Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cowboys in the news, 1881-82

April 28, 1883
Cowboys in the 1880s had really bad press. They were portrayed as a menace to civil order, and sensational reports of their lawlessness were common. I’m looking at a series of articles from the Chicago Daily Tribune covering cowboy-related disturbances in Kansas. Readers familiar with western outlaws will recognize these as the first breathless reports of what came to be known as the Talbot Raid.

A special dispatch datelined Wichita, December 17, 1881, describes a wild-bunch style shootout in Caldwell, Kansas, which left a prominent citizen, Mike Meagher, dead. Meagher, previously a town marshal, had long been a fearless opponent of the lawless. “Many a cowboy and many a Texan has bitten the dust before Mike Meagher’s steady aim,” goes the story. At the time of writing, several of the gang had fled town with armed and mounted citizens “in hot pursuit.”

That same day, the Western Associated Press reported from Caldwell itself, filling in more details. The incident apparently began after a night of drinking and carousing by as many as ten cowboys. After a disturbance in the morning, shooting broke out again about 1:00 in the afternoon. Meagher, now referred to as a former mayor, was shot by one of the cowboys, Jim Talbot.

As the cowboys fled town, one of them, George Speer, was shot dead by a citizen while saddling a horse near a dancehall called the Redlight. Riding horses taken from a livery stable, the gang was then pursued 12 miles south into Indian Territory, where they’d taken cover in woods.

Charles Russell, Smoke of a 45, 1908
A dispatch the following day reported that eight townsmen had surrounded the cowboys, but the men had slipped away in the night after badly wounding one of their pursuers. By morning, the size of the posse had swelled to fifty. Among them was a brother-in-law of the dead Meagher, a Capt. Steele, who “means business, and will not give up the chase until the villains are captured or there is no possibility of taking them.”

Meanwhile, back in Caldwell, there is movement afoot to rid the town of its bad element. It is expected that some residents will shortly be treated to “sudden emigration or otherwise.”

Meagher is remembered as “brave to a fault, and a man who never shirked a duty.” Speculation is that the Speer family was behind the killing, to avenge the death of a man named Flat. Town folk, it is said, have run out of patience with the Speers, whose boys were brought up “to drink, gamble, and do everything else mean.”

It’s also now known that four other cowboys, taken into custody right after the shooting, are Tom Love, Dick Eddleman, Tom Dulany, and Comanche Bill. There is some doubt whether the citizens will stand idly by if the sheriff attempts to transport them to the county seat.

Frederic Remington, A Dash for Timber, 1889
On December 19, further word on Meagher is that he’d been shot through the heart and died almost instantly. His final words were “Tell my wife that I have got it at last.” There is also more about the alleged motive for the killing. A year previously, Meagher had been mayor at the time of the shooting of George Flat, then marshal of Caldwell. He’d been tried as an accessory and acquitted.

On the same day, news comes to Caldwell from a pair of freighters, a father and son. They’ve been robbed by the fleeing cowboys, now numbering five, not four as previously reported. The men took their horses, food, and blankets before riding off. Two were hatless, and two were believed to be slightly wounded.

There’s now a $1,000 reward for their capture, dead or alive. “It seems almost impossible for them to get away,” the report concludes. “They will certainly be killed or captured, unless they receive assistance from cattle camps in the Territory.”

In a later development reminiscent of Jesse James, the gang used the newspapers for their own defense. They wrote a letter to the Kansas City Times, which was published January 24, 1882, five weeks after the event. In it they disclaimed all responsibility for the Caldwell shooting.

Last Chance Store, built 1857, Council Grove, Kansas
Nothing more than peaceable citizens, they blamed the town marshal, John Wilson, who was drunk at the time and looking for trouble. They themselves, though in a saloon, were not drunk as had been reported. Threatened by the marshal and his men, they were merely defending themselves as they went for their guns.

As for Meagher’s death, the letter points out that the victim had in fact drawn two pistols with apparent intent to use them. And anyway, he was no upstanding citizen, but in fact no better than a saloonkeeper who ran a keno table. He’d recently had his own run-ins with the law.

The row that day had nothing to do with George Flat (or Flatte), they say, and claim that “it never entered our minds.” For his part, George Speer “was just as honorable a citizen as Caldwell had,” whose only fault was that “he was a friend to cowboys.”

They admit to taking the freighters’ horses, but returned them within eight days as promised. The freighters, they note, professed to hold no ill will in the matter. They would have done the same themselves.

Image by danieljamesbarton
Finally, the letter asserts that contrary to reports in the newspapers, Jim Talbot never had any affiliation with Billy the Kid, who was shot a few months earlier by Pat Garrett. “This is a base falsehood,” the letter states. “He had never seen the Kid, and had never had any acquaintance with him whatever.”

And the letter is signed by all five of them: Jim Talbot, Bob Bigtree, Dug Hill, Bob Munson, and Jim Martin.

At this point, the news coverage seems to end, for the so-called Jim Talbot gang was never apprehended. In a more recent version of the whole story, relates that over the next 15 years four of the men were captured and stood trial as individuals. But only one of them ever did any time – six months for fourth degree manslaughter. After a first trial, ending in a hung jury, Talbot was acquitted in his second.

Further reading:
"Jim Sherman" in Robert K. Dearment, Deadly Dozen: Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West
"The Talbot Raid" in Laban S. Records, Cherokee Outlet Cowboy

Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Quenton Reynolds, The Fiction Factory


  1. Sounds a good yarn! ...A bit like the law in this country now! feckless, and if you have money? Well dont worry, you`ll be ok! God help us from the press and do gooders!!

  2. I'm reading James Reasoner's Redemption, Kansas where the town has a sign up that no Texas cowboys are allowed. Segues nicely into this post.

  3. Wyatt Earp did not like the term cowboy and the term only seems to have grown in stature with the silent flicks of the early 20th century.

    Great history here, Ron.

  4. Cheyenne, in the heat of the moment, Talbot would have surely hanged for the shooting, but something like 12 years later, memories had faded and the jury didn't find the evidence against him all that compelling.

    Charles, sounds like Redemption would suit me, too.

    David, the gang that the Earps went after in Tombstone were known as "the Cowboys," so I'm not surprised. By 1902, though, if Wister is anything to go by, the term had already lost much of its menace.

  5. Stories like this make me wonder just how much of recorded history is accurate.