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RIDING LUCIFER'S LINE
Ranger Deaths along the Texas-Mexico Border
By Bob Alexander
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2013 Bob Alexander
All rights reserved.
Sonny Smith 1875
Sonny Smith's death earned him distinction. It was not a highly sought-for spot in the Lone Star State's overall history, but nevertheless a unique spot. The seventeen-year-old Ranger was the youngest Texas peace officer to forfeit his life in the line of duty—by gunfire. And not surprisingly the tragedy took place while the teenager was riding the Devil's line.
Smith was very much a real Texas Ranger in the Special Force, a rookie private in Leander Harvey McNelly's hard-riding and sometimes high-handed company. Though his initials were L. B. the young Ranger was popularly known as Sonny, and occasionally as Berry, name designations as yet to be fully and satisfactorily untangled, as is Captain McNelly referring to him as Benjamin and L. B. or Texas Ranger George Durham calling him Febe. Factually, as previously stated, Sonny was the youngest lawman in McNelly's company and somewhat ironically his father D. R. "Dad" Smith was the oldest. Father and son, previously from Travis County, and later from the recently created and organized Lee County (Giddings), had enlisted on the twenty-fifth day of July 1874.4 Their platform of action as Texas Rangers would in due course place father and son in woolly and sparsely populated country known as the Wild Horse Desert, that area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. An unforgiving section of real-estate that Austin's Daily State Journal avowed was home turf to "a vagabond population, inured to rapine and violence, and who make it the theater of incessant lawlessness."
An assertion that this portion of the borderline—and above—had long been a fermenting bed of hostility, fertilized with bloodshed, cannot be honestly refuted. The effort at hand, however, will not serve as the springboard for an asinine blame game. Badness can be traced to both banks of the Rio Grande. There's plenty of that untidiness to go-around. Since this vignette focuses on Sonny Smith but the briefest of generic recaps is necessary.
Corpus Christi, at one time boosted as the "Naples of the Gulf" or the "Italy of America," lay in Nueces County bordering the Texas Gulf Coast. Named for an abundance of towering pecan trees shading the Nueces River—nueces is Spanish for nuts—the county had been artfully carved from San Patricio County during April of 1846 and officially organized by the twelfth day of July that same year. During its earliest stages, the Mexican War period, Corpus Christi like any other fledgling community flooded with unmarried or married soldiers far from home, was awash with "Houses for drinking, gambling, theatrical entertainment, and other diversions...." Undertow of the money-hungry sporting element was threatening to drown discipline of U.S. Army troops bivouacked on the beach. Characterizing early day Corpus Christi one high-ranking military man grumbled that it was "the most murderous, thieving, gambling, god-forsaken hole in the Lone Star State or out of it."
Also sited in Nueces County thirteen miles northwest of Corpus Christi, the county seat, was the little settlement of Nuecestown, frequently referred to by locals as "The Motts." The little village is an important geographical spot for recounting Sonny Smith's story.
Likewise, due west of Corpus Christi by about twenty miles was the then near forsaken Hispanic settlement of Banquete. It was a place candidly referred to by an on-scene Texas Ranger as the "jumping-off place into the lower Nueces country.... it was pretty well known as the sheriff's deadline. Men on the dodge figured if they made Banquette [sic] they could make the Rio Grande without too much trouble from the law." Writing for the Galveston Daily News a newspaperman cautioned that traveling between Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande was an extraordinarily hazardous undertaking. In fact, if it's to be believed, area rancher William Woodson "W6" Wright would frequently, after assessing their toughness, place bets that folks headed south for the border from Banquete would never reach the state's southern tip at Brownsville—alive!
