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Nevada’s Outlaws

Stand and Deliver! Nevada’s outlaws earned their fearsome reputations.

outlaws

The players in the Great Train Robbery in Verdi. Courtesy of University of Nevada, Reno

BY RON SOODALTER

Virginia City was full of desperados, and some of the pleasantest newspaper reporting I ever did was in those days, because I reported the inquests on the entire lot of them, nearly. We had a fresh one pretty much every morning…Those were halcyon days!

-Mark Twain, “Around the World: Letter No. 7”

If you were to ask the average Western history buff to name the most infamous desperados of the late-19th century frontier, he would no doubt rattle off such names as Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, and Billy the Kid. It is highly unlikely that such monikers as “Big Jack” Davis, “Three-Fingered Jack” McDowell, “Fighting Sam” Brown, or “Farmer” Peel would ever come up. And yet, these products of a raw and often lawless Nevada, as well as dozens of their contemporaries, were every bit as piratical as their more notorious counterparts.

In retrospect, it is clear that from its very inception, Nevada was a magnet for evil-doers. While the bars and gaming tables in the cow towns of Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska saw a brief flood of coins and currency from the short-lived cattle industry, for nearly half a century Nevada’s miners hacked and blasted enough silver out of its rocks and soil to help win a war and keep the nation solvent. Nevada’s legendary silver mines drew countless bold and desperate men from all over the world.

Law enforcement was sporadic at best. Inevitably, some of the less successful immigrants would conclude that mining was a brutal, soul-crushing enterprise, especially when the fruits of other men’s labors could be acquired in a matter of minutes with nothing more than a mask, a Colt revolver, and a fast horse. Such a man was Andrew Jackson Davis.

“The Great Train Robbery” at Verdi by Neil Boyle

THE SAGA OF “SMILING JACK” DAVIS

A.J. Davis—“Smiling Jack” or “Big Jack” as he was often called—was an imposing figure of a man: tall, well built, personable, highly intelligent, and reputedly well-educated for his time and place. As did many who ultimately “went bad,” Davis began his frontier career with the best of intentions prospecting in the Sierra Nevada. After finally laying down his pick, he immigrated to the Comstock diggings of Nevada Territory, where he opened a stable. However, shoveling the byproducts of his business while searching for fodder soon lost its fascination, and Smiling Jack entered into a new business.

Davis bought a stamping mill a few miles outside Virginia City, hired men to run the machines, and proceeded to process ore for shipping. In a short time, the affable and industrious Davis was accepted into the company of the region’s governing class, while his open-door hospitality at home won him countless friends among the miners.

Wells Fargo building, Virginia City, 1866. Courtesy Library of Congress

Apparently, though, he was shipping considerably more processed ore than he was buying. Many in the community suspected that he was behind a number of stagecoach robberies but, due to his popularity as well as the resentment felt toward Wells Fargo for charging usurious fees, the locals looked the other way. While he and his gang were committing a stagecoach robbery between Reno and Virginia City, a passenger recognized his voice and Jack was subsequently arrested and tried. The jury, however, refused to convict, by which time a chastened Wells Fargo was mounting shotgun guards on its coaches.


Love the Wild West? Read about Wyatt and Virgil Earp’s time in Nevada here.


Unwilling to risk an encounter with a 10-gauge shotgun, Davis turned his attention to trains. On the evening of Nov. 4, 1870, in what was the first train robbery to be staged west of the Rockies, he and his cohorts held up the Central Pacific Overland Express between Reno and Verdi, escaping with more than $40,000 in gold. This time, he and his entire gang were apprehended, and Smiling Jack received a 10-year sentence.

Davis was pardoned for good behavior after five years—and immediately returned to robbing stagecoaches. Although he was successful for a time, perhaps he should have stuck by his earlier resolution not to risk running afoul of the Wells Fargo shotguns. On Oct. 3, 1877, as he and two others attempted to rob a coach some 40 miles south of Eureka, the shotgun messenger emptied his heavy load of buckshot into the outlaw’s back. Smiling Jack Davis died the next day, while being transported back to Eureka—by stagecoach.

“THREE-FINGERED JACK” AND THE DALY GANG

When Irish immigrant and Mexican War veteran John “Three-Fingered Jack” McDowell drifted into the wide-open mining town of Aurora in 1860, the last thing on his mind was a partnership. However, when he met John Daly, each recognized in the other a kindred spirit. Both men were utterly unscrupulous, and both made a living by hiring out their guns.

The two went partners on a saloon, which soon became the scourge of Aurora. The games were rigged, the drinks watered, and the management intolerant of complaints. John and Jack divided their time between running the saloon and serving as hired killers for the local Pond Mining Company in its ongoing war with a neighboring concern.

In a short time, the two formed a gang, which cut a wide swath, robbing and pillaging throughout the area, and killing anyone who dared to object or resist.

Somehow, Daly managed to get one of his men elected city marshal, whereupon he appointed his gang members as policemen, providing an air of legality to their depredations. Finally, the gang went too far.

When gang member James Sears stole a horse, the animal’s owner appealed to local station-master William R. Johnson for help. The civic-minded Johnson ordered his hired hand, John Rogers, to pursue the thief. Sears refused to surrender, whereupon Rogers shot him out of his saddle, and brought his body back to town.

