If C.L. "Gunplay" Maxwell thought he was going to get the best of Deputy Edward Johnstone on Aug. 23, 1909, he was sadly mistaken.
Using a ruse to get Johnstone out a tavern and into the street where he could kill him was typical of a man who had literally lived his entire adult life on both sides of the law, but found himself on the bad side in the end.
It never had to be that way. Maxwell (whose real name was James Otis Bliss, but went by a number of aliases during his lifetime) was well educated, intelligent and actually had some legal business ventures in his life. But for some reason, no matter how successful he was or could be legitimately, the wild life and being an outlaw always called to him.
Maxwell was born in the eastern United States. Some accounts say he was from a well known Italian family in Maryland, while others say he came from well heeled Boston family. Regardless, his upbringing was good but as a young man he began to get into trouble. At one point he got into a bar fight and somehow ended up shooting and killing one of his friends. It was then he headed west. He went to Texas and then went north to Montana. In the early 1890s he drifted into Utah. While in the Intermountain west he often was involved in horse rustling, sometime to the detriment of his partners because at least once he took off with the money that had been paid for the stolen livestock. He was caught in Wyoming, however, and ended up at the Wyoming State Prison. That is where he met Butch Cassidy, and eventually tried to become part of his gang. He may have ridden with some of the people from the gang, but he was never part of it.
He actually was never a very efficient criminal, because he mostly did rustling and passing bad checks.
But in 1898 he did make a name for himself in Utah by robbing a bank in Springville with another man. The few thousand dollars they made from that robbery didn't stay in their hands long as they tried to go over to Diamond Fork through Hobble Creek Canyon and were caught by a posse. His accomplice (who to this day his name is unknown) was shot by the posse and he was captured. He went to the Utah State Prison for a long sentence, but five years later he helped foil a prison break and his sentence was commuted.
Maxwell was given the benefit of the doubt in that instance, something that seemed to happen to him time and again. After he got out in 1903, it appears he tried to go straight. He worked as a mine guard in Carbon County and also did some exploring, thinking that maybe he could make money on the minerals in the area. He became somewhat regarded and began working for Utah Fuel Company's attorneys, Mark Braffet, as his body guard. Braffet in an interview with the Eastern Utah Advocate (Aug. 26, 1909) after Maxwell's death told about the man he had known.
Braffet's life had been threatened a number of times during the strikes and they picked Maxwell to protect him "because of his fearlessness when firearms were the media of exchange of personalities."
"There is always a kind of halo thrown about the head of a dead desperado or outlaw," Braffet told the paper. "I do not want to be considered in any sense as weaving of such a halo about an outlaw's head nor to be considered as sanctioning the acts in the turbulent life of Maxwell. At the same time I do not have any unpleasant things to say about the dead."
Braffet went on to say that Maxwell had "always rendered loyal service to his employers" and that he "was a most energetic man and if his energies had been directed toward a legitimate end he would have been a big man and a good one."
During this time he actually discovered ozokerite (a hard wax material used in some products even today) near Colton and went into the mining business. But that evidently could not hold his attention compared to the life of an outlaw.
Over the next few years he was involved in a killing in Goldfield, Nev. (where he also knew Edward Johnstone) but was never arrested, a holdup of a Wells Fargo Stage (charges not filed) and another shootout in Helper with a railroad foreman in 1907. Both men were wounded. Maxwell faced no time there either.
After that Maxwell ended up on the west coast and married a fairly well to do woman named Besse Hume. Often using alias' he used the name William Seaman when he married her. According to the Eastern Utah Advocate, their honeymoon turned into quite a deal. Maxwell met a man named E.R. Burke, a confidence man supreme. The two of them robbed Maxwell's new wife of her jewelry (apparently unbeknownst to her) and then got in an argument, possibly over the loot. A duel with pistols took place and apparently Maxwell came out the winner, both in the duel and with his new wife because he then recovered the jewelry from a pawn shop where it had been taken. However she apparently left him over the incident and he went to Salt Lake where he got into another gunplay incident in a bar. He was not arrested in that case either.
Within the next year he had gone back to San Francisco and made up with his wife and then moved her to Ogden. They remained there but he often took trips to Carbon County to look after what he told her was his mining interests.
Years before, Maxwell had also married another woman, from whom he was never divorced. While in the Uintah Basin, he had married a woman name Ada Shaw, but there he used the name Maxwell. That situation would cause drama after Maxwell's death in that the two women would jockey for position for his estate.
It was on one of these trips that he decided that it was time to do some robbing in Carbon County (besides passing bad checks which he had a reputation for). He may have had at least one bank in his sights, but what he really wanted was to rob the paymaster at Kenilworth. He came to Spring Glen and hid out for a few days, possibly planning his moves.
Johnstone got wind of Maxwell's presence and started to investigate why he was in the area. Maxwell found out he was prying and it was at that point he decided to confront Johnstone about that, along with the fact the deputy had also been involved in other action against him in Green River and in Goldfield, Nev, during the killing he was involved in there.
Devious and calculating, Maxwell came into Price to get Johnstone. It would be the last act of criminal intent he would ever perpetrate.
Some information for this article came from Old West Legends.