Thursday, September 12, 2013

'The Most Dreaded Man North of the Rio Grande'

William Prescott "Wild Bill" Longley
The years following the American Civil War were particularly difficult for Texas. The state fought reunification for five long years, insisting it had the right to become an independent republic once again. While the U.S. Army attempted to enforce martial law and the feds dragged the battered would-be empire before the Supreme Court, outlaws, freedmen, and carpetbaggers flooded the wild and wooly, wide-open spaces.

The era produced some hard men. None were harder than Wild Bill Longley.

The sixth of ten children, William Prescott Longley was born October 6, 1851, on a farm along Mill Creek in Austin County, Texas. His father had fought with Sam Houston at San Jacinto. Little is known about Wild Bill’s youth until December 1868, when, at the age of seventeen, he killed his first man — an unarmed former slave he claimed was cursing his father.

The episode set Longley on a path he would follow for the rest of his life. After the black man’s murder, Longley and a cousin lit out for southern Texas. They spent 1869 robbing settlers, stealing horses, and killing freed slaves and Mexicans — men and women. A virulent racist with a hair-trigger temper and a fast gun hand, Longley quickly gained a reputation for picking fights with any whites he suspected of harboring Yankee sympathies or carpetbagging. In early 1870, the Union occupation force in Texas placed a $1,000 price on the cousins’ heads. Longley was not yet nineteen.

Not that he saw the bounty as a cause for concern. Standing a little over six feet tall with a lean, lithe build and a gaze described as fierce and penetrating, Longley “carried himself like a prince” and had “a set of teeth like pearls.” One newspaper writer called him “one of the handsomest men I have ever met” and “the model of the roving desperado of Texas.” The same writer called Longley “the most dreaded man north of the Rio Grande”: What his looks couldn’t get him, the brace of fourteen-inch, six-shot Dance .44 revolvers he carried could.

As news of the federal bounty spread, Longley and his cousin separated, and Longley took up with a cattle drive headed for Kansas. By May 1870 he was in Cheyenne, Wyoming; by June, he was in South Dakota, where for unknown reasons he enlisted in the army. Within two weeks he deserted. Capture, court-martial, and prison time followed, but evidently none of that make a big impression. After his release from the stockade, Longley was sent back to his unit. In May 1872, he deserted again and lit a shuck for Texas, gambling, scraping — and killing — along the way. Folks as far east as Missouri and Arkansas learned not to get in his way, not to disagree with him, and for heaven’s sake not to insult Texas. Longley was rumored to have shot white men over card games, Indians for target practice, and black folks just for fun.

By the time he killed another freedman in Bastrop County, Texas, in 1873, Longley was well beyond notorious. The murder jogged a local lawman’s memory about the federal bounty still outstanding from 1870. The sheriff arrested Longley, but when the army wasn’t quick to tender a reward, he let the surly gunman go.

Longley visited his family, worked a few odd jobs, and fended off several reckless sorts who hoped to make a name by besting a gunman known as one of the deadliest quick-draw artists in the west. In March 1875, he ambushed and killed a boyhood friend, Wilson Anderson, whom Longley’s family blamed for a relative’s death. That same year, Longley shot to death a hunting buddy with whom he’d had a fistfight. A few months later, in January 1876, he killed an outlaw when a quarrel-turned-ambush became a gunfight.

On the run, using at least eight different names to avoid the multiple rewards for his capture plastered all over East Texas, Longley hid out as a sharecropper on a preacher’s cotton farm, only to fall for a woman on whom his landlord’s nephew had staked a prior claim. Longley killed the nephew, then took off across the Sabine River into De Soto Parish, Louisiana. Reportedly turned in by someone he trusted, the law caught up with him on June 6, 1877, while he was hoeing a Louisiana cotton field, unarmed.

Though historians dispute the figures, Longley confessed to killing 32 men, six to ten of them white and one a Methodist minister. Later, he retracted that account and claimed eight kills. A court in Giddings, Texas, convicted him of only one murder, Anderson’s, and sentenced him to hang. While awaiting execution, “the worst man in Texas” wrote his memoirs, embraced Catholicism, and filed a wagonload of appeals. All of them were denied.

