Langford Peel: A Dragoon Bugler Gone Bad
By Will Gorenfeld and John Gorenfeld
Copyrighted April 24, 2007
preparing the next edition when a gentleman entered the small newspaper office and stood
silently before him. “Do you not know me?” the stranger finally said, pulling off his hat. The
harried newsman looked up, saw the weathered and worn face, the blue eyes and lingering half
smile, but couldn't place them.
“My name is Bull—John Bull, the man you successfully defended fifteen years ago for killing Langford Peel," said the man. Taking a longer look at the face, the editor discovered it belonged to his old client. (It didn't take much in those days to practice law.) This was the man known for having shot Farmer Peel, the outlaw once known as "the most notorious desperado of the mountains." No one could remember if he'd had been a farmer. But they remembered his murderous aim. Peel, one man wrote, “could fire at the drop of a hat and hit a dollar ten paces away every time." Behind that face "lurked the mind of a killer."
In the West, gunfighters often loomed larger than politicians, editors and captains of
industry. As a young journalist in the Nevada Territory, Mark Twain himself crossed paths
with Peel. He called Peel and his fellow gunmen "brave, reckless men [who] traveled with
their lives in their hands. To give them their due, they did their killing principally among
themselves, and seldom molested peaceable citizens, for they considered it small credit to
add to their trophies so cheap a bauble as the death of a man who was 'not on the shoot,' as
they phrased it. They killed each other on slight provocation,and hoped and expected to be
killed themselves--for they held it almost shame to die otherwise than 'with their boots on,' as
they expressed it."
Remarkably, this killer had begun his career as a respected Army soldier. Peel was born in
Dublin, Ireland, in 1829, and soon immigrated to America. He was practically raised in the
army; his step father served as a private in in the First U.S, Dragoons. At age 12, Peel enlisted
to learn music with the Dragoons at Carlisle Barracks. The year 1845 found him serving as a
bugler with his step father's company at Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin. He stayed behind in Kansas
when his company marched to conquer Santa Fe in 1846 in the Mexican War. But then, when B
Company headed West on the Santa Fe trail in 1847, he joined with his trumpet. Lax in
following dress regulations the dragoons rode on big-boned sorrel horses towards a
confrontation with the Comanches at the Coon Creeks in what is today western Kansas. There
he claimed to have shot and killed two Comanche Indians. (See Wild West, June 2004:
Dragoons vs. Comanches.)
In January, 1848, Bugler Peel accompanied General Sterling Price's Army of the Weston its march into the Mexican State of Chihuahua. At the age of 19, he fought in Battle of Santa Cruz de Rosales on 16 March 1848—a major battle fought after a treaty was signed with Mexico. After the war he continued to soldier in B Company, re-enlisting in 1848 and rising to the rank of sergeant. In his autobiography Five Years a Dragoon, First Sergeant Percival Lowe, wrote of serving with Peel, describing him as being “the best specimen of 160 pounds, five feet, nine inches, naturally bright, clear headed and helpful always . . . a perfect horseman, possessing unlimited courage and endurance, he was a man to be relied on and trusted in every emergency.” Lowe noted several examples of Sergeant Peel’s intelligence and marksmanship.
In 1854, Lowe, while posted at Ft. Union in New Mexico Territory, took his discharged. He recommended that Peel be made the new 1st sergeant of B Company. The two men were close friends and Peel, having married a woman from a prominent family in St. Louis, had named his son Percival Lowe Peel. Sergeant Peel, however, got into trouble with the civilian authorities and, on 20 March 1855. he was discharged from the Army. At 24 years of age, he had already participated in a lifetime’s worth of adventure and his future seemed bright.
While serving with the Army on the frontier, Peel had killed at least three Indians. These killings only wetted his appetite for violence. Starting out as a gambler at Leavenworth City in 1856, Peel prospered. At this time he acquired the nickname of Farmer Peel along with a reputation for both his generosity for those who were down and out, as well as his “dexterity with a revolver.”
Peel drifted west and the year 1858 found him down on his luck and in Salt Lake City, Utah Territory. It was here on September 9th that he encountered a fellow gambler named Oliver Rucker, one of those people to whom he had lent financial support in Leavenworth City. When Rucker refused to loan Peel any money, the latter attempted to pulverize the former with a chair. Rucker fled the saloon only to later confront Peel. Both men drew their firearms and fired simultaneously. The ensuing gun fight left both men lying wounded on the ground, each with several wounds. Peel dragged his body close to the prone Rucker, stabbed him with his bowie knife and cried out. “I’ve got a wife in Leavenworth City, write and tell her I fit to the last minute.” The former Dragoon bugler had suffered three gunshot wounds, but would survive. Rucker was not so fortunate and soon died. The authorities wanted to arrest Peel for murder. Friends treated Peel’s wounds and whisked him out of town. When he fully recovered, Peel rode west to California and then drifted to Virginia City in Nevada Territory.
Farmer Peel’s legendary status as a notorious gunslinger proceeded his arrival in Virginia City—indeed, he had slain six men and when he left town, he would slay another six. Quickly recognized as “chief” of the town toughs, it became necessary for him to defend his reputation. El Dorado Johnny Dennis challenged Peel to a gunfight. El Dorado, wanting to look his best for what he believed was going to be Farmer Peel’s funeral, visited his barber to have his hair trimmed, shaved and shoes shinned. The natty Dennis encountered Peel dealing three card monte and called him out. In the tradition of the old West the two faced one another in the middle of the street and drew their pistols. When the white gun smoke cleared it was El Dorado Johnny who made for a fine looking corpse.
The law-abiding citizens of Virginia City breathed a sign of relief when Peel left town. He took young John Bull, his new partner, with him and headed for the mining camps in Montana. It was in Helena on July 23, 1867, that the Bull and Peel had a falling out. Words were exchanged in a saloon and Peel went for his pistol.
“I’m not heeled," said Bull as he raised his hands.
“Go then, and heel yourself,” said Peel, slapping Bull on the face.
Bull returned to his hotel and wrote some letters to friends giving instructions for the disposition of his property. He then oiled his six gun and went out into the night, looking for Farmer Peel. It was midnight when Bull spied Peel walking down the street with his girl friend on his right arm. Bull came out from the shadows and fired. Peel reached for his pistol, but the badly frightened woman firmly held his right arm. Before he could jerk his arm loose, Bull had fired again and Peel fell. Standing directly over the prone gunfighter, Bull fired a bullet into Peel’s face.
Bull was arrested and charged with murder. Nine jurors voted to acquit him and he was found not guilty. Friends of Peel swore revenge, and following his acquittal Bill left town and wandered all around the west a haunted fugitive known as the "man who killed Farmer Peel." One night in 1898, as Bull walked out on to Howard Street in Spokane with Friskey Barnett. The two had been drinking and got into a fight. Barnett proceeded to empty his pistol at Bull, striking him four times. Bull was not expected to live, but recovered and lived to the age of ninety-three. He died in 1929, in British Columbia.