Occasionally trends in movie-making catch my interest. Not many studios make Western movies now, but two are in the theaters, a remake of The Magnificent Seven and something called Stagecoach.
This return to the Western genre prompted me to think about a relative, an ex-guerrilla fighter of the Civil War named James J. Chiles. I knew Chiles died of gunshot wounds during a fight with a deputy marshal in downtown Independence, Missouri, in 1873. I knew the town had quite a reputation for violence at the time. Being just east of the Missouri River Independence was not the Wild West, but Wild Midwest.
And I knew James Chiles had a long and bloody record. He killed one man before the war and at least four people in fights following the Civil War. He certainly killed a lot more men during the war, because he rode with the rebel bands led by William Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson. He joined in the murderous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, which attempted to shoot down every able-bodied man in the Jayhawker stronghold. Chiles must have been comfortable with guns, lots of them: a typical horseman in Quantrill's group carried six revolvers and a carbine.
Here's a picture of Chiles taken during the war:
My great-great aunts were furious when my parents gave me the first name James, but my folks figured enough years had passed to let it go. Or maybe it was acknowledgment that for all his faults, Chiles was bigger than life. He was on a first name basis with Wild Bill Hickok and Frank and Jesse James. Harry Truman thought enough of him to note that James Chiles was his uncle by marriage. The character "Jack Bull Chiles" in Ang Lee's movie Ride with the Devil is based on James Chiles.
So ... did Chiles's death scene in Independence measure up to what we expect from Western downtown-showdowns? Local papers called him a "noted desperado," after all. First, the odds are against the fight being on an epic scale. There were surprisingly few movie-worthy street battles in all the decades of the real West, and even fewer walk-down duels. Among the authentic battles were the shootout at the OK Corral, the Lincoln County War, and a string of fights about county seats.
These are way outnumbered by fictional face-to-face shootouts, such as those featured in the two Magnificent Seven movies, Clint Eastwood's westerns, High Noon, The Wild Bunch, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Open Range, and heaps of others,
Chiles's death by gunfire was tragic but hardly epic. The newspaper reports don't agree on everything that happened on Sunday, September 21, 1873, but events certainly came quickly:
That afternoon Chiles was upset with a town deputy marshal named James Peacock, and he found Peacock and his son on a sidewalk in the town square. (The reason isn't clear but might have gone back to when Chiles was a lawman himself. Chiles owned a saloon called The Headquarters at this time.)
Chiles had his own son, named Elijah, with him. Chiles walked up to Peacock and slapped the deputy. Peacock struck back and as usually happens in real fights, the men lost their balance and fell to the boardwalk, grappling.
It might have ended there except Chiles' son Elijah saw a revolver fall out of Chiles' pocket as the men separated and started to gain their feet. Elijah grabbed the gun and shot the deputy in the back, wounding him but not critically.
Peacock drew his own gun and shot James Chiles in the forehead, killing him instantly. Peacock's son Charles found another gun and shot Elijah Chiles, who died soon after. Another shot winged the city marshal as he arrived.
By Western standards Chiles probably would have been cast as one of the villains in a black hat, one who falls in the last scene, so perhaps he measured up to some of the fictional standard after all.