One bunch of Mexican bandits, at least nominally sponsored by Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, was willing to gamble that American lawmen would issue them "not too much trouble." During the tail end of March 1875, the banditos began slipping across the Rio Grande in small sets, then furtively forging themselves into a singular and robust gang on the Texas side. Fixing social grievances from bygone days was not in the blueprint. These guys were gangsters. Their grand scheme was to cut off, attack, and loot Corpus Christi. The big plan went awry due to "internal squabbling" and fouled up communications. Not all of the mean men were where they were supposed to be, at the time they were supposed to be there. An alternate target was selected, Nuecestown. On Good Friday, March 26 the bandits struck, and struck hard. Below Nuecestown they murdered two Anglos, stabbing them to death, then hanged two Hispanics, raided the ranch of Sam Page, and hanged another fellow. Continuing, and on the warpath, the bandits robbed anyone unfortunate enough to be traveling alone, unprotected, and took prisoners. Both women and men, old and young, were fair game. After arriving at Nuecestown the desperadoes bit from a hard plug, John Thomas Noakes' general mercantile and U.S. Post Office. The landmark store was well known "as a border outpost for Anglo civilization on the edge of the Nueces Strip."
An Englishman by birth, the forty-six-year-old Noakes was not a man to underestimate. If need be he would shoot you. And this was one of those times. Mr. Noakes wounded a bandit, incapacitating him. Then he calculated the odds of doing battle with overwhelming numbers arrayed against him. Common sense prevailed. The store owner escaped through a trapdoor and tunnel he had designed for just such an emergency. Luckily his wife and five children, after a tense confrontation with the outlaws, escaped grave physical injury. The bandits, meeting no further resistance, looted the combination home and storehouse and post office. Subsequent to plundering the premises the place was torched, burned to the ground. After working hard all of his remarkable life John Thomas Noakes could pocket ashes, nothing else. Conversely, others nearby could pocket something more: Revenge!
Initially, two civilian posses were put in the field, one led by the Nueces County Sheriff, John McClane, and another captained by Pat Whelan. A member of the latter squadron, George Swank, was mortally dumped from his saddle when they overhauled the fleeing raiders who were racing for sanctuary across the Rio Grande, more than a hundred and fifty miles away. The exhaustive running gunfight produced two more indisputable results: Hooligans outran the citizen lawmen and the possemen ran out of ammunition. A fellow unable to run fast or far was Felix Godinez, the marauder gunned down by Mr. Noakes. He had been abandoned by his pals and fallen into American hands. For the next play excuses were abundant: "The jail is insecure, the time for the holding of court distant, and the prospect of another raid for his rescue great. The majority of our citizens now out by the late pursuit and patrol duty at home were [are] unable to stand guard over the jail," more especially for "one of the most cruel and determined of the raiders." After a kangaroo court hearing and sham trial with an assured verdict of guilty, Felix Godinez was summarily executed. Perhaps understandable, but by no measure defensible, the ugly head of vigilantism had emerged.
For frontier-era journalists the newsy item about the murderous raid on Noakes's store was a corker—a humdinger. "The brutality and brazenness of the attack on Nuecestown sent shock waves across South Texas." Most folks noted and, rightly so, this raid by border bandits was a northern penetration into Texas heretofore unknown. It too was a tale igniting and reigniting passion and prejudice. South Texas—in fact the whole Lone Star—during this spate of time was no bed-ground for tolerance. But then again, neither was Mexico. Unauthorized militia units took to the field resulting in the deaths and property destruction of altogether innocent and inoffensive "Mexicans." The pretexts for summary judgments were many, but consistently absent even a hint of good cause—such as evidence.
It was into this blistering cauldron that Ranger Sonny Smith had ridden, an inexperienced private riding a jaded horse, but proudly high-stepping mentally behind his captain, the sometimes revered and the sometimes unkindly, but justifiably criticized Leander H. McNelly. The orders from the Texas adjutant general, William Steele, were explicit, no reading between the lines required:
As you are doubtless aware, the country bordering on the Rio Grande has been subjected to frequent raids of armed robbers who, crossing from Mexico in small numbers, elude observation until gathering in the interior, they carry destruction to isolated ranches and small villages. Your object will be to get as early information as possible of such gatherings, and to destroy any and every such band of freebooters. At the same time, be careful not to disturb innocent people who speak the same language with the robbers....
