They were all dirty

Old West GearAccording to some folks, a fellow of the old west named Dave Rudabaugh was known as Dirty Dave because he had an aversion to bathing.  This could be true, since back in the old west there was a conspicuous scarcity of bath tubs, suggesting that nearly everyone was “dirty” and they probably didn’t smell very good, either.  Still, when everyone smells bad, no one notices.

Dave Rudabaugh was a young lad living in his birth-state of Illinois when his father was killed during the American Civil War.  Circumstances cause the family to move to Ohio, and later to Kansas.  It is hard to imagine how young war-widows survived in those days.  Life was hard; even harder if you happened to be witless.

There is an axiom that says, “crime doesn’t pay.”  It’s a lie. Crime does pay, and if that wasn’t true, then there would never have been so many outlaws (then or now).  In the early 1870s, Rudabaugh found himself in Arkansas riding with a band of outlaws who engaged in robbing and stealing from hard-working folks.  There was no honor in such a profession, but then these were not honorable men.  They were bullies who many times acted like a pack of wolves; they preyed on the innocent, the meek, and people unable to defend themselves.  I expect that old west outlaws had an aversion to hard work —and make no mistake, such activities as farming was very hard work.

It was at this time that Rudabaugh took up with sidekicks Milt Yarberry and Dave Mather.  Mather was called “Mysterious” Dave owing to his aloof demeanor.  In 1870, Mather was working as a common laborer and boarded with a cousin.  Rudabaugh, Yarberry, and Mather were suspected in the death of a local rancher.  They may have “told on themselves” because all three men fled Arkansas for safer pastures. Some say the fugitives migrated to Decatur, Texas, but this may not be true.  Mather went back to Clinton, Connecticut and signed on as part of the ship’s crew, eventually making his way to New Orleans.  Rudabaugh is believed to have gone to South Dakota where he found stagecoach robbing a lucrative line of work.

Dave Rudabaugh

Dave Rudabaugh

In 1876, Rudabaugh joined up with Mike Rourke and Dan Dement to form an outlaw band everyone called “the Trio.”  There is no shortage of old west tales; one of these is that while in South Dakota, Rudabaugh taught Doc Holliday how to use a gun, and Holliday taught Rudabaugh how to play cards.  Doc Holliday may have taught Rudabaugh how to play cards, but he was already adept with side arms before leaving Georgia.

In 1877, Rudabaugh robbed a Sante Fe Railroad construction camp and then headed south. Commissioned as a deputy US marshal, Wyatt Earp was sent to fetch him.  Earp trailed Rudabaugh for 400 miles out toward Fort Griffin, Texas. Rudabaugh arrived at the frontier town, situated on the clear fork of the Brazos River a few days before Earp. When Earp arrived, he went in to the Bee Hive Saloon, which was then owned by John Shanssey, whom Earp had known from a young age.  Shanssey told Earp that Rudabaugh has passed through town earlier that week but didn’t know where he was headed.  He suggested that Earp ask a gambler named Holliday about Rudabaugh; they’d been playing cards together a few days back.  This was the occasion that Earp first met Doc Holliday.  Holliday informed Earp that Rudabaugh was headed back toward Kansas.  Earp telegraphed this information to Ford County Sheriff Bat Masterson and Rudabaugh was soon after taken into custody.

If true, then Rudabaugh’s custody was short-lived because in late January 1878, the Trio attempted a train robbery near Kinsley, Kansas.  During the holdup, everything that might have gone wrong did and the outlaws came away empty-handed.  The next day, Sheriff Masterson led a posse (which included John Joshua Webb) and captured Rudabaugh with Ed West.  Rudabaugh made a deal with the county attorney: freedom in exchange for testifying against his friends.

I’ve often mentioned the fact that there was a thin line between being a lawman and an outlaw. This would appear true in the case of Bat Masterson, who after Rudabaugh’s release from the county jail, hired him to join a gang of gunfighters who had been hired by the Atchison, Topeka, and Sante Fe Railway Company during the Railroad Wars.  The Railroad Wars were a series of conflicts between competing railway companies, which were not unusual in the old west.  Most of the time, the fights took place inside a court of law, but there were some violent clashes, mostly in the last quarter of the 19thcentury.

Rudabaugh eventually became a close associate of John Joshua Webb.  After the Railroad War, Rudabaugh and Webb traveled to Los Vegas, New Mexico where they affiliated with the so-called Dodge City Gang—a group of thugs from Dodge City, Kansas, who moved to New Mexico and ended up dominating the political and economic scene (1879-80).  Las Vegas was booming and thought to be the future metropolis in New Mexico.  By this time, the gang included Mysterious Dave Mather and was led by Hyman Neill, whom everyone called Hoodoo Brown.  Brown was a justice of the peace.  Holliday was also in Las Vegas, maintained cordial relations with gang members, but was not a member.

