If Houses Could Talk: Murder on May Street

This is the house at 712 May Street on the near South Side.

It’s a gorgeous example of Queen Anne architecture with a turret with a bell-shaped roof, garlands on the two front gables, two oculi (one vertical, one horizontal, each with four keystones), two-color, dog-eared dentil molding, and wraparound porch with fluted ionic columns.

It evokes visions of iceboxes, spats, gramophones.

And homicide.

The house was built about 1904 by Charles W. Maxwell, a builder who also dealt in real estate, especially in the surrounding addition platted by Bony Tucker. In 1907 Maxwell sold part of block 24 in Tucker’s Addition to James and Delia Liston.

The deed card for 712 May shows that in 1907 the Listons indeed bought the house, which is in block 24.

James Liston, born in Ireland in 1846, had immigrated to America in 1876. Since at least 1888 he had owned saloons on Main and Jones streets in Hell’s Half Acre.

The saloon business had been good to James and Delia Liston. Her name appeared often in the society pages of the newspapers. In 1910 the Listons employed two servants at the big house on May Street. One of the servants served as gardener and chauffeur. But even as the world turned more and more to automobiles, Liston’s chauffeur drove a horse and buggy as Liston commuted to his saloon.

The Listons’ neighborhood was upscale. For example, across the street lived merchant William Monnig

and contractor William M. Graham of Innes-Graham Construction Company, which built nearby Fort Worth High School and Alexander Hogg School.

In 1917 James Liston, sixty-nine, owned the Blue Ribbon saloon across from Union Depot on Jones Street in the Acre. He still commuted to work by horse and buggy.

On Saturday, November 24 two petty crooks—Jo Jo Miller and Joe Walsh—were making the rounds of the saloons in the Acre. Their pub crawl did not get off to an auspicious start: Just after 6 p.m. in a saloon at Commerce and 12th streets Jo Jo and Joe encountered city detective Tom James. James knew the duo well. He told them to get out of town.

Instead Jo Jo and Joe went to a nearby restaurant. An argument with restaurateur Tom Harding ensued, and the pair threatened to “pump his belly full of lead.”

Then on to another saloon in the Acre about 8 p.m. There Jo Jo accused proprietor Jack Mellenry of informing on him to detective James. Jo Jo drew a pistol and threatened Mellenry.

Then on to James Liston’s Blue Ribbon saloon, this time in the company of a third petty crook, John “Pug” Hallum. Like Jo Jo and Joe, Pug had a long arrest record and several aliases. At the Blue Ribbon again an argument ensued, this time with bartender M. M. Grogan. The trio again flashed a pistol and threatened to “bump him off.” But the trio also noticed that the saloon was doing a good Saturday night business. Grogan kept the cash register ringing. The trio made some discreet inquiries about the owner of the saloon and his routine.

About 9:35 p.m. Jo Jo returned to Jack Mellenry’s saloon and asked him for directions to May Street.

All that walking in the Acre surely was tiresome to Walsh, described as a “crippled shoe string peddler” who walked with a crutch.

Walsh must have been relieved when the trio stole an Overland car parked at the Majestic Theater on Commerce Street.

Sometime after 9 p.m. James Liston left his saloon. As always he carried a large amount of money because the banks were closed. His yardman, Karl Kneck, drove the horse and buggy.

Meanwhile the trio of Jo Jo, Joe, and Pug, well fortified after a night in the Acre, drove the stolen car to the near South Side.

At 662 May Street (pictured), Jo Jo knocked on the door of Mrs. C. J. Kincaid and asked for directions to 712 May. She asked Jo Jo for the name of the person he sought. He told her he did not know the man’s name, only that the man lived at 712 May Street, was a saloon owner, and traveled by horse and buggy. Mrs. Kincaid said 712 was one block south.

Jo Jo then walked across the street to 665 May and asked Mrs. Carrie Gates for directions to 712 May.

About 10:15 James Liston arrived at his home. Minutes later Jo Jo, Joe, and Pug arrived and parked at the curb.

Jo Jo and Pug walked into the back yard; Joe hobbled to the front porch. Jo Jo and Pug approached servant Karl Kneck as he was putting the horse and buggy in the barn and asked for the man of the house. Kneck led the duo to the back porch of the house and knocked on the back door.

James Liston was sitting in his dining room, looking at photos of his grandchildren that his daughter Nellie, who had been twenty-three and living at home in the 1910 census, had mailed to her parents.

Mrs. Liston was in the kitchen when she heard the knock at the back door. When she opened the back door she saw Karl and two strangers. Jo Jo and Pug asked to see her husband. She called Liston to the back door and went back to the kitchen. She assumed that the two strangers wanted to ask her husband for money, as strangers at the back door often did.

When Liston opened the back door and said, “Hello,” Jo Jo fired his pistol five times, hitting Liston three times. Liston fell to the floor of the back porch. He died within minutes.

As Jo Jo and Pug rifled Liston’s pockets, Mrs. Liston returned, screaming, to the back porch.

