He didn’t stand 6 foot 6 inches, didn’t weigh 245, wasn’t a miner, but his name was John. And he is but one of a number of colorful characters to be found when searching Nevada’s Yesteryear.
John Peel was his name — Farmer Peel — as he was most often known. Someone said he had come from Salt Lake City. Historians note that perhaps it was his soft blond hair and rosy cheeks that made Farmer Peel look like such a peaceful individual. Yet, looks can be deceiving and folks in the Comstock area of Virginia City soon learned that Peel was a man to be reckoned with despite his pleasant features.
As one story goes, El Dorado Johnny — he might have been Hispanic, he might not, historians don’t say — had come to Virginia City in its early years anxious to establish a reputation for himself. Sauntering in one day to Pat Lynch’s Saloon, he inquired, “if there were any chiefs about?” Farmer Peel was in the saloon at that time, too, and he slowly glanced over at Johnny, squinting a bit with the morning sunlight causing a silhouette in the doorway.
He calmly questioned Johnny, “I guess you mean that remark for me?”
“Anyone can take it that likes,” Johnny replied.
“Very well, let’s settle it right now,” said Peel. “Come out into the street.”
Eyewitnesses recount that Johnny walked to the door, off the boardwalk and into the street. As he reached the middle of the street, he turned to meet Peel only to see the flash of Peel’s six-gun. Peel had never left the doorway and dropped Johnny where he stood, claiming, it was reported later, that Johnny was rather “small fry” competition.
No charges were brought against Peel for the killing since the shooting was said to be “dealing with a type of citizenry Virginia City could do without.”
Soon afterward it was learned that Farmer Peel had five other notches on his gun from previous encounters in Utah.
Whether he wanted it or not, Peel was quickly regarded as one of the Comstock’s “chiefs,” a dubious title reserved for gunmen with itchy fingers and a quick draw. Gunslingers had to be quick on the draw, as historians such as Leo Schaffer have stated, “Otherwise, the consequences could be most unpleasant.”
A peaceable man for the most part, Peel had a problem with drinking that could often get the best of him and then he became a real menace. On one such occasion, he was so liquored up that it took several of the local police and indigent citizens to surround him and take him before police judge Davenport.
Davenport was mild-mannered man, proud of the long flowing beard he wore that he felt added dignity to the office. Court records note that the judge lectured Peel at length and eventually imposed a $100 fine.
Peel seemed to show genuine remorse for his actions and asked the judge to be released on his own recognizance until he could raise the money to pay the penalty. Davenport agreed.
Upon his release, Farmer Peel promptly proceeded to his favorite watering hole, maybe Lynch’s Saloon, maybe not, and within 30 minutes he was “well filled with fire water” and headed back to judge Davenport’s courtroom. Arriving there he caused quite commotion, historians report, by kicking over several benches and chairs that were in his way.
“Judge,” Peel announced, “I have come to settle that fine.”
“Very good of you, Mr. Peel,” Davenport said, reaching out his hand to receive the expected payment.
But instead, Peel used both hands to grab hold of Davenport’s long beard and unmercifully pound the judge’s head against the wall behind his desk, knocking him almost unconscious.
Apparently satisfied with his action, Farmer Peel calmly walked back out of the courtroom without so much as anyone attempting to stop him.
History doesn’t record much more of Farmer Peel in Virginia City. Was he tried and convicted for assaulting a federal officer? No record of such.
How times have changed for the better from those old, often lawless days on the early Comstock Lode.
Adapted from a story by Harold’s Club, 1948, and Nevada historian Leo Schaffer.
Dave Maxwell is a Nevada news reporter with over 35 years in print and broadcast journalism, and greatly interested in early Nevada history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.