He died with his boots on: the truth behind the killing of Texas Charley

photo by Ed Bennett | Texas Charley meets his fate during this year's reenactment at Hot Sulphur Days on Saturday, June 8.
photo by Ed Bennett | Texas Charley meets his fate during this year's reenactment at Hot Sulphur Days on Saturday, June 8.

by Matt “Mister V” Veraldo

The traditional story of Texas Charley should feel familiar, even to those who have never heard it before. It’s an archetype as old as the Wild West itself, and a conflict that’s been echoed in a multitude of films and novels—a merciless cutthroat and his posse descend upon a sleepy, isolated community, wreaking havoc until finally, inevitably, the terrorized townspeople rise up, band together, and take justice for themselves in the form of cold blood and hot lead. This is the story I expected to tell in the summer of 2017, when I began research for my comic Texas Charley Meets His Match, which was serialized in the Grand Gazette until the Spring of 2018. Of course Texas Charley, that rowdy, foul-mouthed, violent so-and-so was to play the villain, a role he has traditionally portrayed both before and after he was gunned down by an unknown number of men in the streets of Hot Sulphur Springs on December 9, 1884. I no doubt would have relayed the typical “western justice” narrative had two unanticipated factors not altered my trajectory: the atrocious penmanship of the late Dr. David Bock, and Donald Dailey, the great-grandson of William J. “Ute Bill” Thompson.

That I came to research Texas Charley in the digital age afforded me the upper hand over past scholars. I was permitted to make my own digital reproductions of the Texas Charley coroner’s inquest report, which to my knowledge is the only surviving firsthand account of the desperado’s death. This document was created by “Doc” David Bock, Grand County coroner, as he presided over the investigation into Texas Charley’s bloody demise. This most definitely was an advantage, as it would take many painful hours to decipher Bock’s chicken scratch penmanship.

As a note of interest, it also appears that Bock’s report is responsible for the alternative “Charlie” spelling of Texas Charley, which is predominantly used today. In my research I discovered the man himself spelled his name with an “ey” ending. I have extended the slain desperado the courtesy of using his preferred spelling, especially after I learned more about the circumstances surrounding his death.

Some months later, with my deciphering of Bock’s report nearly complete, I contacted Donald Dailey to share some of my sketches of the players in Texas Charley’s story. Bock’s report had confirmed that Texas Charley had had a violent dust-up with Ute Bill only four days prior to his death. I thought Don would be amused to learn his ancestor was poised to make a cameo in my comic. Don’s response was perplexing. He wrote back requesting a more emphasized role in my story for his great-great-grandfather, P.H. Smith. My research indicated that Smith was little more than a hapless witness whose carpentry shop had briefly hosted the coroner’s inquest. Stopping short of issuing any promises, I assured Don that I’d provide a suitable role for Smith if the situation warranted.

These two unrelated factors clicked unexpectedly on my final day of transcription. While going over the odds and ends of Bock’s report, I laid eyes on something I’d not seen mentioned in any scholarly work on Texas Charley before: a list of the six men who had served as jurors and assisted coroner Bock in his inquest. I found that most of these names also served as a short list of those most likely to have profited from Charley’s untimely demise.

The men comprising the coroner’s jury had been enlisted by W.L. Pattison, the town constable. Pattison was a man who had possibly suffered more ire and humiliation from Charley’s antics than any other. Four days prior to Charley’s death, Pattison had proved completely incompetent in bringing Charley to justice, despite there being a freshly issued warrant for him to do so.

Included among the jury was Solomon Jones, a county commissioner and prominent citizen of Grand County. His name can also be found in a notebook Charley used to record, among other things, those he claimed to have killed. Jones’ name is the only Grand County resident listed in Charley’s notebook.

It is noteworthy that “Doc” Bock himself, the leader of the inquest, had a history of conflict with Charley. Bock owned the two-story building that hosted the coroner’s inquest, and ran his dentistry practice on the ground level. Moments before the inquest, this building had hosted Charley’s killers, who from their lofty vantage fired upon the desperado in relative safety. At no point during the investigation does Bock explain how these shooters gained access to his building.

