By Emerson Hough in 1907
One 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 Carlisle, 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.
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.
Slade went back to the officers of Fort Laramie, 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, Slade 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 Virginia City, 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.