Wild Bill Longley: ‘The Most Dreaded Man North of the Rio Grande’

Kathleen Rice Adams header

The years following the American Civil War were particularly difficult for Texas. The state fought reunification for five long years, insisting it had the right to become an independent republic once again. While the U.S. Army attempted to enforce martial law and the feds dragged the battered would-be empire before the Supreme Court, outlaws, freedmen, and carpetbaggers flooded the wild and wooly, wide-open spaces.

The era produced some hard men. None were harder than Wild Bill Longley.

The sixth of ten children, William Prescott Longley was born October 6, 1851, on a farm along Mill Creek in Austin County, Texas. His father had fought with Sam Houston at San Jacinto. Little is known about Wild Bill’s youth until December 1868, when, at the age of sixteen, he killed his first man — an unarmed former slave he claimed was cursing his father.

Wild Bill Longley
William Prescott “Wild Bill” Longley

The episode set Longley on a path he would follow for the rest of life.

After the black man’s murder, Longley and a cousin lit out for southern Texas. They spent 1869 robbing settlers, stealing horses, and killing freed slaves and Mexicans — men and women. A virulent racist with a hair-trigger temper and a fast gun hand, Longley quickly gained a reputation for picking fights with any whites he suspected of harboring Yankee sympathies or carpetbagging. In early 1870, the Union occupation force in Texas placed a $1,000 price on the cousins’ heads. Longley was not yet nineteen.

Not that he saw the bounty as a cause for concern. Standing a little over six feet tall with a lean, lithe build and a gaze described as fierce and penetrating, Longley “carried himself like a prince” and had “a set of teeth like pearls.” One newspaper writer called him “one of the handsomest men I have ever met” and “the model of the roving desperado of Texas.” The same writer called Longley “the most dreaded man north of the Rio Grande”: What his looks couldn’t get him, the brace of fourteen-inch, six-shot Dance .44 revolvers he carried could.

As news of the reward spread, Longley and his cousin separated, and Longley took up with a cattle drive headed for Kansas. By May 1870 he was in Cheyenne, Wyoming; by June, he was in South Dakota, where for unknown reasons he enlisted in the army. Within two weeks he deserted. Capture, court-martial, and prison time followed, but evidently none of that make a big impression. After his release from the stockade, Longley was sent back to his unit. In May 1872, he deserted again and lit a shuck for Texas, gambling, scraping — and killing — along the way. Folks as far east as Missouri and Arkansas learned not to get in his way, not to disagree with him, and for heaven’s sake not to insult Texas. Longley was rumored to have shot white men over card games, Indians for target practice, and black folks just for fun.

By the time he killed another freedman in Bastrop County, Texas, in 1873, Longley was well beyond notorious. The murder jogged a local lawman’s memory about the federal bounty still outstanding from 1870. The sheriff arrested Longley, but when the army wasn’t quick to hand over the reward, he let the surly gunman go.

Longley visited his family, worked a few odd jobs, and fended off several reckless sorts who hoped to make a name by besting a gunman known as one of the deadliest quick-draw artists in the west. In March 1875, he ambushed and killed a boyhood friend, Wilson Anderson, whom Longley’s family blamed for a relative’s death. That same year, Longley shot to death a hunting buddy with whom he’d had a fistfight. A few months later, in January 1876, he killed an outlaw when a quarrel-turned-ambush became a gunfight.

Illustration of Longley's hanging from National Police Gazette, Oct. 26, 1878
Longley’s end (National Police Gazette, Oct. 26, 1878)

On the run, using at least eight different names to avoid the multiple rewards for his capture plastered all over East Texas, Longley hid out as a sharecropper on a preacher’s cotton farm, only to fall for a woman on whom his landlord’s nephew had staked a prior claim. Longley killed the nephew, then took off across the Sabine River into De Soto Parish, Louisiana. Reportedly turned in by someone he trusted, the law caught up with him on June 6, 1877, while he was hoeing a Louisiana cotton field, unarmed.

Though historians dispute the figures, Longley confessed to killing 32 men, six to ten of them white. Later, he retracted that account and claimed eight kills. A court in Giddings, Texas, convicted him of only one murder, Anderson’s, and sentenced him to hang. While awaiting execution, “the worst man in Texas” wrote his memoirs, embraced Catholicism, and filed a wagonload of appeals. All of them were denied.

Facing an ignominious end, Longley seems to have had a change of heart. On the day of his execution, October 11, 1878, the 27-year-old sang hymns and prayed in his cell before mounting the gallows “with a smile on his face and a lighted cigar in his mouth.” After the noose was placed around his neck, the man the Decatur [Illinois] Daily Review described as “the most atrocious criminal in the country” held up a hand and addressed the crowd:

“I see a good many enemies around me and mighty few friends. I hope to God you will forgive me. I will you. I hate to die, of course; any man hates to die. But I have earned this by taking the lives of men who loved life as well as I do.

