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 western territories, El Paso became a haven for vagabonds, thieves, murderers, and other criminals.
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 border with Mexico 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 full of bullet holes. 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.
El Paso leaders realized they had made a hiring mistake in only a few short days, but a total of thirteen violent, frightening months would pass before they removed the new marshal 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.
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. Eight or nine shots later, Stoudenmire had 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, usually 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, predictably without success.
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 his behavior “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 law was woefully ineffective.
Public sentiment against the marshal had reached a crescendo…and so had 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.”
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. Stoudenmire was hit twice: The first bullet 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 killed him with a shot to 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. No stone marks his gravesite, and all records of the grave’s location have been lost.
An obituary in the Colorado [County] Citizen called Stoudenmire “a brave and efficient officer, and very peaceable when sober.”