The “Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight” became one of the most famous gunfights in the Old West.
It began with racist invective: “Any American that is a friend of Mexicans ought to be hanged!” shouted George Campbell, the former city marshal of El Paso.
His harangue was directed at El Paso County Constable Gus Krempkau. Krempkau had assisted a group of vaqueros from Mexico in tracking down two of their comrades who had gone missing. The bodies of the two men were found near the ranch of Johnny Hale, a cattle rustler.
Two of Hale’s ranch hands were heard bragging about killing the Mexicans. They were arrested by Texas Ranger Ed Fitch and taken into El Paso, where an inquest was held. Constable Krempkau, who knew some Spanish, was asked to interpret for the judge. A crowd that included Johnny Hale gathered around the courthouse. Hale’s cowboys were formally charged with the murders. Racial tension built up, and the judge recessed the inquest to let the mob cool off.
On April 14, 1881, Constable Krempkau went to a saloon in West El Paso to collect a rifle and pistol. As he was leaving on his mule and placing the rifle in a scabbard, Campbell hurled his insult. There had been previous bad blood between them.
A very drunk Larry Hale grabbed one of Campbell’s pistols and shot Krempkau in the lungs.
Dallas Stoudenmire had been sworn in three days earlier as the sixth town marshal in eight months.
The marshal was eating dinner across the street when the gunfight began. He ran out with his handgun drawn. His first shot struck a Mexican leaving a store with supplies. The second shot dropped Hale dead on the spot. Constable Krempkau thought it was Campbell who had shot him. He still had enough life in him to shoot Campbell both in the hand and in the foot. Campbell retrieved his fallen pistol.
Stoudenmire spun round and fatally wounded Campbell, bringing the total fatalities to four, one by accident, in a five-second span.
Stoudenmire’s fame made him a marked man. Campbell and Hale had many friends.
He had been town marshal in Socorro, New Mexico. His brother-in-law, El Paso resident Stanley “Doc” Cummings, urged him to apply as town marshal in El Paso.
The City Council asked him to remove the keys to the jail from Deputy City Marshal Bill Johnson, a well-known drunkard. When Johnson refused to comply, Stoudenmire grabbed him by the legs and shook the keys out of his pocket. He then threw the publicly humiliated man on the ground.
After unsuccessfully trying to charge Stoudenmire with murder, Hale and Campbell’s friends hired the mortified Johnson to assassinate the marshal.
On the night of April 17, the drunkard hid behind a brick pillar with a shotgun. When he heard the marshal and “Doc” Cummings approaching, his legs began to shake, and he fell over backwards, discharging his double-barreled weapon. Stoudenmire drew both his pistols and fired eight rounds at Johnson, severing his testicles. Johnson bled to death.
Over the next 10 months, Stoudenmire fatally shot another six miscreants either during the commission of crimes or while attempting to evade arrest. Crime in what was arguably the wildest city in the West came to a virtual standstill.
Stoudenmire was still an outsider among the closely knit elites of El Paso. Moreover, and he had a bad temper. “Doc” was the only person who could hold it in check. When “Doc” was killed in a gunfight, a drunken Stoudenmire threatened the City Council with his pistols drawn.
In September 1882, the now ex-city marshal was killed by the Manning brothers, who had killed “Doc” Cummings.
While El Paso’s ferocity only briefly subsided, Dallas Stoudenmire proved that it could be tamed. It was the first step in making El Paso del Norte the relatively peaceful city that it became in modern times.
In preparing this article, l am grateful for the lectures and articles by the late Charles L. Sonnichsen at the University of Texas, El Paso and his classic “Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande“ (2 vols., El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1968, 1980); Leon Claire Metz, “Dallas Stoudenmire: El Paso Marshal,” Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979; and Fred R. Egloff, “El Paso Lawman: G. W. Campbell” (College Station, Texas: Creative Publishing, 1982).