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Friday, May 2, 2014

Dallas Stoudenmire: 'A Criminal with a Badge'

By Kathleen Rice Adams

In the Wild West, it wasn't always easy to tell the outlaws from the lawdogs. Men often served in both capacities, depending on what proved most advantageous at the time. They'd run with outlaws for a while, then become lawmen for a while, then outlaws again, then lawmen, going back and forth across the line until they finally picked a side and stuck with it.

A few intrepid souls figured all that line nonsense was just so much hogwash, and so they combined both career paths into one. Take the case of El Paso City Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire, for example.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in April 1881, El Paso, Texas, was about as desperate as a town could get. Four railroad lines had converged in the city, bringing with them gamblers, gunmen, and “ladies of questionable virtue.” Within spitting distance of Old Mexico and the lawless New Mexico Territory, El Paso became a haven for vagabonds, thieves, murderers, and other criminals.

El Paso City Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire, 1881
(courtesy El Paso County Historical Society)
The city was not entirely without a law-and-order presence. The county sheriff’s office was only fifteen miles away—a half-day’s ride on horseback. Fort Bliss was closer, but the Army had its hands full defending settlers from Indians and cross-border marauders. Nearest of all was an entire company of the Texas Rangers Frontier Battalion, headquartered right there in town. Even a force of forty fearsome men who a few years later would adopt the motto “one riot, one Ranger” couldn’t be everywhere at once, though, especially when they had a 1,250-mile unruly international border to police.

El Paso needed a tough city marshal, and it couldn’t seem to find one. During the eight months starting in July 1880, the town employed four different men in the position. One resigned after two months in office. Another was relieved for “neglect and dereliction of duty.” A third was allowed to resign after a dispute over his pay left El Paso riddled with bullets. By April 1881, the town drunk wore the badge because he was the only man who would take the job.

City fathers thought they were in luck when, on April 11, they enticed a six-foot-four shootist with experience as a soldier, Texas Ranger, and city lawman to claim the marshal’s star. Dallas Stoudenmire, 36, was described by newspapers of the day as a temperamental, physically imposing man with an even more imposing reputation for gunplay.

Born in Alabama, Stoudenmire enlisted in the Confederate army at 15. After the war, he migrated to Texas and joined a company of Rangers tasked with subduing renegade Indians in the southern part of the state. Only 20, Stoudenmire reportedly “killed a few men,” ostensibly in the line of duty, during his year with the Rangers.

After that, he drifted through Texas, working as a carpenter, wheelwright, and sheep rancher before turning to the profession that eventually led him to the job in El Paso: hired gun. Stoudenmire was said to be quick and accurate on the draw, but a hot temper and a fondness for drink frequently caused him trouble. When a saloon brawl in 1877 left bullet holes in several people—including Stoudenmire—he was arrested. He escaped in short order, only to find himself wanted again less than a year later, after he and a couple of compadres left several men dead in a shootout over a herd of cattle.

Stoudenmire lit out for New Mexico, soon coming to rest as marshal of Socorro in the northern part of the territory. By early 1881, he was back in Llano County, Texas. That’s where the El Paso city fathers found him.

It would take them only a few short days to realize they’d made a mistake, but a total of thirteen violent, frightening months would pass before they removed him from office. Ultimately, only Stoudenmire’s untimely demise freed the city of his presence. Some called the man a criminal with a badge; others credited him with doing more than any other single individual to tame El Paso’s lawless element.
In May 2001, Dallas Stoudenmire’s Smith & Wesson American,
serial number 7056, sold at auction for $143,000. His El Paso city
marshal’s badge sold for $44,000 in a separate lot.
(source: Little John Auction Service catalog, May 2001)

The trouble started three days after Stoudenmire pinned on the marshal’s star. In an incident that came to be known as the Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight, Stoudenmire’s twin .44 Colts dispatched three people—one an innocent bystander attempting to take cover. The other two were an accused cattle rustler and one of El Paso’s former city marshals. The fourth casualty, whose death at the hands of the alleged cattle rustler started the ruckus, was a county constable. Stoudenmire, unscathed, received a raise.

