The Tragedy of Texas JackTexas Jack Omohundro and Giuseppina Morlacchi’s doomed romance
Texas Jack could have been the person about whom the phrase “tall, dark and handsome” was coined. And Giuseppina Morlacchi was a heartbreaker. She was a ballet dancer from Italy and he was a cowboy from Virginia. Born John Burwell Omohundro, he later decided that “Texas Jack” was a lot easier for people to remember, and pronounce. She moved to the United States at age 21 to perform and never left. Theirs became a fairy tale romance, forged in the imaginary West of the stage but eventually broken in the real West.
After fighting on the side of the Confederacy under Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, John Omohundro moved to Texas at the end of the war. There he got involved with cattle herding, driving cattle north along the Chisholm Trail to railheads in Kansas several times. It may have been on one of those drives that he made the decision to relocate once again, moving first to Fort Hays, Kansas, and then to the North Platte, Nebraska, area. Drawing on his past experience, including time spent as a scout during the Civil War, Omohundro picked up odd jobs scouting, hunting and guiding. He also became “Texas Jack.”
In 1869, Texas Jack met William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was also scratching out a living scouting, hunting and guiding. They became fast friends, scouting together for the Army and engaging in hunts with the likes of the Earl of Dunraven and Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. They also caught the attention of dime novelist Ned Buntline. In late 1872, their fortunes changed when he invited them to become stars of Scouts of the Prairie, a play he was creating. The cast was strengthened by the presence of the noted ballerina and actress Mademoiselle Giuseppina Morlacchi.
Born in Italy, Morlacchi was the same age as Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill. She became a classically trained dancer, traveling throughout Europe until her American ballet debut in 1867. She introduced the can-can to the country the following year. A fine actress as well, she was soon appearing in the major cities of the American Northeast. Just weeks before his buffalo hunting expedition with Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, the Grand Duke Alexis saw Morlacchi on stage. Buntline also saw her and recruited her to join his new play.
Giuseppina did not come alone to the United States. She was accompanied by her manager of five years, John Burke, who was smitten by her. He had presented her with rings and was planning on settling down with her in a house in Lowell, Massachusetts. Those dreams ended when she met Texas Jack. For the Virginian and the Italian, it was love at first sight. She returned the rings to John Burke and pledged herself to John Omohundro. Heartbroken, Burke wore the rings and never married. Instead of devoting his life to her or to any another woman, he spent it instead promoting his new friend Buffalo Bill. It was a task he pursued until Cody’s death.
With Scouts of the Prairie’s combination of the two well-known scouts with the lovely and talented Morlacchi, the 1872-73 season of the road show was a resounding success. The relationship between Morlacchi and Omohundro was also a success; they were wed on August 31, 1873. The following year Texas Jack, Morlacchi and Buffalo Bill struck out on their own with a new play, Scouts of the Plains, and a new co-star, their friend Wild Bill Hickok.
Hickok, who was never very excited about acting, was the first to leave the combination after several months. The Omohundros parted amicably with Buffalo Bill in 1876 to create their own troupe, re-enacting scenes from the West on stage. They happily toured together for the next several years, with periods of relaxation at the Massachusetts home once desired by John Burke. Finally their show business career took them to Leadville, Colorado, for a series of performances. They decided to stay in the Rocky Mountain West rather than return to Massachusetts.
Three months into their stay, Texas Jack succumbed to pneumonia in Leadville, dying on June 28, 1880. The fairy tale romance had lasted just seven years. Grief stricken, Giuseppina Morlacchi departed for their Massachusetts home, never to return to the stage, and died of cancer six years later.
Author’s Note: Texas Jack Omohundro is buried in Leadville’s Evergreen Cemetery. In 1908, Buffalo Bill commissioned a permanent granite marker in his friend’s honor. In 1994, Omohundro was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Western Performers.
