Monday, August 11, 2014

John Bull -- Con Artist & Killer

In the Clint Eastwood movie The Unforgiven, which was supposedly placed in the 1870's or 1880's time period, the audience is introduced to a character called English Bob.

In one scene, English Bob is talking about the benefits of having a monarchy. and one of the Americans on the train referred to English Bob as a "John Bull".

Well, the John Bull that he was making reference to was a political cartoon figure. It's true, John Bull was a political cartoon character used to lampoon British imperialism and English manners in the 19th century.

John Bull became a national personification of Great Britain in general, and England in particular, especially in political cartoons and similar graphic works. He was usually depicted as a stout, middle-aged, country dwelling, matter-of-fact man with a "jolly" disposition. In England, John Bull is said to be looked upon in the same way as the character Uncle Sam is in the United States.

So how about the John Bull of the Old West?

Yes, there was another John Bull who was not a caricature but instead a real person who was indeed a con artist and killer. In fact, John Bull was an Englishman who was a gambler and con-artist in the Old West. He was also a man who later gained a reputation as a killer.

Other than being said to be an Englishman, there isn't a whole lot of information about his early life. And no, as far as I can tell, no one really knows if he simply used the name John Bull or if it was indeed his birth name. In fact, other than speculating on his year of birth and that he was born in England, it's really not known when he came to the United States.

For some reason that I haven't been able to figure out, historians believed that he arrived some time during the 1850s. But frankly, for someone to come into the United States, use another name other than the one that is really their's, say they are from England when in fact they could have been from some British colony, was not out of the ordinary back then.

In fact, think about it today. If you weren't born here and received a Social Security number at birth, there are all sorts of Illegal aliens from all over the world who come here -- and really, how would you know when they were born or what their real name is.

Yes, while we try to think that so much has changed since back once upon a time -- some things just haven't. And besides, John Bull was a con-man, a confidence man, a con-artist, someone who defrauds others after first gaining their trust and confidence. These individuals either operate alone or in concert with others to rod and swindle others, and John Bull spent a lifetime doing just that.


He first appeared in any sort historical text was in 1862 when he was listed as a professional gambler who made his around the Salmon River gold rush in California -- as well as other mining boomtowns. And yes, they say he was a short man with a full beard and dark eyes.

On August 25, 1862, he was involved in a gunfight while in the mining camp of Gold Creek in Montana Territory. He entered the town stating his name was John Bull, and that he and his companion, a man named Fox, were on the trail of horse thieves who had stolen six valuable horses in Elk City, Idaho.

The thieves, C.W. Spillman, Bill Arnett, and B.F. Jermagin had preceded Bull and Fox in entering the camp by about three days. Bull and Fox captured Spillman with no incident, and placed him in the custody of several miners while the two continued to search for the others.

Locating them in a large tent used as a saloon, Bull stepped inside with a double barrel shotgun and demanded both men throw up their hands and surrender. Bill Arnett immediately grabbed his pistol laying on the table beside him. Bull shot him with one blast from his shotgun in the chest killing him instantly.

After seeing the dumb move on the part of his friend Arnett, Jermagin is said to have surrendered without incident. Jermagin and Spillman were tried the next morning in a makeshift court. Jermagin was able to successfully argue that he played no part in the horse theft. However, Spillman was convicted and sentenced to hang. The next morning he was executed.

At this time mining camps in Nevada Territory were booming, most prominent was Aurora and then Austin. John Bull settled at the silver camp of Austin in the center of the Territory. Then in early 1864 there came about a nationalistic dispute over who was "chief" in Austin, the Irish versus the English.

The dispute was not settled with pistols or knives, as the use of those weapons was rejected by the parties involved. Instead it was left to fists in the form of a boxing match. And yes, just so happens John Bull was said to be pretty good at fisticuffs so he was picked to represent the English.

The fight was between Bull and a particular Irishman. They met up late at night on February 21st in a saloon at the corner of Main and Cedar Streets. Inside within the presence of an excited crowd, the two combatants accompanied with seconds came to an agreement in regards the rules of pugilism to be allowed.

After that they went out into the street to have it out. Mac Waterhouse was selected by the Englishman John Bull as his second, and George Loney by the Irishman. And after the preliminaries were done, they went at it.

At about twelve o’clock, they started their fist fight which would last another twenty-one rounds. And yes, it's said that the battle was fierce both giving and receiving everything the other had. And yes. neither man showed any sign of quitting. Then finally, it came down to John Bull's endurance which was too much for the Irishman. The fight was called in favor of the English and everyone celebrated.

Bull was next heard of in 1866, when he arrived in Virginia City, Nevada. By this time he was partnered in a gambling operation with fellow Englishman Langford M. Peel, known as "Farmer" Peel. Peel was a former soldier of the U.S. Army. After the Army, Peel became a professional gambler. And for the record, Langford M. "Farmer" Peel was a real killer. He was real bad man in a fight.

