During the Optic’s first years, Las Vegas was the epicenter of vice and violence in the wild west, as many notorious outlaws took up residence in the new rail town.
So it was that during the Optic’s formative years, Russ Kistler’s colorful coverage of the mayhem and mischief on the streets of Las Vegas, helped make the young editor one of the leading newspapermen of that era — and the Optic a precursor in creating the lore and legend of the western outlaw.
Kistler, who mailed his Optic throughout the United States, provided first-hand and sometimes lurid accounts of the incessant murders, robberies and disorder which pervaded both sides of the Gallinas. More than any other periodical of that era, Kistler’s Optic nurtured the mystique which would forever cloak such nefarious Las Vegas outlaws as Billy the Kid, Bob Ollinger, Doc Holliday, mysterious Dave Mather, J.J. Webb, Dave Rudabaugh and Hoodoo Brown (Hyman G. Neill).
Las Vegas surpassed even Dodge City, Kan., and Tombstone, Ariz., as the hub of outlaw activity in the late 1800s, as written in countless books and articles. A glimpse of the vice and violence which overran Las Vegas — and which was regular fare in the Optic — was vividly observed by scholarly historian and Las Vegas resident Ralph Emerson Twitchell, who wrote soon after the outlaw era: “Without exception, there was no town which harbored a more disreputable gang of gamblers, desperadoes and outlaws than did Las Vegas. They controlled, for a while, the local peace officers, and the dance halls and public resorts were the scenes of many shooting affrays and robberies. In the new town, in the immediate vicinity of the Castañeda hotel, were located some of the most disreputable saloons, dance halls and resorts ever seen in frontier days.” (According to Twitchell and other writers, 29 men were murdered in and around Las Vegas in 1880 alone.)
Kistler’s fascinating coverage of the rampant crime was in part responsible for the Optic’s early success, as both its circulation and advertising soared. On July 21, 1881, for example, the Optic headline was simple but tantalizing: “The Kid Killed,” referring to the death of Billy the Kid, who was shot and killed at Fort Sumner by Sheriff Pat Garrett the night of July 14, 1881, after escaping from the Lincoln county jail and killing two guards.
Well known in Las Vegas, Billy the Kid had been incarcerated at the San Miguel County jail on Dec. 27 of the previous year, when he was brought here by Sheriff Garrett and his posse, to be transported by train to Santa Fe. Many other notorious outlaws of the time were also housed at the same jail, which more than once was stormed by vigilantes who carried off and lynched several prisoners at the hanging windmill at the Old Town plaza, as recounted previously in Nuestra Historia. (Located at the northwest corner of Valencia and South Gonzales streets, the jail was partially extant into the early 1960s, and as a young boy the writer enjoyed many playful hours exploring the old hoosegow.)
Shortly after the Kid’s death, the Optic would create a stir in Las Vegas and beyond – claiming to possess the Kid’s trigger finger. It all started when the Optic published the following item on July 25,1881: “An esteemed friend of the Optic at Fort Sumner, L.W. Hale, has sent us the index finger of ‘Billy, the Kid,’ the one which has snapped many a man’s life into eternity. It is well-preserved in alcohol and has been viewed by many in our office today. If the rush continues we shall purchase a small tent and open a side show to which complimentary tickets will be issued to our personal friends.”
Like many of his newspaper contemporaries, Russ Kistler no doubt embellished or exaggerated many Optic reports about the infamous outlaws of the day — and some historians believe the whole episode was nothing more than a Kistler prank. But we will never know whether Kistler actually had the Kid’s trigger finger at the Optic, because nine days later the Optic reported that the finger had been sold to a young lady from Oakland, Calif., for $150 cash. (In her 1998 book, “Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait,” author and Holliday descendant Karen Holliday Tanner writes that “publisher Kistler was prone to fabrication and gross exaggeration, to compete with the Gazette and the Herald.”)
Whether embellished, exaggerated or even fabricated, the Optic’s reporting helped create and promote the mystique of the western outlaw, and Kistler played no small part in the outlaw legends which overtook and fascinated the entire country — and remain firmly embedded in the lore of western Americana.
But Russ Kistler was not good at business. Though one of New Mexico’s most celebrated newspapermen, he would eventually be forced to sell his beloved Optic, and later die penniless.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.