Battle-Tested in the RockiesMountain man Patrick Gass deserves more attention in accounts of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
In 1925, Kathryn Downing-Smith, the wife of one of Patrick Gass’s grandsons, wrote a letter to her niece Pearl about Gass. She offered keen insight into a man who, until his dying years, had been a soldier and teller of tall tales of his time with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the Rocky Mountain West.
“In height he [Gass] was medium, had gray-blue eyes, and dark brown hair. You will see the resemblance in their faces and you will recall mother’s stalky build, and she is very light on her feet,” she wrote.
“She must be like him in disposition too, for I have never heard her complain of her deafness and is even tempered, always making the best of hard circumstances, quiet, methodical, and persevering….
“He was sociable and liked company. Many people came to hear him tell of his experiences on the [Lewis and Clark] expedition. He always spoke with praise for Lewis and Clark…[and] he had a black cat which he named Sacagawea for the Indian woman who accompanied them.”
Gass lived the waning years of his life far from the wilds of the Rocky Mountains, in Wellsburg, West Virginia, which is situated roughly between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. He died there on April 2, 1870, just before his 100th birthday, far outliving any of the other Corps of Discovery members.
Sought for Corps of Discovery
Born on June 12, 1771, near Chambersburg, in central Pennsylvania, Gass later moved to the central part of the state with his family, serving in the local militia and working as a carpenter. In 1779, Gass enlisted in the regular Army and was stationed at Fort Kaskaskia in Illinois Territory. That post is where, in 1803, an equally young and ambitious man named Meriwether Lewis, with orders from U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, sought Gass for a most singular task: to join the celebrated Corps of Discovery.
The mission of the Corps was to chart a path to the Pacific Ocean in the newly-opened expanse of territory recently acquired by the U.S. from France in the Louisiana Purchase.
After the expedition left St. Louis, Missouri, and ascended the Missouri River, Sgt. Charles Floyd died in what is now known as Floyd’s Bluff in Sioux City, Iowa. The 22-year-old sergeant died on August 20, 1804, from a ruptured appendix.
Captain William Clark’s journal entry for that day read (typos left intact): “Floyd Died with a great deal of Composure…. We buried him on the top of the bluff. 1/2 Mile below [is] a Small river to which we Gave his name, He was buried with the Honors of War much lamented, a Seeder post with the Name Sgt. C. Floyd died here 20th of August 1804 was fixed at the head of his grave.
“This Man at all times gave us proofs of his firmness and Determined resolution to doe Service to his Countrey and honor to himself. after paying all the honor to our Decesed brother we camped in the Mouth of Floyd’s River about 30 yards wide, a butiful evening.”
That same night, the men elected Gass to serve as sergeant in Floyd’s place.
Floyd’s untimely passing was fortunately the only one of the entire 1804-05 expedition. Despite the sadness of the affair, all was not lost for the Corps. In Gass’s journals, he wrote of spending Christmas at Fort Mandan that year: “This evening we finished our fortification. Flour, dried apples, pepper and other articles were distributed in the different messes to enable them to celebrate Christmas in a proper and social manner.”
The completion of the fort was cause for celebration. On Christmas Day, Gass wrote: “Captain Clark then presented to each man a glass of brandy, and we hoisted the American flag in the garrison, and its first waving in fort Mandan was celebrated with another glass. The men cleared out one of the rooms and commenced dancing, which was continued in a jovial manner till 8 at night.”
The expedition built the fortified encampment along the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota. Gass’s skills as a carpenter were put to good use in constructing Fort Mandan.
Gass also oversaw the construction of winter quarters at Camp Dubois and Fort Clatsop. He hewed dugout canoes in Mandan, near White Bear Island in present-day Montana, and Canoe Camp, in Idaho, and constructed wagons to portage the canoes to the Great Falls in Montana Territory.
Not everything was a success. Gass also helped Lewis try to build his experimental iron frame boat near the Great Falls. Lewis had conceived of the idea back East, believing a lightweight and maneuverable boat would allow the expedition to make good time.
