The US/Mexican border in 1881 was a raucous place. Civilization was but a thin veneer across this otherwise lawless landscape. Theft, graft, and murder were commonplace, and frontier justice came from the barrel of a gun. On April 14th, a truly epic gunfight played out in El Paso, Texas.
The Art of the Gunslinger
The term gunslinger is a fairly modern contrivance. I’m told that men who lived by their guns were most commonly called shootists if anything. While most of the big names were either drunks, petty thieves, psychopaths, or some toxic combination, a precious few were actually truly good at it.
I’m no great shakes myself, but I have had the privilege of working alongside some of the finest shooters in the world. SEALs and CAG guys are legendarily competent. Speed shooter Jerry Miculek is a freak of nature. However, professional gunmen in the modern era typically do what they do because of countless hours of concentrated trigger time.
Some folks, however, like Jerry and an 1881-era Marshal named Dallas Stoudenmire, just have the gift.
In 1881 an American rancher named Johnny Hale arrived in El Paso with thirty stolen cows from northern Mexico. A pair of Mexican vaqueros named Juaregui and Sanchez gave chase into the Southern United States but never returned. In response, a mob of heavily-armed Mexican cowboys rode into town on April 14, with vengeance on their minds.
Constable Gus Krempkau spoke fluent Spanish and accompanied the men out to the Hale ranch. Enroute they discovered the cooling corpses of Sanchez and Juaregui. A pair of local cowboys purportedly named Peveler and Stevenson were overheard bragging about the murders and were arrested. The ranch owner Johnny Hale was presumed to have been complicit throughout.
There was an inquest wherein Constable Krempkau served as an interpreter for the aggrieved Mexicans. The two American cattle rustlers were subsequently remanded into custody for formal trial at a later date. Their thirst for justice slated, the Mexican posse returned home with the bodies of their deceased friends.
Dallas Stoudenmire had been sworn in as town Marshal a mere three days prior. He was the sixth El Paso town Marshal in eight months. A native of Alabama and one of nine children, Stoudenmire lied about his age and enlisted in the Confederate Army at age fifteen. Despite being more than six feet tall his commanders discovered his true age and discharged him.
Stoudenmire reenlisted twice more and ended the war an adult standing six foot four. He was a notoriously hard man who carried a pair of Union bullets in his body until the day he died.
Stoudenmire spent three years as a Texas Ranger. By 1881 he was an experienced lawman with a deadly reputation. Though he was known to be a gentleman around the ladies, he was an inveterate brute when drunk. He carried a pair of revolvers and was rumored to be comparably facile with either hand.
The day after the inquest, Constable Krempkau entered a local El Paso saloon to retrieve his rifle and pistol. Inside the rustler, Johnny Hale was unarmed, intoxicated, and despondent. An armed friend of Hale’s named George Campbell made a disparaging comment about Krempkau’s performance as an interpreter at the hearing the previous day.
Johnny Hale then snatched up one of Campbell’s two handguns and shot Krempkau. Marshal Stoudenmire was eating at the Globe restaurant across the street and rose to investigate. He came out shooting and killed an innocent Mexican bystander named Ochoa in short order.
Johnny Hale took cover behind a thick adobe pillar. Stoudenmire spotted him peering around the edge and shot him in the face. Campbell, for his part, wanted nothing to do with these proceedings and shouted his innocence to Stoudenmire. Krempkau, now rapidly bleeding out, mistakenly thought Campbell had been the one to initially attack him and shot Campbell twice before losing consciousness. One round struck Campbell’s handgun and broke the man’s wrist. The other round passed through Campbell’s foot.
Campbell shrieked in pain and reached for his dropped gun with his uninjured left hand. Stoudenmire whirled reflexively, saw the man go for his gun, and shot Campbell through the belly. Now hit three times, Campbell shouted, “You big SOB! You’ve murdered me!” Both Campbell and Krempkau bled out within minutes. Witnesses attested that the entire exchange took some five seconds.
