Slade is one of the West's many paradoxes. He was the Overland Stage Company's most feared enforcer, protecting the route from road agents and keeping the coaches on schedule. Yet on the occasion of his death, Slade missed his connection with the overland stage and was fated to spend eternity in Salt Lake City.
A terror to outlaws, Slade was, by all accounts, a loving husband and loyal friend. But when drunk, he became an uncontrollable, sadistic bully. Joseph Alfred (Jack) Slade came from a respected family in Clinton County, Illinois, served in the 1846-48 Mexican War and came to earn a reputation as a tough man on the frontier.
His story begins in 1858 when the Overland company hired Slade to superintend the Sweetwater Division of the mail line from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Salt Lake City. The division ran from the "Upper Crossing" of the South Platte River to Rocky Ridge on the east slope of the Continental Divide. Stationkeeper at the Upper Crossing was Jules Beni, a sullen bearlike French-Canadian also reputed to be the leader of a band of cutthroats in the vicinity.
The town of Julesburg at the Upper Crossing was founded by Beni, and it had become a rendezvous for traders, Indian-fighters, buffalo hunters, adventurers, bandits and desperadoes who rode into town to divide their loot and squander it riotously. It was Beni's high-handed acts with company livestock and constant feuds arising from them that brought Slade and Beni into open rupture. Jules would not submit to the authority of the division agent and Slade would not brook Jules' interference. Beni had "sequestered" some of the livestock, and Slade recovered it for the company. That brought matters to a crisis.
It was a day in the early spring of '59 when Slade chanced to be at the Upper Crossing station. He, the hired hands and Beni were all in the corral engaged in conversation. After a few moments, Jules walked away from the group and entered his adobe quarters. Slade meanwhile headed for the bunkhouse to get something to eat. As he was about to enter, one of the hands spotted Beni emerging from the adobe with a pistol. "Look out, he's going to shoot!"
Slade, unarmed, turned at the warning and was struck by three shots from Jules' revolver. He staggered but did not fall. With a curse, Beni reached within the open door for a double-barrel shotgun. He fired both charges into Slade's slumping body. "There's an empty crate in the barn. You can bury him in it," Beni said and walked away. But in the dramatic tradition of every Wild West yarn ever spun, witnesses that day claimed a bloody, bullet-torn Jack Slade, breathed through smashed lips and told would-be grave diggers not to bother, that he did not intend to die, but would live to even the score with Beni. And he did.
He was taken into the bunkhouse, his wounds treated and in a few weeks he was removed to the family home in Carlisle, Illinois, where he eventually recovered to return to his duties on the stage line. The company hands, however, had decided to settle things their own way. While Slade was being doctored, they agreed the world would be better rid of cowards. They tossed a rope over a beam trussed between two large freight wagons, put a noose around Beni's neck and pulled him up.
It was at this moment that Ben Ficklin, general superintendent of the line, rode into the station--in time to cut him down before life was extinct. Hearing the story of Slade's shooting, Ficklin--because there was no legal tribunal at hand--ordered Beni to leave the country or be hanged by an informal court. He took the offer and fled. But he hadn't reckoned on Slade's terrible vengeance.
It came in August of 1861, two years after the shooting scrape. Slade was riding east on the stage from Rocky Ridge to his home at Horse Shoe, some forty miles west of Fort Laramie in present Wyoming. He had heard Jules Beni was driving stock out of Denver and would be crossing the Sweetwater Division. Slade had been told, too, that if Beni saw him first, he likely would be ambushed. So Slade and a small party of Overland hands waited for Beni and in running gunfight shot and wounded him.
There are various accounts of what took place next, Slade's friends denying them, and his enemies swearing they were true. But popular history holds that Slade ordered Beni tied to a corral fence and spent the better part of a day drinking and shooting the unfortunate captive to death by degrees. When he satisfied himself that Beni's murderous attack on him had been repaid, he put an end to it with a fatal shot, and in a final act of vengeance cut off the dead man's ears.
The Overland Stage Company, which employed him, and a military tribunal at Fort Laramie, the nearest for 1,500 miles, exonerated Slade after he reported the shooting. He became more troublesome than ever after that. His reputation blackened with each succeeding tale, such as how he responded to emigrant complaints about lost or stolen livestock by confronting a rancher he suspected of rustling, and opening fire through a doorway, killing three ranch hands and wounding a fourth.