Three days later, friends of the dead men hired another former El Paso city marshal to assassinate Stoudenmire. In the course of firing eight or nine shots at his attacker, Stoudenmire obliterated the would-be assassin’s privates.

The notorious gunman continued to collect enemies while he performed some aspects of his job admirably. Even his detractors credited him with a steel-nerved ability to face down miscreants, six of whom he reportedly introduced to Boot Hill. Stoudenmire collected fines and taxes with alacrity, at the same time shooting dogs whose owners neglected to pay the $2 annual license fee. He angered the local religious community by using a prominent church’s bell for target practice, disrupting the peace in the middle of the night. The jail and prisoners were well tended, but the marshal’s records were a mess, and unauthorized expenditures caused friction with the city council.

Stoudenmire also drank heavily, often on duty, leading the editor of the El Paso Times to call into question his fitness as an officer of the law. When the Texas Rangers took an interest in Stoudenmire’s idiosyncratic approach to law enforcement, he called them a pack of cowards and liars and tried to get the entire force banned from El Paso. He failed.

The city decided it had endured enough in February 1882, when Stoudenmire and his new bride returned from their wedding trip to find her brother murdered and the accused killer absolved of charges. Vowing revenge, Stoudenmire went on a violent drinking binge. One writer called him “as irresponsible and dangerous as the town hoodlums.” Right away the city council passed a resolution mandating a stiff fine for any lawman caught drinking in public. Since Stoudenmire collected the fines, the ordinance was woefully ineffective.

Public sentiment against the marshal reached a crescendo…and so did the city council’s fear of the monster they had created. In May the council called a meeting to fire Stoudenmire, but when the marshal showed up drunk and waving his infamous Colts, the meeting quickly adjourned. Two days later, he sobered up and resigned.

Despite the public’s ill will, Stoudenmire and his wife remained in El Paso. The now ex-marshal continued to drink, get into fights, and settle arguments with his guns; nevertheless, in July he was appointed deputy U.S. marshal.

Over the next few months, Stoudenmire’s feud with the man accused of his brother-in-law’s murder escalated. Stoudenmire mocked and insulted the man and his two brothers in public, daring them to fight. When other citizens ventured an opinion about his behavior, Stoudenmire cursed and threatened them. The El Paso Lone Star warned “citizens stand on a volcano,” and the streets might be “deluged with blood at any moment.”

Dallas Stoudenmire had the barrel of this 1860 Colt Army revolver
sawed off so the gun could be concealed. The Colt was retrieved
from the El Paso street where Stoudenmire was killed in a shootout
on September 18, 1882. (source: The Peacemakers: Arms
and Adventure in the American West by R.L. Wilson)
On September 18, the volcano erupted. Stoudenmire and the three brothers met in a saloon and argued. One of the brothers and Stoudenmire drew their guns. Two bullets hit Stoudenmire: The first broke his gun arm, and the second knocked him through the saloon’s batwing doors. Lying in the street, Stoudenmire pulled his second gun and wounded his attacker just before another of the brothers shot Stoudenmire in the head. The wounded brother pistol-whipped the body.

Separate trials acquitted the brothers of murder. They left El Paso and died of natural causes in 1915 and 1925.

Stoudenmire’s widow buried him in Colorado County, near Columbus, Texas, where they had been married a few months earlier. The Freemasons, of which he was a member, paid all funeral expenses for the destitute widow. Although a commemorative marker documenting Stoudenmire's Confederate service exists, no stone marks his gravesite and all records of its location have been lost.

An obituary in the Colorado [County] Citizen called Stoudenmire “a brave and efficient officer, and very peaceable when sober.”

In the short story "The Worst Outlaw in the West," my contribution to the Prairie Rose Publications summer anthology Lassoing a Groom, the hero works both sides of the law. Tracy Garrett, Jacquie Rogers, Kristy McCaffrey, Linda Hubalek, and debut author Kirsten Lynn also contributed tales in which the heroines, like the Texas Rangers, always get their man. Watch for the book later this month.


  1. Kathleen, what an excellent post. I had not heard of this man, but SHOULD have! And what a great western-y name! "DALLAS"! Love the research you put in to this post, and the details of his life and death. It does make you wonder what kind of woman would marry him, and how he treated HER.