Once Lewis unpacked the boat, however,he realized the lack of pine trees meant he didn’t have a substance to make the pitch to seal the boat.Working obsessively, Lewis devised a makeshift formula of buffalo tallow, bees wax, charcoal and hides for the seal, but it proved unsuccessful.
“…to make any further experiments in our present situation seemed to me madness; the buffaloe had principally deserted us, and the season was now advancing fast,” wrote Lewis on July 9, 1805.
The Intrepid Fighter
After Gass returned to civilization in September 1806, he sought out and formed a partnership with David McKeehan, a Pittsburgh book and stationery store owner, to edit his expedition journals.
Gass, by his own admission, “never learned to read, write, and cipher till he had come of age.” Much of Gass’s journals paraphrase original field notes, which were destroyed during the initial publication.
Issued in 1807, Gass’s journal is important not only for its contents, but also for being the first published journal of the expedition, seven years before the first publication based on Lewis and Clark’s journals. The title page featured “Corps of Discovery,” and thus, Gass is credited for popularizing the name coined by the explorers.
Now middle-aged, Gass returned to military service and found himself stationed at the same fort in Illinois Territory he had been so eagerly recruited from in 1803. Gass saw service in the War of 1812. Two years later, he saw action at one of the war’s bloodiest battles in Niagara Falls, Canada, the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. During that battle, a falling and splintering tree caused Gass to lose one of his eyes.
Despite his injury, the intrepid fighter persisted. He wouldn’t stop until after the U.S. and Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent that ended the war.
In the years following the war, Gass found himself with little excitement and took to drinking and relaying to anyone who would listen stories of his days with Lewis and Clark in the Rocky Mountains.
He worked variously as a brewer, a ferryman and a carpenter. His respectable living was strengthened by the 1827 death of his father, who left Gass a sizable inheritance.
By 1829, Gass, now 58, had fallen in love with a 20-year-old woman. The two married in 1831, and, over the next 15 years, she bore him seven children. She tragically died of measles in 1846.
In 1860, he was kicked out of a local recruiting station for insisting on fighting in America’s Civil War. The chief complaint against Gass was not his fighting spirit, but his age, about 90 years old.
While Gass’s later years did not exhibit the excitement and adventurous spirit of his youth, he felt they were of equal importance, as reflected in Downing-Smith’s 1925 letter:
“Up to four years before his death when he became helpless, he walked weekly to Wellsburg to get the Wellsburg Herald for which he subscribed. At home he read the paper [and] cared for the small children. He was exceedingly fond of small children. The boys he held, one on either knee, and sang to them “Yankee Doodle,” queer Irish songs, and nonsense rhymes. This is one of them:
“A blue bird sat on a hickory limb;
He winked at me and I winked at him;
I up with my gun and broke his shin
And away the feathers flew!”
Erik J. Wright is an emergency management coordinator, in northeast Arkansas, an assistant editor for The Tombstone Epitaph newspaper and author of four books. He got his start in publishing at 16, when True West published his first article.
Jack Swilling might well be called Arizona’s “Forrest Gump” because seems to have had a penchant for being involved in a number of historic events in Arizona’s early history.
In 1858 he was a prospector at Gila City, site of the first gold rush. When Tonto Apache and Yavapai Indians raided the new camp, Jack was elected leader of a group of rangers whose mission was to protect the prospectors.
A couple of years later he was in Pinos Altos, New Mexico, where miners were being attacked by Mimbres Apache under the leadership of the great chief Mangas Colorados. Jack was elected lieutenant of a militia group who called themselves the Arizona Rangers.
During that time the Civil War broke out Southern forces from Texas invaded New Mexico and the rangers were drafted into the Confederate Army. Lieutenant Jack Swilling joined a force of some 100 Texans who arrived in Tucson and created the Confederate Territory of Arizona. Jack was familiar with the land and proved invaluable assisting the Texas guerilla tactics along the Gila River trying to impede a Union force of some 2,000 troops from California who were coming to retake Arizona.
