Saga of Stage Agent Joseph Slade
Joseph A. Slade was an Overland Stage Line agent around the Fort Laramie, Wyoming area during the 1860s. His job was to oversee the safety of stage property and passengers and he was good at it. That wasn’t an easy task since there was no official law other than the troops at Fort Laramie which had no courts. More often than not folks were obliged to handle their own affairs. Not much is known about Slade’s early life other then he was born in Carlisle, Illinois and served in the Mexican War in 1848.
Slade’s area of responsibility covered over 600 miles and the 1860s were a time when eastern city slickers were becoming fascinated with tales of the Wild West. Many writers of the day traveled westward to get firsthand accounts of these stories. But, finding the frontier not quite the glamorous adventure they expected many wrote accounts that stretched the truth a mite in order to not disappoint their readers. Slade was one of those characters whose stature rose to great heights due to those imaginative writers, although he stood only about five feet and seven inches.
Almost everyone who passed across the mountains on the Overland stage line heard stories about him. And many were just that…stories. Some stories cast him as a notorious killer and villain, but in reality there many outlaws far worse. In fact, Slade killed only one man and that was seen as a matter of self defense. Slade was more a dedicated line agent than anything else, at least for most of his career. And if he terrorized anybody it was holdup men and outlaws.
The basic story involving the man Slade killed was true. But by the time writers and story tellers got finished with it Slade was viewed as a vicious, man hunting butcher. The premise of the tale involves one Jules Beni, a large French bully who had made an enemy of Slade. Beni once put 13 bullets and a load of buckshot into him. Naturally assuming Slade was dead, he gave orders to bury him. As he was about to depart he heard Slade promise he would one day wear one of Beni’s ear on his watch chain. Despite the claim he later cut off one of Beni’s ears, there is no evidence to support it.
Shortly afterwards Jules was disarmed captured and turned over to stage line officials to deal with. They strung him up and let him dangle a while. When the agents felt he had learned a lesson they let him down and said he could go if he promised to never show his face in the area again. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t keep his promise.
Before long Jules was back and making threats against Slade’s life. Wanting to do things properly, Slade went to Fort Laramie and sought to have Jules arrested. He was told the military had no authority to arrest a civilian and off the record, should kill the man himself before he made good on his threats.
So, Slade sent some men to capture him along the stage route at a location Jules was known to be at. Slade followed in a stage coach. Jules was captured and left prisoner at a stage station. When Slade arrived he found Jules in the corral under guard. Without hesitation Slade shot him in the mouth, but it didn’t kill him. Whether his next act was one of cruelty or a gesture of humanity will never be known. Slade told the wounded man he could make out a will if he so desired. A man was sent inside the station to fetch some paper, pen and ink and Jules began writing the document. However, more ink was needed to complete the will, still unsigned. Sometime while waiting for more ink, Slade shot Jules through the head.
Perhaps it was guilt over killing Jules that turned Slade sour. But afterwards Slade became easily enraged and frequently became violent. Officers at Fort Halleck, Wyoming detained him during one violent outburst and refused to turn him over to the stage line unless they agreed to fire him. They did.
Slade, now out of a job, turned bitter and sank into the depths of alcoholism. He drifted aimlessly finding occasional jobs and eventually settled a short distance outside of Virginia City, Montana with his wife Virginia Dale. However his disposition continued to get worse. In his drunken bout he bullied the bullies, broke up saloon furniture and started fights with the few friends he had left and cheated at card games. He was arrested often, fined and warned, but it made no difference.
The town of Virginia City eventually became fed up with Slade’s intolerable conduct and a vigilante committee gathered to decide what should be done with him. Although he hadn’t illegally killed anybody as yet, he was sure to if he was allowed to keep running amuck. It was decided Slade would be hung, the usual fate for such misconduct.
Over 600 minors came down out of the hills to see justice done. Slade was hung. His body was later sent to Salt Lake City and buried there.