Frank Gallop’s 1966 spoof recording, “The Ballad of Irving,” left most people laughing heartily. (“He came from the old Bar Mitzvah spread, / With a 10-gallon yarmulke on his head. / He always followed his mother’s wishes. / Even on the range he used two sets of dishes.”) What nearly no one knew then and few know now is that there was a real Jewish gunfighter in the Old West, and he ranked considerably higher than the “142nd fastest.” In researching the Old West over many years I often came upon Jewish merchants, which was no surprise. There was the shopkeeper and tailor Jacob Davis of Virginia City, who fashioned the blue-denim work pants with copper rivets that Levi Strauss of San Francisco marketed; the tobacconist Adolph Sutro, who built a stamp mill and then dug a tunnel through Mt. Davidson to haul ore from the mines of Virginia City; the peddler Michael Goldwasser, who arrived in Arizona with next to nothing and laid the foundation for what would become the Goldwater chain of department stores; and many others of similar business acumen. There was also Jim Levy, who traded only in bullets.
Levy began life not in a ghetto in Eastern Europe but in Dublin, Ireland. In 1850, at the age of eight, he immigrated with his parents to the United States. He would spend the next ten years in New York before heading west to the mining camps of California. Levy was not a good Jewish boy. He behaved more like his Irish buddies, drinking, gambling, fighting, and facing death with cool indifference. He became the only known Jewish gunfighter in the Old West.
Lured by the silver strikes, Levy crossed the Sierras to Nevada and the mining camp of Pioche. The “chief” of Pioche was Morgan Courtney, a fearless gunfighter and, like Levy, an immigrant from Ireland. Although two years older than Courtney, Levy looked upon the Kerryman Courtney as a hero to be emulated. By the time Levy met Courtney, the Kerryman had already killed four men in gunfights. He would kill two more before he himself was shot to death.
Levy’s first deadly confrontation occurred in 1871 and involved feared shootist Mike Casey, who had earlier mortally wounded wealthy Pioche businessman Tom Gorson in a gunfight. As Gorson lay dying he bequeathed all his holdings to his friends and $5,000 to the man who avenged his death by killing Casey. Hoping to bait Casey into a fight, Levy went about Pioche’s saloons declaring that Casey had gunned down Gorson “without giving him a show.” Casey soon caught up with Levy in a saloon and called on him to draw. Levy protested that he was unarmed but said, “I will go and fix myself and when I come back I will come back fighting.”
Levy later found Casey standing on the sidewalk talking with a friend, Dave Neagle. Yelling “Casey, you son-of-a-bitch, I’m here!” Levy closed on Casey and fired at near point-blank range. The bullet hit Casey in the head. Levy fired again and a second round hit Casey in the neck. Levy then turned his weapon on Neagle, but the latter had drawn his own revolver and fired a round that struck Levy in the jaw. By then a sheriff’s deputy was on the scene to put a halt to the gunplay.
Casey died from his wounds, but Levy recovered, although he was left with a sinister-looking scar. He got the $5,000 and also was released from any criminal prosecution when a preliminary hearing determined that he had told Casey that he would be coming after him—fair warning in the Old West.
Levy notched his second kill a little more than a year later when he shot Tom Ryan in a dispute over a Pioche mining claim. Then, 1876 found Levy in Deadwood, and the next year in Cheyenne. It was in the Wyoming town that Levy was involved in his most famous gunfight. After losing a high-stakes hand at the poker table, Levy declared he had been cheated. Renowned gunfighter Charley Harrison, who raked in the pot, loudly declared that the Irish were always poor losers.
Levy leaped to his feet and drew his revolver. Harrison spread his hands, saying that he was unarmed but would get himself heeled and meet Levy in the street. Excited saloon patrons began placing bets. Harrison was a heavy favorite. Within minutes Levy and Harrison were facing each other in front of Frenchy’s saloon on Eddy Street. Harrison’s draw was lightning quick, but his first shot missed. Levy’s struck Harrison in the chest, and he fell to the snow-covered street, firing another round on his way down. Levy ran to Harrison and fired another bullet into the prostrate gunfighter. Harrison hung on for two weeks before dying.
Levy spent the late 1870’s in Leadville but was in Tombstone by 1880. With partners Dick Clark, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holliday he staked three water claims, which in that arid region could rival veins of ore in value. Levy did not figure in any of Tombstone’s many gunfights but would make news on a visit to nearby Tucson in 1882. A dispute in a faro game led Levy to exclaim that he would shoot the eyes out of dealer John Murphy. Fair warning. A short while later when Levy emerged from the Palace Hotel, Murphy, gun in hand, was standing in the street waiting for him. Levy never knew what hit him. The fastest Jewish gun in the West was 40 years old.