Another Round of Bad Boys

The Wild West saw more than its fair share of criminal capers.

BY RON SOODALTER

Once again, we step out into the dusty street to face down a handful of early Nevada’s baddest bad guys. For those who have read the first two installments of the Outlaws of Nevada trilogy, the list of desperados who chose to make their living the easy way might easily seem endless. Although a few became legend—inspiring ballads, books, and occasional stage productions that glamorized their deeds—most perished prematurely, becoming little more than a footnote in the state’s pantheon of knife- and gun-toting lowlifes.

©Library of Congress

“RATTLESNAKE DICK” THE SECOND

Among the latter was highwayman John Richard Darling. Although he adopted the sobriquet “Rattlesnake Dick” he was not the first to do so, and in fact is suspected of having deliberately purloined the other Rattlesnake’s nom du crime. The original Rattlesnake Dick, a Canadian transplant named Richard Barter, had tired of grubbing in the mines and turned to stealing horses, robbing mining camps, and holding up stagecoaches during the heyday of the California Gold Rush. Until he was shot dead at 26, he was the scourge of the California gold fields.

Nevada’s Rattlesnake Dick was a drunkard, wife-beater, and snitch, as well as a consistently unsuccessful thief. His first brush with prison came in 1866, when he and an accomplice robbed a man after beating him senseless. Sentenced to 14 years for assault and robbery, he was pardoned after serving just five years.

Nevada State Prison circa 1870 ©Nevada State Prison Preservation Society

Dick was freed a short while before the Sept. 17, 1871, breakout at Carson City’s Nevada State Prison—the largest prison break in U.S. history [see “Nevada Outlaws, Part 2” May/June 2019]. He lost no time in snitching on his former fellow inmates. An article in the Sept. 21 “Daily Alta California” states, “Richard Darling, Esq., was pardoned and at liberty several weeks before the break occurred, and we are reliably informed that as soon as he was released he informed an officer in Virginia City that the break would be made, and so fearful was he that he would be implicated as assisting the prisoners from the outside, that he requested the officer to have him ‘shadowed,’ so that he would be able to prove an alibi in case he was suspected.” The authorities ignored his warning, and the breakout went off as planned.

The following year, along with two masked associates, Dick robbed a prominent lawyer and political figure near Virginia City. Shortly thereafter, he attempted to sell the victim back his watch, and was promptly arrested, convicted, and sentenced to a term of 10 years, of which he served eight.

While inside, an altercation between Dick and a former confederate proved lethal. A journalist from the “Pontiac [Michigan] Gazette” wrote in the July 9, 1880, issue, “A dispatch from Carson, Nevada, says that W.R. Chamberlain, a convict, was killed at the state’s prison Thursday by John R. Darling, alias Rattlesnake Dick, his pal in a robbery case four years ago. He was killed with a pick axe.” Dick claimed self-defense, and no action was taken.

Upon his release in 1881, Dick tried honest labor for a change, taking a job as a brakeman on the Carson and Colorado Railroad. Old habits die hard, however, and so did Dick. In August 1883, he argued with a brakeman and fellow ex-convict over a prostitute. Next day, the man shot him dead. John Richard “Rattlesnake Dick” Darling was 43. The “Carson Daily Appeal” of Aug. 24 stated, “Without passing judgment on the method of ‘Rattlesnake Dick’s’ removal, the people of Nevada generally will not go into mourning for his loss. … He called himself ‘Rattlesnake Dick,’ and he very much resembled the reptile aforesaid.”

There was nothing in the life of Richard Darling to inspire admiration. And although a number of folktales, songs, books, and a recent stage play extol the deeds of the late-19th century outlaw who called himself Rattlesnake Dick, they invariably refer to the other more famous iteration.

Gambling den ©Library of Congress

BILL MAYFIELD: ALL FOR DIXIE

William Mayfield was a died-in-the-wool southerner—Georgia-born, and proud of it. And when the Civil War broke out, he was one of many in Nevada to take the Confederate side. At this time, nearly all of Nevada’s magistrates and law officers were Union sympathizers. Along with a friend and fellow Southerner calling himself Cherokee Bob, Mayfield beat a territorial deputy marshal nearly to death. Before the ink on the resultant court papers had dried, Bob wounded another deputy, and fled the state, while Bill managed to kill former U.S. Deputy Marshal and then-current Carson City Marshal John L. Blackburn.

The marshal had a reputation as a tough customer, having killed at least two men who had had the temerity to speak against the Union. Apparently, Mayfield had earlier hidden fugitive Henry Plummer in his cabin, and when Marshal Blackburn came to the door with a warrant, Bill refused him entry. Blackburn then repaired to the local saloon and proceeded to drink himself into a foul state of mind.

