Death in a Shooting Gallery: Bad Blood and the Luck of the Draw

short and courtrightFor Fort Worth gambler and gunfighter Luke Short (photo from Wikipedia), the month of February was often pivotal. For Fort Worth gambler and gunfighter and former City Marshal Timothy Isaiah “Longhaired Jim” Courtright (photo from Tarrant County College NE), one February in particular was pivotal.

For starters, Luke Short was born on February 19, 1854. It was on February 25, 1881 that he shot and killed fellow gambler Charlie Storms in Tombstone, Arizona. (Short pleaded self-defense and was acquitted.) On February 6, 1883 Short bought an interest in the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas. In February 1884 Fort Worth’s White Elephant Saloon held an open house as it prepared to open, and Short would become a part-owner. But three years later, on February 7, 1887, he sold his share of the White Elephant to fellow gambler Jake Johnson.

And the next day, the eighth, would make that February pivotal for Jim Courtright. That night Jim Courtright and Luke Short would meet just outside the White Elephant Saloon and take a short walk into “wild West” legend.

The term wild West was not invented in the twentieth century to label western America during the late nineteenth century. By 1886 the West already knew it was wild. To people in rowdy towns such as Cowtown the “wild West” was just everyday life, the here-and-now. And Jim Courtright, like the James brothers, already had a “wild West” reputation. About eight months before Courtright’s pivotal February, the manager of Fort Worth’s opera house had considered starring Courtright and Frank James, brother of Jesse, in a “wild west” road show.

courtright TICBut that wild West show never hit the road, and Courtright was still in Fort Worth in February 1887, operating his TIC (for “Timothy Isaiah Courtright”) detective agency, which some historians say was little more than a protection racket. Courtright had opened the agency about 1884, as an ad in the city directory shows. On his staff was James Maddox, future police chief and brother of Robert E. Maddox, who owned a racehorse named . . . “Luke Short.”

This Dallas Morning News photo of 1929 shows a ghost sign: A wall advertisement for Courtright’s TIC detective agency survived well into the twentieth century.

After Courtright had opened his detective agency and while Luke Short was still a partner in the White Elephant Saloon, Courtright had tried to persuade Short to hire him as “special officer” at the White Elephant. Short had refused. The result was bad blood between Short and Courtright. Or maybe mostly on the part of Courtright. Either way, that bad blood would be spilled at eight o’clock on the eighth night of the pivotal month of February:

Agitated and probably liquored up, Courtright went to the White Elephant to confront Short. (Fort Worth was a town on the gambling circuit, and gambling was a fraternity: Also at the White Elephant that night was Short’s friend Bat Masterson.) Gambler Jake Johnson, a friend of both Courtright and Short, intercepted Courtright and told him that he would fetch Short and bring him outside to talk with Courtright. After Johnson accompanied Short out of the saloon, Johnson was the only witness to what happened next.

(In 1884 one member of the gambling fraternity had shown his appreciation of another as Jake Johnson gave Jim Courtright a gold watch. For Jim Courtright, on February 8, 1887, that watch was about to stop ticking.)

Short, Courtright, and Johnson walked away from the White Elephant, north along the sidewalk on Main Street. In front of Ella Blackwell’s shooting gallery they stopped, talking as they stood three or four feet apart.

short courtright ella blackwell2(By 1888 Ella Blackwell had moved her shooting gallery to Hell’s Half Acre.)

short-courtright sanborn 1893

The White Elephant Saloon was an “uptown” saloon, located at 308 Main Street, just three blocks from the courthouse, not in Hell’s Half Acre and not at the Stockyards (which did not yet exist, although the “shootout” is reenacted each year outside the White Elephant Saloon at the Stockyards). The Morris Building (built in 1906 but rebuilt in 1981) today occupies the site of the original saloon.

The Fort Worth Gazette later quoted Jake Johnson as he testified about what he had witnessed as Short and Courtright talked on the sidewalk on the night of February 8, 1887: “Luke had his thumbs in the armholes of his vest, then he dropped them in front of him when Courtright said, ‘You needn’t be getting out your gun.’ Luke said, ‘I haven’t got any gun here, Jim’ and raised up his vest to show him. Courtright then pulled his pistol. He drew it first, and then Short drew his and commenced to fire.”

Jim Courtright, the famed gunfighter, never fired a shot. Some historians theorize that Courtright’s gun jammed or that the hammer of his pistol snagged his watch chain (was that chain fastened to the watch that Jake Johnson had given to Courtright?). Otherwise, those historians ponder, how could anyone, even Luke Short, have outdrawn the gunslinger known for his fast draw? Courtright, the Gazette said, was deadly accurate with either hand and “as quick as lightning.” “In a desperate emergency his coolness and self-possession never left him.”

