“In due time we rattled up to a stage-station, and sat down to breakfast with a half-savage, half-civilized company of armed and bearded mountaineers, ranchmen and station employees. The most gentlemanly- appearing, quiet and affable officer we had yet found along the road in the Overland Company’s service was the person who sat at the head of the table, at my elbow. Never youth stared and shivered as I did when I heard them call him SLADE! … Here, right by my side, was the actual ogre who, in fights and brawls and various ways, had taken the lives of twenty-six human beings, or all men lied about him! … He was so friendly and so gentle-spoken that I warmed to him in spite of his awful history. It was hardly possible to realize that this pleasant person was the pitiless scourge of the outlaws, the raw-head-and-bloody- bones the nursing mothers of the mountains terrified their children with.” That was what Mark Twain wrote, years afterwards in an account of a stagecoach journey to California, in 1861, upon encountering Joseph ‘Jack’ Alfred Slade, a divisional superintendent for the Central Overland, and a man who combined a horrific reputation with a perfectly soft-spoken and gentlemanly demeanor … and who in the space of four years, went from being a hard-working, responsible and respected corporate man (as these things were counted in the 19th century wild west) to being hanged by the Virginia City, Montana, Committee of Vigilance.
It’s a curiosity of history; most people who have heard of Jack Slade have heard of him only through reading Roughing It. While Mark Twain cheerfully repeated every horrific tale he had heard about Slade without acknowledging that the very worst of them were either exaggerations or flat-out untruths – he did acknowledge and puzzle briefly over the curious dichotomy. Which was the real man? The notorious murderer Slade … or the mild-mannered, gentlemanly person that he met at breakfast? And what in Slade’s life led to the ending of it in such an awful and degrading way?
The person known as Jack Slade began his career in the west, as a seventeen-year old Army teamster, driving military freight wagons to Santa Fe during the Mexican War. Born Joseph Albert Slade, he was a younger son of a fairly respectable family from Carlyle, Illinois. No authenticated photographic likenesses exist of him – very likely, he didn’t hold still long enough. He was later described as being a small and stocky man, with dark hair and eyes, a swarthy complexion, quick-moving and with a phenomenally good memory. He was also an excellent shot with a revolver, and had that elusive quality known as a ‘command presence.’ In the decade following the war, he worked as a teamster and stage-coach driver before achieving the dignity of a job as wagon-master for a Salt Lake City-based freighting concern on the Overland Trail. This was a position of extreme responsibility; a wagon-master had absolute authority on the trail, in sole charge of valuable property and the lives of subordinates while traveling through a dangerous country devoid of any kind of law, civil or otherwise. The job demanded a cool head, a mastery of the profession, and command of men and animals; a wagon-master was paid three or four times as much as a teamster in the west – and teamsters were quite well-paid in comparison. Jack Slade went on to serve a succession of employers during a chaotic three years on the eve of the Civil War as section superintendent, overseeing the doings of the all-important stage line on the Central Overland trail. He had authority – and responsibility for siting, building and supplying the stage stations along his section of the overland trail. Hiring personnel, seeing that the mail, the company employees, and the passengers moved along the road in safety and at full gallop – all that made him of inestimable value to his employers. Jack Slade had one more valuable quality – that of a man who solved problems. The unsavory reputation as a stone-hearted killer was the unspoken side-bar to that. Frontier teamsters were a rowdy and barely disciplined lot, out and away from any governmental authority, civil or otherwise. That Jack Slade had killed a drunken, rebellious and disorderly teamster in a trailside dispute in the late 1850s was an established fact. The encounter might have been a fair fight – or not. The accounts (none of them first-hand) varied. Anyway, it wasn’t the most notorious murder ascribed to Jack Slade; that would be the death of a man whose severed, dried ear Slade took to carrying around in his waistcoat pocket.
By 1859, Slade’s experience in freighting operations and knowledge of the territory along the overland trail made him of inestimable value to his employers – and so had his reputation as the hardest of hard men. He was a go-to manager when the shipping firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell decided to establish the Pony Express in the critical year of 1860. Jack Slade was promoted and moved east to take up authority over 500 miles of a division which ran all the way from Julesburg to South Pass. So varied and vast was the professional experience and sheer dogged drive of the managers who set it up and employees who subsequently ran it, that the Pony Express was able to begin operations in a little more than two months. In that time, they hired eighty riders, purchased hundreds of strong, fast horses, and equipped nearly two hundred stations. In the middle of all urgent and complex project, one of Russell, Majors & Waddell’s problem employees came back to haunt Jack Slade – worse than that; to shoot him at least six times and leave him for dead.
Jules Beni was a Canadian-French trapper who had set up a little trading post and road ranch at a point on the overland trail to Oregon, California and Utah crossed the Platte River. The place became known as Julesburg when a rough and ready settlement grew up around it. Jules was in his fifties, a very good age at that time and place, and most everyone around called him “Old Jules.” It was only logical that Russell, Majors & Waddell hire him to stationmaster at Julesburg for the stagecoach and Pony Express enterprises. His place was right where the road branched – one leg going on to Salt Lake City, the other to Denver. Almost at once it became clear that Jules Beni was incompetent as a stationmaster and abusing his position. Old Jules appropriated company horses and supplies for his own use – and sometimes horses were stolen outright – and ‘returned’ after a reward negotiated with the thieves by Old Jules and charged to the company. Travelers complained of extortionate prices for lodgings and food, the constantly missing horses played havoc with the stage schedule, and the mail was often mis-routed; that intended for Denver sent to Salt Lake and vice versa. This kind of incompetence couldn’t be tolerated for long – and Jack Slade essentially fired Old Jules from his position as stationmaster late in 1859. Not from Julesburg, though – where Old Jules still maintained his trading post. Jules Beni simmered for months over the implied insult.
On a spring day, three weeks before the Pony Express was set to run the first cross-San Francisco-St. Joseph run, Jack Slade stopped off at Julesburg. He was making a routine inspection of the stage stations on his divisions, and fatefully had forgotten his knife and revolver at the last station of his rounds. After an apparently amiable conversation with Jules Beni and two of the company stage drivers, Jules Beni noticed that Slade was unarmed. He fetched a six-shooter from his own quarters. Before anyone could react, he emptied the weapon at short-range into Slade’s body. Slade, who looked to be mortally wounded, staggered towards the stage station. Jules reached inside the door of his own place, and brought out a double-barreled shotgun and finished off the job with two barrels of buck-shot. He turned to the horrified stage drivers, saying, “There are some blankets and a box – you can make him a coffin if you like.”
(To be continued … of course. I am reading all sorts of things, in preparation to start on the next book, and one of these was Death of a Gunfighter … and one way of knowing that I have been too long on the current writing project was that I looked at the cover image, and mused, “Looks like a pair of 1850ies Colt Dragoons, with the long barrel,” – and I was correct.)