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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

California Jim

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

"Who WAS that masked man?" not only is one of the classic lines from "The Long Ranger" television series, it underscores an Old West truism.

Many an outlaw covered his face when robbing a bank, stage or train. But in an era when the telegraph was as high-tech as it got communication-wise, concealing your true identity was not that hard. That certainly was the case with a non-gentleman known as California Jim. Whether he thought up the name or someone else bestowed it is not known.

To further complicate any effort to learn more about him, California Jim was not his only nickname or alias. He also went by "Six-Shooter" Smith (pleasingly alliterative if not particularly original), or, the more formal if still unimaginative, James W. Smith. To muddy the horse trough even more, this fellow wasn't the only bad guy known as California Jim or "Six-Shooter" Smith.

Whatever his righteous name, he may or may not have been born bad but he sure went bad. The only relatively solid information about California Jim is the circumstances leading to his death. One of Texas' meaner if little-known hard cases, California Jim died of sudden onset Winchester disease one summer day in 1882 in the South Texas brush country.

He may have been from Missouri, where on his death bed he said he had a brother who lived in Neosho, just east of the Kansas border. If he did hail from the Show Me State, as a young man, he headed west. Motivated by a desire for money and afflicted with an over fondness for booze, California Jim caused trouble in New Mexico and Arizona and Gainesville in Texas before ending up in Laredo.

Most likely he got there on the International and Great Northern Railroad, which connected San Antonio with the old border town on the Rio Grande. In need of cash, he pawned his six-shooter for $5 and got a job as a cook at the Beehive Restaurant.

On July 17, California had a disagreement with the owner of the eatery and was most likely fired, though accounts of the incident are ambiguous on that point. After collecting his wages, he returned to the pawn shop and got his pistol out of hock. Then he walked back to the aptly named Beehive intent on smoking the owner.

The proprietor prudently notified the city marshal's office and assistant marshal A. A. Johnson soon arrived to preserve the peace. Seeing the lawman about to enter the restaurant, California slammed the door and fired through it as he hastened toward the back door.

The bullet hit the lawman in the chest and traveled around inside his body, piercing his intestines and then coming to a rest near his spine. Still standing, Johnson pronounced that he had been killed but managed to walk to a nearby drugstore. The medical art of the day powerless to save him, Johnson died hard at 3 a.m. on June 19.

California Jim, meanwhile, had fled Laredo and was believed to be heading toward San Antonio. The Webb County sheriff and deputies were hot on his trail.

"There is considerable talk about Judge Lynch disposing of him in case he should be taken alive," the San Antonio Light noted. "In regard to which there are doubts," the newspaper continued, "as he is a very desperate character."

The Laredo officers caught up with California about 20 miles north of town and thought they had him surrounded, but as night fell, he got away. Newspapers erroneously reported that two Texas Rangers had captured California, but that was not the case. Soon, however, a former ranger entered the picture.

After leaving the state law enforcement body in 1881, Charles (Charley) Stephen Smith did what many a former ranger did — he turned to cowboying. The morning after the shooting in Laredo, Smith and 17-year-old Wesley DeSpain happened to be out looking for some horses. But Smith had heard about the killing in Laredo and was alert to the possibility of running into the fugitive. He also knew a $300 reward had been posted for California Jim.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Smith and DeSpain encountered California Jim in the brush near Millett in La Salle County. As soon as California saw the pair, he pulled his pistol and started shooting. DeSpain caught a bullet and went down, seriously wounded. (He recovered, but reportedly was driven insane by the event and died in an institution only eight years later.) Smith, who had killed two men in separate incidents before becoming a ranger, levered his Winchester and put a rifle slug in the outlaw. Though gravely wounded, California got off another round and hit Smith.

The posse trailing California soon rode up on the scene and took the three wounded men to Millett.

Before he died, California said his real name was John Henry Hankins and that there were standing rewards for him in New Mexico and Arizona. He also allowed as how he was sure sorry he shot Smith, saying it was nothing personal. Since he wouldn't be needing it any longer, California said he wanted Smith to have the Colt .45 he'd shot him with. The weapon supposedly had 17 notches cut in its grip.

Smith was taken by train to San Antonio, where he died of his wound on June 25. His body was returned to Fayette County, where he grew up, and he was laid to rest in the family cemetery near Flatonia. The legend is that they buried him with his hat on, his holstered revolver on his waist and his Winchester at his side.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" November 1 , 2018

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