A little-known desperado and gunfighter, James W. Smith, was better known as “Six-Shooter Bill.” The scoundrel also went by several other names during his short but infamous criminal career, including John Henry Jankins, Six-Shooter Smith, California Jim, and, no doubt, numerous others.
He was thought to have been born in Texas in about 1856. In the 1870s, he was reported to be living in the Gainesville, area, and a Bill Smith was wanted for murder in Cooke County, Texas in 1878, but it is unknown whether this is the same “Bill Smith.” In August 1878, he was in the lawless town of Dodge City, Kansas, and was arrested by Bat Masterson for horse theft on August 17th.
There, he took up with the likes of the “Dodge City Gang,” which included several gunfighters and thugs, such as Hyman G. “Hoodoo Brown” Neill, “Mysterious Dave” Mather, Tom Pickett, John Joshua (J.J.) Webb, “Dirty Dave” Rudabaugh, and others.
In 1879, as the first trains made their way to Las Vegas, New Mexico, on board were many of these men, including “Six-Shooter Bill.”
Before long, the group pulled together and formed called the “Dodge City Gang,” since so many of them had earned reputations for violent behavior in the western cow towns of Kansas. They soon took control of a criminal cartel bent on thumbing their noses at the law. For the next two years, many members of the Dodge City Gang participated in several stagecoach and train robberies, organized cattle rustling, and were said to have been responsible for multiple murders and lynchings. Other members of the “gang,” served in official roles, including Hyman G. “Hoodoo Brown” Neill as a judge and several as lawmen, covering up the crimes of the other gang members.
However, by the spring of 1880, the townsfolk had finally had enough, assembled a party of vigilantes, and posted this notice in the Las Vegas Optic on April 8, 1880:
To Murderers, Confidence Men, Thieves:
The citizens of Las Vegas have tired of robbery, murder, and other crimes that have made this town a byword in every civilized community. They have resolved to put a stop to crime if in attaining that end they have to forget the law and resort to a speedier justice than it will afford. All such characters are, therefore, hereby notified, that they must either leave this town or conform themselves to the requirements of law, or they will be summarily dealt with. The flow of blood must and shall be stopped in this community, and the good citizens of both the old and new towns have determined to stop it if they have to HANG by the strong arm of FORCE every violator of the law in this country. ” — Vigilantes
Six-Shooter, as well as several others, made their way to the new boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona. There, he soon got involved in rustling cattle and was wounded in a fight with ranchers in the San Simon Valley in November 1881. Involved in several small-time thievery as well, the low-life Smith was even said to have robbed hoboes on the trains. He was also known to make people “dance” at the end of his pistol, shooting at their feet and enjoying their pain when he wounded them.
He was next heard of in Mimbres, New Mexico, where he terrorized the town and ran many of its vices before returning to Arizona. In Benson, he was involved in at least one shooting. Next, he was heard of living in San Marcial, New Mexico, before he was run out of town and made his way to Laredo, Texas.
There, he was known as California Jim. While working at a Laredo cafe, he got into an argument with his boss and resorted to one of his favorite games — making his boss dance as he shot bullets toward his feet. Six-Shooter killed him when the Chief of Police arrived to investigate the shots. He fled the town and robbed the station agent at Cactus, Texas.
But, like many others of his type, his wild lifestyle couldn’t last. In August 1882, he was in Cibolo, Texas, when he met up with two cowboys, Wesley de Spain and Charles Smith.
For whatever reason, a gunfight ensued between Six-Shooter and de Spain. When the smoke cleared, Wesley was wounded, and Six-Shooter was mortally shot. He died early the following day.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2022.
Adventures in the American West