July 30, 2014
I am often asked how we can find the truth when there is so much bad history in print and especially online. Well, here is a perfect example of exactly how we strive to ferret out the truth.
I wanted to do a Classic Gunfight in our October Art Issue that somehow connected to a Western artist, preferably Charlie Russell. As I went through my extensive Charlie Russell book collection I came across a pen and ink illustration Russell did of Jack Slade shooting Jules Reni (also styled as Beni). I knew a little bit about Slade from my research for Bad Men (1999), but it had been awhile and my take on the shooting was a bit hazy. So my first query was to Marshall Trimble and Mark Boardman, asking them who they think is the best resource on the truth about Jack Slade. Here is Mark's reply:
Try Death of a Gunfighter: The Search for Jack Slade by Dan Rottenberg
An hour later, Marshall chimed in with the same book and the same author. Now we had to track Mr. Rottenberg down. And with Google, it wasn't that hard. I sent my rough draft of the gunfight and a sidebar on Slade's most famous kill—Jules Reni.
Based on the research in house and online (yes, Wikipedia was one of the sources) a problem emerged:
The Jack Slade CG layout looks wonderful but we have a problem. Slade supposedly killed Jules Reni, but all of my text about this has disappeared. Not sure how this happened, but I had commentary about Reni getting the drop on Slade and shooting him with a shotgun and leaving him to die. Supposedly, Slade said he would track down Reni and cut off his ears and wear them as a watch fob. Slade did survive and later his men captured Reni at a spring and Slade went to Fort Laramie and met with the officers about what to do. Then rode to where they had Reni tied to a corral fence. Slade allegedly tortured Reni, shooting off his fingers and cutting off his ears before putting a bullet in his brain. THAT's where the watch fob ears came from.
And then, I got Dan Rottenburg on the telephone and we talked at length, I sent him our copy and this exchange happened:
Thanks for asking, and for your concern for truth. Here are the most likely facts about Jules Beni’s demise in August 1861:
Slade had offered a $500 reward to anyone who captured Jules and brought him in alive. Two of Slade’s Central Overland employees wounded Jules in a gunfight, captured him and bound him to a packhorse to bring him to Slade. To their dismay, Jules died en route. Rather than lose the posted reward, they bound Jules to a post in a sitting position and insisted to Slade that Jules was still alive. Slade, who was skeptical, tested their veracity by cutting off Jules’s ears, without response from Jules.
The details are on page 229-230 of my book, Death of a Gunfighter.
Slade did supervise the hanging of at least two murderers and one horse thief. Whether these can strictly be defined as killings is a matter of definition.
So I rewrote the sidebar in question and came up wit this:
A Fearsome Reputation Based on Scant Evidence
Before Wild Bill Hickok, Jack Slade was the gunfighter everyone in the West knew and feared. Mark Twain wrote in Roughing It that “...Slade was a man whose heart and hands and soul were steeped in the blood of offenders against his dignity; a man who awfully avenged all injuries, affront, insults or slights, of whatever kind—on the spot if he could, years afterward if lack of earlier opportunity compelled it; a man whose hate tortured him day and night till vengeance appeased it—and not an ordinary vengeance either, but his enemy’s absolute death—nothing less; a man whose face would light up with a terrible joy when he surprised a foe and had him at a disadvantage."
Twain is probably referring to the death of Jules Reni, the corrupt station keeper at Julesburg, Colorado. Slade had fired Jeni (also styled as Beni) and in March of 1860 Jules ambushed Slade and left him for dead. Remarkably, Slade survived and in August 1861 Slade's men captured Jeni and legend says Slade went to the scene of his capture and while Beni was tied to a corral fence, tortured him, shooting off his fingers and cutting off his ears for a watch fob, before putting a bullet in his brain.
In spite of Twain’s rhetoric, Slade has only one other kill that can be documented. While division superintendent, he shot and killed Andrew Ferrin, one of his subordinates who was hindering the progress of a freight train, in May 1859. Slade’s fame apparently had much to do with his handle. As Twain wrote, “There was such magic in that name, SLADE!”
And then in came this:
Incidentally, the more likely last name for Jules is Beni, not Reni.
Okay, change made. And then this:
As I just pointed out in my previous e-mail, Slade didn’t kill Jules, and Jules’s last name was Beni (you have it as Jeni once below).
Mark Twain wasn’t referring to the shooting of Jules. Twain’s only meeting with Slade occurred on August 2, 1861. The killing of Jules occurred in late August 1861.
Twain’s description that you quote below wasn’t intended as a portrait of Slade, but as a reflection of the hyperbolic rhetoric Twain heard from Slade's stagecoach employees, to contrast it with the courteous Slade he actually met upon arriving at Slade’s station.
Slade was thought to be vindictive, but actually he wasn’t vindictive at all— quite the contrary. After being ambushed by Jules and left for dead in March 1860, he didn’t pursue Jules. Instead he sent word to Jules to stay out of Slade’s territory, even though Ben Holliday, the stagecoach owner, urged him to seek revenge. Slade didn’t take action against Jules until Jules returned to Slade’s territory in April 1861. It’s all in my book.
Sorry to be so picky. As the late Chicago newspaper editor Harry Romanoff used to say, “Any story will blow up in your face if you ask too many questions.” :)
I responded thus:
Are you kidding?! We love this. Thank you, sir. We want to get it right.
And now you know how we get as close to the truth as we can.
"Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please."