Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Respectable Mr. Webb

By Paisley Kirkpatrick
This is the unlikely tale of Lawman J.J. Webb, who awaited hanging in New Mexico territory in 1881 and escaped death by commutation to life imprisonment.
He was a boy who came from hardworking, respectable farm parents and at manhood was respected and liked as a business man in several Kansas towns, including Dodge - respected enough to be made deputy and marshal more than once, including service under Masterson and Earp. It just does not seem to follow that John Joshua (J.J.) Webb would end up in Las Vegas, New Mexico, first as a lawman but later as part of a gang of mean gunmen.
J.J. was one of eleven children born to respectable but wandering parents. He apparently was also imbued with the spirit of constant change. Northeastern New Mexico had become the scene of a feverish search for gold. A young J.J. staked a luckless claim and later turned to bartending. When he became involved in gambling, drinking and, inevitably, a killing, he fled to take up government sponsored buffalo hunting.
When he tired of the hunting, he again tried the mining camps, but this time in Colorado. J.J. became acquainted with Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok. In about 1870, a demand for buffalo hides and meat brought a profitable surge to that business and Webb tried another season of it, becoming expert enough to bring in as many as 85 a day. He invested his considerable profits in a Caldwell, Kansas cantina and gambling hall.
Caldwell had become a booming buffalo-hunting center and Webb, a prominent citizen, became a deputy and a marshal (of a caliber to rank with Earp, Masterson, and Hickok). He was cool, quick on the draw, and fair in dealing with outlaws and rustlers.
With the end of the hide industry in Caldwell, Webb sold out in Caldwell and became a hunter once more, based at famous Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle, then a teamster, and a deputy in Dodge under Masterson. At this time he became well-acquainted with Dave Mather, Hoodoo Brown, and others.
He also became owner of the Gay Lady Saloon. While not on the respectable side of the tracks, the Gay Lady was one of the town's more elegant saloons and Webb a respected personage. Known to be handy with a gun, Webb was made deputy for his part of town by Masterson and, later, by Wyatt Earp.
The summer of 1879 found Webb among the Dodge City gunmen hired by the Santa Fe Railroad in a fight against the Denver and Rio Grande for possession of the Royal Gorge in Colorado. After this, running the Gay Lady seemed a bit dull. Webb sold out and headed down the line to Las Vegas, New Mexico, a rip-roaring, end-of-track town in which a lawless element, including Webb's Kansas friends and acquaintances, had taken over and were running the town.
Webb first got a job in the fall of 1879 as a detective for the Adams Express Co., then joined the police force along with the gang of friends from Dodge City. It was suspected that his friend Hoodoo Brown, who as Justice of the Peace and Acting Coroner was running the town, demanded from Webb information on gold shipments leaving the Adams Express office.
The crime for which Webb was finally convicted was the shooting and robbery of cattleman Michael Keliher, in town from Deadwood and flashing a large roll of bills. In a saloon at 4 a.m. on March 2, 1880, it was prearranged that Webb would pick on Keliher, then shoot him for resisting an officer. The money, about $1,950, was out of the cattleman's pocket almost before he hit the floor. Hoodoo Brown took both the money and the next train out of town. Vigilantes took over, captured Webb on March 4th at his rooming house with $500 of the money still on him and jailed him.
By March 9th Webb had been convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang on April 9th. This execution date was set aside, however, after an appeal of the conviction. The Territorial Supreme Court later sustained the original verdict and the final date for the hanging was set as February 25, 1881. At the last minute Governor Lew Wallace commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. As no attempt was made to move Webb to the Territorial prison at Santa Fe, he was kept on in the Las Vegas jail.
Dave Rudabaugh, an outlaw and gunfighter, helped engineer a jail break and the two escaped never to return to Las Vegas. Accounts differ as to what finally became of J.J. Webb, but he reportedly died of smallpox at Winslow, Arkansas, on April 22, 1882, while working as a teamster under the name of Samuel King.
Here we have the paradox of a man who might have gone down in Frontier History with some of the great marshals -- another Tilghman, Masterson, Earp, or Hickok, but who by some ironic turn of fate ended instead a desperado to fade at last into obscurity.
Written by Lance Robbins, published in Real West Publication, July 1968


  1. I've not heard of J.J. Webb, but he has an interesting background.
    Las Vegas, New Mexico? We lived there one year in 1971. I know this Las Vegas has a wild history, but I only have scratched the surface of the intriguing stories from the era and that town.
    When we lived there, the Spanish "owned the town." And I don't mean Mexicans or Hispanics..I mean "Spaniards." They did not like outsiders in "their" town, such as university professors who moved there with their families so he could teach in the picturesque school called New Mexico Highland University.
    We...the Anglos professors who dominated the school--were literally run out of town--the sit-in was on national TV.
    We left after one year because the prejudice against the Anglo was so great, some professors had Molotov Cocktails thrown onto their front porches, and received live bullets in the mail.
    We suffered nothing. We and our elementary school children had a good time there--we lived in a real adobe house, took in an unwanted puppy, went ice skating on the damned up river, and camped up on the Mesa Verde...and on and on. But we all left.
    All the Anglos left and let the Spanish have the school and town.
    Such a shame, because we loved the mountains and the historic downtown.
    I have written a blog post before about "The Other Las Vegas."
    Thanks, Paisley.

  2. It never ceases to surprise me at the lawmen who were either criminals before or after serving the law. Seems there was a fine line between the two back in the old west. Even the famous lawmen like Wyatt Earp did some time in naughtyville.
    I like the creative names people were given--Hoodoo and Wild Bill being 2 of them.
    I really enjoyed reading your blog, Paisley.
    Happiness to your corner of the earth,

  3. WOW Celia, that was quite a story from your background. I did look Las Vegas up to make sure there was such a place in New Mexico. It does sound like you had quite an adventure there. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Thanks, Sarah.I never know for sure if a post will be interesting or now. I sorta thought this man would be. I looked up the others in the article and it seems they all were about the same temperment and had like lives. It makes me wonder how the west ever survived them all.


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