One of Captain McNelly's first acts was genuinely necessary, but near unanimously unpopular with the local Nueces County citizenry, the Anglo citizenry. He declared that bands of armed folks, unless at the time actually accompanied by a bona fide and commissioned lawman, were to be declared outlaws, subject to arrest—or worse! The local press was incredulous at such bossy arrogance. A particular editor chided: "This high-handed way of ordering citizens to disband by a Captain of Police, exceeds anything that ever happened under the Davis police; martial law had some semblance of authority, but McNelly issues his orders like an Emperor." Regardless, Captain McNelly's decree won the day. He and his men would be the law of the land, a law unto themselves.
Another of Captain McNelly's directives was implementation of an operational procedure for his men, but its real value would be lost should it be a secret and it wasn't. McNelly's company would operate under the hardcore policy of la ley de fuga. Prisoners—once they'd spilled the beans—were valueless and expendable. Custodial possession of a person presented logistical nightmares, too: They had to be guarded, housed, and fed. A policy of la ley de fuga alleviated other little messy irritants; no prisoners meant "no lawyers wrangling in a courtroom, no bail bonds, no judge, no jury." With a spirit of evenhandedness it is important to take stock of border country reality; ruthless treatment of prisoners would not be solely confined to America's side of the line. Later, Russian-born Emilio Kosterlitzky, riding at the head of La Gendarmería Fiscal, more commonly known as Rurales, since they scouted Mexico's northern and mostly rural frontier, was equally as harsh: "Hence, where Mexican criminals were concerned there would be none of the judicial shilly-shallying and legal niceties practiced in other sections of the world. Bandits were tried when caught, but the trials had none of the guarantees and practices of English common law. Instead, a few questions were asked, and if a suspect could reasonably be thought to have committed the crime in question, he was pronounced guilty and executed." In practice the merciless convention of la ley de fuga in Mexico's northern borderland provinces was commonplace. "It has been said with sardonic humor that those who received such primitive justice—'got away, but just a little way.'"
Passionately offering an excuse or apology for such coldblooded procedures practiced on either side of the border somewhat satisfies an intrinsic need for fashioning a macho persona, but is really reprehensible and unpardonable—aside from being statutorily unlawful. Even in the nineteenth-century along Lucifer's Line. Texas Ranger George Durham, thought so, coughing up the rough truth, though it bothered him:
The military had to fight by the books as written in Washington. But those Nueces outlaws didn't fight by any books. Neither did Captain McNelly. They made their own rules, and Captain made his. They didn't mind killing. Neither did Captain McNelly. They didn't take prisoners. Neither did Captain McNelly.
Private Sonny Smith and his fellow Rangers were assembled for a "pep talk" and given tactical orders for engaging the enemy: "If two or more of you flush out some bandits, whether they're running or forted and holed up, put yourselves at five-pace intervals and shoot only at the target right in front of you. Don't shoot to the left or the right. Shoot straight ahead. And don't shoot till you've got your target good in your sights. Don't walk up on a wounded man. Pay no attention to a white flag. That's a mean trick bandits use on green hands. Don't touch a dead man except to identify him. And treat the law-abiding people with respect." Clearly McNelly saw himself as a warrior, not a mealy-mouthed diplomat. Whether or not Private Sonny Smith, young and tenderfoot green, was listening to his captain's admonitions is iffy.
After an overall update regarding general news of the raid on Noakes' store, Captain McNelly was apprised of a worthy of note tidbit, at least according to Private Durham. Purportedly during the raid and before the fires were lit, the gleeful bandits had appropriated eighteen brand-new Dick Heye saddles from Noakes' storehouse. Writing years later Ranger Durham said these items were "the Cadillacs of the saddle world." The Dick Heye saddles were heavily festooned with oversize silver conchos in a distinctive pattern, and could be easily recognized at a distance. Theft of the saddles is genesis for a smidgen of take-it-or-leave-it Texas Ranger history—or mythology.
