John Horton Slaughter: Civil War veteran, Texas Ranger, trail-driver, cattle-king and, finally, sheriff, distinguished Arizona state representative and professional gambler. A symbol of the Old West.
Slaughter imposed law and order with his six-shooter, repeating shotgun and Henry rifle when he wasn't seated at an all-night poker game. Ideally suited to live in one of the toughest eras in the history of the American frontier, John Slaughter, more than any other single individual, cleaned up Arizona Territory, encouraging apprehensive congressmen to vote for its admission to the Union. Among those who admired his guns and courage were Wild Bill Hickok, Ben Thompson, Wyatt Earp, Big Foot Wallace, King Fisher, Sam Bass, Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett.
Although Slaughter was only five feet, six inches tall, outlaws often froze when they looked into his hard eyes. One lawman who pursued outlaws with Slaughter said, "He was like a spider spinning its web for the unwary fly." When Slaughter told a man, "Lay down or be shot down," his lips barely moved. He was the last of the hero lawmen of Arizona history. One writer called him "the meanest good guy who ever lived."
Judge Clayton Baird, who rode with Slaughter, said, "Unlike squalid old badge wearers such as John Selman and Wild Bill Hickok, John Slaughter was basically a very reserved sort of man. Nobody who wished to keep on calling terms with him overstepped that boundary I always felt between ordinary causal friendliness and egregious overfamiliarity.
"Years before, I would learn, a breezy stranger, trading on his Southern accent, had twice dared address him as ‘Tex.’ The second time was the last time. Slaughter had turned, stared the fellow out of countenance through piercing black eyes and said, ‘My name is Slaughter, sir. If you ever have reason to greet me, I would advise you to remember the name is Slaughter.’"
Slaughter was born in Louisiana on October 2, 1841. He became a celebrated Texas Ranger before becoming a prominent cattleman in Cochise County, Arizona, around 1874. He and his brothers, in various cattle partnerships, drove herds to New Mexico, Kansas, Mexico and California, picking up "strays" whenever they could.
In those days, Slaughter spent more time playing poker than he did raising cattle or chasing outlaws. He found the game of chance more exciting and profitable. Among his favorite "pigeons" was the famous cattle king, John Chisum, a notoriously bad card player. Slaughter took delight in beating Chisum out of choice beeves.
More than anything, Slaughter enjoyed bluffing. He would bet as much on a pair of deuces as on a straight flush. He always paid off in gold coins or paper. He often lost pots as high as five hundred dollars. Poker parties upstairs in the old Gadsden Hotel in Douglas, Arizona, a town that came to its own with the discovery of copper in nearby Bisbee, lasted twenty four hours or more. If Slaughter caught anyone cheating, he might suddenly pull his pistol and relieve the entire party of its gambling stakes.
In 1876, Slaughter, a Texas cattle rustler named Barney Gallagher and a few of the boys were playing poker in a back room on Commerce Street in San Antonio, Texas. Slaughter noticed that Gallagher was playing with marked cards. When Gallagher proceeded to rake in the largest pot of the night, he found himself staring into the muzzle of Slaughter's .45. Slaughter swept up the pot, backed out the door, mounted his horse and galloped off.
Gallagher followed Slaughter's trail clear to South Springs, where he found Slaughter's herd grazing on Chisum's ranch. Neither Chisum nor Slaughter was there. Gallagher told Slaughter's foreman, "You tell that midget sonofabitch I'm here to kill him."
"Wait here, I'll tell him what you said." The foreman rode off, chuckling to himself.
Gallagher was waiting with a shotgun across his lap as Slaughter appeared on the horizon. When Slaughter got within range, Gallagher raised his shotgun. A shot echoed across the plains. Slaughter’s shot. Gallagher fell out of his saddle, a rapidly widening pool of blood pumping from a hole in his heart.
Another story of Slaughter's life concerns a man named George Spindles, a hapless gambler who couldn't win at cards with a marked deck. One day, Spindles was approached by two strangers who had heard about John Slaughter. They made Spindles an offer he couldn't refuse. It would be Spindles’ job to lure Slaughter into a four-handed game where they could fleece him.
Slaughter won the first few hands with no trouble. Then, as the hours rolled by, Spindles began to be dealt the winning hands. Slaughter had played poker with Spindles often enough to know that something was wrong. In one hand, each man raised the ante until a small fortune lay on the table before them. As Spindles studied his royal flush he began shaking like a dice box. The window was open to catch a breeze. Presently a gush of wind fluttered the bills on the table. Slaughter placed his pistol, a menacing paperweight, on his pile of five-hundred-dollar bills to keep them from blowing away. That unnerved Spindles. He threw down his cards, cursed his luck, and retreated to the bar. Slaughter, with two deuces, won the fortune on the table.
The two card sharks caught Spindles in the bar and asked him why he threw the game away. "I like to live," he replied, swigging a jigger of whiskey.
Another time, Slaughter played poker for three straight days above Jim Graham's saloon. His opponents were master swindlers. A sexy woman bartender down below kept sending up fresh decks as well a fresh drinks. She had marked the decks and spiked Slaughter's drinks. Slaughter lost a small fortune.
On several such occasions, Slaughter’s wife, Cora Viola Slaughter, threatened to leave her husband. His gambling binges would keep him away from the ranch for days at a time.