And yet there he was—dead on the floor of a shooting gallery. Short’s first shot had been fired at close range. Courtright fell into the entrance of the shooting gallery, his boots on the sidewalk, his .45 still in his hand. Short fired four more times. Police officer J. J. Fulford quickly arrived at the scene. He bent over Courtright. Fulford recalled that Courtright’s last words were “Ful, they’ve got me.”

(Courtright’s plural “they” may have contributed to a shortlived rumor that Courtright associate Charley Bull had fired a shot at Short.)

Like police officer Fulford, police officer Bony Tucker was quick to arrive at the scene of the shooting, having been standing at the corner of 3rd and Main when a man rushed up and warned Tucker that “there was going to be trouble between Jim Courtright and Luke Short.” Soon after, Tucker said, “the crack of a pistol rang out.” As Tucker ran north he heard four more shots. By the time he reached the shooting gallery, Courtright was too weak to speak.

Tucker told the Gazette that Courtright “grasped his gun in one hand, a ‘45’ of the same make as the one that killed him. The chambers were full of cartridges, showing that he had failed to get in a shot. Three bullets had taken effect. One broke his right thumb, the second passed through his heart and the third struck him in the right shoulder. . . . He was a dead man within five minutes after I reached him.”

courtright ny sunThe “shootout” made headlines around the country, including page 1 of the New York Sun on February 10. This report alludes to Courtright’s protection racket, Short’s refusal to pay “tribute,” and the resultant “ill feeling.”

courtright austin statesmanPage 1 of the Austin Weekly Statesman on February 10.

courtright tombstone epitaphThe Tombstone Epitaph on February 13. Luke Short had killed Charlie Storms in Tombstone.

courtright dodge cityAnd, of course, the Dodge City Times of February 17. Short (and Bat Masterson) had been a member of the Dodge City Peace Commission.

Luke was not the only Short boy weathering a stormy patch of time. In San Angelo just two weeks earlier, brother Henry had shot and killed a man.

short 1870 censusHenry was five years younger than Luke.

short courtright short talks

In jail after the Courtright shooting, Luke Short corroborated the account told by witness Jake Johnson. Short “very calmly” told a Gazette reporter: “Of course, it is an affair to be regretted. If I felt that I was in the wrong, I wouldn’t like to talk about it, but as I wasn’t, there isn’t any reason to refrain from telling how it happened. In the first place I want to say that it was all sudden, all unexpected by me. There had been no previous disagreement between us. Early in the evening I was getting my shoes blackened at the White Elephant, when a friend of mine asked me if there was any trouble between Courtright and myself, and I told him there was nothing. A few minutes later I was at the bar with a couple of friends when someone called me. I went out into the vestibule and saw Jim Courtright and Jake Johnson. . . . I walked out with them upon the sidewalk. . . . I reminded him [Courtright] of some past transactions, not in an abusive or reproachful manner, to which he assented, but not in a very cordial way. I was standing with my thumbs in the armholes of my vest and had dropped them in front of me to adjust my clothing, when he remarked: ‘Well, you needn’t reach for your gun’ and immediately put his hand to his hip pocket and  pulled his. When I saw him do that, I pulled my pistol from my hip pocket, too, and began shooting, for I knew that his action meant death.”

short-courtright funeralAs for Jim Courtright, he was given “one of the largest funeral processions ever seen in this city,” led by his M. T. Johnson hook and ladder fire company (one of the horses was named in his honor). Courtright was buried “tenderly and respectfully” with Odd Fellows honors at the “new cemetery” (Oakwood).

As for Luke Short, among the Fort Worth residents signing his bail bond were Jake Johnson, Walter T. Maddox (former sheriff and brother of James and Robert), and attorney Robert McCart (namesake of the South Side street). Short at his examining trial was represented by McCart and William Capps, who in 1884 had helped to defuse a volatile incident involving Jim Courtright.

One witness at the examining trial, W. A. James, testified that on the night before the shooting he had heard Courtright say “that there was a combination against him over the White Elephant,” “that he hadn’t been treated with respect upstairs over the White Elephant.” The saloon’s gambling rooms were upstairs over the bar.

James testified that Courtright said “God had made one man superior to another in muscular power, but when Colt made his pistol, that made all men equal.” James again quoted Courtright: “Courtright said he had lived over his time. No man on earth, he said, had a percentage over him. He said that this would be settled within a week.”

Luke Short was not tried for the killing of Jim Courtright. In those days, when one armed man killed another armed man, a charge of murder was rare unless the victim was shot in the back.

A free man, Luke Short lived only another six years. Luke Short died in 1893. At age thirty-nine. Of natural causes.

short grave

courtright grave cropped Luke Short, like Jim Courtright, is buried at Oakwood Cemetery. Short is buried in section 20. Courtright is buried in section 27, well out of pistol range.

When gambler and gunfighter Timothy Isaiah “Longhaired Jim” Courtright died he was forty-two years old. Young for a gambler, old for a gunfighter.

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