Friday, February 19, 2016

Jack Slade -- Hanged For Being Too Mean

Joseph Alfred "Jack" Slade was a stagecoach and Pony Express superintendent. He was instrumental in the opening of the American West. And though some say that he was an Old West gunfighter, there is very little evidence to confirm that.

He was born on January 22nd, 1831 and was hanged on March 10th, 1864. Yes, Jack Slade was indeed hanged because the townsfolk of Virginia City, Montana, thought he was simply too darn mean and nasty -- and even worse when drunk.

He is the only man that I've ever heard of to be hanged and yet never broke a law. Instead, he was hanged for reasons of being too bad an hombre.

Below is what Western Historian, American Writer, Emerson Hough said about Jack Slade in his book The Story of the Outlaw. That book, one of 34, was first published by the Curtis Publishing Co. in 1905, and then published again by the Outing Publishing Company, New York, in 1907.

Joseph A. Slade
by Emerson Hough, 1907

One of the best-known desperadoes the West ever produced was Joseph A. Slade, agent of the Overland Stage Line on the mountain division, about 1860, and in charge of large responsibilities in a strip of country more than six hundred miles in extent, which possessed all the ingredients for trouble in plenty.

Slade lived, in the heyday of his career, just about the time when men from the East were beginning to write about the newly discovered life of the West.

Bret Harte had left his indelible stamp upon the literature of the land, and Mark Twain was soon to spread widely his impressions of life as seen in "Roughing It"; while countless newspaper men and book writers were edging out and getting hearsay stories of things known at first hand by a very few careful and conscientious writer.

The hearsay man engaged in discovering the West always dung to the regular lines of travel; and almost every one who passed across the mountains on the Overland stage line would hear stories about the desperate character of Slade. These stories grew by newspaper multiplication, until at length the man was owner of the reputation of a fiend, a ghoul, and a murderer. There was a wide difference between this and the truth. As a matter of fact, there were many worse desperadoes on the border.

Slade was born at Carlisle, Illinois, and served in the Mexican War in 1848. He appears to have gone into the Overland service in 1859. At once he plunged into the business of the stage line, and soon became a terror to the thieves and outlaws, several of whom he was the means of having shot or hung, although he himself was nothing of a man-hunter at the time; and indeed, in all his life he killed but one man-a case of a reputation beyond desert, and an instance of a reputation fostered by admiring but ignorant writers.

Slade was reported to have tied one of his enemies, Jules Beni, more commonly called Jules, to the stake, and to have tortured him for a day, shooting him to pieces bit by bit, and cutting off his ears, one of which he always afterward wore in his pocket as a souvenir. There was little foundation for this reputation beyond the fact that he did kill Jules, and did it after Jules had been captured and disarmed by other men.

But he had been threatened time and again by Jules, and was once shot and left for dead by the latter, who emptied a pistol and a shotgun at Slade, and left him lying with thirteen bullets and buckshot in his body. Jules thought he did not need to shoot Slade any more after that, and gave directions for his burial as soon as he should have died.

At that Slade rose on his elbow and promised Jules he would live and would wear one of his, Jules', ears on his watch chain; a threat which no doubt gave rise to a certain part of his ghastly reputation. Jules was hung for a while by the stage people, but was let down and released on promise of leaving the country never to return. He did not keep his promise, and it had been better for him if he had.

Jules Beni was a big Frenchman, one of that sort of early ranchers who were owners of small ranches and a limited number of cattle and horses -- just enough to act as a shield for thefts of livestock, and to offer encouragement to such thefts. Before long Jules was back at his old stamping-grounds, where he was looked on as something of a bully; and at once he renewed his threats against Slade.

Slade went to the officers of the military post at Laramie, the only kind of authority then in the land, which had no sort of courts or officers, and asked them what he should do. They told him to have Jules captured and then to kill him, else Jules would do the same for him. Slade sent four men out to the ranch where Jules was stopping, about twelve miles from Laramie, while he followed in the stagecoach. These men captured Jules at a ranch a little farther down the line, and left him prisoner at the stage station.

Here Slade found him in the corral, a prisoner, unarmed and at his mercy, and without hesitation he shot him, the ball striking him in the mouth. His victim fell and feigned death, but Slade -- who was always described as a good pistol shot -- saw that he was not killed, and told him he should have time to make his will if he desired.

