The Bad Old Days
The 1800's had its share of criminal activity.
THERE’S NO CRIME LIKE THE PRESENT, but Texas has seen its share of historical horrors too—no surprise in a state that was the wildest and woolliest of the American West. Back then, though, many a man would have taken exception to the term “woolly,” which suggests sheep—a species that was much despised by cattlemen. Minor prejudices such as that led to many killings in nineteenth-century Texas; outlaw Wild Bill Longley, for example, claimed to have once shot a man for insulting the virtue of Texas women. Other excuses for murder were age-old: jealousy, passion, greed. Below are ten criminal vignettes of the 1800’s that have largely been forgotten by modern Texans, but when it comes to terror, they’re still pretty high-caliber.
1810’s—1820’s: The Yokum Gang, a group of thieves and murderers, terrify the Neutral Ground, an area between Louisiana and Spanish Texas. The first to die at the hands of ringleaders Matthew Yokum and James Callier is Callier’s father, who had refused to let Yokum marry his daughter. The group commits additional murders and attempts to kidnap freed blacks to sell as slaves, but eventually is thwarted by outraged neighbors who drive them west across the Sabine River and into Pine Island Bayou, in what is now Jefferson County.
1840: The Regulator-Moderator War, centered in Shelby County, pits enthusiastic vigilantes against other locals who disapprove of men taking the law into their own hands (laymen versus lawmen, you might say). Dozens of men die as a result of conflicts between the two, including the victims hanged by the noose-happy Regulators. One unfortunate is Robert Potter, a Moderator who is a senator of the Republic of Texas and formerly the Secretary of the Texas Navy; Regulators surround his home and shoot him as he tries to sneak past them to safety. Texans are shocked, even though Potter is no angel—he is infamous for having committed bigamy.
1862: In what becomes known as the Great Hanging at Gainesville, 42 Union sympathizers and abolitionists are hanged by Confederates and slave owners in Cooke County. Gainesville and surrounding burgs had been sharply divided over the issue of slavery even before poor farmers began to circulate a petition protesting the Confederacy’s exemption of large slaveholders from military conscription. As a result, two officers of the Eleventh Texas Cavalry—both slave owners—arrive to run a so-called “citizens’ court” that indicts several men for treason. The conflict escalates into violence so quickly, however, that eventually 42 men die in just thirteen days, including one of the presiding officers.
1866: Rancher Prentice Olive and his three brothers, who own a large amount of property in Williamson County, are suspected of the death of two rustlers who had been subjected to the “death of the skins.” In this fearsome method of Spanish torture, men are tied up, wrapped in green cowhides, then left in the sun to die as the skins slowly shrink and dry, suffocating them. The hides on the rustlers’ corpses bore the Olives’ brand. The brothers are accused of murder, tried, and acquitted.
1870’s—1880’s: Along the Pecos River in West Texas, cowboys use the term “pecos” to mean shooting a man and then throwing his body into the Pecos River. Lesser crimes obviously flourished in the area as well; the term “Pecos swap” was slang for theft.
1877: The “Diamond Bessie” murder trial is the talk of Jefferson. The body of a well-dressed woman with a gunshot wound to the head is found outside town near the remains of a picnic lunch. Authorities arrest a wealthy jeweler, Abraham Rothschild, of Ohio, to whom the victim was not married but with whom she had stayed at a classy Jefferson Hotel. Rothschild, whose lawyers include future governor Charles Culberson, is acquitted.
1877: Johnny Ringo becomes involved in the Hoodoo War, a deadly feud between two rival factions of ranchers (a.k.a. cattle rustlers) in Mason County. He is arrested and jailed in Burnet for the murder of Jim Cheyney. He is freed in 1878, when the charges are finally dismissed. He goes on to become a famous gunslinger in Arizona and an infamous foe of Wyatt Earp’s.
1880: Deputies near Beaumont try to prevent teenager Pattillo Higgins from harassing local blacks. He pulls a gun and fires, killing one of the lawmen, and then is shot in return, an injury that costs him an arm. Subsequently he is acquitted by a jury that believes his claim of self-defense. Higgins goes on to become one of the pioneers of the Texas oil business.
1881: After a long and rowdy career, gunfighter Clay Allison, a former cowhand for rancher Charles Goodnight, marries and settles down in Hemphill County. Suspected in several deaths—including five in New Mexico alone: those of a deputy sheriff, a fellow outlaw, and three black soldiers—Allison has been charged with both manslaughter and murder but always escaped conviction. Family life tames him a bit, and he confines his lawbreaking to such mischief as riding his horse through the streets of Mobeetie buck naked.
1882: Elizabeth Ann Carter Sprague FitzPatrick Clifton of Young County dies after having been widowed four times. Her first and third husbands were mysteriously murdered, her second disappeared, and her fourth also predeceased her. She had never been officially charged with any of her spouses’ deaths, but don’t you know the neighbors were a little nervous?