    1. Apparently, they were very much in love. She was from a wealthy Columbus, Texas-area family, but if I'm not mistaken, they mostly disowned her after an "inappropriate" marriage to Stoudenmire.

      I would've loved to have met Stoudenmire, if only to see how the real man compared to historical reports. He was a favorite target of the El Paso media -- even more so than the self-professed criminals thereabouts -- but he was supposed to have been quite easy on the eyes. ;-)

  2. Enjoyed the article very much. I don't write about Texas at this point in time, but I enjoy reading westerns set there. Never heard about the man until now. Very interesting.

    1. Hi, Robyn! Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words. Unlike some of the other notorious gunmen and lawmen of the Old West, Dallas Stoudenmire is not one of those guys everybody talks about. I've never figured that out...unless the very mention of his name still makes folks nervous. ;-)

  3. Great article - I've never heard of the man at all, and I love reading about the Old West! It's always so fascinating to read about the lengths some towns had to go to in order to find "law and order" - and then they were stuck with the rough men who'd helped them get there. Thanks for the information!

    1. J.E.S., it's so good to see you! I'm still chuckling over the adventures of Dev and the Kid. What a fun book! I hope you've got further adventures of those two in the works. :-)

      I never cease to be amazed by the way men changed hats from black to white and vice-versa back in the day. Stoudenmire was an extreme example of the ones who didn't even bother to switch sides! There was another guy, a sheriff in Texas, who robbed trains -- while he was in office. I'll have a post about him on May 16. (Why do these folks always seem to come from Texas? :-D )

  4. Wow, what a convoluted mess the old west was. I was struck by the fact that he was only 15 when he served in the army. I look at kids that age today and can't help but think it must have been traumatizing, even back then.
    When I was doing research on Wyatt Earp, I noticed the frequency of lawless men becoming lawmen. It seemed so common. Lordy, can you imagine being a woman living in one of those towns "protected" by a lawman who was a criminal? I would want to own my own gun and protect myself.
    A guy 6 feet 4 inches must have been very intimidating.
    I just can't imagine a Free Mason killing people like he did. It's all so twisted.
    This was a particularly great blog today, Kathleen. You always come up with something interesting, but this one beats all.

    1. Aw, Sarah, you're such a sweetie. :-)

      Like you, I was struck by the fact Stoudenmire was a Mason. The qualifications for membership in that august society must've been a little different back then. Or maybe Stoudenmire used his .44s to do a little "convincing." I wouldn't put anything past that man. :-D

  5. Another fascinating post, Tex. Stoudenmire is one of those characters of the West I've always been surprised a movie hasn't been made of his life, or maybe one has and I've just never heard of it. As mentioned in a previous comment, I, too, was surprised he was a Mason. The West continues to amaze.

    Can't wait to read your story in the new anthology! Love those outlaws that become in-laws. :)

    1. If a movie has been made about Stoudenmire, I've never heard of it either, Rustler. I think he's been a minor character in a couple of movies about folks like John Wesley Hardin, though.

      I can't wait to read everyone's story in LASSOING A GROOM -- but I'm especially eager to see yours, since it's your debut! Congrats!

  6. Wow, what an interesting post! Strikes me though that nothing much changes. Lawmen included! Ooops! Shouldn't have said that! I can't believe he was a Mason too! Hey lady, when on earth do you find time to write when you are doing so much great research?

    1. LOL, Jill! I believe your cynical side just peeked through. :-D

      As for when I find time to write: I have no life. None. Sad, really. ;-)

  7. It seems the times breed an eclectic group of men. This story is about one of them and I love the way you told it. What you will use of this in your next story, which I will have to purchase, leaves me on pins & needles.

    That you brought history to light, well it just made my day...since I couldn't get on until late this afternoon. (Dang that work thing *Grin*) Doris

    1. Thank you, Doris! That's high praise, coming from one of the most in-depth researchers I've ever had the privilege of encountering.

      I hate it when work gets in the way, don't you? :-D

      HUGS, sweetie!