Thomas J. Smith

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For the founder of Smith & Nephew, see Thomas James Smith.
Portrait of Thomas J. Smith

Thomas James Smith, known as Tom "Bear River" Smith (12 June 1830 - 2 November 1870), was a town marshal of Old West cattle town Abilene, Kansas, who was killed and decapitated in the line of duty.

Early life[edit]

Little is known of Smith's youth, although he was well known as having the reputation of a tough man and had been a professional middleweight boxer. Originally from New York, where he worked as a police officer in New York City, he also served as a lawman in a few small towns in Wyoming including Bear River, and in Kit Carson, Colorado, prior to his move to Kansas. While working as a police officer in New York City, Smith was involved in the accidental killing of a 14-year-old boy in 1868, after which he resigned and began working for Union Pacific Railroad in Nebraska.

Smith received the nickname "Bear River" due to a stand he made during a skirmish with vigilantes while serving as a lawman in Wyoming. A vigilante group had lynched a railroad employee who was suspected of murder. Soon afterward, railroad employees retaliated against the vigilantes, resulting in most of the small town of Bear River City, Wyoming being burned to the ground, and a shootout between town citizens and mob members erupted. Smith stood both sides off, until troops from Fort Bridger arrived and imposed martial law. Bear River City soon became deserted, another railroad ghost town.

Smith has been described as having been a handsome man, with a thick mustache, and a trait of an almost fearless nature. There are a number of examples indicating that Smith would refuse to back down, despite whatever odds might be against him.

Marshal of Abilene[edit]

Prior to Smith's appointment as Abilene Marshal, two St. Louis, Missouri, policemen had been hired. The town of Abilene was, at the time, a wild cattle town, and the crime rate had increased almost overnight, beginning in 1867, to the point where murder and shootings were commonplace. The town had numerous saloons and brothels, and up until that point a police force was all but nonexistent. The two St. Louis lawmen resigned before their first day of service was complete. The mayor of Abilene, Theodore Henry, sent for Smith in late 1869, who came highly recommended due to a reputation he had built while working alongside lawman Pat Desmond in Kit Carson, Colorado.

Smith was also commissioned as a Deputy US Marshal, and was insistent that he could police Abilene using his hands and wit rather than using guns. For a time, he was somewhat successful, although he was forced to use guns in the course of his duty on a few occasions. On one occasion, shortly after taking office, Smith singlehandedly overpowered two men known for their bad temperament, "Big Hank" Hawkins and his partner, known only as "Wyoming Frank". Smith banished them both from Abilene, after beating them both at the same time using only his bare hands. However, being the marshal of a town like Abilene at that time proved to be a dangerous job to have. He implemented a law of "no guns in town limits", which was extremely unpopular with many of the cowboys that drifted through town, and over the next two months Smith survived two assassination attempts. Several other incidents and arrests led him to develop a solid reputation, and he became widely respected and admired by the Abilene citizens.

On 2 November 1870, Smith and a temporary deputy, believed to be named James McDonald, attempted to serve a warrant on two local farmers, Andrew McConnell and Moses Miles. The two men were wanted in connection with the murder of another Abilene man, John Shea. McDonald and Smith located the suspects in a small settlement ten miles outside of Abilene. A gunfight erupted, in which Smith was badly wounded in the chest. Smith returned fire and wounded McConnell. His deputy fled the scene, and as Smith lay wounded, Moses Miles hit him with the butt of a rifle, then took an axe and decapitated him.

McConnell and Miles were captured and arrested in March 1871, and they were both sentenced to life in prison. Smith was buried in Abilene, and a huge tombstone was erected with a plaque to honor his service and ultimate sacrifice. Smith was replaced as marshal by legendary lawman and gunfighter "Wild Bill" Hickock. Dwight Eisenhower reportedly considered Smith a personal hero, and is reported to have visited Smith's gravesite on numerous occasions.

Ronald Reagan, in one of his last acting roles and as the host of the syndicated western television series, Death Valley Days, played Smith in the 1965 episode "No Gun Behind His Badge". Michael Witney appeared as Wild Bill Hickok, Mort Mills as Whalen, Barry Kelley as Prentiss, Leo Gordon as Bender, and Sharry Marshall as Millie, the saloon girl whom Smith befriends. The television dramatization does not accurately depict the circumstances of Smith's death and decapitation.[1]


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