Slade, Joseph Alfred
- Mary Lee Spence
Slade, Joseph Alfred (1829 or 1830–10 March 1864), reputed "bad man", reputed “bad man,” was born in Carlyle, Illinois, the son of Charles W. Slade, a founder of Carlyle, an Illinois assemblyman, and a U.S. congressman, and Mary Kane. Little is known about Slade’s childhood or education. In May 1847 he joined the volunteer army and served in the Mexican War, primarily as a teamster, detailed to protect the supply lines to the Santa Fe Trail. Honorably discharged on 16 October 1848, he soon obtained a veteran’s land warrant for 160 acres and returned to Carlyle. From there he fled west, possibly to California, after killing a man with a rock in 1849. The deed may have been justified, for when he returned to Carlyle for a visit in the spring of 1863, he was not arrested.
In the late 1850s, Slade was in the employ of Russell, Majors & Waddell as a freighter and wagon-train boss and gained a considerable reputation as a cool and fearless fighter. When that firm established a passenger and mail service in the autumn of 1859 under the name of the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, Slade replaced Jules Beni at the Julesburg station in the northeastern corner of Colorado and was charged to bring peace to the stagecoach divisions stretching along the southern border of present-day Wyoming. With gun and rope, he moved vigorously against Indian predators, horse thieves, and highwaymen and in so doing became involved in a feud with Jules Beni, who once caught Slade unarmed and unaware and riddled him with bullets and buckshot. Slade recovered, swore vengeance, and eventually trapped Beni. One legend has it that he tied him to a corral snubbing-post and slowly shot him to death in a most cruel manner, although there are discrepancies and disputes about virtually every aspect of this celebrated incident. It is a fact, however, that Slade cut off Beni’s ears and carried them to the day of his own death.
When Russell, Majors & Waddell became insolvent in 1862, Ben Holladay, who took over some of its operations, continued to employ Slade but moved him to division headquarters at Virginia Dale in northern Colorado. Slade’s indulgence in liquor increased, and he became a dangerous hell-raiser. After U.S. Army authorities complained about his destructive spree at Fort Halleck, located at the foot of the Medicine Bow Mountains, Holladay fired him near the end of 1862.
Slade and Maria Virginia (his wife either by formal ceremony or common law) and an Indian boy who lived with them moved to the Fort Bridger area in southwestern Wyoming, where Slade engaged in the freighting business on his own. From there he followed the gold rush to Virginia City, Montana, arriving in June 1863. He acquired mining claims, established two ranches—Ravenswood and Spring Dale—in Madison County, and engaged in freighting. He might have prospered had he not again succumbed to drunken rowdyism, shooting up saloons and stores and terrifying the citizenry of Virginia City and nearby towns. But he did not commit murder or theft and often made restitution for his destructiveness. A final spree during which he defied the People’s Court and threatened the judge was his undoing. Vigilantes at Virginia City and the nearby mining camp of Nevada hanged Slade. His widow put his body in alcohol in a zinc coffin and buried him in Salt Lake City.
So ended the career of one of the West’s gunmen. Reputedly he had claimed twenty-six lives, but he had never robbed or stolen and had risked his life many times so that passengers, supplies, and mails might travel in safety. The Montana editor of the Madisonian (quoted by McClernan, p. 7) noted that five years after the hanging of Jack Slade, “another gunman, ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok, who had gone down in history as a great peacemaker and marshal, was known as ‘the Slade of western Kansas.’ ”
“Jack” Slade’s army discharge papers described him as five feet, six inches tall, with dark complexion, black eyes, and light hair. Mark Twain, who met him at the Rocky Ridge station, east of South Pass, noted that he was “rather broad across the cheek bones” with lips “peculiarly thin and straight” and “the most gentlemanly appearing, quiet and affable officer” he had found along the road.
John B. McClernan, Slade’s Wells Fargo Colt (1977), best documents Slade’s career and includes a good bibliography. Lew L. Callaway, “Joseph Alfred Slade: Killer or Victim?,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 3 (1953): 4–34, gives details about the violent episodes, real and legendary. In Roughing It (1872), Mark Twain devoted two chapters to Slade, one recounting his meeting and reaction to Slade on the overland stage, and the second quoting Thomas J. Dimsdale’s description of the arrest and execution of Slade in his The Vigilantes of Montana (1866).