Some say Peel was born in Liverpool, England. But there are some out there who speculate that Peel was in fact not English, but Irish from Northern Ireland. We do know that Langford Peel traveled to Salt Lake City from Leavenworth, Kansas in 1858, and from there he went to Nevada. While in Salt Lake City in 1858, Peel got into a fight with a faro dealer by the name of Oliver Rucker.

That fight started out with pistols. But then it's said that after they were out of rounds, they went at it and ended up on the floor. It's said they used their empty pistols as clubs. That is until Peel crawled over to Rucker, and planted his bowie knife in the faro dealer's chest.

When Peel got to Virginia City, Nevada, the myth is that he had killed at least 6 men in the area. Of course, I haven't been able to find any trace of that claim. And frankly I would expect to since, they were supposedly all in self-defense and were bound to be even a small mention in a local paper.


During this time, famed writer Mark Twain became friends with John Bull. Twain later wrote about how well they had gotten along, and in particularly about a joke that Bull had once pulled on Twain during the winter of 1866.

By early 1867, Bull and Peel had moved their operations on to Belmont, Nevada, and then to Salt Lake City, Utah. It's said that the two argued non-stop, and really did not like one another. Then while in Salt Lake City, the two argued to the point where they separated for a time. But while that was the case early in the year, by the summer of 1867 the two were working together again in Helena, Montana.

In 1867, they left Nevada as partners and started for Helena to open a mining claim. They quarreled on the way but reconciled when reaching their destination.
The argument was over Bull examining the mines at Indian Creek and reporting a favorable find to Peel, who went to the mines to check for himself. When he discovered they were not represented accurately, he accused Bull of falsehood and misrepresentation.

On the night of July 22, 1867, both partners Bull and Peel were seated at a table in the "Greer Brothers Exchange Saloon". For some reason the argument they had previously started up again. This time, both men jumped to their feet and started arguing loudly. Finally Peel slapped Bull in the face with one hand, and pulled his gun with the other. It was said at the time that Peel was a very fast draw.

Bull raised his hands, stating "I am unarmed."

Peel supposedly responded, "You should go and arm himself, then return."

Bull did just that after running up to his room. There, after strapping on his pistol, he quickly wrote down a makeshift will for the disposition of his property in the event of his death. Then Bull had returned to the saloon, but Peel had left and moved down the street to the "Chase Saloon". Bull found him there talking to his girlfriend, a prostitute by the name of Belle Neil.

Peel was escorting Neil to his room, when Bull came up on them as they walked outside onto Helena's Main Street. When they were met by Bull, immediately Peel went for his gun. So did Bull.

To Farmer Peel's misfortune, as he attempted to draw his own pistol, Belle Neil unintentionally pulled at his arm hindering him from drawing. Bull didn't have that problem and shot Peel with his first shot, and then a second. Then with Peel face down in the street, those watching said that Bull very calmly walked up to Peel and fired a third round into his head.

If Peel wasn't dead from the first two shots, the last one certainly killed him. And yes, this is the only man that John Bull ever killed in a gunfight.

With a crowd present, Town Marshal John Xavier Beidler drew his weapon, disarmed Bull, and took him into custody. Because the townsfolk saw Peel's death as more of an execution rather than self-defense, a lynch mob gathered that night with the intent on hanging John Bull.

It was very fortunate for John Bull that Marshal Beidler was a great lawman and backed them down. Then in the trial that followed, the jury failed to convict on a hung jury. Bull was released and he immediately left Helena. It's said that he couldn't get out of town fast enough since there were some who still thought he needed to dance at the end of a rope.

He then traveled to Cheyenne, Wyoming, by rail on the Union Pacific Railroad.
But remember, Langford Peel had been known to have killed at least six men prior to John Bull killing him. This meant that killing Peel made Bull a sort of celebrity in Cheyenne. That is at least for a while.

And yes, that was the case for other towns he visited as he hopscotched across the West for a while. Unlike his travels before killing Peel, John Bull was now treated as a man with somewhat of a reputation since it was he that killed Peel. That was a good thing for him in that such a reputation would help him when gambling as it would make a player think twice about taking him to task over cheating or a crooked game, but there were now those wanted to make their reputation by killing John Bull.

In 1868, again in Utah, this time in Promontory Point, where Bull married a woman described as being an extremely pretty and lady. After they married, John Bull is said to have moved with her to Chicago, Illinois. There the two had two children, but his wife died of illness in 1872. With that, Bull placed his children in an orphanage and left Chicago.

By the following year he was in Omaha, Nebraska, again operating as a gambler and con man. And yes, Bull even branched out and became a professional boxing promoter. Of course, he was also known to try to fix fights.

In one fight between Tom Allen and German-born Ben Hogan held in Omaha for the so-called "Heavy-Weight Championship of the World." Bull backed Hogan, and Hogan was taking a beating. Then during third round, Hogan goes down holding his groin and claiming a foul, a "low-blow".

Bull jumps into the ring and started screaming that his man Hogan won. As fights start breaking out, Allen was declared the winner. Because of John Bull, the place broke out into a near riot and one man in the crowd was killed.

