Two family names have come to be associated with the violence that plagued Colorado County, Texas, for decades after the end of the Civil War: the Townsends and the Staffords. Both prominent families amassed wealth and achieved status, but it was their resolve to hold on to both, by whatever means necessary, including extra-legal means, that sparked the feud. Elected office was one of the paths to success, but more important was control of the sheriff’s office, which gave one a decided advantage should the threat of gun violence arise.No Hope for Heaven, No Fear of Hell concentrates on those individual acts of private justice associated with the Stafford and Townsend families. It began with an 1871 shootout in Columbus, followed by the deaths of the Stafford brothers in 1890. The second phase blossomed after 1898 with the assassination of Larkin Hope, and concluded in 1911 with the violent deaths of Marion Hope, Jim Townsend, and Will Clements, all in the space of one month.
About the Author
JAMES C. KEARNEY currently teaches at the University of Texas in Austin. He is the author of Nassau Plantation; co-editor of Journey to Texas, 1833; and translator and editor of Friedrichsburg: The Colony of the German Fürstenverein. BILL STEIN was director and archivist at the Nesbitt Memorial Library in Columbus. JAMES SMALLWOOD was professor of history at Oklahoma State University and the author of more than twenty books on Texas history.
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No Hope for Heaven, No Fear of Hell
The Stafford-Townsend Feud of Colorado County, 1871â"1911
By James C. Kearney, Bill Stein, James Smallwood
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2016 James C. Kearney
All rights reserved.
The Murders of Bob and John Stafford at the Hands of Larkin and Marion Hope
As the new decade of the 1890s began, Columbus and Colorado County could look back on several years of unprecedented growth and prosperity. Old Columbus had undergone a complete facelift from the modest and sometimes makeshift wooden buildings that had once lined Milam and Spring streets, the main corridors of commerce. A row of stately two-story brick structures with impressive facades and other elegant touches denoting prosperity and optimism had supplanted the old structures. Among the many businesses that lined the courthouse square were two jewelers, three drug stores, five general merchandise stores, a butcher shop, several grocery stores, law and medical offices, a newspaper office, a saddle and harness shop, and eight saloons.
The newly constructed Stafford Opera House and Bank stood out clearly as the crown jewel among all the new structures, while R. E. "Bob" Stafford's imposing residence, next door to the opera house, counted as the grandest new home in town. The opera house was the largest of its kind in the state for the period and offered a convenient overnight venue for the numerous theatrical groups and minstrel shows that regularly travelled the rails between Houston and San Antonio. Thanks to R. E. "Bob" Stafford, the town and its citizens now had a claim to elegance and status that it had not previously enjoyed. Columbus was on the map.
But one thing was missing. The old wooden courthouse, now woefully inadequate, looked out of place across the street from such an impressive array of elegant buildings. To remedy the situation, Commissioner's Court voted to construct a new courthouse in 1890 that would be sizable enough to handle the expanded business of the county and would also be equal in style and elegance to the other impressive courthouses being built across the state in this era of general prosperity.
A firm was engaged to draw up plans and bids were let out. A date was set for the laying of the cornerstone for the new showcase of the county: July 7, 1890. The county planned a large celebration replete with a parade, speeches, and a large public barbeque at the "grove," the large stand of majestic, moss-laden live oaks in the northern part of town.
As the day for the celebration rolled around, throngs of celebrants descended on the town from surrounding communities and across the state. It was a festive occasion for all to enjoy. No one foresaw the tragedy about to unfold, for the shocking finale to the long-standing state of ill will between Bob Stafford and the Townsends was about to play out in dramatic fashion in the midst of the celebration.
The Townsend family's rise to affluence and status in the county had played out over many years and several generations. Bob Stafford's ascension to fame and fortune in Colorado County, by contrast, was no less than breathtaking and had rapidly eclipsed all the Townsends put together. The roots of the bad blood between the Townsends and Bob Stafford lay in specific events, to be sure: in a shoot-out of January 1871 on the streets of Columbus (examined in a later chapter) and in various squabbles concerning cattle and grazing rights. But even more than this, Bob Stafford's rise had aroused envy, resentment, and fear, and not only in the methods by which he achieved wealth and prestige — a combination of shrewdness, determination, and outright ruthlessness — but in the sheer dimensions of his success. The enormous wealth of Bob Stafford — by some estimates a net worth of $2,500,000 at the time of his death — was a serious cause of concern to the Townsend faction and the political machine they controlled.
