April 21, 2023
By Joel J. Hutchcroft
I’ve written about a bunch of “Bills” in this column, including Bill Jordan, Curly Bill Brocius, William Collins, William H. Anderson, Billy Dixon, and Bill Doolin. Some were law abiding; some were outlaws. Well, Bill Longley may have been the bloodiest Bill of ’em all—and he certainly did not honor the law.
William Preston Longley was born on October 6, 1851, on Mill Creek in Austin County, Texas. He was raised on a farm and learned to shoot at a young age. By 1867 he had dropped out of school and taken up a “wild” life of drinking, carousing, and running with unsavory types.
In December 1868, at the age of 17, Bill committed his first confirmed murder, by shooting a former slave who was traveling on horseback with two other former slaves along the Camino Real approximately one mile from the Longley family farm. When Longley and his buddies confronted the travelers, one tried to flee, whereupon Bill shot him—several times.
Bill then roamed around Texas, gambling, robbing settlers, stealing horses, and killing. His murder victims to that point included at least two more freed slaves. By March 1870, a $1,000 reward was posted for him and his partners in crime.
He drifted north, joining Company B of the U.S. 2nd Cavalry Regiment. That didn’t last, and he deserted just two weeks later. He was captured, court-martialed, sentenced to two years at hard labor, and imprisoned. However, he was released back to his unit after four months, and due to his sharp-shooting skills, he was assigned to regular hunting parties. Not surprisingly, he deserted again in 1872.
In February 1873, he was accused of killing another freedman in Bastrop County, Texas. He was released from custody, perhaps in exchange for a bribe from a family member.
In March 1875, at the age of 24, “Bloody Bill” murdered his childhood friend Wilson Anderson with a shotgun, most likely at the urging of Bill’s uncle who blamed Anderson for the death of a son. Reportedly, Anderson was plowing a field when Bill fired two blasts from a double-barreled shotgun into him.
Subsequently, Bill fled from place to place, using many aliases (including Wild Bill, Rattling Bill, Bill Black, Bill Henry, and Bill Jackson) to avoid arrest. Over the years he killed a hunting buddy named George Thomas, a fellow outlaw named Shroyer (supposedly in a stand-up gunfight), a trail boss named Rector, a horse thief named McClelland, a card player named Charlie Stuart, a farmer named Sawyer, and a preacher named William R. Lay, who was milking a cow at the time. By his own account, there were several more.
Bill Longley was eventually arrested without incident in June 1877. He was tried and convicted for the murder of Wilson Anderson and received a sentence of death. He was hanged on October 11, 1878.
Numerous myths and legends about Longley have surfaced, but most cannot be verified. Many of them stem from tall tales told by Longley while he was imprisoned. He wrote to many newspapers telling of his exploits, and he was granted many interviews with reporters. Longley liked attention, and according to one source, so many reporters visited him in jail the sheriff eventually had to ban such visits.
Another such myth was a story of being captured and lynched in 1869 alongside a known horse thief by the name of Tom Johnson. Allegedly, Bill survived the hanging because a shot from one of the departing lynch mob, who had been shooting at the dangling “corpses,” severed his rope.
Two more outrageous examples that Longley liked to spout involved his supposed killing of a black militiaman in 1866 for insulting Longley’s father and that he killed eight black people in 1867 in Lexington to avenge the loss of a horseracing bet. Neither crime can be confirmed, but apparently, in addition to being just plain mean, he liked to boast about killing people.