History Friday: The Man Who Nearly Cleaned Up El Paso

El Paso, on the Rio Grande and border with Mexico, halfway between San Antonio and San Diego, was a lawless, corrupt and violent place in the last quarter of the 19th century, like practically every other western boomtown had been at some time in its development. However, lawlessness hung on a bit more tenaciously in El Paso, and the responsible members of the city council were nearly at wits’ end. In the space of a mere eight months in 1881, they had run through half a dozen city marshals. Violent factionalism ruled the streets of the city, and enthusiastic cross-border cattle rustling ruled elsewhere. In desperation, the city fathers sought a capable outsider, a fearless lawman with experience and a reputation sufficiently impressive to overawe potential lawbreakers. A local restaurant owner, Stanley “Doc” Cummings came up with the name of just such a man; his brother-in-law and good friend, Dallas Stoudenmire.

Alabama-born and raised, Dallas Stoudenmire was one of those Confederate Army veterans who went west to retrieve their fortunes, or perhaps to rustle up more of that adventure that war had given them a taste for. He was broad-shouldered and handsome man, nearly six foot tall, with a square-jawed face adorned with a handle-bar mustache, a Mason who displayed an elegantly dandified taste in clothing and courtly manners towards the ladies. But he was no creampuff; during the Civil War he had been wounded in action several times, despite having first volunteered as a lad of fifteen. He drifted into Texas and a three-year hitch as a Texas Ranger, where he burnished a reputation as a hard man and a killer. He commonly carried at least two revolvers and was rumored to be a good shot with either hand. From Texas he drifted on – possibly into Mexico for some years in the mid-1870s, before turning up as a town marshal in Socorro, New Mexico. That was when he accepted the offer from El Paso to administer law and order. He appeared to be everything that the El Paso city fathers hoped for – but for two things; a nuclear hot temper and a drinking problem. And the temper got worse the more Stoudenmire drank.

He made an impression on his very first day on the job by making a demand of his deputy marshal, one Bill Johnson, a notorious sot who had possession of the keys to the city jail. Marshal Stoudenmire asked Johnson for the keys; Johnson mumbled that he didn’t know which were his and which belong to the city. Not a good answer; in the middle of the street, Stoudenmire picked up Johnson, turned him upside down and shook him until the keys fell out of his pockets. Then the new marshal dropped Johnson in the dirt and collected up the keys. This established his authority in no uncertain terms, amused all who witnessed or heard about it later, and made a dangerous enemy of the humiliated Johnson, who had many friends in town. Still – the city fathers were content they had made an excellent choice. Before the week was out, the good bourgeois of El Paso had additional confirmation of their good sense … or perhaps a harbinger, when a ruckus of international dimensions landed in their lap.

A large party of armed Mexican vaqueros came across the Rio Grande that week, searching for a herd of stolen cattle – and for two of their fellows who had been trailing them. The rancher was a wealthy man; he wanted his cows and employees returned pronto. Following a brief search on the American side, the two missing vaqueros were found dead … near property owned by one Johnny Hale, who had a reputation locally for cattle thievery. Two other men who also had reputations for not being punctilious regarding ownership of wandering livestock were overheard boasting of having committed the murders. The two vaqueros had seen where the stolen herd was going – and were murdered before they could talk.

The inquest was held in the morning of April 14th, 1881. The atmosphere was tense and no wonder, considering the presence of so many angry and well-armed men. Constable Gus Krempkau, fluent in Spanish, served as interpreter during the proceedings and presently the two men accused of murdering the vaqueros were formally charged and bound over for trial. Satisfied that justice had been, or was going to be done, the Mexican posse took the bodies of the slain vaqueros back over the border. Everyone probably breathed a sigh of relief and broke for supper. From the hearing room, Marshal Stoudenmire headed to Doc Cumming’s restaurant for a meal, and Constable Krempkau went to to the saloon next door retrieve his own pistol and rifle, left there for security during the morning hearing. As he came out of the saloon, Krempkau was confronted by Johnny Hale – extremely drunk and belligerent – and the former head marshal of El Paso, George Campbell, who had been replaced by Marshal Stoudenmire. Campbell was infuriated with Krempkau’s translations, and accused him of slanting what was said and taking the part of the Mexicans. The encounter devolved to shouts and curses; as Campbell turned away towards his horse, Johnny Hale grabbed his sidearm and shouted, “I’ll take care of this for you, George!” He fired point-blank at Krempkau, who staggered back against the saloon door, mortally wounded, but still able to draw his own pistol.

