLEGED to be the Kid’s trigger finger) showed up in Las Vegas that summer.
The offices of the Las Vegas Optic were the recipients and they showed off the finger, preserved in a jar of alcohol. The bizarre object was a hit, attracting plenty of spectators.
As the 1880s wore on, more subtle criminals made Las Vegas their home. They were not – as Mario Puzo would say – “gavones” garishly wielding their power openly like Hoodoo Brown had. Instead they were more like modern-day organized crime, keeping a low profile while hiding behind airs of businesslike respectability.
The most infamous leader of this new breed of criminals was Vicente Silva, who often conducted the business of his larcenous empire from his Imperial Saloon in Las Vegas. By the late 1880s he was the undisputed top man when it came to rustling and other illegal activities in the area.
Though far subtler than his Dodge City Gang predecessors, Silva couldn’t keep an operation of his size invisible, and gradually civil resentment toward him and his gang grew. A Vigilante band formed and began taking action.
After the Vigilante hanging of Silva’s man Pat Maes in October of 1892, Vicente’s organization started falling apart. In mid-May of 1895 Vicente Silva was killed amid in-fighting by his subordinates.