In November, 1886, Slaughter was elected sheriff of Cochise County. The area was infested with rustlers and highwaymen. Jim Milton, famous railroad detective, was tracking border smugglers in the area. He recalled Slaughter and the saga of the Jack Taylor Gang. "Four of Taylor's boys were still running loose after a train holdup in the Mexican state of Sonora" said Milton. "Their handles were Geronimo Miranda, Manuel Robles, Nieves Deron and Fred Federico. Mean scoundrels, they were wanted by the Mexican Rurales and Arizona authorities as well.
"…because they had kinfolk around Tombstone they had no more sense than to hide there, right under the nose of the law, which unfortunately for them, was John Slaughter."
Slaughter got wind that the bandits were holed up at the home of a Mexican woman named Flora Cardenas. For three days, Slaughter and his deputies staked out the adobe home, but somebody tipped off the bandits. They disappeared. Cardenas vehemently denied everything.
Slaughter tracked the outlaws to Clifton then to Wilcox. Through his grapevine of Spanish-speaking tipsters, he learned that Manuel Robles' brother, Guadeloupe Robles, had a firewood business in a town called Contention. Slaughter led a posse to Contention. He and his men stormed the house. They found Manuel Robles and Nieves Deron asleep.
"To your feet!" Slaughter ordered. "Get up, with your hands high!" The two outlaws and Guadeloupe came up shooting. Slaughter quickly killed Guadeloupe, the woodcutter, who, up to that point, had been guilty of no more than harboring fugitives. Manuel Robles and Nieves Deron darted for the rocks, bullets nipping at their heels. From behind a boulder, Deron fired several times at Slaughter and his men. One bullet clipped off the lobe of Slaughter's right ear. Slaughter's next bullet hit Deron, who fell to the ground squawking like a mad parrot. Wounded and bleeding, Manuel Robles escaped into a thicket.
The feared Taylor gang was finished. By now, Jack Taylor had been arrested by Mexican authorities and was serving life in prison. Deron had confessed on his death bed that he had killed the engineer of the train robbed in Sonora. The wounded Manuel Robles as well as Geronimo Miranda and Fred Federico were still at large, but according to material in Arizona's state archives, Robles and Miranda were shot down in a running gun battle with Mexican Rurales in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. In what was intended as an ambush to kill Slaughter, Federico mistook Deputy Sheriff Cesario Lucero for Slaughter, killed him, and was captured. That accounted for the last of Taylor’s gang.
Slaughter's one big mistake in his career in law enforcement was hiring a man named Burt Alvord as chief deputy. In later years, the mere mention of Alvord's name still infuriated John Slaughter. Alvord was a sidekick of a Slaughter ranch hand and sometimes lawman, Billie Hildreth. Hildreth recommended Alvord for the job. Slaughter hired Alvord without hesitation. Slaughter knew Alvord sometimes ran with outlaws like Augustine Chacon, but he planned to use this to an advantage.
It worked, although journalists chastised Slaughter for his choice of deputies. Alvord betrayed his friend, Chacon, to Captain Burton Mossman of the Arizona Rangers. Chacon was caught and hanged. Alvord then turned to a profitable career as a train and bank robber, and finally, he traveled to the West Indies and disappeared from history.
John Slaughter's gun became a symbol of the law during his Tombstone days. Old timers recalled that he usually rode alone after lawbreakers. He would head in any direction across that six thousand square mile desertland of Cochise County, never returning until his quarry could be officially listed among the permanently absent.
In 1892 and 1893, a great drought caused the cattle market to collapse, leaving ranchers with a million and a half cattle on the range. Trainloads of bleached cattle bones were shipped east to bone factories.
Slaughter had to mortgage his property. He retired to his San Bernardino Ranch near Douglas, Arizona.
In his declining years, Slaughter’s feet became so swollen that he had to wear slippers, and he often had to use crutches. As he feebleness increased, the old gambler could not recall the names of the cards when he sat down to play poker with his grandson. He suffered from eczema on the hands and feet, often having to bandage them. By 1921, he suffered from high blood pressure.
On Wednesday, February 15, 1922, he visited his beloved San Bernardino Ranch for the last time. He complained of a bad headache. A doctor was called. Slaughter went to sleep. Everyone tip-toed out of his bedroom.
Early the next morning, Viola, his wife of forty three years, brought him his breakfast. She tried to awaken him. He didn't move or open his eyes. At age eighty one, John Horton Slaughter, Civil War veteran, Texas Ranger, trail-driver, cattle-king, sheriff, distinguished Arizona representative, professional gambler and symbol of the Old West, had died in his bed.
Hundreds of mourners gathered at the Episcopal Church to say good-bye to the third sheriff of Cochise County. Among the pallbearers was James H. East, captor of Billy the Kid, and long-time friend. Slaughter was buried in the Calvary Cemetery in Douglas, Arizona. His wife, Cora Viola Slaughter, lived another nineteen years, dying at age 80, on April 1, 1941, in Douglas, Arizona.
Text and Photos from Bill Kelly
The Trail Drivers of Texas, 1923.
Romance of the Davis Mountains, by Gus Gildea and Raht (The Slaughter-Gallagher fight).
The Southwest of John Horton Slaughter, by Allen A. Erwin, Arthur H. Clark Co. Box 230, Glendale, Calif.
United States National Archives, Washington, D. C.
Austin Tri-Weekly Gazette, 1863-1865.
Mesilla Independent, 1879.
Santa Fe Daily, 1890.
Weekly New Mexican, 1876-1877.
Tombstone Epitaph, 1887-1892.
Real West Magazine article: "I knew John Slaughter," by Judge Clayton R. Baird, As Told to Harold Preece.
Files from a forty-year collection of the author.