©Wikimedia

Mayfield later entered the establishment, whereupon the liquor-impaired Blackburn threatened to arrest him. Mayfield defied him, and by some accounts, Blackburn attempted to draw his pistol. Bill swiftly unsheathed his Bowie knife and stabbed the lawman to death. In the chaos that followed, Mayfield escaped, only to be turned in for the sizeable reward that had been posted on his head.

Bill was jailed in Carson City. When anti-Secessionists in the community threatened to save the court the cost of a trial, the governor sent 50 soldiers to protect the prisoner. Despite being represented by both a Unionist and a pro-Southern lawyer, Bill was faced with an overwhelmingly Republican jury. Not surprisingly, he was found guilty, and sentenced to hang.

However, a female friend smuggled him the tools required to saw through his leg chains, and he escaped on a waiting horse. Mayfield rode to California, and then to what is now Idaho, where he reunited with Cherokee Bob. The two traveled to Florence, Idaho, where they converted a log cabin into a gambling den and became partners.

By this time, the two men had fallen in love with the same woman—an attractive red-headed divorcee named Cynthia—and in a true-life version of the movie “Paint Your Wagon,” they shared her, an arrangement which, at least for the moment, suited all three. In time, however, the situation became untenable, and—friends that they were—the men allowed her to choose between them. She chose Bob, and the partners amicably went their separate ways.

Shortly thereafter, Cynthia’s jealous ex-husband dispatched Cherokee Bob with a shotgun. With his dying breath, he exhorted Cynthia to return to Bill, which she did. Unfortunately, Bill soon followed his bosom friend in death when a card-player took exception to Bill’s dealing skills. Lying in wait as Bill crossed a muddy street, the disgruntled player fired both barrels of his shotgun into the unsuspecting gambler and Rebel partisan, killing him instantly. Bill Mayfield’s luck—he had reportedly won upwards of $50,000 at the gaming tables—had abruptly come to an end.

After a suitable period of mourning both her paramours, the seductive Cynthia turned to prostitution, reportedly becoming even more notorious. According to one chronicler, she “continued to win admirers. Some say she caused more separations, quarrels, and deaths than any other woman in the Rocky Mountains.”

©Library of Congress

NICANOR RODRIGUEZ, THE SPANISH KING

Young Nicanor Rodriguez came by his disdain for hard work honestly. Born to a wealthy family in Spain around 1840, he enjoyed all the luxuries, education, and travel commensurate with a youth of his time and class. And when the 15-year-old expressed a desire to see what life offered in the New World, his indulgent father sent him off to Mexico City with coins in his pocket.

The young teenager soon grew bored with life in the Mexican capital and made his way to Gold-Rush California. Seeking adventure, he joined the robber band of former physician and Mexican War veteran Tom Bell, and was soon robbing travelers in the Trinity Alps. He got more than he had bargained for, however, when a posse put bullets in his arm and leg, and hauled him in for trial.

Sentenced to a 10-year prison term, Nicanor was soon granted a gubernatorial pardon due to his tender age. Failing to take advantage of this stroke of good fortune, he traveled to The Comstock, where he commenced to steal gold and silver amalgams—sometimes, as much as a wheelbarrow-full—directly from the stamp mills.

Virginia City circa 1861 ©Library of Congress

Nicanor also embarked on a successful career of stagecoach robbery. On one occasion, he happened to see a driver loading three silver bars into the boot of the Virginia City-to-Reno stage. After swiftly buying a ticket, he charmed the unsuspecting driver into letting him ride “on the box” with him. Over the course of the journey, he would distract the driver by pointing out an animal, or an oddity of landscape. Each time the driver looked away, the youth would slip a bar from the boot, and throw it to the side of the road, making a mental note where each of the silver bricks landed. Immediately upon arriving in Reno, he hired a buggy and retrieved the treasure.

Nicanor eventually made his home in Virginia City, where the handsome, charming and—thanks to his illicit occupation—affluent gentleman became something of a celebrity. Known for his elegant soirees, to which he invited local magistrates, bankers, and officers of the law, he was commonly referred to as the Spanish King.

©Library of Congress

The dashing young bandit was often suspected and arrested, but never convicted. The local Mexicans looked upon him as a Robin Hood-type figure, although—contrary to the legendary English outlaw—Nicanor stole from the rich and kept the loot for himself.

