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The Outlaw "Gunplay Maxwell"

Updated on December 1, 2012

Gunplay Maxwell,” was born James Otis Bliss in the Boston area about 1860. He was to use several aliases’ during his lifetime. His father, a hotel owner, provided his son with a good education, but his son was prone to getting into trouble.

It was around 1875, when he got into a bar room brawl with a companion and ended up shooting and killing him. Forced to flee, he headed west towards Texas. However, he eventually wound up in Montana, where he found work as a cowboy. While there he honed his shooting skills. And as was his penchant for getting embroiled in troublesome situations, he soon became involved in the local cattle and sheep wars.

Later, in the early 1890’s, he ended up in the Wyoming and Utah territories where his profession became mainly rustling horses and cattle. Not long after he met a man named Johnson. The two joined forces, stole a bunch of horses, and drove them to Nebraska intending to sell them there.

However, Bliss took off with Johnsons’ share of the ill gotten booty back to Wyoming where he adopted the name of "Catamount." Despite the alias, the law finally caught up with him, charging him with grand larceny. During his trial, Bliss used yet another identity, Clarence L. Maxwell. He was convicted and sent to the Wyoming State Prison in 1893. He was sentenced to three years.

Butch Cassidy

While there he met Butch Cassidy of the “Wild Bunch” fame. Both were discharged about the same time. He and Cassidy continued their association. Maxwell never rode with the Wild Bunch, but it is said he wanted to. However, to his dismay, the gang rejected him. Therefore, he formed his own gang. Apparently, he didn’t have the ‘right stuff’ as his outlaw band soon folded.

Soon afterwards, Maxwell and an accomplice robbed the Springville, Utah Bank netting slightly over $3,000. They were immediately pursued by over one hundred posse members. Maxwell's partner was killed in the ensuing gun battle and Maxwell was captured. He was taken to the Provo, Utah Jail, but oddly enough he never disclosed the identity of his accomplice.

Most of the money was recovered and Maxwell was convicted of robbery. He was sent to the Utah State Prison. His sentence was commuted five years later after helping to stop a prison escape in 1903.

After being released, Maxwell became employed as a mine guard during a strike in Carbon County, Utah. As a sideline he did a little prospecting on his own and in the fall of 1904, Maxwell discovered ozokerite, an odoriferous mineral wax in Colton, Utah. He and a lawyer soon formed the Utah Ozokerite Company. The team hired a superintendent to manage the operations. The mine soon became the largest known ozokerite mine in the world. But mining operations apparently wasn’t his ‘cup of tea,’ preferring his more adventurous role as a gunfighter.

Maxwell was next seen in Goldfield, Nevada using the assumed name of Thomas Bliss. Allegedly he was working as a spy keeping an eye on the union’s striking workers. Once again, the luckless Maxwell found himself involved in the death of a man named Joseph Smith. However, for unknown reasons he wasn’t prosecuted.

The gunfighter soon returned to Utah where in July, 1907 he was involved in yet another gunfight. This time with a railroad foreman named L.C. Reigle. During the shootout, both were wounded. Maxwell was promptly arrested but again, not prosecuted.

Later that year, he appeared in San Francisco with a few more gambits in his ‘bag of tricks.’ This time going by the name of William H. Seaman, he spread rumors he was "a descendent of one of the oldest titled families in Italy." While pretending to be a man of wealth and distinction, he married wealthy widow Bessie Hume in January, 1908. It is said he pawned most of her jewelry. However, she apparently stayed with him and they moved to Ogden, Utah.

Maxwell shaved his mustache, dressed in the latest fashions and kept up the appearance of an "upstanding husband.” But, his enthusiasm for this life soon waned as well. It wasn’t long before he was rubbing elbows with the seedier crowd again.

By June, 1908, Maxwell was again on the move. After making the acquaintance of a William M. Walters they robbed Wells Fargo in Rawhide, Nevada. Both were captured, and released on bail. And again he was never brought to trial.

True to his affinity for finding trouble, on August 23, 1909, Maxwell had a run in with Deputy Sheriff, Edward Black Johnstone, in Price, Utah. Johnstone was charged with stopping a possible robbery Maxwell had been plotting. There was already bad blood between the two as the deputy had previously identified Maxwell as being a "bad man" and an ex-convict to the sheriff of Goldfield, Nevada.

The confrontation occurred when Maxwell informed Johnstone he intended to kill him. The quarrel moved into the street, where Maxwell opened fire, but his shot missed, going through his opponent’s shirt and scratching his arm. Johnstone, in self-defense, returned fire. Maxwell was hit in the elbow and chest, knocking him to the ground. Maxwell attempted to fire again, but Johnstones’ third shot hit Maxwell in the lung. According to witnesses, Maxwell said "Don't shoot again Johnstone, you have killed me." Maxwell died shortly afterwards.

When being prepared for burial, track marks were discovered covering his arms. Opium was also found in his pocket, indicating he was a drug addict. He was, at the time, still using William H. Seaman as an alias. He was buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery and his final resting place lies unmarked to this day.

The Salt Lake City Tribune printed this epitaph: "Whatever his tempestuous career may have been, matters little; his earthly record rests with him in the grave.”


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    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Yes, it was. I should have been where it is now. Thanks for the catch. I don't usually make a mistake like that.

    • profile image

      marian schade 

      6 years ago

      Isn't the picture above Butch Cassidy?

    • How to - Answers profile image

      L M Reid 

      7 years ago from Ireland

      Very interesting story of times past. It was inevitable he would die in a gunfight.


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