About the Author
BILL O’NEAL is a prolific author of western history, the “Best Living Nonfiction Writer” as selected by True West magazine in 2007. He speaks frequently to historical groups and has appeared in documentaries on TBS, History Channel, Discovery Channel, TNN, and A&E. O’Neal is the author of more than thirty books, including The Johnson County War (2005 NOLA Book of the Year), The Regulator-Moderator War, Historic Ranches of the Old West, Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, and Cheyenne, 1867-1903. He is retired from teaching at Panola College.
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The Johnson-Sims FeudRomeo and Juliet, West Texas Style
By Bill O'Neal
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2010 Bill O'Neal
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIntroduction to a Blood Feud
"'Vengeance is Mine!' saith the Lord. But in and out of Texas he has always had plenty of help."
C. L. Sonnichsen
There was bad blood between W. A. Johnson and Ed Sims. Johnson was a pioneer cattleman of Scurry County, and as president of Snyder's First National Bank he was a prominent citizen of the community. Sims, the oldest son of another pioneer ranching clan, had married Johnson's headstrong daughter, Gladys, in 1905 when she was fourteen.
The marriage between Ed Sims and Gladys Johnson seemed to signal the union of two successful ranching families. But while two baby girls were born to the young couple, the marriage proved stormy. Ed and Gladys both were proud and hot-tempered. Ed drank heavily, and each spouse accused the other of extramarital romances. Amid charges and countercharges, Ed and Gladys divorced in 1916.
During the bitter aftermath of divorce, Ed became convinced that the Johnsons were trying to turn his daughters against him. On Friday evening, December 15, 1916, Ed came to Snyder so that he could pick up the girls the next day for a prearranged custody visit. Encountering his former father-in-law in a drugstore that evening, Ed brandished a revolver while vehemently accusing the entire Johnson family of attempting to alienate his daughters against him.
When W. A. Johnson returned to his luxurious ranch house later that night, he related the incident to family members. Gladys and her volatile brother, Sidney, were infuriated. The next day at noon, when Gladys reluctantly drove her little girls into town, she brought her automatic pistol. W. A. Johnson had taught his children to shoot, and more than once Gladys had proved willing to go to her gun.
In Snyder, both the county sheriff and city marshal were on the alert for trouble when Gladys arrived in town. She parked near her father's bank, and Ed walked over to kiss his daughters and take their suitcases. But the girls were upset and crying, and Gladys snapped. She produced her automatic and opened fire. Four shots rang out, and Ed staggered away from the car.
While astounded Saturday shoppers looked to the sound of gunfire, Billy Johnson charged out of the bank to protect his granddaughters. And Sidney Johnson suddenly emerged onto the sidewalk clutching his shotgun. As Ed stumbled away from the car, the shotgun roared ...
* * *
The shooting in Snyder triggered the last blood feud in Texas. The Johnson-Sims Feud featured traditional elements of the murderous conflicts that had embroiled Texans for three-quarters of a century. The first Texas feud was the Regulator-Moderator War that wracked East Texas with homicidal violence from 1840 through 1844. More than thirty men were killed in assassinations, lynchings, ambushes, street fights, and pitched battles. The sheriff of Harrison County was murdered, and so was Judge John M. Hansford. Senator Robert Potter, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, was slain by Regulators. Courts ceased to operate and anarchy reigned in Shelby County, the Panola District, and Harrison County. Only the personal intervention of President Sam Houston and an invasion of Shelby County by 600 members of the militia of the Republic of Texas halted the bloodletting.
The backwoods warriors of frontier East Texas established for future feudists an imposing standard of murderous violence, as well as for deeds of heroism, endurance, and sheer physical courage. But two decades passed before feuding again broke out in Texas. During the poisonous atmosphere of Reconstruction, the Early-Hasley Feud pitted former Confederates against Union supporters in Bell County, where sporadic violence erupted from 1865 until 1869. The same causes triggered the vicious Lee-Peacock Feud, 1867-1871.