The Union forces vastly outnumbered the Rebs and in a few weeks, drove them out of the New Mexico Territory. Jack remained in New Mexico where he was recruited by the great mountain man and explorer, Joe Walker, to guide them into the unknown central mountains of Arizona.
Walker’s party was looking for gold in an area where few white men had ever dared to travel. At Pinos Altos, near today’s Silver City, New Mexico, they encountered Jack’s old nemesis, Mangas Colorados and his Mimbres Apache. During a parley, Jack managed to get the drop on the old chieftain and turned him over to the Union troops occupying New Mexico.
Following the encounter with the Mimbres Apache Jack would guide the Walker party up the Hassayampa River where, in 1863, they discovered rich deposits of gold that led to the founding of Prescott a year later. That same year Arizona became a territory and Prescott was chosen to be the capital city.
Jack also became a founder of another rich gold strike near the Hassayampa, Wickenburg. He was also with the party that found gold at Rich Hill, a few miles north of Wickenburg. It was the richest single gold strike in Arizona history.
Then in late 1868 he led another group into the Salt River Valley. This time they weren’t looking for gold but for farm land. With mining camps and military post springing up there was a great need for farm products. They cleaned out the ancient canals originally dug by the Hohokam Indians some 1,500 years earlier and by 1870 a new community rising out of the ashes of an old civilization the future capital city of Phoenix was born.
Jack Swilling is a name that goes almost unrecognized by Arizonans today. Much of what is known about him today comes from tall tales, lies and half-truths. He was a tall, powerful man, brave, generous to a fault, a wonderful family man and for the most part was respected by his contemporaries. Swilling was the stuff of legends and certainly deserves a better place in history.
Badlands, Bison and Rough RidersMedora, North Dakota, is the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Teddy Roosevelt first came to Medora, North Dakota, in September of 1883 to
hunt buffalo. He so loved the region that he later operated two ranches there, and included the town on a Presidential tour in 1903.
He later recalled that visit, saying the entire population of the Badlands “down to the smallest baby had turned out to greet me.” He “shook hands with them all” and regretted that he couldn’t spend more time with them.
The Roosevelt name still echoes at venues around town, including in the Medora Musical, an outdoor variety act based largely on the 26th president. Over three summer months, the patriotic, Western-style show draws as many as 125,000 people to the Burning Hills Amphitheatre.
“If you plan to go over a weekend, expect a sellout,” says Natalie Beard, executive director of the Medora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re quiet until June 1 and all of a sudden it’s a different place. Things start jumping.”
The town has about 350 hotel rooms, but only 112 residents. Still, it ranks as North Dakota’s most popular destination, a place of great beauty on the western edge of the Badlands.
The biggest draw is the 70,000-acre Theodore Roosevelt National Park,
the entrance to which bumps against downtown. Visitors can take a 36-mile loop drive through the park, past grazing buffalo, wild horses and stunning rock formations.
The Marquis’ Dream
Set on the Little Missouri River, the town began in 1883 as a stop on the Northern Pacific Railway. Its founder, the 24-year-old French nobleman, Marquis de Mores, named it after his bride, Medora von Hoffman.
His two-story frame chateau, now part of a state historic park, has 26 rooms furnished in the finest 1880s style. Be sure to stop at the restored von Hoffman House nearby, built by Medora’s parents and recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Take a walking tour of Medora’s charming downtown, with its board sidewalks and quaint shops. The Rough Riders Hotel, completed in 1885 and originally called the Metropolitan, was renamed in honor of Roosevelt’s famed 1st Volunteer Cavalry, which stormed San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.
The lobby doubles as a library with a massive stone fireplace and floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with books about Roosevelt.
The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame features a 15,000-square-foot interpretive center with exhibits that explain all aspects of the area’s Western heritage. Visit the Western Heritage & Cultures exhibit on the second floor of the museum to read about its honorees, including Sitting Bull and popular Western author Louis L’Amour.
