Who knows what gets into people? You would think that good parenting would always produce off-spring who turn out to be good neighbors and someone their parents could be proud of —and this is probably mostly true. It isn’t always true, however —and it may be true that the concept of good parenting is a subjective concept. Some parents, flawed themselves, raise flawed children. What we know is that by the time some young people reveal who they’ve become, it’s already too late to correct any of their human deficiencies. This was the way of things for William Preston Longley (1851-1878), who by every account, had attentive, hardworking parents. It was a Texas family, though, at a time when most folks raised their children with a peculiar bias against Negroes.
Campbell Longley and his wife Sarah raised a family of ten children. William Preston Longley was born on Mill Creek in Austin, Texas, the sixth to come along. Campbell and Sarah moved to Old Evergreen, Texas (present-day Lincoln) when Bill was still a toddler. As with most kids, Bill worked on the farm and attended schooling. As with most boys in his time, Bill learned other skills, such as fishing, shooting, and hunting. Bill was 14 years old when the Civil War ended, but of course, the civil war didn’t really end in Texas for many more years.
For nine years following the Civil War, Texans lived in an atmosphere of social turmoil. It was the post-war reconstruction period when the United States government seized all public and political institutions and placed the Union Army in charge of enforcing federal laws. Reconstruction was no more than federal bullying, however, and in our final analysis, the heavy hand of the US Army made matters worse for everyone, white or black. Of course, in 1867, the Yankee blue bellies were already hated in Texas because they represented a rather sudden end to southern culture, even among those who never owned any slaves. Times were tough in Texas, but then, life in Texas was always a struggle.
Under reconstruction, Texans experienced (1) increased unemployment due to military demobilization, (2) widespread discontent with federally appointed governors and legislators, (3) changes to the ways people earned a living or put food on their tables, (4) forced acceptance of freedmen through federal agencies, (5) a destroyed economy with serious implications to trade, land use, and the availability of food, (6) increased land tenancy and sharecropping among whites and blacks, and (7) federal appointment of illiterate blacks to judicial, law enforcement, and taxing bureaucracies. Texans believed that they were being harshly punished by federal authorities —and indeed, they were.
Texas was always volatile and federal reconstruction made it more so. Officially, reconstruction ended in 1877, but its effects lasted well into the 1970s. Lawlessness in Texas increased. White people accused of breaking the law were not going to allow black lawmen to take them into custody, nor did they cotton to the idea of standing before a black magistrate who could not even write his name. Young Texans, like Bill Longley, had few economic prospects. Some of these men became mean and dangerous gunmen.
When Bill Longley reached adulthood, he stood six feet tall, had a slender but muscled build, liked to fight, and never hesitated to use his sidearms to resolve a dispute. Some would say he was a handsome fellow. In 1867, the Longley farm was one mile from the Camino Real, the old Spanish highway between San Antonio and Nacogdoches. In mid-December 1868, three former slaves by the names Green Evans, Pryer Evans, and Ned rode horseback through Evergreen intending to visit friends or family further south. Bill Longley, accompanied by a few of his friends, detained these travelers and forced them toward a dry creek bed. Fearing for his safety, Green Evans spurred his horse into a gallop in an attempt to escape his assailants. Longley and his friends shot Green out of his saddle, killing him. While Longley rummaged through Green’s pockets, Preyer and Ned hightailed it. Longley was never held to account for his part in Green Evans’ murder.
For the next few years, Longley drifted in Texas, patronizing saloons and gambling houses. Some claim that he became friends with the noted gambler Phil Coe, who ended his life by getting into a gunfight with Wild Bill Hickok. In 1869, Longley and his brother-in-law John Wilson went on a crime spree in south Texas. Their activities involved robbery, stealing horses, and the murder of Paul Brice in Bastrop, a freed slave. In 1870, the US Army offered a $1,000 reward for the capture of Longley and Wilson. We aren’t sure what happened to Wilson, but we know that Longley avoided arrest by going to the Dakota territory and joining up with a group of prospectors.
