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William Preston Longley

Giddings, TX
Longley's Grave with new plaque and the original petrified wood marker. TE photo, 2000

William Longley, born at Mill Creek, Texas, on Oct. 6, 1851, learned how to use a gun before he was a teenager. Bill ("Wild Bill") Longley came to his career by a typical route. He was a 15-year-old in Austin County, Texas, in 1866, when he killed his first man. At the time Texas was dominated by carpetbaggers - Northerners who had moved into the Southern power vacuum that followed the Civil War - and Governor E. J. Davis' state police force was manned largely by ex-slaves enjoying their first taste of freedom.

One day young Longley observed a black lawman riding through the streets of the village of Old Evergreen, brandishing a rifle and cursing at whites in his path - including Bill Longley's own father. The boy ordered the former slave to stop waving his gun around. When he proved too slow about it, Longley raised his own gun - which he regularly carried, despite his tender years - and shot the man dead. Whites hid the corpse and Longley was never prosecuted for his crime; indeed he was, for a time, something of a local hero.

But he turned into a drifter, earning a haphazard living as a cowboy, a gambler and a field hand chopping cotton. His aimless travels took him to Indian Territory, Arkansas, Kansas, Wyoming and Dakota Territory. For a brief period he ran a small saloon in the gold camps of the Black Hills - a milieu he found attractively lawless. "There was no law at all," he said later. "It was simply the rule of claw and tooth and fang and the weakest went to the wall. When the majority of people got down on a man, they simply took him out and strung him up on a limb, and they had a big spree on the strength of it."

He was never unarmed and he proved to be one of the fastest draw artists in Texas, deadly accurate and fearless in gunfights. He reputedly had killed thirty men in various gunfights in small western towns, chiefly in Texas. Longley reportedly never stole. He worked as a rancher and sometimes a freight driver. His reputation as a fast-draw spread and he was sought out by those wanting to establish themselves as feared gunmen. These challengers invariably lost when calling Longley into the street.

Longley carried violence with him wherever he went, killing men sometimes inblazing bursts of temper, sometimes in ritualized, stand-up gunfights, sometimes from ambush. Longley himself picked many a fight with anyone he suspected of being a Yankee sympathizer or a carpetbagger. He also hated blacks and whipped them whenever they crossed his path.

Finally, back in Texas in 1877, he was brought to book for the murder of a man who had shot a Longley cousin. He was then 27 years old, and by his own count he had killed 32 men in all. This fierce racist, who stood six feet tall and "carried himself like a prince," according to one report, feuded with Wilson Anderson for years. When Longley heard that Anderson had shot one of his cousins from ambush, he rode to Evergreen, Texas, and shot Anderson to death in a duel. He was nevertheless charged with murder and fled with a posse on his trail. Not until two years later was Longley captured and taken to Giddings, Texas, where he was tried and convicted for the murder of Wilson Anderson.

He was sentenced to hang and while he awaited the executioner, Longley wrote the governor, asking for clemency. He carped in his letter that John Wesley Hardin, the most infamous gunmen Texas ever produced, received only twenty-five years in prison for his forty killings - ten more than were credited to Longley. Why then, Longley wanted to know, was he being sent to the hangman? The governor did not respond.

Feeling some terminal need for human companionship the night before he was hanged in the town of Giddings, Longley confided to a guard what amounted to his last testament. "He said that he didn't regret killing but one man," the guard later recalled. "They were in camp together and Bill said it seemed like the feller was watching him. He said he had had a hard day and he was sleepy, but he wasn't going to sleep with the feller watching him. Well, he said, that kept up until midnight, when he got plumb tuckered out, so he got up and shot the feller in the head and went to sleep. The next day he found out that the feller was on the dodge just like him, so he always felt sorry about killing him." That same evening the guard asked Longley, "How come you weren't ever caught or killed in all those years on the road?" "Because," Longley replied, "I never had any confidence in nobody."

On Oct. 11, 1878, Longley was taken to a scaffold and a rope was placed about his neck. Longley wore his best Sunday suit and stood erect and proud on the gallows. He held up his hand, saying: "I deserved this fate. It is a debt I have owed for a wild and reckless life. So long, everybody!" He made one final observation from the gallows. Surveying a crowd of 4,000 that had assembled to witness his drop through the trap, he said, "I see a good many enemies around, and mighty few friends." He then nodded to the executioner and was sent downward through the trap to his death.

