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Guns, Girls and Gamblers

How Silver City's wilder side made it a true True West town.

By Bob Alexander


Editor's note: True West magazine recently named Silver City number-two in its second annual Top 10 Western Towns rankings–vaulting it from eighth on last year's list and behind only Helper, Utah. Editor Bob Boze Bell comments, "Once again, the editors fought over this list with the passion of heavyweight fighters locked in a championship bout. And that's pretty much how we view the whole situation. The more bland and cookie cutter locales are becoming, the more important it is to salvage and encourage those towns that are fighting to retain our Western heritage."

The magazine recognized Silver City for "honoring and preserving the past while keeping an eye firmly on the future. It's a dynamic place that is quickly hitting the radar for folks who want to live in a great Old West town."

Bell credits Old West history writer Bob Alexander for putting Silver City on the magazine's "radar." Alexander has recently written two books aimed at general readers that spotlight the region's depth and breadth of authentic western history: Six-Guns and Single-Jacks: A History of Silver City and Southwestern New Mexico (paperback, $21.95) and, new last fall, Desert Desperadoes: The Banditti of Southwestern New Mexico (hardcover, $34.95; paperback, $21.95), both published by Desert Exposure's book-publishing arm, Gila Books. Both are available at area retailers or directly from www.gilabooks.com.

Alexander also helped spread the word about Silver City's lawman and outlaw legacy at the annual convention of the Western Outlaw-Lawman History Association (WOLA). The talk he gave about "Silver City's wilder side" at WOLA's 2005 "Shootout," held in Santa Fe, opened aficionados' eyes and boosted Silver City's reputation as a "true western" town. We're pleased to be able to share an adaptation of that talk in these pages, so readers can see why Silver City merited its recent second-place recognition by True West.

Next year, let's shoot for number-one.


An effusive 1870s Lone Star newspaperman penned–as it turned out maybe not necessarily inaccurately–that Texas' neighbor, New Mexico Territory, was "made up of the loose rocks and ends and ragged remnants of creation, after the world was created." Characterizing a fierce subclass of the New Mexican population–again with seeming legitimacy–he elaborated: "Now it is a land of refuge for numerous outlaws driven from Texas and the other States."

For the purpose of this, a quick backwards glance, it's paramount to first, at least to a small degree, broach a common geographical understanding. Nineteenth-century southern New Mexico Territory was an absolutely and inordinately gargantuan chunk of real-estate–especially from a policing perspective. As mind-boggling as it may be, that first southern New Mexico county, Dona Ana, created in 1852, stretched all the way from the Lone Star's border–not at El Paso del Norte and Franklin, but in the vicinity of present day Jal and Eunice on the western Texas line, all the way west to Yuma Crossing on the Colorado River. In other words, straight across the entire New Mexico Territory and what would later (1863) become Arizona Territory, as well. An early-day Dona Ana County sheriff, Sam Bean, brother of the waggish Judge Roy Bean, declared that in his jurisdiction there were 10,000 more savage Indians than there were "constituents," and that many of those non-Apaches were "adventurers of every kind, and [that] they soon came flocking in."

Sam Bean went on to note that in that vast area "there was more money and less law than any other place" he knew of and "that the young men of sporting proclivities destined to lead a reckless life, soon developed into gamblers and desperadoes of the most dangerous type."

One of the early New Mexico territorial governors simply said of the southern section of his domain, that it was "the catch basin for rogues."

An old-timer almost casually added his two-cents' worth, and his words are damn plain spoken: "The country was full of hard men just as hard as they could be!"

