On a cold January night in 1884, Joel A. Fowler sat helpless in jail. The citizens of Socorro, New Mexico, gathered outside, eager to lynch the greatly feared killer inside.
Joel must have known his unmerciful end was just moments away—at the end of a long rope.
Joel was born in Mississippi in 1846. At a young age, he moved with his uncle Archibald Young “A.Y.” Fowler to Fort Worth, Texas, where he would learn the law under the older Fowler’s supervision.
Joel’s uncle was a violent man with a short fuse. A long-simmering dispute over the results of an 1856 county election left Archibald with a hatred for future Tarrant County Sheriff John B. York. Five years later, on August 24, 1861, the stage was set for young Fowler’s baptism into violence.
Archibald met Sheriff York accidentally on the Fort Worth city square, and the attorney attacked the lawman with his knife. Severely slashed, York shot and killed Archibald. Running to his uncle’s aid, 15-year-old Joel pulled a double-barreled shotgun and immediately killed York. Joel had just killed his first man. It would not be his last.
After 18 years of killing and lawlessness in Texas, Joel fled to Las Vegas, New Mexico, and opened a dance hall. His legendary bad behavior in Las Vegas was limited to regular drunken street-shooting displays. Six months later, he moved his illicit operations to the Texas Saloon and Dance Hall in Santa Fe. His violent, alcoholic outbursts escalated in the territorial capital.
With his welcome worn out in Santa Fe, Joel moved to White Oaks, a new town in lawless Lincoln County, where he started another saloon. Flush with cash, he bought a ranch in the Gallinas Mountains. He was soon feared as a ruthless con, cutthroat rustler and cold-blooded killer—including his double-cross murder of outlaw (and rustling partner) Whiskey Jim Greathouse.
With the law on his trail, he sold his ranch and went to Socorro for a drunken, shooting spree. On November 6, 1883, Joel joined J.E. Cale for a drink at the hotel bar. Joel set his pistols down on the bar, which the barkeep immediately confiscated. Realizing Cale had tricked him, Joel’s rage boiled over, and he stabbed the innocent man in the heart. Cale, who gave an affidavit before he died the next day, did not die in vain.
Jailed and indicted in the killing of Cale, Joel was found guilty in December 1883. When Joel had his attorneys—including Santa Fe Ring leader Thomas B. Catron—appeal his case, the local vigilance group, the “Socorro Stranglers,” took justice into their own hands.
On January 23, 1884, sometime after midnight, citizens hanged Joel from a nearby tree, denying his request to be shot instead. He called out for “Heaven’s angels” as he was lurched into position and one of the witnesses reportedly responded, “It’s a cold night for angels, Joel. Better call on someone nearer town.”
Tom Augherton is an Arizona-based freelance writer. Do you know about an unsung character of the Old West whose story we should share here? Send the details to firstname.lastname@example.org, and be sure to include high-resolution historical photos.