With the construction of the opera house and the establishment of a bank, both in 1887, Bob Stafford had shifted his power base off the prairies and located it literally across the street from the courthouse, which the Townsends had jealously controlled for years. This represented a substantial threat to Marcus (Mark) Townsend, attorney, state legislator, and power broker, and to Sheriff J. Light Townsend, Mark Townsend's uncle. The two had controlled county politics for a decade with the help of the large black vote that tended to vote as a block. The two men had profited handsomely from the many side deals that came with this arrangement, but with the November 1890 election looming on the horizon, there was no guarantee that this comfortable (and profitable) arrangement would continue into the future. Bob Stafford, easily the wealthiest man in the county, was their avowed political enemy and had made it known on numerous occasions how strongly he resented their manipulation of the black vote. The stage was set for a confrontation.
Bob Stafford knew that his son Warren would be present at the festivities, attendant to the laying of the cornerstone of the new courthouse, and he also anticipated that he would, as usual, get drunk and become disorderly. Although married and a family man at this point, Warren Stafford had a serious problem with alcohol and a bad temper, which was exacerbated by his chronic drunkenness. Anticipating trouble, Bob Stafford approached Larkin Hope, the newly elected city marshal of Columbus, before the festivities began. Stafford wanted assurance from Hope that, should his son became unruly and disruptive, he would be discreetly whisked from public view.
Stafford was particularly concerned because the "calaboose" — the term used at the time for a kind of holding cell separate from the county jail — stood in the middle of Spring Street just to the east and in full view of the Stafford home. It was usual practice to put drunks and other disorderly people in the calaboose rather than the county jail until they sobered up and faced a judge. Above all, he did not want his wife Sarah to have to witness the public humiliation of her son Warren at a time of general celebration.
Larkin Hope and his younger brother Marion, who served as deputy city marshal, were the nephews of Sheriff Light Townsend. Their mother, Mary (Townsend) Hope was Sheriff Light Townsend's sister. The previous city marshal, Ike Towell, was an ally of the Staffords who had attempted to aggressively enforce a new city ordinance requiring segregated seating at the Columbus train station. This had alienated the black electorate, which was substantial and tended to vote as a block. Larkin Hope had capitalized on the backlash to win the election, which heightened resentment against the Townsend machine in certain quarters.
Larkin Hope, at thirty-five years of age, had already garnered a nasty reputation for violence, with numerous fights and at least two murders under his belt. Several years before, he had shot and killed a black man in Oakland who had confronted him after discovering that Larkin had seduced his daughter. Later, he had killed a semi-paralyzed Mexican on the streets of Columbus who, he claimed, had threatened him with a knife. Neither murder had resulted in a conviction.
He had also been involved in a serious incident in Columbus in 1889 that nearly cost him his life. He had threatened Ike Towell, his predecessor as city marshal. But before he could pull his gun, Towell pinned him up against an iron pillar, pulled out his knife, and practically disemboweled him. (See Goeppinger interview #3) According to the newspaper report in the Weimar Mercury, Hope was not expected to recover, but somehow managed to survive his wounds and then defeat Towell in the election for the marshal's office.
Over the years Hope had drifted in and out of jobs. Similar to many lawmen of the period in Texas, he had also made the transition from lawbreaker to lawman seamlessly, as if this were a natural progression. Tax rolls of the period confirm that, although married and with four children by 1890, neither he nor his brother owned a house or any real estate of taxable value.
Larkin Hope seemed to exemplify the classic "Napoleon" complex: short of stature, anemic, and with a baby face. He compensated for his inadequacies with swagger and a big gun. But until this day there was no documented history of bad blood between Bob Stafford and the Hope brothers. Lillian Reese maintained that Stafford had lent the chronically penniless Hope money on more than one occasion with little prospect of being paid back. If true, Stafford felt justified in asking a favor and apparently had received assurances that his son would be treated with deference.
