Gunfighter Longhair Jim

Jim Courtright never backed away from trouble. In fact, you could say he went looking for it.

By all accounts, Longhair Jim Courtright (1848-1887) was greased-lightning fast with his brace of Colt revolvers. He was so good with his revolvers that he taught his wife how to shoot, and together they put on public shooting exhibitions that they got paid for. They went on to perform as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

Born in Sangamon County, Illinois, and raised in Iowa, Timothy Isaiah Courtright (a.k.a Longhair Jim or Big Jim) learned to shoot as a boy on the family farm, and he was said to have practiced his shooting religiously. He enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War and served as an army scout under Gen. John A. Logan, reportedly taking a bullet that was intended for Logan. He grew his hair long, although he never allowed it to be long enough to touch his shoulders. And he provoked many a barroom fight. He went on to become the first elected marshal of Fort Worth, Texas. He worked as a ranch foreman and a saloon/casino bouncer. He ran shakedown businesses and founded the Commercial Detective Agency (which basically provided "protection" for saloons and gambling houses for a share of their profits). What he excelled at was gunfighting, and it is generally believed that he murdered several business owners who would not pay for his "protection" services.

For instance, in 1882, in Lake Valley, New Mexico, after finagling an appointment as marshal, Jim provoked the top ruffians into drawing on him and then shot them down one by one in street fights. He literally broke one man in half, first breaking his hands and then his legs, until he knelt and pleaded for his life. Giving no quarter, Jim allegedly tore the head off another gunslinger.

Longhair Jim Courtright
Longhair Jim Courtright

Jim left his wife and moved to American Valley, New Mexico, where he took the job of ranch foreman for his Civil War compatriot General Logan. His main job was to flush out rustlers and kill them. He had a problem, though. He didn't know when to quit shooting and killed rustlers and honest homesteaders alike. For that, he was forced to leave. He made his way through Texas and on to South America and then back to Texas, where he met his fate in February of 1887.

Longhair Jim's destiny was a fateful showdown in the streets of Fort Worth with none other than Luke Short. Short, a gunslinger and gambler of some repute from Dodge City and a former friend of Courtright, opened the White Elephant Saloon in Fort Worth. Longhair Jim thought the saloon ought to take advantage of the "protection" services his agency could provide and tried to shakedown Short. Short was having none of it, telling Jim to, "Go to hell." Words were said and honors (such as they were) were offended.

Later, the two men quarreled again, and the "discussion" concluded outside in the street at a very close distance, almost at arm's length. Short got in the first shot, which tore off Courtright's hammer thumb. Courtright made a border shift (the move where a gunfighter switches his gun to an uninjured hand) but was too slow, and Short nailed him at least three more times in the chest. Jim sank to his knees and then fell over, face down in the dust. It was one of the few actual face-to-face gunfights in the American West.

Bat Masterson, who was at Short's side right before the duel commenced, later wrote, "No time was wasted in the exchange of words once the men faced each other. Both drew their pistols at the same time, but as usual, Short's spoke first, and a bullet from a Colt .45-caliber pistol went crashing through Courtright's body. The shock caused him to reel backward, then he got another and still another, and by the time his lifeless form had reached the ground, Luke had succeeded in shooting him five times."

Courtright's funeral was attended by hundreds of Fort Worth residents. Short was arrested for the shooting, but he was never brought to trial, though he was almost lynched after the shootout.

Despite Longhair Jim's reputation for strong-arming local businesses with his protection service, during his time a marshal there, he was credited with reducing Fort Worth's murder rate by more than half. Plus, his small force of deputies grew into today's Fort Worth police force.

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