Jo Jo pointed his pistol at Mrs. Liston and said, “If you put your head out here again, I’ll shoot it off.” As she retreated into the house, he fired one shot at her but missed.

The two men found a roll of bills on Liston: about $600 ($12,000 today).

Across the street William M. Graham heard the shots and saw Jo Jo and Pug run toward a parked car. Graham also saw a “crippled” man hobble to the car from the Listons’ front porch.

Graham watched the car drive north on May Street toward downtown.

Six blocks from the crime scene Jo Jo wrecked the stolen car. Walsh was thrown from the car. Jo Jo and Pug skedaddled on foot, abandoning Joe.

James Liston Sr. was buried at Oakwood Cemetery. Because his son, James Jr., was Mayor William Davis’s secretary, city commissioners and many other city employees attended the funeral.

W getaway car wrecked

662 May, Mrs. C. J. Kincaid

665 May, Mrs. Carrie Gates

712 May, James and Delia Liston

G William M. Graham

M William Monnig

Map shows the May Street locations.

Jo Jo would regret the decision to abandon Joe at the wrecked automobile.

When two police officers arrived at the wrecked car, they saw nearby a man who was clearly disabled. When they asked him why he didn’t have a crutch, Joe told them that he had lost his crutch when he was struck by a streetcar. When the officers found his crutch in the wrecked car, Joe stopped talking. Also found in the car were beer cans, liquor bottles, two pistols, and five spent bullets. The two pistols had been recently fired.

Meanwhile, after Jo Jo wrecked the getaway car, he and Pug Hallum walked a half-mile to the Texas & Pacific passenger station and boarded a Fort Worth & Denver City train. Jo Jo got off at Amarillo. Hallum stayed on the train as it headed toward Denver.

Joe Walsh was jailed and charged with murder.

To mitigate the charge, Joe started talking again. He confessed to being in the car and at the crime scene but denied any role in the murder and robbery. He said James “Jo Jo” Miller shot Liston. Joe said he did not know the real name of the other man involved.

Acting on information from Fort Worth police, police in Amarillo soon arrested Jo Jo, who was carrying $265 ($5,200 today). He was returned to Fort Worth and jailed.

Jo Jo told police that Pug Hallum was the third man involved in the robbery.

The three men were indicted. Because Hallum was still at large, he was not named.

Jo Jo denied his guilt in the Liston murder, insisted he was a con man, not a killer. He said he was at the train depot when the crime was committed.

Jo Jo claimed he had been framed for the fatal robbery by criminals he had brought to justice as an employee of the Pinkerton detective agency.

The state built a solid case against Jo Jo. In addition to Joe Walsh’s statement to police that Jo Jo had been the triggerman, Mrs. Liston identified Jo Jo as the man who shot her husband. Mrs. Gates of 665 May Street identified Jo Jo as the man who asked her directions to 712 May on the night of the murder.

Blue Ribbon bartender Grogan identified bills found on Jo Jo as bills Grogan had taken from customers on the night of the murder. Another Acre bartender identified the two pistols found in the wrecked getaway car as the pistols that Jo Jo and Joe had left with him but later retrieved just before the murder.

Jo Jo was found guilty and assessed the death sentence. He said he was not surprised, given the bias against him as a con man.

Early on February 24, 1918 Jo Jo was still in the county jail. Jailers were on alert because they suspected Jo Jo was going to attempt a jailbreak. He had beaten some fellow prisoners who refused to help him. Jo Jo was thought to be an “expert chemist” capable of making explosives. When jailers heard a commotion coming from his cell they called for reinforcements, and five lawmen went to the cell. Jailer M. D. Hampton found Jo Jo crouched in the corner of his cell. Hampton ordered Jo Jo to get up. Instead Jo Jo “reached for some object,” and Hampton shot him four times.

Jailers found in the cell a jug that contained a liquid that smelled like alcohol. Some prisoners had recently been found intoxicated. Jailers reasoned that if Jo Jo could make moonshine, he also could make explosives.

One of Jo Jo’s wounds became infected. (Yes, Dr. Trimble was the father of Green Berry Trimble.)

James “Jo Jo” Miller died on March 23, and with him died prosecutors’ potential star witness against Walsh and Hallum.

Joe Walsh was sentenced to seven years for his role in the fatal robbery.

But his conviction was overturned and a new trial ordered.

He sat in jail twenty months awaiting a retrial, then was freed on bond.

Ultimately the case against him was dismissed.

Remember Pug Hallum? In 1918 a sheriff in South Dakota notified Fort Worth police that he had Pug Hallum in custody. But when two Fort Worth police detectives went to South Dakota to get Hallum, the man being held was not Hallum.

Never mind.

The arm of the law is long, but the memory of the law is even longer. In 1923 the real Pug Hallum was arrested in California and brought back to stand trial for the murder of James Liston in 1917.

Pug Hallum was acquitted.

In the end, no one served prison time for the murder of James Liston.

The house at 712 May Street remained in the Liston family through the 1940s.

Today the house is a bed-and-breakfast.

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