Longley and his gold-hunting party entered the Black Hills illegally. A treaty with the Sioux that prohibited white encroachment into the Black Hills was enforced by the US Army. Not long after entering the restricted territory, a cavalry patrol intercepted the Longley party and escorted them out of the Black Hills. Shortly after this, on 22 June 1870, Bill Longley enlisted in the army to serve with Company B, 2nd US Cavalry for five years at Camp Stambaugh. Within two weeks, Longley decided that army life was too restrictive and deserted his post. Within a few months, the army apprehended Longley, court-martialed him for desertion and sentenced him to two-years confinement at hard labor. For whatever reason, Longley’s commander vacated his sentence and released him back to Company B to finish out his enlistment. Longley deserted again in May 1872.
Longley’s activities for the rest of that year is a mystery to us. We next hear about Bill Longley in February 1873 when he was accused of murdering another freedman in Bastrop County, Texas. While living with his parents in Bell County, Mason County sheriff J. J. Finney arrested Longley and escorted him to Austin where Finney hoped to collect his federal reward. When federal authorities failed to pay, Finney accepted a bribe from Bill’s Uncle Alex and then released him.
By 1875, Bill Longley had earned a reputation as a shootist. He was fast with his guns (he wore a two-gun rig), and deadly accurate. He also favored a shotgun, which he used in the murder of his childhood friend, Wilson Anderson. By every account, Anderson’s demise was an act of retribution for the shooting of one of Bill’s cousins. This may be the reason Uncle Alex bribed Sheriff Finney: so that Bill Longley could even the score in a long-standing dispute. The shooting done, Bill fled north with his brother James. James Longley was later charged in the death of Wilson Anderson but was acquitted.
Longley, aware that he was being pursued by lawmen, avoided arrest by moving around more frequently and taking on different aliases. By 1875, a trend had developed: wherever Longley went, someone ended up being shot. In that year, Longley added George Thomas to his growing list. In Uvalde County, he shot a fellow outlaw named Lou Shroyer. Shroyer was one of the few men who ever returned fire at Longley, but Longley was a better shot, and this is always an important factor in gunfights.
Once more on the run, Longley traveled to East Texas and became a sharecropper for a preacher named William R. Lay. When Longley became a rival with Lay’s nephew for the attentions of a young woman, Longley beat the nephew up. It must have been a heck of a beating because local authorities arrested Longley and placed him in jail awaiting trial. At this time, few things in Texas were more porous than their county jails, so Bill Longley escaped, rode out to William Lay’s farm, and shotgunned him to death. Rev. Lay was the last person known to have been killed by “Wild Bill” Longley.
In June 1877, Longley was living under the name Bill Jackson in De Soto Parish, Louisiana. Nacogdoches Sheriff Milt Mast and his posse arrested Longley and returned him to Lee County, Texas to stand trial in the murder of Wilson Anderson. Having been found guilty as charged, the judge imposed capital punishment. William Preston Longley would hang. His appeal was denied in March 1878 and on 11 October in Giddings, Texas —a few miles from where he grew up— Bill Longley met his fate.
Bill Longley was the subject of several myths and legends, most of which cannot be verified through independent means. Many of these were inventions of Longley himself —motivated, perhaps, by his desire to rival John Wesley Hardin’s reputation as a killer. Before his death, Longley fussed and fumed about the unfairness of his death sentence when Hardin had escaped with only 25 years in prison.
On the date of his execution, Longley mounted the gallows in front of 4,000 on-lookers, led there by Lee County Sheriff James M. Brown. When asked if he had any last words, Longley held up his hand get the attention of the crowd before him and said, “I deserve this fate. It is a debt I have owed for a reckless life. So long, everybody.”
Longley’s transition to the next world wasn’t quick or pleasant. Apparently, his hangman allowed too much rope, so when Longley fell through the trap, his feet actually touched the ground underneath the gallows. The sheriff and two deputies rushed to the area under the gallows, and while the deputies lifted Longley’s feet off the ground, the sheriff pulled Bill Longley downward so that he could be properly strangled. It took Bill Longley more than eleven minutes to die, which is more time than he allowed any of his victims.
- Bartholomew, E. E. Wild Bill Longley: A Texas Hard-Case. Houston: Frontier Press, 1953
- Miller, R. and David Johnson. Bloody Bill Longley: Mythology of a Gunfighter. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2011.