Joseph Slade - Hanged By Vigilantes
By Emerson Hough in 1907
of the best-known desperados the West ever produced was Joseph A.
Slade, agent of the Overland Stage Line on the mountain
division, about 1860, and in charge of large responsibilities in
a strip of country more than six hundred miles in extent, which
possessed all the ingredients for trouble in plenty.
Slade lived, in
the heyday of his career, just about the time when men from the East
were beginning to write about the newly discovered life of the West.
Bret Harte had left his indelible stamp upon the literature of the
land, and Mark Twain was soon to spread widely his impressions of life
as seen in "Roughing It"; while countless newspaper men and book
writers were edging out and getting hearsay stories of things known at
first hand by a very few careful and conscientious writer.
The hearsay man engaged in discovering the
West always dung to the regular lines of travel; and almost every one
who passed across the mountains on the Overland stage line would hear
stories about the desperate character of Slade. These stories grew by
newspaper multiplication, until at length the man was owner of the
reputation of a fiend, a ghoul, and a murderer. There was a wide
difference between this and the truth. As a matter of fact, there were
many worse desperadoes on the border.
Slade was born at
Illinois, and served in the Mexican War in 1848. He appears
to have gone into the Overland service in 1859. At once he plunged
into the business of the stage line, and soon became a terror to the
thieves and outlaws, several of whom he was the means of having shot
or hung, although he himself was nothing of a man-hunter at the time;
and indeed, in all his life he killed but one man-a case of a
reputation beyond desert, and an instance of a reputation fostered by
admiring but ignorant writers.
Slade was reported to have tied one of his
enemies, Jules Beni, more commonly called Jules, to the stake, and to
have tortured him for a day, shooting him to pieces bit by bit, and
cutting off his ears, one of which he always afterward wore in his
pocket as a souvenir. There was little foundation for this reputation
beyond the fact that he did kill Jules, and did it after Jules had
been captured and disarmed by other men.
But he had been threatened time and again
by Jules, and was once shot and left for dead by the latter, who
emptied a pistol and a shotgun at Slade, and left him lying with
thirteen bullets and buckshot in his body. Jules thought he did not
need to shoot Slade any more after that, and gave directions for his
burial as soon as he should have died.
At that Slade rose on his elbow and
promised Jules he would live and would wear one of his, Jules', ears
on his watch chain; a threat which no doubt gave rise to a certain
part of his ghastly reputation. Jules was hung for a while by the
stage people, but was let down and released on promise of leaving the
country never to return. He did not keep his promise, and it had been
better for him if he had.
Jules Beni was a big Frenchman, one of that sort of early ranchers who
were owners of small ranches and a limited number of cattle and horses --
just enough to act as a shield for thefts of livestock, and to offer
encouragement to such thefts. Before long Jules was back at his old
stamping-grounds, where he was looked on as something of a bully; and at
once he renewed his threats against Slade.
Slade went to the officers of the military post at Laramie,
the only kind of authority then in the land, which had no sort of courts
or officers, and asked them what he should do. They told him to have Jules
captured and then to kill him, else Jules would do the same for him. Slade
sent four men out to the ranch where Jules was stopping, about twelve
miles from Laramie,
while he followed in the stagecoach. These men captured Jules at a ranch a
little farther down the line, and left him prisoner at the stage station.
Slade and others in front of Virginia
Dale Station in
Here Slade found him in
the corral, a prisoner, unarmed and at his mercy, and without hesitation
he shot him, the ball striking him in the mouth. His victim fell and
feigned death, but Slade -- who was always described as a good pistol shot
-- saw that he was not killed, and told him he should have time to make
his will if he desired. There is color in the charge of deliberate
cruelty, but perhaps rude warrant for the cruelty, under the circumstances
of treachery in which Jules had pursued Slade. At least, some time elapsed
while a man was running back and forward from the house to the corral with
pen and ink and paper. Jules never signed his will. When the last penful
of ink came out to the corral, Jules was dead, shot through the head by
Slade. This looks like cruelty of an unnecessary sort, and like taunting a
helpless victim; but here the warrant for all the Slade sort of stories
seems to end, and there is no evidence of his mutilating his victim, as
was often described.
back to the officers of
and they said he had done right and did not detain him. Nor did any of
Jules' friends ever molest him. He returned to his work on the Overland.