Furious that anyone would dare to kill one of his men, Daly determined to do away with both Rogers and Johnson. Rogers was out of town, so Daly and a cohort ambushed Johnson, shooting him in the head and cutting his throat.

The citizens were outraged. Johnson was a well-liked member of the community, and his brutal slaying aroused the town to action. Hundreds of men formed a “Safety Committee,” and on Feb. 5, 1864 seized Daly, McDowell, and two other gang members, and on a swiftly-built gallows administered frontier justice.

McDowell sought to cheat the noose. While standing on the scaffold, he said, “Goodbye, boys!” drew a derringer, turned it to his chest, and pulled the trigger. When the gun misfired “Three-Fingered Jack” proclaimed, “The son-of-a-b!*c# of a pistol has fooled me!”
The rope did not.

SAM BROWN’S COMEUPPANCE

Ranking among the deadliest of Nevada’s early-day desperados was “Fighting Sam” Brown. Nobody liked Sam, and with good reason. For one thing, he was a vicious bully. According to his contemporaries, he was a bear of a man, standing a hulking 6 feet tall and weighing in excess of 200 pounds with “a broad, full chest, probably possessing double the physical strength of ordinary men.” In a time and place where bathing was an occasional diversion, he was considered particularly offensive, refusing either to wash himself or trim his bushy red whiskers, which he reportedly knotted beneath his chin. One chronicler described him as “loathsome and repulsive.”

Worst of all, Sam Brown truly enjoyed killing. It was an accepted fact that his victims were either unarmed or unsuspecting when he dispatched them. He is known to have fatally shot one man in the back in Carson City, and knifed Virginia City’s town drunk for sport. Before coming to Nevada, Brown had left a trail of corpses in Texas and California, including three or four Chilean miners, for whose murders he earned himself a brief stretch in San Quentin. Lawmen avoided the homicidal Brown, and even the rugged miners of the Comstock steered clear of him.

Genoa, 1890. Courtesy Library of Congress

Then, on the evening of July 6, 1861, Sam picked on the wrong man. Henry Van Sickle, a taciturn, universally-liked innkeeper whose tavern stood 3 miles south of Genoa, was chatting with the 20 or so locals gathered around his porch, when two men approached on horseback. One was Sam Brown.

Henry offered the big man a drink; instead, Brown drew and cocked his pistol, stating that he was going to kill Van Sickle, citing some obscure and probably imagined ancient offense. As the unarmed Henry ran into the tavern, Brown shouted, “You’d better run!” and went in search of him. Henry had hidden himself well, however, and Brown rode off muttering, “I would have killed him as quick as I would a snake.”

Convinced his life was in peril, Henry loaded a shotgun and set off in pursuit. His first shots missed the killer, but apparently struck his horse, slowing Brown’s progress. Finding himself on the receiving end for the first time, Sam Brown lost his nerve, and attempted to find shelter in a nearby house. A determined Henry was not to be put off, however, and his next shot hit the bad man. The next round left Fighting Sam dead in the road.

Nevada’s citizens breathed easier with the news of Sam’s demise, and widely praised Henry for his grit in bringing the killer to bay. According to the coroner’s report, the local justice, “knowing the ferocious disposition of Brown, ordered Vansickle’s [sic] discharge.”

“FARMER” PEEL, GENTLEMAN KILLER

The sudden removal of “Fighting Sam” Brown from the census rolls left an open slot for the region’s top gun; it wasn’t long in filling. In that time, those who rose to the top of the gunfighter roster were referred to as chiefs, and “Farmer” Peel was the acknowledged chief of Virginia City.

The image of Old West gunfights in which two adversaries confront each other face to face is largely a product of Hollywood. If a man resented another sufficiently to wish him dead, the last thing he would do was to give him an even chance, as such legendary pistoleers as “Wild Bill” Hickok, John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, and Jesse James lived just long enough to discover. Farmer Peel, however, was the exception. Reputedly the author of at least a dozen shooting deaths, the Irish-born gambler and gunfighter was widely respected for his practice of giving his opponents fair play. Relying on his speed and accuracy, he refused to shoot a man who was unarmed or at a disadvantage.

In 1865, Peel formed a friendship with an Englishman named John Bull. Peel and Bull, who had established his own reputation as a gunman, left Virginia City for Montana, intending to make their fortunes in the rawboned mining camp of Helena. The two fell out, however, while drinking in a local saloon. Peel, who often became a hellion when in his cups, slapped the unarmed—or unheeled—Bull and ordered him to “heel himself.” Bull got his gun, and apparently lacking Peel’s scruples hid behind a stack of boxes. As Peel walked past, Bull shot him dead.

A hung jury soon freed John Bull. Farmer Peel’s finely-carved oaken headstone reads in part, “Vengence [sic] is Mine, Sayeth the Lord. I Know that my Redeemer Liveth.” It was, in fact, to be a case of vengeance denied; John Bull died of natural causes, at the age of 93.

THE BAD OLD DAYS

While such settlements as Dodge City and Tombstone have earned reputations as wide-open frontier towns with their proverbial “dead man for breakfast,” they were no wilder than Pioche, Virginia City, or Carson City in their heyday. Ultimately, the law prevailed—first, at the business end of a vigilante’s rope or a peace officer’s gun, and finally in the courts. But while the days of the outlaws are long past, their stories remain, a spicy addendum to the fitful settlement of Old Nevada.

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