The Old West. The Gunfighters. Time-Life Books Time Inc. 1976.
Jay Robert Nash. Encyclopedia Of Western Lawmen & Outlaws . Da Capo Press. 1989.

Cold-blooded Texas Killer

Longley was given credit by the press for "dying game," but his boasts lived on and became part of Texas gunfighter lore. One newspaper referred to him as "Bloody Bill," and the stories he had spun gradually became accepted as fact. The nickname "Wild Bill," though often seen today, was never used by him; it was the product of a Texas historian, T.U. Baker, in the 1920s.

But Longley's tale was not yet fully told. Nearly nine years after Bill's hanging, his father, Campbell Longley, was quoted in an innocuous 1887 newspaper article, saying that the hanging had been a hoax, that a rich uncle in California, "Pres" Longley, had provided $4,000 to bribe Sheriff Brown and his deputies, and that a special harness had been used to fake the hanging. Bill Longley was then supposed to have become a successful landholder and cattleman in Central America. Notwithstanding that Pres Longley was a ne'er-do-well and that $4,000 wouldn't go very far to convince Brown and all his deputies to keep their mouths shut, the story nevertheless became part of Longley's legacy - the man who had been hanged three times and lived to tell about it.

The story was never refuted, and no one stepped forward with the facts of the execution. The family story behind Campbell Longley's statement was that his wife, Sarah, had never accepted the fact that one of her children was a cold-blooded murderer and had been hanged. Because of her fragile mind-set, the family conspired to keep Bill Longley alive, even concocting letters from him in Utah Territory, where he was supposedly staying with a sister. Campbell Longley's story was only a furtherance of that family conspiracy, and he likely regretted that it was picked up by the press and reported statewide. Sarah Longley died in April 1890 at age 68, and the story of the many lives of Bill Longley died out...for nearly 100 years, at least.

In 1988, Louisiana native Ted Wax wrote Dead Men on the Bayou?, a small book in which he contended that Campbell Longley's story was true and that Bill Longley had surfaced in Iberia Parish, La., in 1886 under the alias John Calhoun Brown, Wax's grandfather. Brown became wealthy in the timber business and died in 1923. Wax based his claim on having seen a manuscript (later discarded) written by his mother that stated Brown was indeed Bill Longley. Wax said there were also photographic similarities, and a New Orleans attorney was of the opinion that there were similarities in handwriting.

Wax interested Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist, in his story. Owsley and geoarcheologists Drs. Brooks and Suzanne Elwood hunted for three years in the Giddings cemetery for either the remains of Bill Longley or an empty hole filled with rocks as part of the hanging hoax. A number of unmarked graves were located and legally excavated, but none contained a body that fitted the description of Bill Longley. Part of the effort involved using a photograph taken in the 1920s of what was purported to be Bill Longley's grave.

Finally, in July 1998, using a computer to match up the old photo with new photos of the cemetery, the spot was located where the older photograph had to have been taken...right by an historical marker announcing that Longley had been buried in the cemetery. An excavation of that site turned up the skeleton of a Caucasian man fitting Longley's physical description. The man had suffered from periodontal disease, as well as a broken leg, perhaps resulting from the fall from the scaffold. Just as intriguing, the researchers found on the skeleton a Catholic medal that had been worn around the man's neck on a cord. Also found was a small piece of artificial material with the design of a leaf that could have been from the rosette Longley wore. The remains were removed to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., for attempts at DNA and skull reconstruction identification. Finally, in June 2001, it was announced that the remains taken from the Giddings cemetery were indeed those of Bill Longley, and his bones were subsequently reinterred in Texas.

When it comes to the Old West, there has been a tendency to gloss over and neglect facts in order to make the fascinating gunfighters objects of myth and legend. Both Jesse James and Billy the Kid have been inaccurately portrayed as Robin Hoods, noble figures who turned to crime because of some great social injustice. But there were some figures who truly possessed the legendary nerve and pluck necessary to see them through dangerous times. Wild Bill Hickok was just such a figure, and all the evidence points to his living up to some of the claims. However, when the facts are examined, "Bloody Bill" Longley doesn't pass muster. His one real gunfight - with Lou Shroyer in the Dry Frio Canyon - started out as an attempted ambush and turned into a gunfight only because Shroyer realized what was happening. Longley's other killings, such as the ambush of the Reverend Lay while he was milking a cow, more accurately reflect the nature of the man and strongly suggest that he was merely a cold-blooded murderer, not a legendary gunfighter.

Rick Miller. Boastful Bill Longley: Cold-blooded Texas Killer. Wild West. February 2002.

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