Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Stand by Your Man

Her name was Virginia, Maria Virginia, and she’s not nearly as famous as her husband, the roly-poly Jack Slade, who has been the subject of western movie after western movie. We don’t know all that much about her, but we do know that some called her “The Lady McBeth of the Old Frontier.”

While the eastern part of the country was embroiled in civil war, gold and silver were the order of the day in Montana, first with the gold strike at Alder Gulch in 1863. Virginia arrived with her husband soon after the strike, and took to the wild and wooly life of the gold-mining camp.

Captain Joseph A. Slade was a hardworking and daring freightline official. When sober, none could best him in business. When drunk, he became a Wildman, a destructive demon.

Perhaps how Hollywood saw
Virginia Slade
Virginia was a beautiful woman, and some say she was a hurdy-gurdy girl before marriage. Others say she dealt faro, and that’s where she met her husband. He got in a tussle, got shot, and Virginia pulled her two pistols, ran everyone out of the saloon, and patched Jack up. That’s what some of them say.

Apparently she began going by Mrs. Slade in early 1860, but we don’t know the exact date. What we do know is that the schizophrenic Jack Slade was held in a mountain cabin by a gang of his enemies (gambling debt holders, perhaps). They were waiting for their bosses to arrive to decide how Jack was to die. He whimpered and asked to see his darling wife one more time, to tell her farewell. When she received word, Virginia sped to his side on a fast horse. Now she was an expert markswoman and arrived looking worried and carrying two five-shot pistols under her voluminous clothing.

Jack asked to see his wife alone. The would-be lynchers allowed this last request. In fact, they’d not stripped Jack of his own two revolvers, perhaps because they liked the little guy.

Jack and Virginia rushed from the cabin flourishing revolvers, made the guards “get their hands up,” and then rode away on her fast horse.

Virginia and Jack were by no means always villainous.

Take the time they looked after Widow Bartholomew when her husband was killed. Slade killed the killers. He and Virginia took the widow and her two young children in. Slade sold her ranch, got free stagecoach tickets for her and the children to Omaha, and Virginia put her seamstress skills into turning her and Jack’s old clothes into things for them—a year’s worth, they say. So we see that Lady McBeth Slade was not only a good shot, she was also an accomplished seamstress, horsewoman, dancer, and excellent cook. Sometimes wicked starts to look pretty good.

And she did love to dance. Pop Goes the Weasel. Money Makes the Mare Go. Annie Laurie. Villikens and His Dinah. Drink to Me only with Thine Eyes. She out-danced all the other woman, no matter what the tune. And she always smelled good. With lavender water and cinnamon cologne.

In Virginia City (not named after her) she was popular. No one judged her (or him) on their past fortunes or misfortunes. They were judged on what they did today. And Virginia was admired and popular, said a Montana judge.

Still, many’s the night she waited at home, worrying about her rambunctious husband. He who often went crazy and violent when under the influence. She waited in a rock house at Meadow Valley. So often she waited. Even though she and Jack had adopted a boy named Jemmy, her attention was tuned to the sound of horse’s hooves, which would mean Jack had made it safely home.

Mark Twain meets Jack Slade
Jack Slade built his own reputation, achieving a partly self-proclaimed and spurious reputation. Professor Thomas J. Dimsdale, in his book The Vigilantes of Montana, which wss published in 1866, wrote:

Such was Captain J. A. Slade, the idol of his followers, the terror of his enemies and all that were not within the charmed circle of his dependents. In him, generosity and destructiveness, brutal lawlessness and courteous kindness, firm friendship and volcanic outbreaks of fury, were so mingled that he seems like one born out of date. He should have lived in feudal times, and have been the comrade of the Front de Boeufs, DeLacys, and Buis Guilberts of days almost forgotten. In modern times, he stands nearly alone.

And yet, we are at a bit of a loss as to why Jack Slade was hanged.

Under the crossbar of the corral gate where he was hanged, Jack Slade begged for his life. He begged, without effect. Then he played his final card. My wife . . . my dear wife . . . .

Someone sent for Virginia. Riding all the way to Meadow Valley. And she replied as only she could, Junoesque Virginia saddled her Kentucky blood horse and road for the gulch, her hair streaming out behind.

The vigilantes did not delay, but ended Jack’s life and their own existence as well. Jack Slade swung, and his life ended, just as Virginia, furious and with hair loose and horse half dead, topped the last ridge that led into Virginia City.

As author Virginia Rowe Towle writes: The crowd melted before her fury and her grief. Only a few old friends stood beside the body in the Virginia Hotel. Slade’s body was still warm when Virginia threw herself from the saddle and flung herself upon the body of the roly-poly, periodic drunkard.

Virginia refused to bury her Jack Slade in Montana soil. She had him pickled in alcohol and eventually buried him in the old Salt Lake Cemetery.

Let us quote a tale from Towle’s book, Vigilante Women.

When the deep blackness of night settles over Meadow Valley, sometimes softened to a dull gray by the gathering of mists, or punctured by the rays of a silver-white moon, it is said that Virginia Slade swoops through the dale, riding her black stallion covered with foam, her black silk dress billowing in the wind, her hair floating in black streams behind her, her face a dead white, her wild screams tearing apart the eerie stillness of the valley. Her cries pleading for the Vigilantes to spare her husband are said, in their chill dreadfulness, to echo to the very top of the Tobacco Root Mountains. Those who recite this saga of Virginia Slade’s night-ride always shudder and declare “They say it’s a horrible sight . . . and those terrible shrieds can be heard for miles around.”

Legend has it that two sheepherders stopped one night at the Slade house in Meadow Valley, and they were found dead in the morning. Travelers and curiosity seekers since then have not tarried there after midnight.

From Towle's book, Vigilante Women
The partial ruins of the stone dwelling, however, still stand. Half of the building has been destroyed by persons seeking gold, believing tales that the Slades buried gold dust under the house. The other half of the house has given way to the deterioration of time.

But, even the most skeptical residents of old Alder Gulch, especially of Virginia City, shake their heads wonderingly whenever they hear the legend of the raven-haired Virginia, galloping in darkness on her black horse, crying for the life of the man she loved, and they recall that in some parts of the western wilderness she is known as “The Lady McBeth of the Old Frontier.”

To those who believe in ghosts, this chilling legend is plausible; to those who scoff at spooks—well, they also keep away from the Slade house in the darkness of night.

How’s that for a wicked Wednesday?

Soon to come from Piccadilly Publishing


  1. Thank you for adding to our knowledge. What a great story. Doris

  2. Fascinating woman, well told; she must be an inspiration for many a novelist. Thanks, Charlie.

  3. The book--Vigilante Woman--lists a bunch of women who could be models for some of Cheryl and Livia's creations. And Katherine's.(and a bunch more, too)