Joel Fowler–1846-1884



Joe Fowler was a ruthless murderer, rancher, sheriff

Joel Fowler, in Socorro; circa 1880

I find it hard to believe that someone has not made a movie about Joel Fowler, one of the most feared ruthless con, cutthroat rustler, and cold-blooded killer. Some said he killed between 30-40 men.

For a time, he lived in the San Mateo Mountains, near Concho Hills Guest Ranch, and died in Socorro about 64 miles from Concho Hills.

Joel (Joe) Fowler was born in Mississippi in 1846. He moved with his uncle Archibald Young “A.Y.” Fowler to Fort Worth, Texas where his killing spree started.

On August 24, 1861, the Uncle met Sheriff York on the Fort Worth city square, and the uncle attacked the lawman with his knife. Severely cut, Sheriff York shot and killed Fowlers Uncle. Coming to his uncle’s aid, Joe Fowler shot and killed Sheriff York with a double-barreled shotgun. Joe Fowler killed his first man at the age of 15.

A list of Fowler’s murders are too great to itemize here. But a couple of instances will show his disposition. In 1881, Joe Fowler double crossed and shot “Whisky Jim” Greathouse, (also with a double-barrel shot gun) as he lay in bed asleep. This murder took place on Joe Fowler’s cattle ranch in the San Mateo mountains, west of Socorro, New Mexico. He also killed Butcher Knife Bill and then burned his half-brother Pony Neal alive, just to make an impression on moonlight cattlemen (rustlers) of the area.

I always believe that the water is clearest near the source, meaning that one gets closer to the truth by reading firsthand accounts. So here is an excerpt from a fantastic book about ranching near Concho Hills: Recollections of a Western Ranchman, by Captain William French. This event occurred in The Grand Central Hotel, Socorro, December 8 1883:

“During the process he [a barber] proved to be a most interesting talker, and entertained me with the exploits of a gentleman named Joe Fowler, who, it appeared, was at the time taking in the town , or, in common parlance, going round from one saloon to another drinking with his friends and looking for trouble. While the barber was speaking a crowd came into the adjoining saloon. My barber friend , who evidently held Mr. Fowler in great awe, stole to the door , and after a peep returned with his finger on his lips, saying in a hushed voice: ‘That’s him.’

When we heard them going out he took another look, to make sure, and then launched into his full history. I confess I thought he was exaggerating when he stated that Mr. Fowler’s record was thirty of forty murders. He explained that Mr. Fowler was a deputy sheriff; that the murders were committed after the victims had been arrested and disarmed, generally on trumped-up accusations; for apparently, Mr. Fowler was in demand amongst a certain number of unscrupulous politicians as an agent for removing their opponents, and they were interested in keeping him in office. I gathered that he had grown truculent through success and was not above doing some removing on his own account. His minor crimes were too numerous to chronicle.

On my inquiry whether there was no objection on the part of his fellow-citizens, my informant told me that he had them all ‘ Buffaloed ‘… I returned to the hotel. But that evening after supper, while I was reading the papers and enjoying a smoke, Mr. Fowler and his gang entered the hotel, and after exchanging noisy greetings with some of the attendants made their way to the bar-room; and as I recalled that one of his foibles was forcing innocent strangers to drink with him at the point of a gun, I gathered up my papers and retired to my room on the floor above.

I had been there perhaps an hour when I was startled by a terrific scream from below. This was followed by a hurried shuffling of feet, and then everything was still. Thoroughly alarmed, I opened the door and rushed into the corridor. From there I could hear someone groaning down below. I ran down as fast as I could to investigate.

As I entered the office several men were disappearing through the front door. In the doorway leading to the bar there was a man huddled up on the floor, groaning pitifully.

Others, amongst them the bartender, were hurrying to the stricken man. He was bleeding copiously and had one hand clutching his stomach. We lifted him up and got him on to the billiard-table, on which someone had spread a blanket.

The bartender told us that he was an unfortunate stranger in the clothing line [A clothing salesman named James Cade] who had gone to the bar-room for a cigar. There he was invited by Mr. Fowler to drink. The invitation was backed up by a gun, but the unfortunate man had pleaded a weak stomach. This was not considered an adequate excuse by Mr. Fowler, who expressed a determination to cure him. He drew his bowie knife and actually disemboweled him.

Fowler’s friends had hustled him out of the place. It was they who were just disappearing through the door as I came on the scene. Someone brought in a doctor, and under his direction we carried the unfortunate man upstairs and laid him on a bed.

He was unconscious and died a few hours later.”

Joel Fowler was lynched for the crime in January of 1884. The body was left hanging and 3,000 people turned out to view it. A coroner’s jury ruled that “the deceased came to his death at the hands of a mob of unknown persons.”



  1. Recollections of a Western Ranchman, by Captain William French,1928
  2. History of “Billy the Kid”, by Chas Al Siringo,1920
  3. Santa Fe New Mexican,Trail Dust by Marc Simmons, 2013