The focus of this, however, is not an enumeration of all the gunplays and sixshooter shenanigans that were fostered by the seamy and decadent edge of frontier Dona Ana County, of which there were plenty, but is instead a quick peek at a little later time frame and a pretty spot a little farther west. After discovery of gold at Pinos Altos, and the almost overnight filling up of that town, and post the Civil War hostilities, New Mexico's Territorial Legislature lopped off land from Dona Ana and created Grant County in 1868. Keep in mind that at 9,000 square miles, Grant County, too, was massive. At the time–before the railroad ribboned across southern New Mexico Territory–there was no Luna County (1901) with Deming as a county seat, and there was no Hidalgo County (1919) with Lordsburg as county seat. Grant County was southwestern New Mexico Territory. Two years later, horrifically profitable deposits of silver were discovered at La Cienega de San Vicente and the town of Silver City was fashioned and later made Grant County's shiretown. And that Old West community and its surrounding neighborhood is the center of attention for this story.

Important, too, is a mention that when talking about Silver City, which right fast became the hub for commercial traffic in southwestern New Mexico Territory, southeastern Arizona Territory and northern sections of Old Mexico, the discussion cannot be stringently limited to those events just occurring within her confined city limits. Frontier Silver City was the queen bee, and those desperado drones buzzed about her from throughout the whole region. So, when we talk of wild and woolly Silver City, we are talking of an area, not just the hubbubs that happened on her Main Street.


It was a cutting-edge region that Leon Metz–in his gracious introduction to my book Dangerous Dan Tucker–characterized as the "gunfighter proving ground of the Southwest. . . the blistering cauldron where so many Wild West gunmen made their reputations."

More recently regarding my Six-Guns and Single-Jacks, Chuck Parsons, a good friend, remarked: "This corner of New Mexico Territory held all the elements of humanity; reading its history is like holding up a mirror to the entire Western adventure."

And in that same vein, amigo Bob McCubbin, co-publisher of True West magazine, in his introduction for that very same book underscored historic reality about Silver City and her environs: ". . . here is a story rarely equaled in the history of the Old West."

By any cleared-headed analysis it may be rightly avowed that for a time–50 years or so–Silver City was a hot-spot of the first order regarding those personalities of interest for outlaw/lawman aficionados. When it came to six-shooter dustups and high drama of the thrilling Western genre, Silver City may be legitimately ranked with the likes of Dodge City (1872), Deadwood (1875) and Tombstone (1879)–and often overlooked is the naked fact that she was the first-born of those prototypical Old West towns. An exhaustively researched and well-thought-out comparative dissertation might just prove she was the toughest, too!

I've found in numerous Silver City area talks that the listeners are truly amazed at just a fragmentary assortment of the owl-hoots who years ago galloped across their section and walked the very same streets that they do. Outlaw/lawmen experts will recognize many of the names that they don't–but, just perhaps, a simple rundown of a few of them will be enlightening for experts, too.

I won't even bother to highlight the legitimately recognized lawmen and peace keepers, just a partial sampling of the ne'er-do-wells:

Butch Cassidy and some of the "Wild Bunch"; John Henry Jankins aka James W. "Six-Shooter" Smith; Tom Bowe; Hugh Flynn; "Curly Bill" Brocious [Bresnahan]; "Wild Bill" Martin; "Portuguese Joe" Corrola; Bob "Nelson of the Gila" Nelson; Sandy King; William Rogers "Russian Bill" Tettenborne; The Heslet Brothers, Billy and Ike; James "Slim-Jim" Crane; Zwing Hunt; Joe Olney, aka Joe Hill; Arthur Burcher aka "Billy the Kid" Grounds; Robert E. "Bob" Martin; Jessie Evans and "The Boys"; "Three-Fingered Jack" Dunlap; John Peters "John R. Godalmighty" Ringo; Wyatt Earp; Doc Holliday; "Big Ed" Burns; John Orr aka John Donaldson; Ed Scarborough; Christopher Carson "Kit" Joy; George Musgrave; "Black Jack" Christian; "Black Jack" Ketchum; Hugh Martin Childress, Jr.; William "Bronco Bill" Walters; Anthony "One-Arm" Price; Alf Batcher [Burcher] aka "Hair-Trigger Johnny"; Toppy Johnson; "Long-Necked Charley" Lazure; Joel Fowler; Jimmy "Sweetheart of the San Simon" Hughes; John "King of the Rustlers" Kinney; Newman Haynes "Old Man" Clanton; Charles "Pony Diehl" Ray; Roscoe Burrell; George Kendricks aka "Buffalo Bill" Spawn; Henry "Billy the Kid" Antrim; John Jefferson "Off-Wheeler" Harlin; Tom "Three-Shooter Bill" Smith; George Stevenson; James Brooks; John Middleton; John W. Gilmo; Mitch Lee; Frank Taggart; George Washington Cleveland; "The Flour Sack Bandit" Billy Brazelton; Billy McClellan; William Zachary "Bill" Redding; Tom Redding; Bud Rice; "Hog" Davis; Charley Small; Howard P. Chenowth; Carlos Chaves; Pilar Prez; "Push" and Tess Hoffman; Pete Spence; Frank Rae aka "Kid Lewis"; Bud Lewis; Jimmy McDaniels; Bob Hayes; Sherman McMasters; John Blount aka "Turkey Creek Jack" Johnson; Warren Earp; Jack Bond; "Texas Jack" Vermillion; Dan Tipton; Charley Hugo. . . and the list goes on and on and on!