There is color in the charge of deliberate cruelty, but perhaps rude warrant for the cruelty, under the circumstances of treachery in which Jules had pursued Slade. At least, some time elapsed while a man was running back and forward from the house to the corral with pen and ink and paper. Jules never signed his will.

When the last penful of ink came out to the corral, Jules was dead, shot through the head by Slade. This looks like cruelty of an unnecessary sort, and like taunting a helpless victim; but here the warrant for all the Slade sort of stories seems to end, and there is no evidence of his mutilating his victim, as was often described.

Slade went back to the officers of Fort Laramie, and they said he had done right and did not detain him. Nor did any of Jules' friends ever molest him. He returned to his work on the Overland.

After this he grew more turbulent, and was guilty of high-handed outrages and of a general disposition to run things wherever he went. The officers at Fort Halleck arrested him and refused to turn him over to the stage line unless the latter agreed to discharge him. This was done, and now Slade, out of work, began to be bad at heart. He took to drink and drifting, and so at last turned up at the Beaverhead diggings in 1863, not much different from many others of the bad folk to be found there.

Quiet enough when sober, Slade was a maniac in drink, and this latter became his habitual condition. Now and again he sobered up, and he always was a business man and animated by an ambition to get on in the world.

He worked here and there in different capacities, and at last settled on a ranch a dozen miles or so from Virginia City, Montana, where he lived with his wife, a robust, fine-looking woman of great courage and very considerable beauty, of whom he was passionately fond; although she lived almost alone in the remote cabin in the mountains, while Slade pursued his avocations, such as they were, in the settlements along Alder Gulch.

Slade now began to grow ugly and hard, and to exult in terrorizing the hard men of those hard towns. He would strike a man in the face while drinking with him, would rob his friends while playing cards, would ride into the saloons and break up the furniture, and destroy property with seeming exultation at his own maliciousness.

He was often arrested, warned, and fined; and sometimes he defied such officers as went after him and refused to be arrested. His whole conduct made him a menace to the peace of this little community, which was now endeavoring to become more decent, and he fell under the fatal scrutiny of the vigilantes, who concluded that the best thing to do was to hang Slade.

He had never killed anyone as yet, although he had abused many; but it was sure that he would kill someone if allowed to run on; and, moreover, it was humiliating to have one man trying to run the town and doing as he pleased. Slade was to learn what society means, and what the social compact means, as did many of these wild men who had been running as savages outside of and independent of the law.

Slade got wind of the deliberations of the committee, as well he might when six hundred men came down from Nevada Camp to Virginia City to help in the court of the miners, before which Slade was now to come.

It was the Nevada Camp Vigilantes who were most strongly of the belief that death and not banishment was the proper punishment for Slade. The leader of the marching men calmly told Slade that the Committee had decided to hang him; and, once the news was sure, Slade broke out into lamentations.

This was often the case with men who had been bullies and terrors. They weakened when in the hands of a stronger power. Slade crept about on his hands and knees, begging like a baby. "My God! My God!" he cried. "Must I die? Oh, my poor wife, my poor wife! My God, men, you can't mean that I'm to die!"

They did mean it, and neither his importunities nor those of his friends had avail. His life had been too rough and violent and was too full of menace to others. He had had his fair frontier chance and had misused it. Some wept at his prayers, but none relented.

In broad daylight, the procession moved down the street, and soon Slade was swinging from the beam of a corral gate, one more example of the truth that when man belongs to society he owes duty to society and else must suffer at its hands. This was the law.

Slade's wife was sent for and reached town soon after Slade's body was cut down and laid out. She loaded the vigilantes with imprecations, and showed the most heartbroken grief. The two had been very deeply attached. 'She was especially regretful that Slade had been hanged and not shot. He was worth a better death than that, she protested.

Slade's body was preserved in alcohol and kept out at the lone ranch cabin all that winter.

In the spring it was sent down to Salt Lake City and buried there. As that was a prominent point on the overland trail, the tourists did the rat. The saga of Slade as a bad man was widely disseminated.

-- end 1907 article by Emerson Hough.

Joseph Alfred "Jack" Slade, was born in Carlyle, Illinois, he was the son of Charles W. Slade and Mary Kain Slade. At the age of 16, young Jack went off to serve in the U.S. Army in the unit that occupied Santa Fe from 1847 to 1848 during the Mexican War. And yes, about 10 years later, he is said to have married Maria Virginia in 1857.

