Edmond P. DeRousse

“Bloody Bill” Texas Outlaw

What makes an outlaw an outlaw? Sometimes it is circumstance.

In my book, Cheyenne Circumstance a chance to escape his troubled past, fictional Texas outlaw “Bloody Bill” Langley is a victim of circumstance, Circumstance of the American Civil War and of the love of a young woman from Cheyenne, Wyoming.  

Much has been rumored about William Preston Langley. Some of it legend. Some of it fact. Some of it fiction. What is true, though, is that he had a justified reputation as a killer of men.

He was ten years old when the American Civil War broke out. “Bloody Bill Langley”, as he would come to be known, was born the sixth of ten children on the sixth of October 1851 in Austin County, Texas. The state of Texas was conflicted about its entry into that war. That conflict helped to create one of Texas’s most notorious outlaws.

The Langley family, like many Texas families, felt they had many reasons for hating all things Union. Texas was a cotton state and wholly relied on slavery to help its economy. Although they owned no slaves, the Langley’s were very much aware that the Union was committed to abolishing slavery.

In 1860 President Lincoln was elected causing a stampede of Southern States to secede from the Union. Anti-Union sentiment was strong. Those who agreed with the Union sentiment would often become targets of violent mobs.

It was not unheard of for the homes and businesses of those with unpopular opinions to be torched. Mysterious fires had broken out in North Texas. A blaze had destroyed downtown Dallas and half of Denton’s town square. There were stories of fires in other small towns as well. Several Texas newspapers reported the fires were started by slaves who confessed to a conspiracy to launch a slave uprising that would make the legendary Nat Turner’s rebellion look like child’s play.

That action started mob justice. The Langley’s were part of it. Texas formed committees to search for and punish those involved. Vigilantes hung several suspected of committing the alleged crimes. Most Texans were convinced that Union abolitionists were behind the trouble. Seceding, they believed, was the only reasonable thing to do in order to protect their families and their property.

Texas had voted in February 1861 to secede from the Union. But its Governor, Sam Houston, a pro-Union leader, had refused to swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy and opposed secession. As a result, one month later, the State legislature removed him from office, replaced him with his Lieutenant Governor, and Texas officially became the seventh state in the new Confederacy. The Langley family supported the Confederate States war effort. Two sons, in fact, joined its military.

The war brought hardships and the effects of it were widespread. Texas residents suffered from shortages of all kinds because of Union blockades. The blockades made it difficult for the cotton growers to export their crops. Union troops seized the port of Galveston in the fall of 1862. Traffic through that port was halted until the Confederate forces retook it on New Year’s Day 1863.

At the end of the Civil War, Texas was angry at the outcome. Texas resented the Union’s attempt at Reconstruction. Civil War fanatical Unionist had taken control of the state. The Union Army and Freedman’s Bureau made sure that ex-slaves were not abused. Freedmen became the primary targets of widespread violence. The Texas Governor had created a state police force made up mostly of freed slaves. This incensed many of those still bitter over the outcome of the war, including the Langley family. Bill Langley had lost a brother at the Battle of Galveston. The Langley’s opposed the government’s reconstruction and secretly took part in Freedman Bureau raids.

Circumstance of the War had, made him resentful. Two brothers were away fighting, and his father would often be mysteriously gone for days. Bill Langley was left to work the family farm. While working on the farm, he learned to use a gun. He practiced the quick draw and became proficient. At age sixteen, Bill Langley killed his first man.

The disillusioned young man had taken up with other young men and terrorized newly freed slaves. He had taken part in a number of crimes, including several murders. Bill and many of his associates felt as if they needed to keep these freed citizens in what they felt as “their rightful place.”

In December 1867, a drunken off duty Freedman Bureau black agent was riding down the street brandishing his pistol while insulting the towns’ people. Some of the insults were cast towards Langley’s father. Sixteen-year-old Bill stepped forward and told the man to lower his gun. Instead of lowering his gun, the Freedman agent pointed it directly at Bill who shot the man dead.

When questioned about the shooting by the local sheriff, a Southern sympathizer, Bill responded, “It was justified. The man pointed his gun at me and Pa. I shot him and that’s it.”

While drifting around Texas with associates, he became acquainted with several known gamblers and gunfighters. He had perfected the use of his weapon of choice, a Dance .44 revolver. His reputation as a fast draw grew rapidly. Many who wanted to establish themselves as a feared gunman sought him out. They invariably lost their challenge when they called Langley out into the street.

William Preston Langley stood over six feet tall with a lean build. A newspaper writer would later describe him as a model of the roving desperados of Texas. “Bloody Bill” he wrote, “was one of the handsomest men I have ever met. If his looks couldn’t get him what he wanted, his fourteen-inch Dance .44 revolver could.”

Over his lifetime, it is said Langley killed as many as 33 men, give or take one or two. His life and legend rivalled that of another famous gunfighter, John Wesley Hardin. Their eventual fates, though, were different. Hardin spent fourteen years in a Texas prison where he earned a law degree. Hardin died by a bullet to the back of his head at age 42 in an El Paso saloon while throwing dice. Langley was 27 when he died trying to escape his troubled past while navigating love, danger, and the pursuit of redemption.  

Was he successful in his quest? Find out in Cheyenne Circumstance a chance to escape his troubled past.