The Frontierado Holiday is coming up on August 5th. As always, the holiday is about the myth of the Old West, not the grinding reality.
FARMER PEEL – Gunslinger Langford Peel got the nickname “Farmer” Peel through the same sense of irony that earns some tall people the nickname Shorty and some fat people the nickname Slim. Peel was always well-dressed and smooth-tongued and the furthest thing away from the image of a Farmer that you could get among the high-stakes gambler/ gunslingers of his era.
Peel was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1829 but his family moved to America during his childhood. In 1841, at the age of 12, Peel was accepted into the U.S. Army as a bugler. Buglers and drummers could indeed be enlisted into the service as company musicians with their parents’ consent. Education in their intended musical instruments was part of the bargain.
The young Langford Peel was shipped off to Governor’s Island, New York and then Carlisle Barracks, PA for his military and musical training. After 13 months he was discharged at Carlisle on October 24th, 1842 but chose to reenlist. Come 1845 the 16 year old blonde was with Company B of the First Regiment of U.S. Dragoons at Fort Atkinson, IA. (Yes, this would indeed have made him the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B when he was first posted there. I’m kidding!)
By the spring of 1846 Peel got his first action against Native Americans, bugling and fighting for his unit in what is now Pawnee County, Coon Creek and along the Arkansas River. Already skilled at gunplay, Langford notched 3 kills in his first battle and became even deadlier in the future, seeing a great deal of action against the Great Plains and Mojave Desert Tribes.
Fall of 1849 found Langford, now 20, stationed at Fort Kearny, NE. In 1853 Peel married Josephine Lay in Saint Louis, MO and she moved to Fort Leavenworth, KS to be near her husband’s new duty station. Langford and Josephine had sons in 1854 and 1856. On March 22nd, 1855, Sergeant Peel was discharged after years of dangerous service from the Great Plains to New Mexico Territory. He left under a cloud after searching for a deserter in a civilian home without a warrant.
During his years in the Army the man had become a master with firearms AND a skilled card player. He turned to the gambling tables of Kansas for money to support his family and was spectacularly successful.
Langford’s haul of cash provided well for his family and left him plenty of extra money for the stylish clothes that instantly earned him the sarcastic sobriquet “Farmer” Jones. His talent with a gun kept him alive among even the deadliest clientelle of saloons and gambling hells and his body count began to grow. When the inspiration struck him, Farmer Peel supposedly sat in with assorted bar bands on various wind instruments.
Those musical performances were characteristic of the happier Langford Peel of this period. Our hero even got a reputation for bailing out some of the gamblers he wiped out at the table, saving them from destitution by letting them stay with him and his family til they got back on their feet financially.
Winter of 1856 into 1857 was very brutal and high stakes games became rare for awhile in Kansas with money so tight. The horn-playing diversions ended and Farmer Peel began to become a mean drunk, quicker to take offense and to draw his gun over poker pots he previously would have used as tip money.
In the Spring he headed westward in search of richer gambling prey, promising to send back money for his wife and sons. Peel found fatter winnings and once again prospered for a time amid periodic gunfights.
By September of 1858 he was in Salt Lake City, UT and was on a bad losing streak. Wiped out financially, Farmer Peel thought he had found salvation in the form of Dave Conley, one of the gamblers he had graciously helped out during tough times back in Kansas.
Conley was working as a House Faro Dealer and rudely refused to lend Peel the money he needed. The Farmer threw a cash box at Conley’s head and drew his pistol as Conley fled the room. Another House Dealer knew Peel by his reputation and, figuring he was good for the loan, provided our hero with some money.
Langford took this stake to the gambling hell on Commercial Street, where he knew Oliver Rucker, another card-player he had assisted in Kansas, ran a Faro table. Rucker was so wary of Farmer Peel’s skill at cards that he refused to let the legendary figure place any bets.
This resulted in a running gunfight which led to A.B. Miller’s store, adjoining the casino. When the smoke cleared both Rucker and Peel were riddled with bullet wounds and seemed near death. Rucker did indeed pass away, and for once in a slaying Farmer Peel was pretty clearly the aggressor and could not hide behind a self-defense plea like with all his previous victims.
Twenty days after the shooting, Langford’s slow recovery at Salt Lake House looked like it would be permanent, so Rucker’s friends and loved ones pushed for Farmer Peel to be arrested and stand trial. However, days earlier the charming and persuasive gunslinger had traded on his celebrity to raise a $45 bribe to get himself secretly moved into hiding.
When Peel’s hideout was discovered he had already fled to another, this time in the home of a Mormon named Johnson. During the weeks while Farmer Peel bided his time til he was recovered enough to endure horse-riding or stage coach travel a large reward was posted for him, dead or alive.
Given Langford’s reputation there were no takers but our wily gunman enlisted a few conmen in a clever ruse. They took a freshly-dead corpse (which they may have killed themselves) and disguised it. They presented it as the body of Farmer Peel, whom they had supposedly slain, and collected the reward.
Peel was believed dead for a time. Legend has it he split the reward with his co-conspirators and then waited out his recovery with a more relaxed mind. Unfortunately, Farmer Peel’s wife and sons back in Kansas got word that he was dead and moved on with their lives.