Not surprisingly, then, an official listing of the legally sanctioned hangings carried out in Grant County is rivaled by only one other New Mexico Territory county, the much heavier-populated and "civilized" Santa Fe County. Both tied for the Blue Ribbon. By contrast, the over-dramatized but unquestionably better-publicized Cochise County in southeastern Arizona Territory could to Old West spectators not proudly boast of, or shamefully rue, as many. Compiling an accurate historical roster of the killers, robbers, horse and cattle thieves lynched or summarily gunned down in old Grant County is a nebulous exercise. Some we know about; others we simply don't.

Indisputably and provably, front-line Silver City and old Grant County–if any place else ever qualified–was the Wild West!


It's not necessary to delve into the sociological and economic dynamics of a frontier town filling up with riffraff and ruffians. Simply said, they adeptly followed easy money. Silver City during those palmy days fit the mold perfectly–a geographically isolated workforce composed mostly of single men. Although it was a silver-mining town, it was a gold mine of opportunity for traditional vice's tentacles–a readymade man market: men with profit in their pocket; nighttime loneliness in their psyche; commonsense numbed by the whiskey barrel's tap; and Colt's six-shooters tucked into nearly everyone's waistband. Working girls and gamblers rushed to Silver City to separate Ned from his newly found prosperity. Noted historian Robert Utley cleverly wrote of a common acceptance: "Everywhere on the frontier, nearly all men drank nearly all the time, which made nearly all men more or less drunk most of the time."

Silver City was on the frontier. And for a spate of time she was a fast town, harboring a fast crowd recklessly fixed on chasing fast money.

Speedily, booming Silver City had developed its wicked underbelly–an after-dark economic and recreational economy supported by that three-legged stool of immoderate indulgence: wagering dens, whiskey emporiums and whorehouses. One on-the-scene old-timer said that "there were between 10 and 15 saloons and three dance halls, scattered from 'hell to breakfast' all over town." His description of just one, Don Juan Ward's, is insightful:

"The building at this time was of adobe, one story and 50 feet wide. . . . The front part of the building at that time was a gambling department. The next was the 'wet goods' and cashier's department–the barroom annex. Both of these departments covered about one-third of the building while the other, with huge barn doors leading from the street into a capacious hall, was the 'baile room,' where the denizens of the little town made up of almost every color and creed gathered Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday nights to dance and carouse and enjoy the one great joy of their life."

There was Old Bill McGeary's Saloon, which also occasionally served as a courtroom, church house or sometimes even a school room. There was Richard "Dick" Howlett's place. There was the Blue Goose, the Red Onion, Joe Dyer's Orleans Club, James Copely's Bedrock, the Centennial, the Kentuck, Fred Shelton's Sample Room, the Monarch Saloon, the Cottage Saloon, the Keystone, the White House, and Wolcott and Mill's Tap Room, along with the Bank Exchange Saloon, just to name a few.