At the Billings County Courthouse Museum, see exhibits about the pioneers and a fine gun collection. Former mayor and local historian Doug Ellison recommends reading the notes that cowboy actor Tom Mix wrote to the ranch family he worked for near town.
Mix married his third wife, Olive Stokes, in Medora in 1909. “She visited from Oklahoma and Mix pursued her here, intending to marry her,” says Ellison. “She came to buy horses and left town as Mrs. Tom Mix.”
After touring the museum’s Hall of Honor, which tells about sheriffs who’ve served Billings County, stop at Ellison’s Western Edge bookstore, where Ellison will tell you all about Fred Willard, a little-known Black Hills gunfighter who became the first sheriff. Ellison is writing a book about Willard.
Medora has a strong Custer connection, too. On May 28, 1876, as his command marched toward legend at the Little Big Horn, they camped along Davis Creek, about 15 miles southeast of town.
Unaware of what awaited them, Frank Neely and William Williams, who served under Maj. Marcus Reno and survived the fight, took time to carve their names on a sandstone bluff. Those etchings are still visible at a site called Initial Rock.
Leo W. Banks is an award-winning writer based in Tucson. He has written several books of history for Arizona Highways.
A Pistoleer Goes Semi AutoFrank James started riding the outlaw trail in the 1860s, armed with percussion revolvers, and ended up in the 20th century, packing a 1903 Hammerless Colt.
While we generally think of the Wild West as the era of the revolver—and it certainly was—the last decade of the 19th century and the dawning of the 20th century saw the debut of the automatic pistol. Early autos like the Borchardt (1893), “Broomhandle” Mauser (1896), Luger (1900), and early 1900s Colts had become available and a small number were finding their way into the hands of Westerners. Men who had made their reputations with six-shooters were taking notice of the new semi-auto handguns and a few started packing these slab-sided auto pistols.
Notable frontier figures Bat Masterson and Buffalo Bill Cody and some lawmen owned auto pistols. One former outlaw, who, ironically, started his lawless career with percussion revolvers, chose a semi-auto sidearm for protection in the early 1900s. He was none other than Frank James, the older brother of the infamous Jesse James, and former Confederate guerilla raider, train and bank robber, and deadly member of the notorious James-Younger gang of the 1860s and ’70s.
Although Frank James had been living the straight and narrow life for years after his 1883 acquittal for robbery and murder, by 1904 circumstances required his packing a gun once more. What this ex-rebel raider chose as his last sidearm was a 1903 Colt Hammerless Pocket Auto in .32 ACP (Automatic Colt’s Pistol) chambering.
Introduced in 1903 as Colt’s second pocket auto, but its first automatic with a concealed hammer, the handy little handgun was called the “Model M,” and ad vertised as a nine-shot automatic with a magazine capacity of eight rounds, plus one in the chamber. It was also promoted as an ideal hideout pistol since it was “flat like a book in the pocket.” Another John Browning-designed pistol, the 1903 Hammerless traced its design principles back to Browning’s patent of April 20, 1897, and to December 22, 1903,which covered the concealed hammer design. While barrels on the first 71,999 guns measured four inches, all models after that had 33⁄4-inch barrels. With the exception of the later-produced military models, there was no magazine safety.
Standard finish on the .32 Hammerless was blue, although other coverings were offered. Grips varied throughout production, with three types of hard rubber Colt logo’d panels used up through 1924. Later, checkered walnut with the Colt medallion adorned those up through 1945. Few guns in Colt’s history can boast of the production numbers of the 1903 .32 Hammerless with a total of 572,215 manufactured between 1903 and 1945.
In 1904, while Frank James and fellow ex-gang member Cole Younger were promoting “The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West Show,” trying to run it as an honest business, the owners had ideas of their own and brought in gamblers, con men, grifters and other lawless types. Concerned about the thugs the bosses were bringing with them, and after an attempt by the owners and managers at strong-arming the two former outlaws, Frank and Cole quit the show amidst a quarrel where threats were made and guns were drawn. From then on, both James and Younger “went heeled” once again.