Marion Hope was four years younger than Larkin. He too was married and had a family, but unlike his brother he had no record of violence prior to 1890. Marion and Larkin were very close and Marion always looked to his older brother for guidance. Marion was also slight in stature, but cut a much more urbane figure. A later newspaper account described him as a snappy dresser with a neat dark moustache and handsome, well-proportioned features.
The day of celebration arrived and the festivities commenced. Warren Stafford, true to his nature, became drunk and created a scene at the public barbeque at the "grove" on the north end of town. Accounts differ as to exactly what happened next, but all accounts agree that Larkin and Marion Hope arrested and handcuffed Warren and then marched him straight down Milam Street through the throngs of celebrants to the intersection with Spring Street, then took a left turn past Bob Stafford's house in full view of his mother, and then locked him in the calaboose that stood in the center of the street. It appeared to many to be an act of intentional provocation.
This duty completed, the Hope brothers then walked back up Spring Street to the Nicolai Saloon, which stood on the corner of Milam cattycorner from the Stafford Opera House and also in view of the Stafford residence. Larkin took a beer while Marion lit up a cigar. The two placed themselves in the doorjambs of the two doors that opened out onto the sidewalk where they could keep watch over the street. The time was about three o'clock in the afternoon. It did not take Bob Stafford long to find out what had transpired and that the Hope brothers were in the saloon across the street from his bank and opera house, as if waiting for him.
Although unarmed, Bob Stafford marched across the street and confronted the brothers. Eyewitness accounts reproduced in great detail in several newspaper articles as well as court document offer a precise picture of how events unfolded. Stafford began cursing Larkin and his brother Marion for their treatment of his son Warren, calling them, among other things, a "goddamn set of worthless curs."
At six-foot four and of a large frame, Bob Stafford towered over Larkin, and as he cursed him, he shook his fingers angrily in his face. About this time, Larkin's wife, hearing of the altercation, drove up in a buggy and tried to persuade Larkin to go home, but he refused her entreaties and ordered her to leave, which she obliged.
He then turned and walked back to the saloon with his pistol drawn. About this time, John Stafford, hearing of the affray, approached the saloon carrying a package in his hand. He walked into the saloon and placed the package on the bar, and then he turned to walk outside. Several witnesses testified that John, who was known to be mild-mannered, never raised his voice and attempted rather to persuade the parties to separate before the confrontation escalated out of control. Also two other men attempted to intervene, but Bob continued his tirade, growing ever more vociferous, and giving full vent to his anger.
Alluding to the Townsend control of the black vote, his last words were, "you are a nigger loving son-of-a-bitch." Larkin Hope replied that that was more than he could take, cocked his pistol and fired three shots point-blank at Bob Stafford. Stafford collapsed mortally wounded without uttering another word. At this moment, Marion Hope, who had followed John Stafford inside the saloon, pulled his pistol and shot John Stafford, who then settled to the floor clutching his wound next to the doorjamb in an upright posture. Larkin then walked up to John, cocked his revolver, and aimed it at his head. John pleaded, "I am killed, don't shoot again," but Larkin replied, "Take your medicine like a man, you son-of-a-bitch," and calmly delivered the coup de grace, the blast causing horrible burns to the skull of Stafford. Death was instantaneous.
In the confusion that followed, Larkin remained at the saloon but Marion, fearing reprisal, fled to the residence of his uncle, Sheriff Light Townsend, who, due to a supposed indisposition, had remained in bed at home throughout the festivities. He quickly roused himself and hurried up the street to the saloon and placed both Larkin and Marion into custody.
The shootings shocked the community and created a sensation throughout the state, for "Colonel" Stafford — as he was now universally addressed — had a very high profile across the state and beyond. In terms of cattle owned outright, he was most likely the largest cattleman in the state. In addition to his cattle, he had established a bank capitalized solely from his own resources, started a mercantile business, opened an opera house, and built a large refrigeration and meatpacking house. He had also platted a new town in 1888 on his land south of Columbus, initially named Stafford Station, but later changed to Altair in order to secure a post office.
The fallout to these events was immediate. On July 14 Larkin Hope resigned his position as city marshal and on September 9, 1890, the fall term of the Colorado County Grand Jury returned indictments of first-degree murder against both Larkin and Marion Hope. The prosecution argued successfully that a change of venue was necessary for a fair and impartial trial.
the fact that the sheriff of this county [sic. J. Light Townsend], who is charged with their [sic. Larkin and Marion Hope] custody and who must serve all orders issued by this court is an uncle of the accused – a man of large influence and condition in this county.