Another old-timer not wrongly spotlighted a truism: For the first 30 years or so, at Silver City the saloon operators didn't even know where the keys to their establishments were; there was no need–they were open around the clock, every day of the week, the doors never locked.

Fred Nolan, writing of Billy the Kid's youth, remarked that indeed "Silver City was a town with all its hair on, its population a mixture of the most fearless and the most desperate men on the frontier."


One of those old-timers cited earlier went on to say that "if the nights were wild and boisterous the days were none the less so, for all was bustle and confusion with the drunken brawls and crowds singing in and out of the saloons, the coarse laughter and Indian yells of the half-crazed 'critters' as they drank and fought." And while the old chap might have been employing a degree of nostalgic hyperbole, exploration of newspaper archives somewhat bears him out. Allow me to enumerate a sampling just to touch the flavor of the sporting life in frontier Silver City:

That Silver City's lawmen were pretty "sporty," too, is evidenced by more than one six-shooter dustup in the town's saloons. At the Centennial Saloon, four of her peacekeepers–three deputy sheriffs and the city marshal, no civilians–let loose with their Peacemakers and one was killed. Later, at the Monarch Saloon, a different town marshal, Charley Cantley, and the local constable and an ex-US marshal, Perfecto Rodriquez, began shooting at each other, "the music of the playful six-shooter filling the air for several minutes, shots being exchanged about as lively as it was possible to pull the trigger," so penned the newsman who was actually inside the barroom when the shooting started. Apparently owing to their drink-befuddled brains, neither man was hit, although both reloaded and started shooting again. Still later, at the White House Saloon, Marshal Cantley got into a drunken brouhaha with a local lawyer, Jim Fielder, and was fatally gunned down by the courtroom warrior.

Maybe a local newspaperman's swank is illustrative of Silver City's free-spirited attitude:

"At any rate the buyers and habitues of the place were attracted to the door by language that was strikingly frequent and painful and free, and when they arrived at the scene, the combatants [one of whom was Seven-Up Joe] were rolling on the bloody ground, with arms and legs waving in wild confusion, and eyes and teeth scattered around promiscuously. . . . No damage was done beyond a few scratches and gouges, but it was a glorious victory."


Soon, perhaps all too soon, Silver City was gaining a reputation for more than just her shootin' scrapes, gut cuttin's and head thumpin's–a gaming reputation. And she fast became a favorite on the circuit of the professional traveling gamblers who circulated throughout the West. Silver City, geographically lying as she did in a temperate climate zone, was a pet choice, especially during those frosty and unpredictable winter months when such booming camps as Virginia City, Cheyenne, Denver and Leadville were frequently locked in by the mercury's downward plunge and blinding snowstorms.

As Bob DeArment forthrightly points out in his classic Knights of the Green Cloth, Silver City was a preferred and regular stop for such notable pasteboard artists as the well-known Dick Clark; Johnny Speck before he associated himself with the Crystal Palace Saloon at Tombstone; and the seemingly legendary Ed Bradley, who made his mark and fortune there, going on to become a famous racehorse man in the Bluegrass State. His Idle Hour Horse Farm produced Kentucky Derby winners at four different meets. DeArment, not erroneously, graded frontier Silver City a "wide-awake town!"

One of Silver City's most notable first-rate players was Georgia-born, but Texas-trained gambler Frank Thurmond. He had two constant companions: a razor-sharp Bowie knife and Carlotta Thompkins, the red-headed female gambler who found her name fictionally written down as Faro Nell in Alfred Henry Lewis's Wolfville series of Western novels, and historically as the ever-lovely and ever-shrewd Lottie Deno. At the Gem Saloon and Theater (and other places), "Frank dealt Faro and Lottie served as lookout, occasionally taking a turn at the box." Southwestern New Mexico would remain their home forevermore. Frank Thurmond was "a man you couldn't cry in front of." He went on to kill a man in a pool-hall fracas, Dan Baxter; rob a bank that he later became vice-president of; and in the end rightfully earned a quite respectable name for himself as a rancher and mining speculator. Lottie, whom he later legally gave his name, reformed her errant ways, and lived a long life as a devout Episcopalian.

