The history of the American West is filled with iconic clashes between the law and those who flouted it. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, the gunning down of the Dalton Gang in the Coffeyville Bank Robbery, the "Four Dead in Five Seconds," Elfego Baca's Frisco Shootout, Wild Bill's Dead Man's Hand... But none of those were as colourful as the shootout between M.H. Levy and J.M. Joiner in Bremond, Texas, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon on November 3, 1888.
Bremond was a sleepy little town in Richmond County, Texas, about equal distance between Dallas, Austin, and Houston. It was one of those one-horse kind of towns with a single street running north and south on the rail line between the larger centres. On the east side was Schmidt's Saloon, and on the west, a few doors south, was Myatt's Saloon. Next door to Myatt's was the town barber. Hearne's store was on the corner and the postoffice beside that. At the time, Bremond's population hovered around 400 souls, and most visitors were drawn away to a nearby mineral spring spa.
Into this peaceful, sleepy little town came Marshall Levy, spittin' fire over the accusations made against him by Joiner, the justice of the peace who was running for re-election. One witness to the eventual gunfight described a day in October of 1888 when Levy sidled up to him in the saloon. "I understand that you are against Joiner for justice of the peace, and I am glad to hear it." Introducing himself thus, Levy went on describe an encounter with Joiner some days before. Joiner was crossing the street out of Hearne's when Levy confronted him: "I understand that you have been telling around that I am a cow-thief; if you have, you are a damned lying son-of-a-bitch." Coolly, Joiner replied "I have only been reporting what others have said." Off he walked, leaving Levy fuming and ready to tell anyone who would listen of his contempt.
Despite the cool and collected reply, Levy's rage about town had its effect on Joiner. On the day of the gunfight, he had been in and out of Schmidt's Saloon and worked up a tab of 31 drinks. The last came 15 minutes before the shootout.
As Joiner entered the saloon for the last time, he ran into Walter Ditto and J.P. Darwin and asked them how his campaign was looking in the eastern part of the precinct. Darwin told him that sentiment was divided, which Joiner attributed to Levy's besmirching of his reputation. "Yes, I suppose so. Marshall Levy, the God damned cow-thieving bastardly son-of-a-bitch, is working against me in this election; and God damn the son-of-a-whore, I will kill him before night!"
Joiner then stepped up to the bar, already in a state of considerable intoxication, exclaiming to the bartender Tom Bates that he was too mad to eat on account of a "certain party" who was boasting of having cussed out the justice. "Tom, you know who I mean," he clarified. "It is Marshall Levy - A God damned cow-thieving son-of-a-bitch! I will fix him before night. If I don't, I want you or some other good friend of mine to kick my ass out of Bremond. You know, Tom Bates, that he can't curse me to my face."
"No, not without fighting," the bartender replied. This was not the first time Joiner had been in the saloon cussing about Levy. Several witnesses agreed that he had been, in their words, "promiscuously" cursing and denouncing him for several days, calling him a "cowardly son-of-a-bitch," "cow-thief," "ring-tailed leader of cow-thieves," and other invective. Witnesses of those last fateful words in the minutes before the shootout only disagreed on the colour of the invective. One testified that Joiner had called Levy a "God damned lying, cow-thieving son-of-a-bitch," another a "God damned mother-fucking, bastardly son-of-a-bitch." According to the bartender Bates, Joiner's tirade ended with an intention "to fix the God damned thieving son-of-a-bitch before night, and I want some of his friends to go and tell him what I say."
And they did. Moments after Joiner and Bates left the saloon, Levy came in the other door. About an hour earlier he said he was fixing to go home to avoid trouble and let Joiner cool off. Unfortunately he did not stay gone. Levy enquired of Ditto and Darwin if Joiner had been making remarks about him. When told, Levy's lip quivered, his eyes welled up, and he said "I can't stand that." Darwin took Levy over to the bar for a drink.
Outside Schmidt's Saloon, Joiner continued his "remarks" to Misters Holland and Harrison: "I have just been in the saloon telling Morehead that a party has been telling damned lies on me. I made the remark to Morehead that the party is a God damned cow-thieving son-of-a-bitch. I meant Marshall Levy, and I cursed him where I know he will hear of it. Marshall Levy is a damned cow-thieving son-of-a-bitch, and if he has any friends, I would like for them to go and tell him what I say." Harrison, deftly, pleaded with Joiner to think his re-election and how this ranting might hurt his campaign. Joiner was having none of it. In a drunken rage he exclaimed that he would talk as he saw fit when he was mad.
For several months before the gunfight, Levy's shotgun had been for sale in Roe Slaughter's store. In the minutes before it started, Levy rushed into the store, "pale and excited," to grab the loaded firearm. Slaughter asked what he meant to do with it. Levy replied that Joiner had been talking about him until he could no longer stand it, and he meant to make Joiner take back his words. The store owner's last words to Levy were "Don't do anything rash, Marshall."
Levy came back to Schmidt's saloon through the north door, exited through the south door, and found his quarry in front of Myatt's Saloon. Joiner was venting himself upon John Myatt, the saloon owner, and a Mr. Davis. Levy stepped off the boardwalk, rounded a wagon, and came to the middle of the street, about forty feet from Joiner. All heads turned to the quivering Levy.
Levy shouted to Myatt: "Get out of the way, John!"
Myatt ran towards him, imploring him not to shoot.
Joiner flinched, and appeared to some to have been reaching for his own sidearm while raising his walking stick in the air.
A shot rang out.
Joiner fell dead, blown apart by buckshot.
Myatt grabbed Levy and begged "Are you crazy?!" With a glazed look somewhere between shock and satisfaction, Levy replied "I will kill any man who calls me a son-of-a-bitch! I am no son-of-a-bitch, and my mother is no bitch."
In the trial that followed, one of Levy's defenses after another fell. Lawyers argued that Joiner's language constituted an immediate threat, but the court determined that it was mere abuse. They then argued that Levy was justified in that Joiner's language was abuse against a female relation, which was a criminal offense. The court determined that the phrase "son-of-a-bitch" was, in fact, an insult to Levy and not Levy's mother. They even attempted to argue self-defense, on the grounds that Joiner was reaching for his pistol. The doctor who performed the autopsy, G.M. Stephens, found a fully-loaded Smith and Wesson five-shot pistol in Joiner's pocket. The court determined that you cannot plea self-defense if someone pulls a gun on you while you're trying to shoot them.
Levy was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in penitentiary. Thus ended one of the most linguistically colourful episodes in Western history.
And what makes this obscure case so important? The trial marks the first cited use of the term "mother-fucking" in the English language.