Stoudenmire purportedly stood over the cooling corpses with his guns smoking. There were three Texas Rangers nearby. When queried later as to why they had not intervened they answered that they felt that Marshal Stoudenmire had things well in hand.
If Hollywood is to be believed then every cowboy packed an 1873 Colt Peacemaker on his belt and a lever-action Winchester on his saddle. In reality, there were scads of other popular firearms in circulation during these turbulent times. The shootist, Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire carried at least one Smith and Wesson Model 3.
The S&W Model 3 was a top-break, single-action, cartridge-firing revolver produced between 1870 and 1915. The Model 3 saw widespread military use around the globe. The Russian Tsarist Empire ordered thousands of the guns but reverse engineered the design for production in their domestic arsenals. These copies were generally of high quality yet sold markedly cheaper than the S&W originals. The resulting market saturation nearly put Smith and Wesson out of business.
These guns were eventually produced in a wide variety of calibers, but most of the early sort were chambered in either .44 S&W American or .44 Russian. An upgraded version of the Model 3 became known as the “Schofield” after Major George Schofield who revamped the gun for cavalry use.
Though not so elegant as the Colt Peacemaker, the Model 3 benefitted from its top-break design. The single action trigger was smooth and accurate, but the rapidity of reloading was its strongest suit. With practice, the Model 3 could produce an impressive volume of sustained fire.
Jesse James and his killer Bob Ford, Teddy Roosevelt, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, John Wesley Hardin, Annie Oakley, and Virgil Earp used Model 3 revolvers.
The Wells Fargo Company bought up hundreds of government-surplus Schofields, shortened their seven-inch barrels to five, and issued them widely to their road agents. LTC Schofield suffered badly from depression and shot himself to death with a Schofield revolver in 1882.
The Rest of the Story
Dallas Stoudenmire was terrifying up close, particularly when drunk. In his first week as El Paso town Marshal he killed six men, one of them accidentally. By the following February, he had killed another six in the performance of his official duties. His larger-than-life reputation made him an exceptionally effective frontier lawman. However, it also made him a great many enemies.
Three days after his introductory El Paso bloodbath a friend of Johnny Hale’s convinced a local Deputy Marshal named Bill Johnson to assassinate Stoudenmire. Johnson got himself liquored up in anticipation and took up a double-barreled twelve bore. When the time came to do the deed, Johnson lost his balance in his drunken stupor and fell backward, discharging his shotgun into the air above Stoudenmire’s head. Stoudenmire responded reflexively, drew both his heavy pistols, and shot Johnson eight times, blowing off his testicles in the process. Johnson bled to death on the spot.
Shooting Bill Johnson’s balls off further enhanced the Stoudenmire legend, and he eventually found himself wearing a federal Marshal’s star. Throughout it all, a pair of brothers named James and Felix “Doc” Manning looked for an opportunity to exact revenge for friends who had fallen to Stoudenmire’s guns. This feud smoldered on until one fateful day in September of 1882.
Stoudenmire and Doc met in a local saloon ostensibly to iron out their protracted differences. Doc’s brother James, believing peace had been achieved, had already departed. However, tensions heated up between Doc and Dallas until somebody drew a weapon.
Doc’s first round hit Stoudenmire in the arm. The second struck him in the chest. However, handgun cartridges were not as powerful then as now and this bullet was neutralized by a heavy stack of papers folded in his breast pocket. Regardless, the force of this shot did knock Stoudenmire backward through the door of the saloon.
Stoudenmire then shot Doc Manning in the arm. Amidst all this chaos Doc’s brother James returned with his own weapon and fired twice. One round lodged in a nearby barber pole. His second caught Stoudenmire behind the left ear, killing him instantly.
Dallas Stoudenmire is buried in the Alleyton Cemetery in Colorado County, Texas. Both Manning brothers were tried for his murder, but they were popular figures thereabouts. A jury of their peers acquitted them both.
The following year their third brother Frank Manning was appointed town Marshal himself after the sitting lawman was killed investigating a disagreement at a local brothel. Frank was fired in short order for failing to arrest his criminal friends.