Another of the feminine gender who made herself famous on the gambling circuit was the English-born Alice Ivers, better known to Old West buffs now, and her card-playing contemporaries then, simply as "Poker Alice." And like the rest of the good ones, she gave Silver City a try. Faithfully infused with an aversion to working on Sunday, Poker Alice otherwise was quite capable of playing cards with the "boys." She drank straight whiskey, smoked cigars, was proficiently foul-mouthed, and packed a scary-looking six-shooter–but she was no whore. At Silver City she was a winner. One night she broke the Faro Bank, expanding her purse by several thousand dollars. Then it was off to the Big Apple for a round of fun and frivolity–until the dinero disappeared. After that, Poker Alice went back to work, traveling the gaming circuit throughout the West.

And speaking of women, Silver City was well represented with "sporting ladies." Perhaps the best-known madams of the frontier era were Bessie Harper and Kate Stewart, the latter the paramour of Jim Thurmond–a renowned Southwest gambler in his own right, and the brother of Frank Thurmond. In addition to Katie and Bessie, some of the better-known Silver City working girls were Gracie Nash, Claudie Lewis, Antoinette "Nettie" Simon, Ruby Fowler, Edna da Ray, Verdie Bell, Big Jess, Ada Humes and Lucy Coronne, "a tall, stylish, good-looking dame of French extraction."

Make not an innocently derived chivalrous nor chauvinistic mistake–these girls weren't sweethearts. During one catfight, Edna da Ray grabbed her six-shooter and, while trying to kill Lucy Washington, by mistake shot fellow strumpet Millie Forest in the foot. Bessie Harper rolled a rock up in a towel, sought out Ruby Fowler, and "knocked her senseless, beating her in a shameful manner, cutting her scalp and face, clear through to the bone in several places." And a jilted Ada Humes found her lover, John V. "Jack" Brown, a carpenter by trade and Silver City's volunteer fire chief, in the Centennial Saloon. She jerked a revolver from her bosom and Jack jumped behind the wood stove–but not quick enough. One bullet to the heart ended Jack's journey down life's road and started Ada's trip to the territorial penitentiary at Santa Fe.

The working girls seemed always to attract enough attention to warrant lip service from local politicians trying to soothe ruffled feathers of the churchgoers. Such in-your-face activities as a "Masked Ball" for their best gentlemen friends, where everybody had a "cat and monkey time of it," and the "colored girls" promenading up and down Broadway Street, attired only in their Mother Hubbards and puffing away on cigarettes, drew editorial ire: "There is no other town in the west where this class of humanity is shown as much liberty as in Silver City. If there is no ordinance to prohibit such vulgarity one should be passed immediately."


Interesting, indeed, is a three-pronged Silver City ordinance approved on April 3, 1885. City politicians were listening to the wives and mothers–at least they acted like they were!

  1. Whorehouses were outlawed within town limits.

  2. The Silver City town marshal–and his policeman–could enter any establishment absent a warrant for an up-close and personal inspection if the place was thought to be a cathouse.

  3. And, lastly, the ever-sweeping catchall: "If any person shall appear in any public place within the town of Silver City in a state of nudity, or in a dress not belonging to his or her sex, or in an indecent or lewd dress, or shall make any indecent exposure of his or her person, or be guilty of any lewd or indecent act or behavior, or shall exhibit, sell, or offer to sell, any indecent or lewd book, or picture, or any such thing, or shall exhibit or perform any indecent, immoral, or lewd play or other representation, every such person, on conviction. . . ."

Needless to say, even after passage, sin at Silver City wasn't squelched! Even at Santa Fe, territorial legislators immersed themselves in moralistic snake-oil hypocrisy. They passed a law prohibiting women from entering and drinking in saloons; the statute went into effect on May 19, 1889. Cleverly, an enterprising saloon man at Lordsburg in southern Grant County had his own smart remedy: "He backed the piano around to the window and hired the woman to stand outdoors, reach through the window and thump the ivories."