Hearing the shot, Dallas Stoudenmire barreled out of the Globe, drawing his own weapon as he ran down the street. His first bullet killed an uninvolved bystander, but he didn’t miss with the second. Johnny Hale dropped like a sack of old clothes, shot between the eyes, while George Campbell shouted, “This isn’t my fight!” Some accounts have the dying Krempkau firing a shot at Campbell, but most say that Marshal Stoudenmire took down Campbell, too. The encounter was written in newspapers as the ‘Four Dead in Five Seconds’ gunfight, although it may have taken as long as ten seconds. The city council of El Paso was impressed with his alacrity in getting involved and his accuracy in three out of four. They upped his salary to $100 a month and presented him with a gold-topped walking stick, but soon they might have been forgiven for having second thoughts.

Bill Johnson, still simmering about how Stoudenmire had humiliated him over the jail keys, was the next to take on the marshal. He was a friend of the three Manning brothers, George, James and Frank, who owned several saloons and other properties in El Paso. It is thought the brothers encouraged Johnson to take revenge. One day Johnson crouched behind a pile of bricks in El Paso Street, shotgun in hand and waiting in ambush for Stoudenmire and Doc Cummings. Unfortunately for the hapless Johnson, he was extremely drunk, and when he fired both barrels – and missed – the recoil knocked him over backwards. Between Stoudenmire and his brother-in-law, they put nine bullets into the ex-city marshal. Legend has it that one of the shots blew off the unfortunate ex-deputy’s testicles.

For the remainder of the year and into 1882, El Paso was peaceful – or at least, the crime rate dropped dramatically. Marshal Stoudenmire did kill another six men in shoot-outs and in thwarting robberies, but not in job-lots, for which the city fathers were appropriately grateful. In February, he felt able to take a break and return to Columbus, Texas, to get married. While he was gone, James Manning had an altercation with Doc Cummings at the Coliseum Saloon and Variety Theater – which went from harsh words to fatal bullets in a matter of seconds. When Stoudenmire returned to El Paso, his best friend was dead and the feud was on. Marshal Stoudenmire took the death of Doc Cummings and the acquittal of James Manning on charges of murdering him very, very badly. Cummings was the only person able to put a brake on Studenmire’s temper and his drinking. With that governance gone, Stoudenmire often drank himself to insensibility in public and he outraged the devout of El Paso by using the bell of St. Clement’s Church for target-practice when patrolling the streets nearby. He frequently confronted those who he held responsible for acquitting James Manning, to the point where men began avoiding the saloons. Some even took their families and left El Paso altogether, fearing the violence that would be unleashed when the vendetta came to a head.

Some soberer citizens negotiated a truce between the parties in April, 1882; “We the undersigned parties having this day settled all differences and unfriendly feelings existing between us, hereby agree that we will hereafter meet and pass each other on friendly terms … and that we shall never allude in the future to any past animosities that have existed between us.” The pledge was signed by the Marshal, the Manning brothers, and four witnesses and published in the El Paso Daily Herald. The pledge did little good for Stoudenmire’s relations with the city fathers, increasingly unhappy with his penchant for alcohol and violence. He may have reduced street crime and eliminated many of the worst elements by inducing them to depart on their own feet or in a pine box; but the original problem was replaced by another – himself. He had no close friends and allies in El Paso, having succeeded in alienating just about everyone who would otherwise have backed him up. In May, the city council decided to fire him – but how to dismount from the tiger? Marshal Stoudenmire strolled into the city council meeting with revolver in hand, boasting, “I can straddle every g*d-damned alderman here!” and daring them to take either his guns or his job. The city council hastily adjourned, assuring Stoudenmire that he could keep both – but he resigned two days later, anyway. That resignation did nothing solve the dilemma of his dangerous presence. He was appointed deputy U.S. Marshal for West Texas and New Mexico Territory, and made El Paso his headquarters.