Afterward, Frank went on a lecture tour and, while in Butte, Montana, later that year, a man who supposedly a relative of a cashier killed in the 1876 Great Northfield Raid, threatened to kill Frank James. Not one to shirk a fight, James armed himself with the 1903 Colt Hammerless. When the local authorities asked Frank to leave town, the old outlaw replied, “I will go when I am ready.” Fortunately, the would-be shooter, who was armed with a .45 caliber wheelgun, was subdued before Frank arrived at the theater where he was speaking. Even at 60-plus years old, Frank James and his 1903 Colt Hammerless were not “a pair to draw to.”
Virgil’s SixgunAt the Old West’s best-known gunfight, Virgil Earp may have used this state-of-the-art sixgun.
Although the infamous Gunfight Near the OK Corral is arguably the best known and most written about shootout in the Old West, little is known about exactly which guns were used by the combatants. The only firearms that can be identified with any certainty are the two 7½-inch barreled, .44-40 Colt Single Action Army revolvers used by Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury. These Frontier Six-Shooters were retrieved at the site, right after the fight and were recorded. Identification of any other firearms, such as Wyatt Earp’s sixgun, the shotgun used by Doc Holliday, or the Winchester rifle fired by Tom McLaury, is strictly speculative. There is one gun however, at least in this firearms student’s mind, as well as that of a number of OK Corral aficionados, that quite probably saw action during this legendary fracas. That weapon is Virgil Earp’s sixgun.
Virgil was known to have preferred, and often carried, a Smith & Wesson (S&W) New Model No. 3 revolver, in .44 S&W Russian caliber. It is quite likely that it was this same shooting iron that he had tucked in his waistband when he, as Tombstone’s chief of police and a deputy U.S. marshal, confronted the “cowboys,” and moments later fired during the gunfight.
Although there were several variations of the New Model No. 3 produced—including the Target, Turkish and the Frontier models—based on production dates of the various versions, it would have been the standard model Single Action that Virgil owned at the time of the OK Corral fight. Introduced in 1878, S&W’s New Model No. 3 represented the last of the company’s No. 3 series, and marked the pinnacle of their top-break single-action design. Also referred to in S&W’s 1883 catalog as the “Army Model,” the sixgun retained much of the basic profile of the earlier American, Russian and Schofield revolvers, but with a less-pronounced hump (sometimes called the “knuckle”) at the rear top of the back strap of the grip, along with a redesigned, rounded butt shape (considered by many as the most comfortable large-frame single-action grip style ever produced). While it continued the use of the earlier S&W-style, circular or “bow type” trigger guard, the distinctive hooked or spurred trigger guard, as found on the Second and Third Model Russians, was offered as an option. Another factory offering was an optional attachable shoulder stock.
Internally however, the new Model No. 3 incorporated a number of improved parts, such as a rebounding hammer with a manual half-cock notch (standard on all New Models except those with factory target sights), an improved cartridge extractor mechanism, a shorter barrel extractor housing, and a better cylinder retention mode, which omitted the need for a separate cylinder catch and retaining screw.
This state-of-the-art automatic cartridge ejector (when opened fully) S&W featured the traditional fluted cylinder, and factory finish was either blued or nickel-plated. Barrel lengths varied from a short 3½ inches up to 8 inches, with the 6½-inch barrel being standard. Weighing in at around 2 pounds, 8 ounces with the 6½-inch tube, grips of checkered hard rubber with the S&W monogram logo, or walnut, were standard. With a total of 35,796 standard model No. 3 Single Actions manufactured up until 1912, all of the New Model No. 3’s frames were turned out by 1898, which qualifies them as antiques. However, back when Virgil faced the cowboys that blustery day of October 26, 1881, if he was packing his S&W New Model No. 3, he would have been confident in the knowledge that he was facing danger with one of the most advanced six-shooters of the day!