Josephine remarried 2 years later and since Langford never bothered getting in touch with his family again, shirking his responsibilities to them may have been part of the plan to fake his death from the beginning.
By 1859 Farmer Peel was in San Bernardino, CA. From there he moved on to Los Angeles and then up to the Barbary Coast. He grew more hardcore during this period, winning bigger and bigger pots, losing a few and blowing away more and more men in his travels.
Eventually heading east to the Nevada gold and silver camps, Peel’s deeds in Carson City included the claim that by now he had taken to never shooting an unarmed man. He would supposedly allow any prospective target to obtain a gun before settling their beef.
In 1863 Farmer Peel arrived in Virginia City, NV, where he met the young Mark Twain and other prominent locals. In late September Peel shot down Dick Paddock when the latter provoked him in a saloon. October 24th saw our hero blow away El Dorado Johnny who – according to legend – got himself well-barbered and tailored before taking on Farmer Peel, to make sure he looked his best in his coffin if he didn’t survive the encounter.
Five of El Dorado Johnny’s friends are said to have tried to avenge their late buddy but all of them fell to the guns of Farmer Peel. The gambler/ gunslinger supposedly had worked out a truce of strength with Marshal John L Blackburn that as long as Peel confined his killings to the undesirable element in Virginia City he would look the other way.
Other accounts state that whatever arrangement Farmer Peel had worked out with Marshal Blackburn, he still sometimes preyed upon regular citizens and officials in the city, even manhandling a judge who tried to sentence him with a steep fine or jail time.
When he would work as a House Faro Dealer, Peel supposedly scorned the rigged procedures that made most houses the winner, so he often didn’t last as a Faro Dealer. In Virginia City he reportedly defied management by letting a gambler who had converted his original $10 into $600 (an enormous amount in the 1860s) quit the Faro game and go on his way.
Langford maintained the man had a right to quit the game when he wanted. Our gunman noticed two armed men follow the lucky gambler with the obvious intention of robbing him. He abandoned his Faro table and followed them, arriving in time to save the $600 man and gunning down the would-be bandits.
(Some accounts claim that Peel had LET the gambler win at Faro and that the pair split the $600. Still other accounts claim this gambler was THE John Bull, making this the first time Farmer Peel and the expatriate British gunslinger worked together.)
In the spring of 1865 Peel left Virginia City for good. He met – or renewed his acquaintance with – the mysterious British gambler/ gunslinger known only and appropriately as John Bull. The pair worked the mining towns of Idaho, wiping out gamblers or being wiped out themselves and adding to their respective tally of kills.
Come 1867 the two men started to have more and more frequent arguments over where they should ply their trade next. Farmer Peel became particularly incensed when, in the Spring of that year, his British friend nagged and nagged him into trying Utah despite Peel’s fear that the 1858 killing was still hanging over his head.
After all that drama the two gunmen had barely hit Salt Lake City when they decided to join the throng of gamblers headed for Helena, MT – the latest “in” place to be. Farmer Peel and John Bull and their latest lady friends headed to Helena, each couple to themselves.
Peel and his woman, famous gambler Belle C Neil, arrived first. Our hero grew annoyed at the delay in the Brit’s arrival so he and Belle killed time partying and gambling. In one celebrated incident Farmer Peel exposed a rigged Faro dealing box at John Chase’s Saloon, and demanded the return of money that a few unfortunate young men had been rooked out of.
By the time John Bull and his gal pal arrived in Helena his friendship with Langford had been forever damaged. Comfortably cool get-togethers gave way to arguments and the exchange of snarky public insults. (Think John and Yoko vs Paul and Linda in the early 70s. I know, I’m kind of weird.)
July 22nd, 1867 it all reached the breaking point. After more ugly words at the Bank Exchange Saloon in Helena, Farmer Peel ordered John Bull to go for his gun. The Brit protested that he was unarmed, so, going by the chivalrous rule he had adopted back in his Carson City days, Peel allowed Bull to go off to get a firearm.
What happened next is well known: John Bull shot Farmer Peel to death. Some accounts say it was a fair fight while others say Bull took advantage of Langford letting him out of his sight to ambush him amid the crowded Helena nightlife.
Montana’s legendary vigilante-turned-legitimate lawman John X Beidler, better known by the cool nickname “X” jailed John Bull and kept him alive for trial despite attempts by lynch mobs to kill him. (I covered all of this years ago in my recap of X’s career. The Old West had more crossovers than the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)
Eventually John Bull was released after a hung jury of 9 to 3 in favor of conviction. He lived until 1929. Langford “Farmer” Peel was buried by friends in Helena. His gravemarker disappeared for years only to resurface in 1943. It is now in a Helena museum, but Peel’s mortal remains went missing long ago.
NOTE: One of my favorite old west figures, Kid Russell, did not arrive in Helena until 1880 so he did not get to interact with Langford Peel.
FOR FOUR MORE NEGLECTED GUNSLINGERS CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2013/07/14/four-cool-but-forgotten-gunslingers-for-frontierado/
FOR SIX MORE NEGLECTED WESTERN FIGURES CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2012/06/18/six-neglected-wild-west-figures/
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