Texas History: Popular gambler tangles with Wild Bill

By Bartee Haile

Always willing to do fellow Texans a favor, Phil Coe agreed on Oct. 4, 1871 to give four dozen cowboys the grand tour of Abilene when they arrived the next day in the Kansas cowtown.

As adept at making friends as filling an inside straight, Philip Haddox Coe was so popular that a company of Confederates elected him their lieutenant. However, as soon as the six-foot-four civilian learned a uniform went with the rank, he skedaddled to Mexico.

Coe returned to Texas after the southern surrender and opened a saloon in Austin.  When it came to fleecing the patrons, he preferred the personal touch, but the brisk business soon required the services of a second cardsharp.  So he hired Ben Thompson and got Texas’ fastest gun in the bargain.

Long before they exhausted the supply of suckers, the happy-go-lucky gambler and the grim gunfighter had become constant companions.  Searching for greener pastures, the duo chose the rowdy Kansas cowtown of Abilene in the winter of 1871. 

Unlike the skittish locals, Coe and Thompson made the wild trail hands feel right at home at the Bull’s Head Saloon.  While the visiting Texans usually paid through the nose for their hospitality, few seemed to mind.  And those that did dared not complain in the presence of the pistol-packing partner with the dreaded quick draw.

After homesick Thompson left Abilene in mid-summer, Coe sold his share of the saloon.  He resumed the life of the gentleman gambler earning a comfortable living at the poker tables.

The appearance of Jessie Hazell in early August started a different and more dangerous stampede.  The demands of her profession had yet to rob the beauty of her stunning good looks, which immediately caught the roving eye of James Butler Hickok.

Although the long-haired lawman considered himself God’s gift to women, Jessie managed to resist the temptation.  But she practically swooned at the sight of handsome Phil Coe and his fat bankroll.

Wild Bill’s gut reaction was to eliminate the competition.  But fear of Ben Thompson, who might show up in Abilene at anytime, kept him from killing his rival.

While on his appointed rounds several weeks later, Hickok bumped into Jessie and her new beau.  He completely lost his head and in a jealous rage knocked her to the floor.

Coe was on him in an instant.  Bigger, stronger and much more efficient with his fists, the tall Texan beat Wild Bill to a bloody pulp in the crowded barroom.

After that Coe knew he was a marked man.  Hickok would find the time and place to finish him off all legal and proper.  Nevertheless, he stayed in Abilene taking care not to let Wild Bill catch him on the street alone.

Two weeks passed without so much as a word between the two antagonists.  The talk around town of an imminent gunfight had been replaced by optimistic speculation about an unspoken truce.

Coe threw a party for 50 cowpunchers on the evening of Oct. 5, 1871.  Surrounded by the army of Texans, he felt safe and secure.

Before the festivities were in full swing, Hickok warned the revelers against disturbing the peace and carrying firearms inside the city limits.  He then withdrew to his favorite watering hole to await further developments.

At nine o’clock, the marshal heard the familiar sound of gunfire from the vicinity of The Alamo saloon.  He slipped down the alley, entered the bar from the rear and stepped out onto the front veranda.

Past the point of mere intoxication, most of the Texans were falling-down drunk.  Several were waving their pistols in defiance of the ground rules for the night.

“Who fired that shot?” demanded Hickok.  His hands were on his hips a flick of the wrists from his twin forty-fours.

Gesturing with his smoking six-gun, Coe confessed with a laugh to taking a pot shot at a stray dog.  He shrugged off the petty crime and presumed the marshal would, too.

Wild Bill answered with a vile curse, and in a flash Coe turned to face him.  Hickok’s pistols were halfway out of the holsters, when he raised his own gun and pulled the trigger in self-defense.

Coe’s shot passed harmlessly through Wild Bill’s coat, but his adversary’s rounds were right on target.  The slugs struck the Texan simultaneously in the abdomen and went out his back through a gaping hole.

 Running to help Hickok, Mike Williams elbowed his way through the mob of spectators.  So near-sighted he did not recognize his friend, Wild Bill put two bullets in the private policeman’s head.

Williams died on the spot, but death waited three agonizing days before finally taking Phil Coe.  His body was shipped back to Texas, where hard-bitten Ben Thompson wept openly over the casket.

Order your copy of “Texas Depression Era Desperadoes.” by mailing a check for $24.00 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393. 

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