Colorful past comes to life
‘Shootout at the El Moro’ recounts 1906 tragedy in Durango
By Leslie Doran
Special to the Herald
Shootout at the El Moro: A Tragedy in Durango is a compact fictional work by Michael Watson, an independently published writer, who brings to life the very real and legendary gunfight in Durango between two disparate lawman. The legend involves the showdown between Sheriff William (Bill) Thompson and Night Marshall Jesse Stansel on Main Street in front of the El Moro Saloon (Home to the current El Moro Spirits and Tavern) on Jan. 9, 1906. One man died in the event, though I will not spoil who it was.
Shootout at the El Moro by Michael Watson, recounts a 1906 shootout in downtown Durango that left one lawman dead.
Shootout at the El Moro: A Tragedy in Durango, by Michael R. Watson, CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 154 pages.
The competing lawmen were terminally divided over the heated issue of gambling. Thompson was a straight-laced individual who felt compelled to uphold the state and county laws against gambling and the establishments that promoted it. On the other hand, the Durango Town Council encouraged Marshall Stansel to look the other way since the practice bought money into the town coffers.
Both lawmen were devoted family men with wives and children to support. Thompson and his wife Sarah had five, three boys and two girls. Stansel and wife Ella also had five, also three boys and two girls. Thompson’s daughter Ruby and Stansel’s son Jesse were classmates at Park Elementary and best friends.
So when the two men ran against each other for the position of sheriff in 1904, tensions were high between the families, and Jesse and Ruby’s friendship was threatened. Ultimately, Thompson was elected sheriff, and he renewed his efforts to shut down gambling in Durango.
Watson ably takes readers back in time and down the familiar streets of Durango. He vividly portrays the living conditions here in the early 20th century when Durango was still a town of the “Wild West.” He also illustrates the social aspects of the town with its “Soiled Doves,” gamblers and shopkeepers. Watson captures the dress and especially the language of the times, drawing the reader into the human element of the tale.
The climax of the story occurs during the final showdown between Sheriff Thompson and Marshall Stansel. The incident happened suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, in the heart of downtown in late morning. Witnesses were shocked by the violence and intensity of the event.
It was Thompson who initiated the gun play, which devolved into a beating when both men had emptied their guns. One unlucky passerby lost his arm after he was caught by a stray bullet.
Both Thompson and Stansel were respected by the many factions in town despite their differences in carrying out the dictates of the law. The town turned out 800 strong to pay tribute to one of its fallen lawman. Shortly after, the town got caught up in drama of the survivor’s trial. Watson has put human faces on an element of town history that many modern Durangoans know nothing about.
The second portion of Shootout at the El Moro is a chronological listing of the newspaper articles describing the factual elements of the book. There are clippings from the Durango Democrat, Durango Evening Herald and the Durango Wage Earner.
The language used in the articles is very entertaining since journalism style has changed radically since the early 19th century. The articles are very descriptive and use phrases almost foreign to contemporary readers. Here is an example, from a description of Sheriff Thompson: “... he is no doubt quite harmonious to the proposition of succeeding himself and under existing conditions ...” What?
Readers with a love of history should be interested in this little treasure that features an important event from Durango’s colorful past.
email@example.com. Leslie Doran is a Durango freelance reviewer.