After this he grew more turbulent, and was guilty of high-handed outrages
and of a general disposition to run things wherever he went. The officers
at Fort Halleck arrested him and refused to turn him over to the stage
line unless the latter agreed to discharge him. This was done, and now
Slade, out of work, began to be bad at heart. He took to drink and
drifting, and so at last turned up at the Beaverhead diggings in 1863, not
much different from many others of the bad folk to be found there.
Quiet enough when sober,
was a maniac in drink, and this latter became his habitual condition. Now
and again he sobered up, and he always was a business man and animated by
an ambition to get on in the world.
He worked here and there in different capacities, and at last settled on a
ranch a dozen miles or so from
Montana, where he lived with his wife, a robust,
fine-looking woman of great courage and very considerable beauty, of whom
he was passionately fond; although she lived almost alone in the remote
cabin in the mountains, while Slade pursued his avocations, such as they
were, in the settlements along Alder Gulch.
Slade now began to grow ugly and hard,
and to exult in terrorizing the hard men of those hard towns. He would
strike a man in the face while drinking with him, would rob his friends
while playing cards, would ride into the saloons and break up the
furniture, and destroy property with seeming exultation at his own
maliciousness. He was often arrested, warned, and fined; and sometimes he
defied such officers as went after him and refused to be arrested. His
whole conduct made him a menace to the peace of this little community,
which was now endeavoring to become more decent, and he fell under the
fatal scrutiny of the
vigilantes, who concluded that the best thing to do
was to hang Slade.
He had never killed
anyone as yet, although he had abused many; but it was sure that he would
kill someone if allowed to run on; and, moreover, it was humiliating to
have one man trying to run the town and doing as he pleased.
Slade was to learn what society means,
and what the social compact means, as did many of these wild men who had
been running as savages outside of and independent of the law.
Slade got wind of the deliberations of
the committee, as well he might when six hundred men came down from Nevada
Virginia City to help in
the court of the miners, before which Slade
was now to come. It was the Nevada Camp
Vigilantes who were most
strongly of the belief that death and not banishment was the proper
punishment for Slade. The leader of the
marching men calmly told Slade that the
Committee had decided to hang him; and, once the news was sure,
Slade broke out into lamentations.
This was often the case
with men who had been bullies and terrors. They weakened when in the hands
of a stronger power. Slade crept about on his hands and knees, begging
like a baby. "My God! My God!" he cried. "Must I die? Oh, my poor wife, my
poor wife! My God, men, you can't mean that I'm to die!"
They did mean it, and neither his importunities nor those of his friends
had avail. His life had been too rough and violent and was too full of
menace to others. He had had his fair frontier chance and had misused it.
Some wept at his prayers, but none relented. In broad daylight, the
procession moved down the street, and soon Slade was swinging from the beam of a corral gate, one
more example of the truth that when man belongs to society he owes duty to
society and else must suffer at its hands. This was the law.
Slade's wife was sent for and reached
town soon after Slade's body was cut
down and laid out. She loaded the
vigilantes with imprecations, and showed
the most heartbroken grief. The two had been very deeply attached. 'She
was especially regretful that Slade had
been hanged and not shot. He was worth a better death than that, she
Slade's body was preserved in alcohol
and kept out at the lone ranch cabin all that winter.
In the spring it was sent
down to Salt Lake City and buried there. As that was a prominent point on
the overland trail, the tourists did the rat. The saga of
Slade as a bad
man was widely disseminated.
of America, updated November, 2014.
Editors Note: The hanging took place on March