At one point, he attempted to turn an honest dollar, going into partnership in the operation of an Austin saloon with fellow thief Jack Harris. But as the big strikes moved elsewhere, the town dried up and in time, vigilantes lynched Harris for his crimes. Nicanor returned to his chosen profession and was soon caught with a sack of stolen amalgam. His lawyer, however, convinced the jury that the elegant and obviously well-heeled Spanish King had no need to steal, and he was acquitted.

By now, it had become increasingly apparent that Nicanor was indeed behind the myriad stagecoach robberies in the area. The “Territorial Enterprise” actually referred to him as the “king of Nevada stage robbers.” Now the leader of a gang, he branched out into cattle rustling, stealing the beeves in Utah and driving them across the line to the butcher shops in Pioche.

Eventually, Nicanor was again arrested, and this time it looked as if the charges would actually stick. He broke jail, stole a horse, and headed for Mexico, whereupon his trail grew cold. Aside from stories that later emerged of a mysterious, wealthy, and sophisticated ranchero who raised horses near Mazatlán, no record exists of the Spanish King once he fled across the southern border.

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BILL CARR: AN IRREDEEMABLE CAD

John William “Bill” Carr was a professional gambler who plied his trade in the early Comstock days. He was also a card sharp, and not a very good one. Deciding that his lack of finesse with the deck would eventually land him in trouble, Bill forsook the gaming tables in favor of a highwayman’s lot. He established a pattern of robbing passengers as they approached the Thousand Wells Station on the Overland Trail. According to the Salt Lake City “Deseret News” of December 1860, “After each robbery he would return to the station and stay as long as his plunder lasted.”

Ultimately, station manager and part-owner Bernhard Cherry figured out the nature of Bill’s activities and managed to foil one of his attempts at highway robbery. Bill never forgave him.

Painted by Neil Boyle for Harolds Club, Reno

Sometime thereafter, Cherry grew ill, sold his interest in the station, and moved into a Carson City hotel. Bill, mistakenly assuming that Cherry carried the money from the sale on his person, sensed an opportunity to both enrich himself and exact revenge. He moved into the same hotel, and somehow managed to endear himself to his target. After enticing Cherry with the prospect of an investment opportunity, Bill and an accomplice walked the unsuspecting victim to a remote section of town, whereupon he shot Cherry in the head, killing him instantly. All they found in the dead man’s pocket were a $20 gold piece and a silver half-dollar.

©Library of Congress

Bill and his cohort fled to California, but the two were soon apprehended and extradited to Carson City for trial. Bill’s accomplice turned state’s evidence, and after a one-day trial, the robber, murderer, and former card cheat was convicted and sentenced to hang.

On Nov. 30, 1860, Bill was escorted to a newly-built gallows, which the sheriff had deliberately constructed near the site of Bernhard Cherry’s murder. He was walked up the steps to the platform, and his wrists and ankles pinioned. Around the scaffold stood “a crowd of spectators totaling ten thousand, including five hundred women.” Just before the trap was sprung, Bill suddenly shouted, “Do you see that light? My God! I do at last!” After hanging long enough to “determine that resuscitation was an impossibility,” the body of John William Carr was remanded to an unmarked grave outside of town.

A LAST WORD

In his old age, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who as the young Mark Twain had chronicled the goings-on in Nevada’s rough-and-tumble mining camps, looked back longingly on his time in the Silver State:

“If I were a few years younger I would come out. I would renew my youth…and have the time of my life. I would march the unforgotten and unforgettable antiques by and name their names and give them reverend hail and farewell as they passed[:] the desperadoes, who made life a joy…: Sam Brown, Farmer Peel, Bill Mayfield, Six-Fingered Jake, Jack Williams, and the rest of the crimson discipleship…. Those were the days, those old ones. They will come no more….They were full to the brim with the wine of life. There have been no others like them. It chokes me up to think of them.”

These were, however, the romanticized reminiscences of a disillusioned, wistful old man, who apparently forgot having witnessed an execution in 1868 Virginia City: “I saw a man hanged the other day,” the young Mark Twain wrote. “He was the first man ever hanged in this city…, where the first twenty-six graves in the cemetery were those of men who died by shots and stabs. I saw it all. I took exact note of every detail…and I never wish to see it again…. Ugh!”

For those lawbreakers who committed any of a compendium of offenses, a swift, brutal end was often the result. Bill Carr was far from the only desperado to grace the business end of a short rope. Yet, despite knowing the grisly fate that almost certainly awaited them, scores of Nevada’s outlaws nonetheless chose to follow the path of mayhem and easy money, leaving their victims strewn along the way, and ultimately attaining for themselves a grisly death and only the merest of mentions in the annals of the Old West.

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