The Glory Days of the Reprisal Killing
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This Old West legend got his start avenging his father’s murder.
By Eugene S. Robinson
In 1868, six former Confederate soldiers who hadn’t gotten the Civil War out of their system joined a vigilante group and became so-called Regulators. They called themselves the Ferber-Campsey gang and only God knows what they were regulating as they cut a bloody swath through the postwar Western landscape.
Young Frank Eaton’s father had moved his family from Connecticut to Kansas, which is where the Ferber-Campsey Gang shot Frank’s father to death in front of the 8-year-old Frank and his mother.
No reason was ever given as to why Eaton’s father was murdered, though the fact that he had been a Union soldier may have been enough for the killers. A friend of Eaton’s father purportedly told Frank, “May an old man’s curse rest upon you if you do not try to avenge your father.”
By the age of 15, Eaton had been nicknamed Pistol Pete for his skill as a marksman. Which was even more remarkable given the fact that he was cross-eyed.
Eaton learned how to shoot, tutored by the same family friend who had urged him to vengeance. Seven years later, his mother had remarried and the family was once again on the move, this time minus Eaton, who was only bound for revenge.
By the age of 15, Eaton had been nicknamed Pistol Pete for his skill as a marksman. Which was even more remarkable given the fact that he was cross-eyed. But Eaton took it in stride and learned to aim without using a gun sight.
Which ended up being both deadly and surprising for five of his father’s murderers a few years later, when Pistol Pete shot them dead, one by one, “throwin’ a lot of lead fast and straight,” as he later put it.
Pistol Pete, who got his first badge by winning a shooting contest — he “could shoot the head off a rattlesnake,” says historian Marshall Trimble, “with either hand” — was directed by Cherokees to the part of their nation, in what is now Oklahoma, where the Ferber-Campsey gang had decamped after a frenzy of cattle rustling.
Pistol Pete killed Doc Ferber and a Campsey. In the same gunfight. All by himself. One of the surviving Campseys escaped and rode west.
But not far enough West, though, as Pistol Pete tracked him down to a saloon in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that the fugitive owned. It was night when Pistol Pete walked into the saloon. Campsey made the age-old error of talking when he should have been shooting. After Campsey told Pistol Pete that pursuing revenge this hard and long was stupid, Pete responded, “I am not here to talk,” and shot Campsey dead along with his henchmen.
Wounded in the gunfight, Pistol Pete healed and then set out for the last surviving Regulator, who, unfortunately for the vigilante’s mission, had gotten himself killed in a card game before Pete could slake his thirst for revenge. Pete showed up at the funeral. Just to be sure.
Pistol Pete was only 16.
Being a United States deputy marshal in what would become Oklahoma was dangerous enough that approximately 200 of them had been killed on the job when Pistol Pete, just 17, was sworn in.
Despite the risks, being a marshal also allowed a young man to avoid looking like your average extrajudicial killer. Pistol Pete was a natural, snuffing at least 11 desperadoes on the job as he advanced to deputy marshal, deputy sheriff and, finally, sheriff.
While Hollywood periodically proclaims the Western dead, independent filmmaker Warren Turner has his sights on obtaining the rights to one of the two books Eaton wrote. According to Turner, Pistol Pete’s story is not so much a story about the American West as it is one about revenge and not being liberated by it.
Eaton, in addition to the two Colt .45s he wore on his hips until he died, at age 97, in 1958, had two wives and 10 kids. A full life by any measure even if measured only by its length.
Sometimes it takes the rest of your life to get over stuff that happened to you before age 12, like having your father shot and killed in front of you. “From what I read, it seemed to be something he never really got over,” says Turner.