The turbulence of post-Civil War Texas provided a fertile breeding ground for a vast crime ring of rustlers, thieves, and murderers headed by the Taylor clan. Among the lawmen who opposed the Taylors was Bill Sutton, who was murdered in front of his young wife and child in 1874. There were rumors that earlier generations of Taylors and Suttons had clashed in the Carolinas and Georgia. Fighting alongside the Taylors was the notorious killer John Wesley Hardin, who shot Sheriff Jack Helm to death in 1873. Ambushes and street fights of the 1860s and 1870s produced numerous victims.
Texas was rife with lawlessness during the 1870s, and feuding was at its height. The Horrell-Higgins Feud in Lampasas County pitted the Horrell brothers, who were rustlers and chronic troublemakers, against rancher-gunman Pink Higgins and his followers. Higgins killed one of the Horrell brothers in a Lampasas saloon, two other brothers were lynched, and there was violence in and around town. The Hoo Doo War, or Mason County War, was essentially a violent clash between Anglo- and German-Americans, with the murderous conflict aggravated by cattle theft.
Lynching feuds in Shackelford County and in Bastrop County during the troubled 1870s featured extralegal hangings triggered by cattle rustling and highway robberies and retributions. Vigilante justice in Bastrop County was aimed at a gang of thieves, with hangings continuing into the 1880s. In Hood County the Mitchell and Truitt families feuded in 1874 over a land dispute, and two of the Truitts were wounded fatally. The next year Cooney Mitchell was hanged legally in Granbury. Cooney's son, Bill Mitchell, blamed the Reverend James Truitt, a young minister whose testimony was a key to the conviction. After nursing his grudge for more than a decade, Bill assassinated Reverend Truitt in his home in Timpson in 1886. Over a quarter of a century later, the elusive Mitchell finally was imprisoned, but within two years he escaped.
The Jaybird-Woodpecker War of Fort Bend County originated with efforts to control the voting of former slaves, before spreading to include feuding families. The sheriff was killed during a wild shootout in front of the courthouse in 1889. At the turn of the century, feuding returned to the edge of Regulator-Moderator country. The Wall- Border-Broocks Feud exploded in San Augustine in 1900. Curg Border, a relative of the influential Broocks family, killed Sheriff George Wall, an old enemy, in the streets of San Augustine. Eugene Wall killed Ben Broocks in retaliation, followed by a gun battle around the courthouse in which two more men were slain. Court action produced no convictions, but rough justice was meted out through a series of shootings, climaxing with the death of Curg Border at the hands of a new sheriff.
Early in his long and productive tenure at the Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy in El Paso (the institution later became Texas Western College, then the University of Texas at El Paso), Dr. C. L. Sonnichsen became fascinated by blood feuds. A native of Iowa with a Ph.D. from Harvard, the young scholar came to Texas and was captivated by the tales of deadly feuds in the Lone Star State. Terming himself a "feud collector," during the 1930s and 1940s Doc Sonnichsen avidly researched feuding in Texas. Eventually he published two classic volumes on the subject, I'll Die Before I'll Run: The Story of the Great Feuds of Texas (1951) and Ten Texas Feuds (1957). Sonnichsen became convinced that "the feud is one of the oldest of human institutions [and] one of the hardest to get rid of...." He offered a definition of a feud: "Any prolonged quarrel involving blood vengeance between families or factions." He emphasized that "family loyalties almost always run up the temperature." This emphasis certainly was embodied by the Johnson-Sims conflict.
Sonnichsen reflected upon "the instinct for getting even" and upon "the oldest code known to man-the law of private vengeance." If frontier legal systems did not provide justice, Texans often embraced "folk justice." Frontier Texas thus resorted "to an appeal to a law that is felt to be a reasonable substitute for legal redress which cannot be obtained-sometimes to a law that is higher or more valid than those on the statute books."
Sonnichsen became convinced that feuds rarely broke out "among the rebellious and unrestrained, but among highly conservative people who cling to their ancient followings. Strictly speaking, such people are not lawless-they are just operating under an earlier and more primitive code." Among Texans "the folk law of the frontier was reinforced by the unwritten laws of the South and produced a habit of self-redress more deeply ingrained perhaps than anywhere else in the country."