George Durham wrote that Captain McNelly laid down a dictate that anyone, moreover a Mexican, observed sitting atop a brand-new Dick Heye saddle should be shot forthwith: "Empty those saddles on sight. No palavering with the riders. Empty them. Leave the men where you drop them, and bring the saddles to camp." McNelly's adept biographers, acknowledging there was a noted saddle maker named Heye doing business at San Antonio, postulate the emptying of saddles tale is just that—apocryphal. Perhaps it is. There could be a ring of truth, however. Not so much in the minuscule details, but in the tenor of a generalized inference for public consumption—by Nueces County citizens and Rangers alike. A "Mexican" riding a spanking new saddle had best be prepared to show proper ownership, proof of purchase—a receipt, a corroborating witness, something. Or suffer the consequences! Captain McNelly's Texas Rangers were in the area tending to business, serious business, and there best be no mistake about it. With emphasis added another penman maybe hits closer to the truth, declaring: "On glimpsing a Mexican riding new leather a Texan was wont to say, 'Yonder goes a Noakes.' Unless a quick and satisfactory explanation could be furnished the Mexican was killed." Even more reasonable and more likely would be interpretation by a twenty-first century scribe: "Anybody caught with one of them in his possession was a thief and would be dealt with accordingly....," which gives leeway for an arrest instead of extralegal execution.
Purportedly a Corpus Christi merchant, Sol Lichenstein, outfitted McNelly's company with brand new single-shot .50 caliber Sharps carbines, which required a cartridge "as big as your thumb" and had a bore diameter large enough "for a gopher to crawl through." According to Ranger Durham, McNelly preferred his company be armed with the Sharps single-shot because the Rangers would be more careful about making every round count. An added benefit of the Sharps, firing the whopping .50 caliber bullet, was that it was a long-range weapon, whereas the Henry and Winchester repeaters of the day were not. Arguably there was tactical advantage in holding an enemy at a distance—within range, and with enough ump to knock down his horse, putting him afoot. In metaphoric chatter of lawmen, the Sharps big fifty could "keep the wolf off of you." Mr. Sol Lichenstein wasn't worried too much about reimbursement from the State of Texas, rationally declaring he had rather lose the rifles to a stingy government than to Mexican bandits on their next visit, a nasty plundering raid.
Excerpted from RIDING LUCIFER'S LINE by Bob Alexander. Copyright © 2013 by Bob Alexander. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Byron A. Johnson, Executive Director Texas Ranger Hall of Fame
& Museum.................... vii
Preface & Acknowledgments.................... xiii
Introduction to Part I The Frontier Battalion Era, 1874-1901.............. 1
Part I Photo Gallery Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum................... 15
Chapter 1 Sonny Smith, 1875.................... 38
Chapter 2 John E. McBride and Conrad E. Mortimer, 1877.................... 52
Chapter 3 Samuel "Sam" Frazier, 1878.................... 69
Chapter 4 George R. "Red" Bingham, 1880.................... 81
Chapter 5 Frank Sieker, 1885.................... 91
Chapter 6 Charles H. V. Fusselman, 1890.................... 101
Chapter 7 John F. Gravis, 1890.................... 111
Chapter 8 Robert E. Doaty, 1892.................... 119
Chapter 9 Frank Jones, 1893.................... 127
Chapter 10 Joseph McKidrict, 1894.................... 139
Chapter 11 Ernest St. Leon, 1898.................... 146
Introduction to Part II The Ranger Force Era, 1901-1935................... 155
Part II Photo Gallery Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum.................. 166
Chapter 12 W. Emmett Robuck, 1902.................... 199
Chapter 13 Thomas Jefferson Goff, 1905.................... 210
Chapter 14 Quirl Bailey Carnes, 1910.................... 219
Chapter 15 Grover Scott Russell, 1913.................... 228
Chapter 16 Eugene B. Hulen, 1915.................... 237
Chapter 17 Robert Lee Burdett, 1915.................... 246
Chapter 18 William P. Stillwell, 1918.................... 254
Chapter 19 Joe Robert Shaw, 1918.................... 267
Chapter 20 Lenn T. Sadler, 1918.................... 276
Chapter 21 Delbert "Tim" Timberlake, 1918.................... 284
Chapter 22 T. E. Paul Perkins, 1918.................... 292
Chapter 23 William M. Alsobrook, 1919.................... 299
Chapter 24 Joseph B. Buchanan, 1921.................... 308