As so often is the case, when the tube of righteousness is squeezed in one spot, the ooze is forced out another. So, too, were the unintended consequences of pushing the frail sisters out of the saloons. Having nowhere to flaunt their wares, the gals began standing on the streets having drinks delivered to them–right there in front of upstanding women and little children!

Down on Eaton's row (a section of rent houses), girls of the "lost sisterhood" were perching on the doorsteps, "indulging in vile and obscene language, to the disgust of people who were passing by the locality in question." There was a hue and cry for virtuous adjustment–but that's all! A hue and cry! Indignant townsmen spoke the words expected of them, slyly winked, and–just as they did with the territorial Sunday Law– mockingly watched as the saloon, men and madams paid their fines and swung wide open the doors to gin-mills and girl shops.

Strikingly similar to modern-era machinations, some zealots opted for terror tactics when legalities–or the lack thereof–didn't bring to fruition their personal moral agenda. Someone, and we yet know not who, by means explosive unsuccessfully attempted to blow up Kate Stewart's whorehouse. The local newspaper editor recommended a "necktie reception" for those responsible–extralegal justice to be sure, but well within the traditional parameters of Silver City's crime-fighting history.

And even at nearby Pinos Altos, in their effort to fight back, the working girls were getting quite barefaced and bold, and from the news account, maybe even bare-assed: "Upon the occasion of every pay day at the mines, a horde of brazen creatures invade the camp and make ample display of their questionable charms. Only last week was witnessed a sight which in most communities would not have been tolerated for an instant, that of three saddle colored wenches on horseback aimlessly galloping through the streets, displaying their agility [and perhaps more] to the admiring gaze of the populace."

Corresponding with the broad-spectrum public outrage–a scripted scorn that was ever purposely impotent–was an occasional raid on the Chinese opium dens that seemingly found their way into every Western township. The drug problem was more widespread at Silver City than just a few "celestials" nodding off in euphoric stupor–that is, if one reads between the lines of one newspaper account: "It is hinted that these dens have patrons who would blush if their names chanced to get on the police court records. The boys had better take a hint." Zeroing in on "hop fiends" at the "hop joints" allowed for the salving of many Silver City consciences, while at the same time redirecting public attention away from the town's Anglo–and, to a lesser extent, black working girls–and their profiteering madams.

Obliquely the whores began working themselves back inside, and not obliquely the law-enforcing authorities–reflective of what the public really wanted–looked the other way. And they kept looking the other way for the next 75 years. In fact, one of the most famous modern-era houses of ill repute in the Southwest, Miss Millie's, flagrantly operated in Silver City well into the 20th-century. It was finally shut down for keeps during a 1968 police raid. Mildred "Millie" Clark Cusey, during a press interview at age 68, brassily and unequivocally said, "I wasn't running a finishing school for whores. If they didn't want to make money, I didn't want them around." Millie added, "I am not ashamed of anything I've done, and I'll do it all again when I find the time."

In the end, at least in my humble opinion, there's but one reasonable conclusion. For a time–say, from 1870 to New Mexico's statehood in 1912–Silver City and old Grant County were emblematic of what we picture the wild and woolly Old West to have been.


Bob Alexander, a native Texan and veteran lawman, retired as a special agent with the US Treasury Department and began a second career as an author, based in Maypearl, Texas. He has written eight books, including Fearless Dave Allison, Border Lawman (High Lonesome Books), which was named the 2004 Best Outlaw/Lawmen Book by the Western Outlaw/Lawman History Association (WOLA). His Lawmen, Outlaws and SOBs (High Lonesome Books) also won the association's best-book award the following year–the first such consecutive honors in WOLA's history. The National Outlaw/Lawman History Association honored Alexander in 2004 with its Literary Award for Outstanding Contributions to Western Historical Writing.

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