WASHINGTON — Outlaw "Wild Bill" Longley twice cheated the noose, but popular Texas folklore that he got away a third time is wrong. Scientists say tests of the body in his grave show that it is, indeed, Longley.
"We now can put the controversy to rest. Bill Longley has been dead 123 years and it's good to have it all cleared," Michael Reese of Houston, a Longley descendant, said Wednesday.
Reese attended a briefing at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, where forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley described his 15-year effort to track down Longley's grave and solve the question of who, if anyone, is in it.
Longley, an outlaw with a fast draw and a faster temper, was said to have killed 32 people in the years after the Civil War. His tale was romanticized in the television series "The Texan" where the character Big Bill Longley was played by Rory Calhoun.
"We believe this is William Preston Longley," Owsley said, unveiling the remains recovered from the grave.
Dr. Terry Melton of Mitotyping Technologies in State College, Pa., reported that DNA recovered from one of the teeth in the grave matched that of Helen Chapman, a granddaughter of Longley's sister.
And Owsley noted that the casket contained a Catholic religious medal and the remains of a celluloid flower that Longley was known to have had with him on the scaffold.
Twice Longley had cheated death. Once vigilantes were hanging him when they also began shooting at him. One bullet severed the rope, allowing him to flee.
Then, on Oct. 11, 1878, on Sheriff James Madison Brown's first try to hang him, the rope proved too long and he dropped to the ground.
Deputies then hoisted him up and, 11 minutes later, he was pronounced dead.
And the legend began.
Folklore insists that the last hanging was a hoax, thanks to a bribed sheriff. The original long rope prevented Longley's neck from being broken, and then the rope didn't strangle him because it was really attached to a harness under his clothing. That's the folklore, at least.
The tales say his coffin was filled with stones and he lived for many years, settling in Louisiana.
That's where Owsley got involved. In 1986, he was teaching at Louisiana State University when Ted Wax of Gonzales, La., asked him to help sort out his family history.
Wax's mother had died and in her papers he found an indication that his grandfather, named Brown, had been wanted for murder in Texas under the name Longley.
Owsley said his findings show that the Louisiana man and "Wild Bill" Longley were not the same.
The major problem was finding the grave.
His resting spot was unmarked and outside the cemetery in Giddings, Texas, where he finally met his end.
A petrified-wood marker was placed on Longley's grave in the 1920s, but the caretaker's records indicated the marker was later moved for various reasons. Though the marker was moved, the body lay where it had been buried.
Owsley turned to LSU geologist Brooks Ellwood, an expert in remote sensing. Ellwood, using computer digital imaging, compared the marked grave in the 1930s with recent photos of the cemetery to find the unmarked grave.