That people with well-documented biases were involved in an official murder investigation was surprising, but what had initially caught my eye about this otherwise unassuming list of jurors was the inclusion of the name of P.H. Smith, Donald Dailey’s great-great grandfather. Beneath that was the name of another of Don’s relatives, W.J. Thompson, also known as “Ute Bill.”

This document had revealed that my first impression of P.H. Smith as a witless bystander was completely inaccurate. Smith had provided some pertinent testimony about Charley’s criminal behavior during the coroner’s inquest. That he also somehow served on the coroner’s jury seemed unorthodox to say the least. He also rented his second floor carpentry shop, which hosted the coroner’s inquest, from “Doc” Bock. The shots that killed Charley had most likely been fired from the window(s) of this building. Smith did provide an alibi for himself during his testimony, but he is never asked nor does he offer an explanation as to how his property came to be used as cover by Texas Charley’s shooters.

That Ute Bill was involved in the coroner’s inquest was easily the most sensational revelation. During his testimony, P.H. Smith himself relays how four days prior to Charley’s death he had stolen a rifle from Bill at gunpoint. A single reference in the administrative history of Rocky Mountain National Park, where Charley is recorded shooting the ground between men’s feet to make a “Ute Bill dance,” hints at an ongoing history of disrespect and conflict between the two men. Of all the players mentioned in the Texas Charley saga, Ute Bill appears to be the only individual capable of matching Charley’s gunmanship. Ute Bill was P.H. Smith’s future son-in-law, which could possibly explain how Smith’s carpentry shop came be used during the shooting. Most pressing of all, early Grand County historian Daisy Jenne would later interview four individuals about Texas Charley’s shooting. Though she never reveals who, she does note that one of these men admitted to firing upon Charley with a shotgun. One of the four men she interviewed was Ute Bill.

The evidence that exists about Texas Charley suggest that “Doc” Bock and Constable Pattison, in conjunction with at least three of the six men on the coroner’s jury, conspired to protect those who had shot and killed Texas Charley, the identities of which were most likely their friends or themselves. It seems highly probable that Ute Bill was personally involved in shooting Charley. Without additional information though, none can identify a single shooter with absolute certainty.

The more information I uncovered about the circumstances surrounding Charley’s death, the more evidence I found that Charley may not have been as terrible as history would have us believe. Lela McQueary’s Widening Trails; Narratives of Pioneer Days in Middle Park on the Western Slope of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, provides a brief account of her family’s relationship with Charley. McQueary says her relatives were on friendly terms with Charley, which can be confirmed in the writings of Daisy Jenne, who quotes Walker McQueary’s sentimental fondness for the slain gunslinger. McQueary also claims that Charley humiliated Dr. Bock four nights before he was killed, which can be verified by Bock himself in his inquest, during which he searches in vain for a witness to his and Charley’s confrontation.

McQueary’s interpretation of the slain desperado paints Charley in relatable, humanistic terms, and firmly protests his death. McQueary challenges the claims that Charley was a lone sociopath, compelled solely by whiskey and blood lust. Instead, she asserts he was a human being with friends, maybe even a wife. People cared about him. These same people missed him when he was gone, and ached over the way his life ended.
As a cartoonist I am accustomed to rendering myths and fantasy, but I’ve always found the most incredible stories dwell in the realm of nonfiction. The saga of Texas Charley is a fine example of this. Beneath the myth of Charley’s slaying lies a seedy, morally ambiguous tale of intrigue and conspiracy, far more salacious than history would have us believe. Few will deny that Texas Charley was at best a man in need of a sturdy jail cell, but Charley wasn’t killed over any crime he had committed. He was murdered for fear of what he might yet do. It is a parable of how easily one’s inherent rights can be ignored, and how those most likely to ignore them might be those who are also sworn to uphold and defend them.

Charley’s story is more relevant today than ever before. His was not a simple parable of Wild West justice, but a conundrum that has plagued humanity throughout its history. Charley’s story asks us to identify when justice becomes vengeance. Like the question of who was truly responsible for Texas Charley’s death, we perpetually await an answer.
The solution is poised to elude us forever, but should we ever uncover it, we may not like what we find.