In the 1850s, Slade was a freighting teamster and a wagon master along the Overland Trail. After that he became a stagecoach driver in Texas in around the years 1857 and 1858.

He is said to have become a stagecoach division superintendent along the Central Overland route for Hockaday & Co. from 1858 to 1859, and its successors Jones, Russell & Co. in 1859, and then the Central Overland, California & Pike’s Peak Express Co. from 1859 to 1862. While with the Central Overland, he helped launch and operate the Pony Express from 1860 to 1861.

As holding the position of Superintendent, he enforced order and assured reliable cross-continental mail service, maintaining contact between the East and California during the moments leading up to the American Civil War.

It is true that while Division Superintendent in May 1859, he did shoot and kill Andrew Ferrin who was one of his subordinates. The reason, he felt Ferrin was hindering the progress of a freight train. 

At the time, shooting deaths of this kind in the West were rare and Jack Slade's reputation as a "gunfighter" spread rapidly across the country. Of course the shooting was ruled "self-defense."

In March 1860, Slade was ambushed and left for dead by Jules Beni who was indeed a corrupt station keeper at Julesburg, Colorado, whom Slade had fired. Then to the surprise of many, Slade survived the attack by Beni. In August 1861, Beni was killed by Slade's men after ignoring Slade's warning to stay out of his territory.

Slade's exploits spawned numerous legends, many of them false. His public image was not helped by the exaggerations of none other that famous tall tale writer Mark Twain in his story "Roughing It".

As with many of the exaggerated claims of people such as Billy The Kid, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Wild Bill, Slade's record as a vicious killer of up to 26 victims was pure exaggeration. Believe it or not, only one killing, that of Andrew Ferrin, is really verifiable fact. 

But as for his reputation as someone who you wanted to stay on his good side because of his horrible anger, that was something that is said to be true. And yes, his anger was only increased when combined with drinking too much. His legendary anger and his boozing were his downfall.

Both issues lead to his being fired by the Central Overland in November 1862. And yes, on March 10, 1864, during a drunken spree when he let his demons get the best of him in Virginia City, Montana, he was in fact lynched by local Vigilantes. They did in fact hang him for "disturbing the peace." 

Though he was buried in Salt Lake City, Utah, on July 20, 1864, he was not forgotten. Fact is, like Wild Bill, Jack Slade was a legend in his own time. And yes, like Wild Bill, his legend also grew to exaggerated proportions after his death. 

But frankly, that Jack Slade became even bigger in death should not surprise anyone. He lived in a time where the hard to tame in fact tamed a wilderness. He was one of a rare breed of men who fought to do things that others didn't have the stones to do. And yes, while some say he was the devil incarnate, others saw him as a man who was in fact a force to be reckoned with if they didn't do the job he demanded. 

All in all, who knows what personal demons drove him to drink in excess -- or what fueled his rage? Whatever it was, it would forever be a mystery because of a group of vigilantes who decided that banishment would be too good for the threat they called Jack Slade. 

After posting this, a reader wrote to say: "The negative aspects of Slade are easy to find. But one winter the supplies for Virginia City were left on the banks of the Missouri by a steamboat captain who did not want to contend with the Blackfeet any more. Slade put together a supply train and went clear up to the Missouri, in winter, with marauding Indians to deal with, and brought the supplies back, effectively saving Virginia City from at least very hard times if not survival itself."

He's right. Yet those same people hanged him. And that is, to my way of thinking, a sad commentary on who they were.

Tom Correa


  1. The negative aspects of Slade are easy to find but one winter the supplies for Virginia City were left on the banks of the Missouri by a steamboat captain who did not want to contend with the Blackfeet any more. Slade put together a supply train and went clear up to the Missouri, in winter, with marauding Indians to deal with, and brought the supplies back, effectively saving V.C. from at least very hard times if not survival itself.

  2. Mark Twain mentions Jack Slade in his book, "Roughing It" and there were at least three movies made about him that I know of. I plan on making one myself where a former outlaw finds religion, changes his name, and starts a family. But then his family is killed and his home is destroyed and he is forced to use his gun once again. The film will be called, "Alias Jack Slade" and I'm hoping to cast somebody in the lead role. Keep in mind, the movies I plan on making I'm not gonna be making right now. They take time to make so I'm gonna have to wait a couple more years before I can make them. But when I do, I'll let you know when and where they will be made and with whom. As always, wish me luck and I'll catch ya on the flip side.


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