It was natural for families or factions in conflict to go to their guns because the habit of frontier violence became instilled in Texans. While most states endured frontier conditions for only a decade or so, in Texas the frontier period lasted for most of the nineteenth century. Red and white Texans grappled in a life-and-death struggle for decades, until the 1880s. A study of western clashes between Indians and white men revealed that Texas led all states and territories as the site of known fights with at least 846, while Arizona, the next most troubled area in this regard, was the scene of just over 400 Indian combats. Sixty-one Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to United States soldiers who served in Texas after the Civil War.
During the 1840s Texas Rangers used the newly invented Colt revolving pistol during horseback fights against Comanche warriors. The revolver was refined and popularized as a weapon in Texas, and by the 1850s Texans were blazing away at each other in gunfights with six-shooters. A survey of 255 western gunfighters and 589 shootouts involving these men revealed that Texas dominated the action of frontier pistoleers. More gunfights-nearly 160-occurred in Texas than in any other state or territory. No other western commonwealth was the arena of even half this many shootings between professional-or habitual-gunfighters. Most western states and territories saw widespread gunfighting activity for only a short number of years before law and order prevailed: Kansas, for example, during the cattle town era; New Mexico during the bloody Lincoln County War; and Oklahoma during its lawless heyday as a refuge for outlaws. But gunfighters became active in Texas during the 1850s and continued their life and death encounters until past the turn of the century.
More frontier gunfighters were born in Texas than in any other state or territory, and more died in Texas than in any other state. Texas produced prominent gunfighters, from the psychopathic John Wesley Hardin to the West's premier assassin, Killin' Jim Miller. There was famed Texas Ranger John R. Hughes, deadly outlaw-lawman King Fisher, and John Selman, who numbered Wes Hardin and ex-Texas Ranger Baz Outlaw among his victims. Eleven of Ben Thompson's fourteen gunfights were in Texas. Doc Holliday fought the first of his eight gunfights in Dallas in 1875, and the following year Bat Masterson engaged in his inaugural shootout in a Mobeetie saloon. Henry Brown killed the first of his five career victims in a Panhandle cattle camp in 1876. Ben Thompson, Wes Hardin, John Selman, Baz Outlaw, King Fisher, Sam Bass, Dallas Stoudenmire, and "Longhair" Jim Courtright are among the noted western gunfighters who met their ends in Texas shootouts.
Texas gunfighters continued their lethal activities into the twentieth century. Pink Higgins, who had used his guns against Comanche warriors, stock thieves, and personal adversaries since he was a teenager, clashed with fellow range detective Bill Standifer in 1902. Although now in his fifties, Pink rode out to meet Standifer in a mano a mano rifle duel. Pink drilled Standifer, who was buried on the open range where he died. Killin' Jim Miller, headquartering in Fort Worth, murdered one victim after another until he was lynched in 1909.
As the conflict between the Johnson and Sims families proved, even in the second decade of the twentieth century West Texans continued to embrace the values and attitudes of the frontier. West Texans still bristled with the violent impulses of the pioneers who had settled the region only a generation earlier.
In addition to the lethal traditions of West Texas of the recent past, the Johnson and Sims feudists shared similarities with one of the most popular and famous Elizabethan tragedies, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Written (1594-95) and first staged (1597) more than three centuries before the Johnson-Sims Feud, Romeo and Juliet would find a real-life interpretation in West Texas during the second decade of the twentieth century.
"Two households, both alike in dignity," begins the prologue to the famous play, "in fair Verona, where we lay our scene...." The scene for the Johnson-Sims conflict was Snyder and Post City, Sweetwater and Clairemont, as well as the harsh rangelands of the surrounding countryside. Like the two households of Verona, both successful ranch households had dignity, as well as pride and courage and a strong sense of family honor.