“If I have any friends here, I hope they will do nothing to avenge my death. If they want to help me, let them pray for me. I deserve this fate. It is a debt I owe for my wild, reckless life. When it is paid, it will be all over with. May God forgive me.”



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16 thoughts on “Wild Bill Longley: ‘The Most Dreaded Man North of the Rio Grande’”

  1. Very interesting post, Kathleen. I sure would have hated to run into Longley back then. Seems he did pretty much what he wanted to whom he wanted. No morals whatsoever. A scary combination. Makes me wonder what his family was like and what his time at home as a young boy was like. Definitely a very romanticized view of the wild west!

    • I’ll bet he was scary. I sure wouldn’t have wanted to run afoul of him. Is it any wonder he was only 27 when he died? His conversion at the end of his life kinda surprised me. I’d have thought he was faking in hopes of receiving clemency, but his last words make me think perhaps the change was sincere.

      Thanks for commenting, Kathryn! 🙂

  2. Interesting post. Not surprising he may have a change of heart before hanging. Sounds like a dangerous guy during that time.

    • Longley was universally acknowledged as the worst man in the west during his short lifetime. I didn’t find it all that surprising he’d convert at the end, either.

      Thanks for stopping by, Kim! 🙂

  3. Kathleen, what an interesting post! I’d heard a lot about him and this told me more. I’ll bet he was something to steer clear of. By the way, I love your new website design! That’s awesome. It definitely leaves not doubt about what you write. Graphics are big and bold and take you right to the heart of the old West! Good job. I’m so envious.

    • Thank you for the compliments on the website, Linda! It’s still a work in progress (someone reminded me earlier today that I need to add some additional pages — like one for links to other authors), but it warms my heart to know you like it. 🙂

      I think I would have gone way around Mr. Longley, which is such a shame. Who wants to avoid an attractive man packing heat? 😉

      HUGS, dear friend!

  4. Excellent article Kathleen. Have you done or ever thought about doing an article on Cullen Baker?

    • James, I haven’t written anything about Cullen Baker, but he would make an excellent subject, wouldn’t he? Thanks for the suggestion! 🙂

      Hope you’re staying dry over there in the lowlands, you ol’ coot! 😉

  5. Lord love the outlaws. Texas raised more than their fair share of ‘lawbreakers’, but I think the environment may have played a big role in the development of a portion of those so named. Many times, the times and stresses on a person bring out parts of a personality that might never show itself.

    Now having given my sociology lesson, this was a great post. Thank you for adding to my knowledge. Doris

    • LOL, Doris! I agree with your sociology lesson. The federal government kept its boot firmly planted on Texas’s neck for five years after the Civil War ended. The Union didn’t trust Texas…and, frankly, they probably had good reason to feel that way. Being on the losing side of a war mightily offended Texan pride, and the Reconstruction policies of General Philip “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” Sheridan only aggravated the situation. All of that undoubtedly had a powerful effect on some impressionable young minds.

      Thanks for visiting. You always add to any discussion we’re lucky enough to drag you into. 🙂

  6. I’m always amused at how many criminals found religion when facing the executioner. Always trying to sneak into heaven through that back door. Good article, Kathleen.

    • Thanks, JD! You know, those gallows professions of faith are just downright amazing, aren’t they? The number of killers who repent of their sins when facing their own mortality is staggering. 😉

      Thanks for dropping in, guy! It’s always good to see you. 🙂

  7. What a blood thirsty individual. Yes, he was good looking, but inside, he wasn’t handsome at all. It doesn’t seem that he valued life at all. It certainly didn’t ale much to have him kill someone. His end is a bit surprising. One can hope he truly did regret his actions and was sincere in his final speech. Unfortunately, that didn’t help his victims or their families. One has to wonder how anyone can justify such behavior.
    Thank you for an interesting post.

    • Patricia, I don’t know how anyone can get inside the head of someone who thinks the way Wild Bill Longley must have thought. Can you imagine carrying all that hatred and violence around with you and evidently reveling in it? Some people learn early on that life is cheap…except for their own. The waste of potential — in both the killer and the victims — is just sad.

  8. I wonder sometimes why some people who come from decent families just can’t do right. It’s like something inside them is just broken. Well, he may have made an honest attempt to get right with the Lord there at the end, but somehow, it just seems like a desperate man pulling at straws.
    Great blog, Kathleen. I never heard of Bill Longley before, so this was very interesting reading.

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