How “fast draw” Wild Bill Longley got portrayed as a hero

 October 11, 1878

On this day another Texas bad guy, William “Wild Bill” Longley, finally bit the dust.  But in a strange case of twisted history, 80 years later the murderous Longley (below) was rehabilitated by author Louis L’Amour and in TV’s 1959 series, “The Texan.”

The label of “gunfighter” barely covers Wild Bill’s decade-long rampage.   In addition to first degree murder, he would most likely also be charged with hate crimes today.  At just 17 he and a pair of companions ambushed a group of freedmen along the Camino Real.   Former slave Green Evens, was shot, presumably in the back, by Longley as he tried to ride away.   It was perhaps his only murder that Longley didn’t want all the credit.  He was not the only one to fire, he claimed.

Born in 1851 in southeast Texas, his family moved to Evergreen, near Giddings in 1853.  The teenager’s misspent youth was mostly squandered learning to shoot a gun.  Dropping out of school, he devoted most of his time to his other avocations; drinking and gambling.

Following the Evens episode, he fell in with gambler and sometime saloon keeper, Phil Coe, (left) and his partner, gunman, gambler and sometime lawman, Ben Thompson.  Coe was eventually shot by Marshal “Wild Bill” Hickok in a street brawl that killed Hickok’s deputy, Mike Williams.  After firing at the lawman twice and missing both time, Coe was fatally wounded by Hickok.  

Ben Thompson (right) died violently, as well, ambushed in 1884 during an infamous opera house melee in San Antonio.    

 Longley and brother-in-law, John Wilson, for reasons known only to them, went on a crime spree across south Texas in 1869.  At some point the pair killed an African-American woman, triggering a $1,000 reward.  A price on his head, Longley fled north.  He may have joined a cattle drive but by May of 1870 he was prospecting near Cheyenne, Wyoming.  

Sometime that year or the next, the U.S. Army ran Longley’s prospecting party out of South Dakota’s Black Hills for violating a treaty with the Lakota.  Following the encounter, the unsuccessful prospector actually signed a five-year enlistment in the Army’s  U.S. 2nd Cavalry Regiment.  

It was a brief and notably unsuccessful military career.  Deserting two weeks later, he was court marshaled and sentenced to hard labor at Camp Stambaugh in south central Wyoming.  Released after just four months, he was assigned to the unit’s frequent hunting parties.  Longley deserted again in May of 1872. 

Camp Stambaugh was renamed Fort Washakai in 1870

His trail is sketchy for the next year but by February, 1873, he’d returned to his family’s farm now located in  central Texas Bell County.  That summer the Mason County sheriff, J. J. Finney, arrested Longley for killing yet another freed slave.  Apparently Finney was principally interested in the reward.  When the money failed to appear, the sheriff released his prisoner.  It was speculated that Longley’s uncle, Pres, paid off Finney instead.  

In 1875, Longley’s career progressed from killing total strangers to shooting friends and acquaintances.  He next gunned down boyhood companion, Wilson Anderson, when asked by his uncle Cale to revenge the death of Cale’s son.  A price on his head again, he fled with his brother.  Brother Jim was eventually arrested and acquitted for Anderson’s murder.  

That same year Longley shot and killed a hunting buddy named George Thomas and tried to ambush a fellow outlaw, Lou Shroyer.  Shroyer shot back, missing Longley.  It’s believed Shroyer was the only one of Longley’s victims to return fire.

On the run again, he landed in jail while sharecropping for an east Texas preacher after beating the reverend’s nephew in a dispute over a woman.  Upon his release from jail he shot the preacher.

After murdering as many as 32 people, most of them unarmed, African-Americans or Hispanic, Longley was finally run to ground in Louisiana by Texas sheriff Milt Mast and his two deputies.

Longley, finally in custody after capture in Louisiana

He had often written friends, that “hanging was his favorite way to die.” He got his wish.  Returned to Texas, he was hanged  for the murder of his friend, Wilson Anderson, in Giddings, not far from his hometown of Evergreen.  On the first try the rope slipped when the trap door opened, causing Longley’s knees to drag the ground.  He was successfully hanged on the second attempt at the age of 27 and buried in the Giddings City Cemetery.

Some years later, William’s father, Campbell, came forward claiming the second hanging had was faked and that his son had been whisked away to California after a rich relative bribed the lawmen.   DNA testing in 2001, L'AMOURhowever, confirmed that the notorious gunman was indeed dead in Texas.  Calling it a “forensic posse, “ the Washington Post reported that “Wild Bill,” in fact reposed just where they said he did; in a plain pine coffin “with his boots on.”

In a literary mash-up, Longley and another Texas desperado, Cullen Baker, were inexplicably merged, transformed into misunderstood heroes by best-selling author Louis L’Amour. (Above)  It was apparently that “fast draw” thing, a staple of Old West legend that warranted rehabilitating the pair into the Baker character for his 1959 book.  

Longley’s reputation got another shot in the arm through the magic of television in the CBS series, “The Texan” starring Rory Calhoun. (Left)   Calhoun’s Longley character is an ex-Confederate officer who roams the west performing random acts of kindness.  Missed the real “Wild Bill” by a mile. 

Giddings City Cemetery, West Highway 290, Giddings, Texas, marks the spot where Smithsonian Institution scientists located the lost Longley gravesite.  Open to the pubic, a historical marker replaced an original wooden plaque in 2000 and claims the gunman repented for his numerous crimes before his death. 

Longley spent his boyhood in Evergreen, eight miles north of Giddings.  While the town is gone, its namesake tree appears to still stand, according to the latest information found in “The Handbook of Texas.”  The giant live oak may have been a seedling in 1713 when explorer, Louis de St. Denis, surveyed the San Antonio Road, now State Highway 21.  

Giddings is host to a number of collections of Texas history including the Schubert-Fletcher House and Lee County Heritage Center, the Giddings Public Library and Cultural Center’s Arnold Smith collection of pre-history Native American artifacts and Hilton Lee Smith’s baseball memorabilia.  The Wendish Heritage Museum in nearby Serbin details the history of the state’s Slavic immigrants. For more information on these and other places to visit in and around Giddings go to the Giddings Chamber of Commerce website at, e-mail, call (979) 542-3455  or write Giddings Chamber of Commerce, 183 E. Hempstead, Giddings, TX 78942.

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.