Friends, family, and supporters of the Staffords were absolutely convinced that the shootings were nothing less than premeditated assassinations orchestrated from behind the scenes by either Sheriff Townsend or Mark Townsend, or both. Lillian Reese stated unequivocally that the murders were planned and she suggested a clear motive, namely that Sheriff Townsend had received word through the grapevine that Bob Stafford had planned to have him assassinated and thereafter orchestrated an elaborate preemptive strike using the Hope brothers. According to this scenario, the supposed indisposition that had kept Sheriff Townsend at home in bed was a mere ruse in order to distance himself from the appearance of involvement. (See Goeppinger interview #1) Other more dispassionate observers also felt that the sad turn of events could only be explained in terms of a conspiracy. One of these accounts, a written report to the governor of Texas outlining the history of the troubles in Colorado County, serves as a succinct summary of all that heretofore had taken place and is worth quoting at length:
Thirty years ago two factions were prominent in the county — the Stafford faction and the Townsend faction; and collisions between them were tolerably frequent, chiefly on account of conflicting interests on the prairies — the grazing land. The Townsends finally sold out their stock interests to the Staffords and for some years comparative peace reigned between them. The Stafford's growing in wealth but declining in family strength; while the Townsends were comparatively poor but being a fruitful people gained in family strength. It is perhaps twenty years since J. L. Townsend laid his plans to become sheriff of Colorado County — cultivating the Negro vote which together with his family connections carried him into office easily. He speedily assumed an attitude of marked antagonism to the Staffords, especially Bob Stafford, who was at the head of that family and rapidly becoming very wealthy. As Townsend was repeatedly elected to the sheriffalty his confidence grew and he became more arbitrary in his bearing, which aroused Stafford's ire and rendered personal collision between them imminent. Matters were in this condition when Robert and John Stafford were killed on the 7 day of July 1890. These homicides were perpetrated by Larkin and Marion Hope, kinsmen of Townsend; and while ostensibly the result of a personal altercation, were almost beyond a question of a doubt the result of premeditation and deliberate plans as the testimony on the trial in one case showed conclusively — notwithstanding the jury brought in a verdict of acquittal.
In September the call for a public meeting went out, which quickly turned into an anti-Townsend rally. It was after all an election year, and Light Townsend had once again placed himself on the ballot as an independent for reelection in the upcoming November general election. A large number of citizens turned out and authorized the committee sponsoring the meeting to publish their resolutions in the Colorado Citizen:
Resolved: That this is an anti-Townsend meeting ... We protest his candidacy because: first, the said J. L. Townsend has heretofore never affiliated with the Democratic party; second, that the said J. L. Townsend is at this time the party to a feud existing in this county, and that said feud cannot be settled as long as he remains in office; third ... he prostituted the high office of Sheriff, for the benefit of two murderers; fourth, that he is attempting to control not only the sheriff, but every other constable and marshal's office in the county for his own purposes.
Excerpted from No Hope for Heaven, No Fear of Hell by James C. Kearney, Bill Stein, James Smallwood. Copyright © 2016 James C. Kearney. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations After Chapter 5 vii
1 The Murders of Bob and John Stafford at the Hands of Larkin and Marion Hope 5
2 The Seven Townsend Brothers (and One Sister) of Texas 21
3 Robert Earl Stafford 39
4 The Rise of Sam Houston Reese and the Assassination of Larkin Hope 61
5 The Killings of Sam and Dick Reese Photo Insert 77
6 The Terrible Affray at Bastrop and the Shoot-out at Rosenberg 99
7 The Interim 119
8 The 1906 Skating Rink Shoot-out 127
9 The Assassination of Jim Coleman 135
10 The Deaths of Marion Hope, Will Clements, and Jim Townsend 145
11 Postscript 151
Appendix A Feud Biographies 161
Appendix B Goeppinger Interviews 181
Appendix C Ranger Captain Sieker Report 197
Appendix D Witness List Stelzig Murder Trial 203
Bibliography of Sources Used 265
KearneyAustin, TX Bill SteinColumbus, OH James SmallwoodStillwater, OK