Willaim Bonney 002

Billy the Kid Artist’s rendition

When Webb was arrested for murder in the spring of 1880, Rudabaugh and another member of the Dodge City Gang attempted to break him out of jail.  As with most things in his life, this too was a failure and Rudabaugh shot and killed town deputy Antonio Lino Valdez.  Rudabaugh hightailed it to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where he joined up with Jim Greathouse and William H. Bonney.

On 29 November 1880, Bonney, Rudabaugh, and Billy Wilson ran from a posse led by Deputy Sheriff James Carlyle.  Cornered at the Greathouse ranch, Bonney told Carlyle that they were holding Greathouse as a hostage.  Carlyle fell for this trick and offered to exchange places with Greathouse; Bonney accepted.  Later, when Carlyle attempted to escape, one of the desperados shot him three times, killing him.  When the posse withdrew, Rudabaugh, Bonney, and Wilson escaped.

A few weeks later, still riding with Bonney and accompanied by Wilson, Charlie Bowdre, Tom Pickett, and Tom O’Folliard, the men rode into a trap laid for them at Fort Sumner.  Unknown to the outlaws, a posse led by Pat Garrett was waiting for them.  The lawmen opened fire, killing O’Folliard, but the rest of the gang got away.

At Stinking Springs, near present-day Taiban, New México on 23 December 1880, Pat Garrett’s posse captured Dave Rudabaugh, Billy the Kid, Billy Wilson, and a few others.  They were taken in custody to Las Vegas, but the danger of a lynch mob prompted Garrett to move them to Sante Fe.  In February 1881, while in court, Rudabaugh pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison for several counts of mail robbery.  He was then found guilty of the murder of deputy Valdez and sentenced to death by hanging.

In jail, Rudabaugh was reunited with Webb.  The two men escaped jail, during which time a fellow prisoner named Thomas Duffy died. Rudabaugh fled to Arizona.  Some believe that Rudabaugh had signed on with the Cochise County Cowboys and was present at Iron Springs when Wyatt Earp killed Curly Bill Brocius.  The breakup of the Clanton Gang send Rudabaugh into Mexico, where he worked as a cowboy and a rustler.

Tequila CactusOn 18 February 1886, Rudabaugh was playing cards in Parral, Chihuahua when a dispute erupted. Rudabaugh drew his gun and killed two men, wounded a third, and left the saloon unharmed.  Then, being unable to locate his horse, Dave re-entered the saloon a few minutes later.  This was Rudabaugh’s final mistake because as he entered the saloon, someone standing in the shadows shot him several times.  Rudabaugh was then decapitated with a machete and his head placed on a pole at the outskirts of town.  At the time of his death, Rudabaugh was 31-years old.

Dirty Dave Rudabaugh’s story is interesting.  It proves that you don’t have to be very bright to live an exciting, if somewhat abbreviated life.  Since his head was left on the pole for several weeks, no one attended his funeral.


  1. Weiser, K.“Dirty Dave Rudabaugh: The only man Billy the Kid feared.”  Article, Legends of America online.
  2. Bell, B. B.“Billy the Kid & Pat Garrett vs. A Las Vegas Mob.”  Article, True West Magazine online.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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6 Responses to They were all dirty

  1. Kid says:

    That sounds like some serious traveling by horse.

    We still have people like that today. For example, Bob DiNero’s wife is divorcing him because for one thing, he doesn’t bathe much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Well, I’m quite sure you won’t be surprised to learn that little Bobby De Niro suffers from all of the seven deadly sins of narcissism. The guy’s a real whacko, and apparently without friends who might in good faith tell him, “Get some help.” De Niro became a citizen of Italy in 2008 … so there you go.


    • Kid says:

      His brain is gone, and thinking about it for a couple seconds, he’s also a poor one note actor – Always plays an angry dude.


  2. Andy says:

    Got a kick out of this bio. Kept waiting for someone to shoot this miserable SOB, but he kept escaping. Finally, got what he had coming in a saloon. Cutting his head off was a nice touch although his poor mom probably didn’t think so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      There are some people who encounter bad circumstances for whom we can say, “They didn’t deserve that.” Then there are others who deserve every bad thing imaginable and never seem to get their just reward. Well, it did take some time for Dave to gain first-hand experience with justice. He was only 31-years old when he lost his head. Heck of a price to pay for being a miserable SOB. Some might argue that Dirty Dave never had a mother …


  3. Pingback: Milt Yarberry | Old West Tales

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