Illustration from National Police Gazette, Oct. 26, 1878
Facing an ignominious end, Longley seems to have had a change of heart. On the day of his execution, October 11, 1878, the 27-year-old sang hymns and prayed in his cell before mounting the gallows “with a smile on his face and a lighted cigar in his mouth.” After the noose was placed around his neck, the man the Decatur [Illinois] Daily Review described as “the most atrocious criminal in the country” held up a hand and addressed the crowd.

“I see a good many enemies around me and mighty few friends,” Longley said. “I hope to God you will forgive me. I will you. I hate to die, of course; any man hates to die. But I have earned this by taking the lives of men who loved life as well as I do.

“If I have any friends here, I hope they will do nothing to avenge my death. If they want to help me, let them pray for me. I deserve this fate. It is a debt I owe for my wild, reckless life. When it is paid, it will be all over with. May God forgive me.”

A journalist in real life, Kathleen Rice Adams also is an editor and ghostwriter of non-fiction books. A rabble-rousing Texan to the bone, she much prefers romancing fictional western antiheros one protagonist at a time.


  1. Hey, I ran across this totally bad dude when I was doing some research for one of my books. Very nice post and much more informative than anything I discovered.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Howdy, Marie-Nicole, and thanks for the kind words! I get a bit carried away with researching the bad boys of the Wild West, which probably says more about me than about them. ;-)

    Interestingly, CBS ran a series called THE TEXAN from 1958 through 1960 in which Rory Calhoun portrayed Wild Bill Longley as a hero. Apparently the writers felt strongly about the notion "everyone is the hero of his own story." :-D (There's a bit of information and stills from the show here:

  3. Fascinating! From your description of the man, I saw Clint Eastwood in his younger days.
    I've read the name, and had a vague memory of knowing something about him...but not this much.
    We can't understand men like him, but it makes for a colorful character in someone's book!
    Thanks--I couldn't stop reading, and the sun is barely up. What a way to start my day.
    But I won't forget Wild Bill Longley. (one of our neighbors has the name of Longley. Hmmm....)

  4. EEK! Celia, keep an eye on that neighbor! :-D

    I agree with you about historical figures like Longley: They make fascinating character studies and can serve as the jumping-off point for some great fictional characters, but I don't think I'd like to run across one in real life. If Longley was as attractive as his contemporaries described him, though, I wouldn't mind ogling from a distance. ;-)

  5. Kathleen, this is the first I've heard of Wild Bill Longley. He was a killing machine, wasn't he? My gosh, he had to be a bit "teched in the haid" to live like he did. This is soooo interesting. I love it when you get on the "research trail", Tex!

  6. From all reports, Longley was "a piece of work" -- probably what we'd call a sociopath today. Sadly, he was also a product of his time -- a particularly harsh period in Texas history. Texans resented Yankees, and especially resented the Union Army's occupation. Disturbed people often let urges for laying the blame and revenge get the best of them.

  7. Hi Kathleen - Wonderful post about someone I knew nothing about. Those were turbulent times in Texas, and there was a lot of anger and resentment in such a yoiung man. He didn't seem to have a conscience, did he? Well, until he faced his own death and found religion. Question is, would he have continued killing had he not been caught?

  8. Kathleen, good and very interesting post! I'd heard the name but didn't know his story and I vaguely remember that TV series by name. He was truly a troubled human being and a product of his time. Ashley, I don't believe he would've changed had he not been caught. Like the criminals of today, he would've had no incentive to amend his ways for I feel he believed he was completely in the right.

  9. The internet connection is playing hide-and-seek with me today. **grumble**

    Thanks for stopping by, Ashley and Carra! I'm not sure what to think about whether Longley might have continued his socially unacceptable behavior had he not been hanged. Carra, you make a good point about a lack of incentive. There's also a question about whether he suffered from a personality disorder (which modern psychiatrists and psychologists generally consider "incurable") or had simply been encouraged to "act out" by the prevailing atmosphere. (Neither of those explanations excuses his behavior, BTW.)

    There does seem to have been some indication Longley was backing away from his violent lifestyle at least a little, judging by the circumstances of his apprehension.

    Regardless why Longley did the things he did, he probably would have faced the death penalty today, too, the Texas judicial system being what it is.

  10. I had heard of him, but never in this much detail. Interesting article. Funny how so many evil men suddenly find religion must about the time they are going to meet their maker. Self-serving and self-preservation, even when heading for the afterlife.


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