Still in Omaha, shortly before midnight, on July 12th, 1873, while in the company of gambler and fellow con-artist George Mehaffy, Bull and Mehaffy stabbed railroad employee Samual Atwood outside the "Crystal Saloon." They stabbed Atwood because he warned others that Bull and Mehaffy were crooked gamblers who were running a crooked game.

City Marshal Gilbert Rustin gathered several policemen and went in search of the two men, locating Bull inside "Sullivan's Saloon". When Rustin approached him, Bull produced his pistol and refused to be arrested. This caused Marshal Rustin to withdraw but only for a while.

Bull then ran all the patrons out of the saloon, and calmly sat down in a chair, falling asleep. When awakened, he quietly submitted to arrest without resistance.

Samual Atwood was still alive but in serious condition, because of this a mob of supporters were threatening to hang Bull and Mehaffy who had now also been captured. Atwood was interviewed and implicated Mehaffy as the one attacker he could identify. Because of this, John Bull was released.

Mehaffy was later free on bail following Atwood's recovery, and again began working with Bull in their gambling arrangement. Both Bull and Mehaffy then took their con-game on the road and drifted into the small towns of the day. And yes, they associated with other shady gamblers who cheated for a living. In fact, Bull and Mehaffy often took part in crooked games meant to heist money from unsuspecting locals and amateur gamblers.

In 1874, Bull and Mehaffy were arrested for armed robbery after they had robbed a man named Wilkinson in a saloon. Then in 1875, those charges were dropped. But knowing that he had worn out his welcome in that area, Bull disappeared for a while.

Then in 1876, Bull showed up in Deadwood, South Dakota, which was another boomtown at the time. This time he applied his trade of con artist selling dry claims and by cheating suckers at cards.

By 1879, he had settled in Denver, Colorado, and over the next few years his name appeared often in police reports. He was often being arrested for public drunkenness, disturbing the peace, assault, and running Confidence games.

While in Denver's The Slaughterhouse Saloon, he was once arrested for disturbing the peace, at which point he resisted. In the process he knocked one policeman unconscious with a walking stick. When backup arrive, several other officers beat him into submission.

On the night of October 14th, 1880, Bull who was now partnered with con man and gambler Jim Moon, became involved in an altercation with two city policemen. Moon's wife and another woman who had been dating Bull also became involved, throwing chinaware at the officers. The officer left and soon Bull and Moon met the officers at their front door. The police returned with more policemen, all with pistols drawn. After seeing that they could not win, both Bull and Moon surrendered.

Less than a month later, Jim Moon killed a man named Sam Hall by beating him on the head with his pistol. As with most situations in the Old West where there is not a clear case of murder, Moon was acquitted on the grounds of self defense in the trial that followed.

Seven months later, Jim Moon believed a gambler by the name of Clay Wilson was paying too much attention to Moon's wife. Jim Moon, being the jealous man that he was, without warning attacked Wilson. Clay Wilson was no pushover and shot Jim Moon twice in the process. Moon died instantly.

Bull moved on to Denver, where in January of 1882, his associate Jim Bush shot Bull in the foot after an argument. Bull refused to press charges to let the matter drop. He again soon moved on.

In 1898, con artist John Bull was in Spokane, Washington. He attended a show in the "Peoples Theater" with a friend by the name of Frisky Barnett. As the two men walked out, Barnett for unknown reasons jammed his lit cigar into Bull's eye. This caused Bull to scream in pain and draw his pistol.

As cowardly criminal types are, Barnett jumped behind a woman to use her as a shield as he drew his own pistol. The two men began firing, both emptying their pistols.

The result was that one of Bull's shots hit the woman, and luckily the woman recovered. Another of his shots took off one of Barnett's fingers. The other shots went wild.

And as for John Bull, he had been shot four times. He was hit once in the neck, once in the groin, once in the chin, and once in the left arm. Bull was expected to die, but hung on for several weeks. Then believe it or not, he recovered still carrying a bullet in his neck. And yes, for a gambler who deals from the bottom of the deck for a living, the worse thing that could happen happened when John Bull was forced to allow his arm to be amputated.

Of course karma being what it is, Frisky Barnett was simply fined $10 for discharging a firearm in city limits and released.

With only one arm and one eye, and a bullet still in his neck alongside his windpipe, he drifted from town to town a pitiful drunk cleaning saloons and going through garbage to get by.

In 1921, the bullet was removed in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. Eight years later, in 1929, at the age of 93, John Bull the con artist and one time gambler was found dead in Vancouver, British Columbia. He died a penniless drunk.

While John Bull did in fact kill Bill Arnett and Langford Peel, those were his only killings. So I have to admit that I'm surprised that he would be featured in the book "Deadly Dozen", written by author Robert K. DeArment as one of the twelve most underrated gunmen of the 19th century West.

As for John Bull, to my way of thinking, there's no feeling sorry for a one-eyed, one armed, tin-horn gambler, a con-artist as crooked as the day is long. Yes, I have no sympathy for a known killer who ends up broke with no friends or family after he spends a lifetime of screwing others.

And frankly my friends, I'm thinking someone he swindled may have danced on his grave.

That's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa




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