Texas History 101

Most of Mason’s history is as quiet and agreeable as the modern-day town, but the late nineteenth—century Hoodoo War was the exception to the rule.

by Jordan Breal

TODAY MASON IS A QUIET town in the Hill Country. With a humble population of a little more than two thousand, most everybody knows most everybody else. When Texas Monthly writer-at-large Suzy Banks passed through recently, she dubbed several local establishments (the Beeswax Company, the Mason Country Opry, and the Santos Taqueria) worthy enough to be on her list of 25 things she loves about the Hill Country, which is in this month’s issue (see “Head for the Hills”). To those of us who have never been to Mason—and perhaps to those who live there too—it seems an idyllic place, as calm as a monastery and untainted by the whir of chain restaurants and Super Wal-Marts.

But the neighborhoods weren’t always so unruffled, the neighbors not always, well, so neighborly. In fact, Mason, the county seat of Mason County, was a full-out battleground in the 1870’s. We’ve all heard of the Battle of San Jacinto and of the doomed heroism at the Alamo, but the Mason County War has largely escaped our collective attention. The Hoodoo War as it was called—recalling an old term for bad luck—broke out, like most great escalations in Texas history, over the matter of cattle rustling. In June of 1874, the presiding justice of Mason County, Wilson Hey, sent a request to Governor Richard Coke asking him to send troops, in hopes that their presence would deter the cow nabbers. Nine men were jailed on charges of stealing cattle, almost a year later four of them escaped—the jails being what they were back then. An angry mob took five of the jailed men and extended to them less constitutional forms of justice: Three were hanged (two died and one lived) and one was shot in the head—somehow one managed to escape.

Even before this, tensions between neighbors had been mounting. Many of the Mason settlers were Germans who had moved northwest from Fredericksburg, and as the town became a main hub of the hide trade, disputes arose over who—the Germans or the Anglo-Texans—owned the land and the cattle that roamed freely over it (fences were still a thing of Mason’s future). Friction between the groups intensified as more cows were swiped and more men were brought to the jail.

Arresting the suspected thieves was fairly routine, but keeping them alive until a trial could be set up was almost impossible. On May 13, 1875, Deputy Sheriff John Worley was returning to the jail with suspected rustler Tim Williamson when they were attacked by twelve men with blackened faces. Williamson was killed, and after no trial was held for his murder, his friends swore revenge, a promise they didn’t renege on as they launched a spree of retaliation, killing at least a dozen men, according to The Handbook of Texas. A bloody domino effect ensued, with strings of murders and brutalities in the name of retribution.

Mason residents were fearful of one another, bolting their doors and turning on friends. Governor Coke dispatched Major John B. Jones along with thirty to forty Texas Rangers to the area to restore peace after citizens petitioned him for protection. By this time, two rival factions were in full force, one led by Johnny Ringo and former ranger Scott Cooley, both friends of the murdered Williamson, and the other led by Sheriff John Clark. As Jones began a frustrating search to quell the source of the war, still more lives were taken in Cooley’s crusade to “burn out the Dutch,” as Margaret Bierschwale notes in the Handbook article.

Jones and the Rangers made a small number of arrests, but most of the cases never went to trial and of those that did, no convictions were made in Mason County. Only one man, George Gladden, was sentenced to 99 years in Llano County. He was pardoned in 1884. Ringo, who would go on to be embroiled in a famous feud with Wyatt Earp, was acquitted on murder charges in Burnet. In the fall of 1876, Cooley fled to Blanco County, his posse dispersed, and the local residents began to note a restoration of peace. Relations between the German and the Anglo-Texans were far from smoothed out, however, and the identification of the Hoodoo mobsters was never confirmed. The Mason County courthouse burned to the ground on January 21, 1877, destroying all of the county records, including documentation of the feud.

By the next year a new courthouse was completed and Mason was lulled back to order, although its residents still harbored tinges of fear. Generations have now passed, and today’s Mason is loved for its palm-size star candles, undiscovered opry talent, fajita gorditas, and its downright neighborly spirit.

Primary source: The Handbook of Texas