Romeo and Juliet were proclaimed "a pair of star-cross'd lovers," a description that perfectly fit Ed and Gladys. Gladys was just fourteen when she married, while Juliet was in her fourteenth year. Although Romeo also was a teenager, Ed was twenty-one. But if he had known the disastrous direction his marriage would take, Ed surely would have echoed the words of Romeo: "O, I am fortune's fool."
Conflict is necessary to produce tragedy, and Shakespeare could lay one conflict atop another: man versus man, man versus himself, man versus nature, man versus society. The Johnson and Sims families, and their partisans, resonated with these conflicts. Shakespeare was a master of subplots and, like Romeo and Juliet, the Johnson-Sims Feud was a maze of subplots.
While he was dying in Verona, Mercutio bitterly gasped, "A plague o' both your houses." The Capulets and Montagues suffered the plague of heartbreaking losses, but by play's end redemption was achieved through the reconciliation of the feuding families. In West Texas there would be no such reconciliation, although redemption would be attained in another way.
The tale of the Johnson-Sims Feud began with two pioneer ranching families who were determined to create cattle empires in the rugged vastness of West Texas.
Chapter TwoBilly Johnson, Cattle Baron
"I was on an easy fox-trotting bay gelding riding point on a mixed herd of South Texas cattle ... when I heard the sweet sound of running water as my horse broke stride to jump the creek." Billy Johnson, cowboy
By the time that pioneer cattlemen Billy Johnson and Dave Sims arrived in West Texas, Americans had become captivated by the range cattle industry. This fascinating enterprise evolved in Texas during the nineteenth century. Cattle were introduced to the Western hemisphere in the early 1500s by Spanish colonizers. On the ranges of northern Mexico, vaqueros handled cattle from horseback, developing special attire, techniques, and equipment. Roping, branding, heavy-duty saddles, wide brimmed sombreros, high-heeled boots, jingling spurs, leather chaparejos-everything had utilitarian purposes, but came to seem colorful and even romantic.
Through the centuries cattle strayed into the brush country above the Rio Grande, multiplying freely in a harsh, unpopulated land. The animals became hardy survivors, good at finding water and forage, and aggressive against predators, fighting with horns that evolved into long, dangerous weapons. During the mid-1800s, Anglo Texans adapted the techniques and equipment of the vaqueros, and began trailing herds of rugged "longhorns" to distant markets such as California and New Orleans. But before these long drives could become a regular activity, the Civil War blocked Texas from almost all cattle markets, while most able-bodied men served with the Confederate Army or the home guard.
Unattended and ignored, longhorn cattle multiplied prolifically. By war's end as many as five million wild longhorns ranged across the grasslands of Texas, while a hungry market for beef opened in the industrial Northeast. Longhorns costing no more than three or four dollars in Texas would bring thirty to fifty dollars in northern markets. Herds of half-wild cattle were rounded up by Texas "cow boys" and driven toward the nearest railroads, first to Missouri along the Sedalia Trail, then to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail and the Great Western Trail.
There was much to admire about young drovers. On the long drives cowboys faced stampedes, treacherous river crossings, and other perils. Longhorns were big, ornery beasts, dangerous to both men and horses, and cowboys had to ride and rope with athletic skill to handle these challenging creatures. Booted and spurred, clad in big hats and chaps and bright bandannas, cowboys relished the majestic feeling of power and height and superiority of mounted men throughout history. For cowboys the rollicking climax to the long drives was arrival at Abilene or Dodge City or other railroad towns.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations....................vii
Chapter One Introduction to a Blood Feud....................1
Chapter Two: Billy Johnson, Cattle Baron....................11
Chapter Three Dave Sims, Cattle Baron....................33
Chapter Four Gladys and Ed....................53
Chapter Five E. C. Sims vs. Gladys Sims....................75
Chapter Six Storm Clouds....................93
Chapter Seven Tragedy in Snyder....................103
Chapter Eight The Search for Revenge....................115
Chapter Nine Assassination and Retribution....................127
Chapter Ten Aftermath and Redemption....................143
Rest in Peace....................169