There’s something captivating about legendary lovers. Call me a romantic, but I adore learning about everyone from Roy Rogers and Dale Evans to Romeo and Juliet—from Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara to Bogie and Bacall—from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to Fred and Wilma Flintstone. Whether their stories are sweetly romantic or romantically tragic, I love them all . . . as long as the romance is there!
But today we’re going to talk about a legendary Wild West couple that is actually rather more absurd than romantic. They’re a pair of lovers whose names – – being more comical than lyrical – – don’t exactly make them fodder for love sonnets. Their lives, and how they chose to live them, are a far cry from the romantic tales of true love that we all crave. Today we’re going to talk about Squirrel Tooth Alice and Texas Billy Thompson, a loving couple who married and had nine children . . . and gave an entirely new meaning to the concept of “family values.”
A Marked Woman Before She Was Sweet 16
Before she had teeth, Squirrel Tooth Alice was known as Mary Elizabeth Haley-Libby for short. Born in 1855, her childhood was so wretched that if you were to write a country & western song about her early years, her need for orthodontia wouldn’t even merit its own verse.
I’ve been jotting down some ideas for a song I’m calling, “The Girl They’d Call Squirrel.” I think a basic verse breakdown could go something like this:
- Verse 1—Her family lost its fortune during the Civil War.
- Verse 2—Comanche Indians raided her family’s farm and took her captive when she was still a young ‘un.
- Verse 3—It took her parents three years to pay a ransom for her release.
- Verse 4—People didn’t look kindly on 13-yr-old girls who had been living with Indians. She was considered a loose woman.
- Verse 5—The only man who’d have anything to do with a supposed loose woman (who was still a girl) was an older man.
- Verse 6—Her daddy killed the older man for taking up with his squirrel-toothed baby.
- Verse 7—The girl they’d soon call “squirrel” ran away from home when she was just 14, and didn’t look back.
I’m still working out the tune, but I really think Blake Shelton could have a hit with this little ditty.
At Least He Had a Cooler Nickname
When Libby ran away from home, she ran to Abilene, Kansas, where she became a dance hall girl and prostitute. This is where she met up with a gambler. (Hey, maybe Kenny Rogers would be a better choice to sing my sure-fire hit song!) The gambler already came with a pretty cool nickname that could balance out the horrors of being known as “Squirrel Tooth Alice.” He was William “Texas Billy” Thompson.
Oh, and just because I feel this merits a mention, I should point out that while I am emphatically opposed to picking on people because of physical flaws, Squirrel Tooth Alice did nothing to prevent her cruel nickname. The gap in her teeth already made her a target. But, when she started keeping prairie dogs as pets (complete with collars and leashes), she wasn’t exactly making an effort to blend in with the crowd!
Texas Billy was ten years older than Squirrel Tooth Alice. He was an English immigrant who had volunteered for the Confederate Army, along with his older brother, Ben. Ben Thompson was an Old West lawman of much greater notoriety than his baby brother. Of course being an Old West lawman didn’t make him a saint. Just so you know what sort of family we’re dealing with, Ben Thompson was also a gunman and gambler who once tried to persuade outlaw, John Wesley Hardin, to “get rid” of Wild Bill Hickok. As for Texas Billy… Well, he wasn’t quite as respectable as his big brother.
Ah, Young Love
In 1870, Texas Billy and Squirrel Tooth Alice headed for Texas. Billy worked as a cowboy along the Chisholm Trail and Squirrel Tooth Alice “entertained” her way across the prairie. I suppose it’s good when your career allows you to find work wherever you go. By 1872, the couple was back in Kansas. Texas Billy had given up cow punching and returned to gambling. The girl formerly known as Libby was working the saloons in a different capacity. They weren’t there for long, however. The following spring, the couple was back on a cattle drive.
Libby gave birth to her first child somewhere along the road. And, romantic that he was, Billy decided to make an honest woman of her. Oh, sure they had their ups and downs, like any couple. There was the time in 1873 when Billy got drunk and killed a sheriff. Why do bad things happen to scandalous people? It’s one of the great mysteries of life! Billy made bail and the young family scurried back to Texas. By 1876, they must have thought they had put that entire episode behind them. . .when, BAM, the Texas Rangers found Billy. He was extradited back to Kansas, where he stood trial for shooting the sheriff. In a twist of Old West justice, the shooting was ruled an accident. A little thing like getting sloppy drunk and gunning down a lawman could have happened to anyone. And, in Billy’s defense, I would say this: He shot the sheriff . . . but he did not shoot the deputy.
The couple moved to Dodge City, where Libby, the dedicated working mother that she was, reentered the workforce as a dance hall girl and prostitute. From there, they went to Colorado, and back to Texas, ultimately making their home in the town of Sweetwater. Billy bought a ranch, Libby opened a brothel, and they settled into family life. Libby had eight more children. It is believed that at least five of those kids were Billy’s.
The brothel business was good in Sweetwater, and the couple remained married until Billy’s death in 1897. Libby continued to operate her business until her retirement in 1921. Libby lived to the ripe old age of 98, and she passed away in 1953, in a Los Angeles nursing home.
So often, parents wonder if their children are picking up on the lessons they’re being taught. Are they internalizing our family values? Are they paying attention, or are we talking to the wall? The offspring of Squirrel Tooth Alice and Texas Billy Thompson were paying attention. Of the nine children, almost all of the sons became criminals and the daughters became prostitutes.
No, the story of Squirrel Tooth Alice and Texas Billy Thompson may never be the subject of a love sonnet. But I still think any part of their lives would be a fabulous country and western song!