The feud continued unabated all through the summer. In September, Marshal Stoudenmire and a friend met with the Manning brothers to sign another peace treaty, as they had in April. It seemed to have gone well, so much so that James Manning assumed that all had been resolved and left the saloon – but as he did, words were exchanged. George Manning accused Stoudenmire of not keeping his word, and Stoudenmire bellowed, “Whoever says I have not tells a damned lie!” The two of them drew their revolvers as the friend tried to push them apart. Stoudenmire was hit twice, the second bullet lodging harmlessly in a thick packet of papers in the breast of his coat, and the impact threw him backwards through the batwing doors of the saloon and onto the sidewalk. Even so, he had his own revolver in hand, and fired a single shot at George Manning … before James Manning ran back towards the saloon with his own revolver. James also fired twice, from behind the wounded Stoudenmire – one bullet struck a barber pole, but the other struck Dallas Stoudenmire just behind his left ear, instantly ending the turbulent life and violent career of the lawman that had made a start on cleaning up El Paso.

His funeral was held at a local Masonic lodge, and the Masons paid for all the expenses. His wife had the body shipped back to to Texas for burial. James and George Manning stood trial for murder – but the members of the jury were well-disposed towards them, and they were acquitted.

(Crossposted at my Celia Hayes book-blog.)

7 thoughts on “History Friday: The Man Who Nearly Cleaned Up El Paso”

  1. Marshal Stoudenmire did kill another six men in shoot-outs and in thwarting robberies, but not in job-lots, for which the city fathers were appropriately grateful.

    Bit of dry humor, there.

    For the politically incorrect here is Asshole from El Paso. as done by Chinga Chavin, its composer. Kinky Friedman’s cover is better known. Kinky Friedman was not the first Texan to try to ride his musical fame into the Governor’s house.. Pappy O’Daniel rode his radio sponsorship and announcing for the Light Crust Doughboys- best known for Bob Wills- into the Governor’s house. Pappy O’Daniel was the only person to defeat LBJ in an election- for US Senate.Some suspect that ballot-stuffing on Pappy’s part was what prompted LBJ to do the same in his 87 vote victory in the 1948 Senate primary.

    What that has to do with a hard-drinking and fast-shooting Sheriff in El Paso, I have no idea.

  2. Gringo, I so OWN dry humor!

    We still have a Kinky Friedman bumper-sticker – it’s on the garage freezer. Why the hell not?

    I think the connection is El Paso and drinking …;-0
    What struck me in reading about it was how his case was rather like that of Jack Slade, with the uncontrollable drinking and hair-trigger temper, and how they both managed to alienate people who otherwise would have been allies. The old-style frontier gun-slinging lawmen who lived long enough to die of natural causes seemed to be rather more the cold and calculating types. As Napoleon advised, they never let anger get higher than their chin.

  3. I voted for Kinky. Like you say, why the hell not? I had forgotten that was one of his campaign slogans.

  4. …my bit of favorite dry humor here:
    “His first bullet killed an uninvolved bystander, but he didn’t miss with the second. ……. The city council of El Paso was impressed with his alacrity in getting involved and his accuracy in three out of four.”

    Two thoughts when reading this – that many of the marshals in the old west – there was a very gray area between “good” and “bad”…and had Stoudenmire been wise enough to get what he wanted while allowing a man his pride and dignity he would have been more than a footnote in Texas history.

    Nice read, Sgt Mom.

  5. Joe, I’ve got a thick book of Rip Ford’s history and memoirs about Texas above my desk – he was am absolutely towering character. When I wrote about him before, I mentioned that he and
    Winston Churchill had one thing in common, in having made as much history as they wrote!

    He is also a character in my books, although a secondary one; he is one of Margaret Becker Williamson’s boarding gentlemen in ‘Deep in the Heart.’ In the Adelsverin Trilogy, (Book Two) he is Dolph Becker’s commander – since Dolph Becker is one of those underage recruits for the Western Cavalry. I am also plotting a brief appearance for him in the upcoming book, too!

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