Stories of hanging men and of innumerable assaults, shootings and beatings ultimately took their toll with the Overland Company His violent behavior--he was fond of shooting canned goods off grocery shelves--brought about his discharge from the line. Such was the reputation he took with him to Virginia City, Idaho Territory, in the spring of '63.
There were problems in that part of the country that were to have a devastating effect on Jack Slade. A gang of desperadoes had been successful in robbing gold shipments with impunity in the region, and had reached a point at which a Vigilance Committee had been organized to deal with the situation. It had been discovered that the leader of the outlaws was the Sheriff Henry Plummer himself. And the vigilantes set out to correct the matter.
They began hanging men suspected of being in league with the Plummer gang. And on January 14, 1864, strung up five at once. After the summary executions, the Vigilantes, considering their work accomplished; having freed the territory of highwaymen and murders, established a provisional court to try future offenders by judge and jury.
Jack Slade found himself high on the list of community undesirables. It had become a common occurrence for him to take Virginia City by storm; he and his friends would gallop through its main streets, "shooting and yelling like red devils, firing their revolvers, riding their horses into stores and destroying the goods within," while insulting all who stood in their way. Slade had never been accused of murder or even suspected of robbery in the territory. His lawlessness while drunk and his defiance of civil authority led to the belief that as he had killed men in other places, he would, unless he was checked in his wild career, commit the same deeds in Virginia City.
After one of his all-night carouses had made the town a pandemonium--and presumably he had displayed his now infamous shriveled "Jules' ear" to patrons of the saloons he frequented--a warrant was issued for his arrest on disturbing the peace charges. Slade reacted in expected fashion. He seized the writ, tore it into bits, stamped on it in fury, and set out with a loaded Derringer in search of the judge.
The Vigilance Committee went into emergency session. One of its principal men was John Xavier (X.) Beidler, who in his own career had been a store clerk, prospector, pack train operator, freighter, deputy U.S. marshal, and stagecoach shotgun guard, was known for having backbone, despite being scarcely taller than a rifle. On one occasion in Kansas, Beidler was with a party that chased a gang of border ruffians into a blacksmith shop. For want of lead, the posse loaded a small howitzer with printer's type and fired. Those not killed, he said, "had to pick the type from the bodies of their comrades, and that is the way they first learned to read."
Of Slade, Beidler said, "We communed on many occasions as friends. He was an honest man and did not like a thief, but he was a very dangerous man when drinking." And Slade had been drinking a great deal.
With him on the loose and threatening to shoot the deputy and the judge, Beidler made one last effort to avoid what he knew was coming. He asked Slade's friend, Jim Kiskadden, to take Slade home, that a party of miners was headed for town with the intention of carrying out the Vigilance Committee's order. Slade reluctantly turned his horse around and began riding out, when he spotted his quarry near a store. With a gun in each hand, he began an insulting tirade against the judge, the deputy and the storeowner, P.S. Pfouts, who also was the president of the Vigilantes.
At that moment, the miners hove into view with Captain James Williams, a vigilante, at their head. The sight sobered Slade immediately, his only response: "My god!" Williams informed him he had just one hour to live, and if he had any business to attend to, "he had better do it." Beidler later remarked that if Slade had ridden out when he was told, he would not have been hanged.
A group was sent to find a place of execution, and decided on an empty beef scaffold. A noose was thrown over it and. Beidler said, "When Slade's hour expired?he expired with it." Standing on the boxes beneath the scaffold with the rope around his neck, he pleaded for his life. The crowd responded, "Time's up."
Williams ordered, "Do your duty," and boxes were kicked away, plunging Slade into the abyss of death--for having disturbed the peace of Virginia City. When Virginia Slade, who had been summoned at the ranch some dozen miles distant, rode into the city she discovered to her horror she was too late. Her husband had been removed to a nearby store, his clothing arranged and prepared for burial. (A witness reported the date as March 11, 1864; but Slade's headstone has it March 9, 1864.)
The bereaved widow cursed the town, took her husband's body home in a tin-lined coffin filled, it was said, with a keg of whiskey. She swore he would never be buried in this "damned territory," and shipped the remains to Salt Lake City with instructions for the coffin to be transferred to an eastbound stage for Illinois. By the time the roads cleared and the stage reached Utah, it was mid-July, and Virginia Slade's instructions had become confused. Slade's body was transferred to the Salt Lake City Cemetery and buried in the Stranger's Lot, "to be removed to Illinois in the fall." But no one ever came for Jack Slade. And today his remains--and the whiskey that proved his undoing--still await the stage for Carlisle.