Marshal Jim: Cowtown’s First Citizen or First Gangster? (Part 1)

When Jim Courtright moved to Fort Worth in 1873, according to biographer Father Stanley Crocchiola, he farmed land north of the Trinity River “about where the Oakwood Cemetery is now located.”  (Photo from Tarrant County College Northeast.)

That means that when farmer Jim plowed the fertile black sod on that green hillside he was doing the groundwork for his own grave—and the grave of the man who would kill him fourteen years later.

In the early 1870s that land was owned by John Peter Smith, who may have leased it to Courtright. In 1879 Smith donated the land to become the city’s second cemetery. Eight years later Courtright would be buried there.

Between the first and last times Courtright occupied that green hillside, he:

  • began his career in law enforcement by being shot by a drunken teenager.
  • both enforced and ignored the law in the vice district Hell’s Half Acre.
  • participated in the killing of two unarmed men in New Mexico.
  • slept in the cemetery where four years later he would be buried.
  • pulled off the great eat-and-run escape.
  • kept a low profile during the Battle of Buttermilk Junction.
  • was killed by Luke Short in the most famous is-it-really-a-shootout-if-only-one-shooter-shoots? shootout in western lore.

That one-sided shootout cemented Courtright’s legend.

Legendary figures such as Courtright are flesh-and-blood Rorschach tests: Different people interpret them differently.

Case in point: Courtright’s first biographer, Father Crocchiola, who based his book largely on interviews with descendants of Courtright, in 1957 romanticized Courtright, all but seating Saint Jim at the Last Supper:

“He will gradually take his place among the great lawmen of the West.”

“When the city builds a Hall of Fame to honor its All-Time Greats, Courtright will tower above the high and the mighty.”

“Frontier history has yet to produce a man as fast on the draw as Jim Courtright.”

Courtright “might, to this day, be called Fort Worth’s First Citizen.”

Other writers have been less effusive.

Fort Worth historian Dr. Richard Selcer in Hell’s Half Acre in 1991:

Courtright ran a “highly profitable protection racket,” shaking down gamblers and saloon keepers, and was a “mean drunk” and “the godfather of Fort Worth gambling.”

Robert K. DeArment in Jim Courtright of Fort Worth in 2004:

Courtright was “a brawler, a drinker, . . . and on one occasion, a cold-blooded murderer” who lacked “any real gunfighting ability.”

Bat Masterson in Human Life magazine in 1907:

Courtright was “a sullen, ignorant bully with no sense of right or wrong.”

George Hendricks in The Bad Man of the West in 1941:

Courtright was “Fort Worth’s first gangster.”

All right then.

As with many legends, Courtright’s early life is largely undocumented and subject to conflicting claims.

For example, one source says Courtright was born in Iowa “around 1848”; another source says Illinois in 1845. The 1860 census, DeArment writes, seems to show Courtright, then fourteen, living with an uncle in Iowa.

One source claims that Courtright fought in the Union Army in the Civil War and then worked as an Army scout with Wild Bill Hickok. Another source says there is no evidence to support that claim.

One source says Courtright wore his hair down to his shoulders. Another source says no photograph of Courtright shows him with long hair, nor was he referred to by the nickname “Longhair” until after his death.

One source says Courtright and wife Betty performed in Buffalo Bill’s wild West show. Nonsense, says another source.

One source says Courtright had been city marshal of Omaha. Balderdash, says another source.

That’s the problem with legends.

DeArment suspects that Courtright began building his own legend when he told his family an embellished account of his past and that the legend was given a goose in the twentieth century by writers who were free to embellish if not fabricate because neither Courtright nor his contemporaries were alive to set the story straight.

Courtright’s very name is a muddle. He was born “Timothy Isaiah Courtright,” came to be called “Tim.” But at some point “Tim” was corrupted as “Jim,” and the mistake stuck. And after Tim became Jim, newspapers sometimes referred to him as “James” and “T. J.”!

Much more is known about Courtright’s life after he moved to Fort Worth in 1873.

Courtright soon grew tired of farming on that green hillside across the river. He wanted more out of life than crops and callouses. Toward that end he joined the city’s M. T. Johnson volunteer fire brigade and the Odd Fellows lodge. Such organizations were the LinkedIn of their era. Members used them to network.

And networking paid off for Courtright. On December 14, 1875, DeArment writes, Courtright was hired as jailer and deputy city marshal of Fort Worth.

Two days later Courtright almost traded the badge for a toe tag.

Richard Alexander “Bingham” Feild and Billy Nance—teenage sons of prominent men (Julian Feild and Gideon Nance)—were carousing downtown. “Maddened and crazed by liquor,” the Fort Worth Democrat said.

When the two boys began firing their pistols in public Courtright heard the gunshots and confronted the two boys in an alley off Main Street. Jim told the boys to put away their pistols. The boys refused. One boy warned Courtright to keep his distance. But Courtright advanced, his pistol drawn. Nance surrendered his pistol. But as Courtright tried to disarm Feild, the boy vowed he “would die first,” the Weekly Fort Worth Standard reported. Feild’s pistol discharged. Courtright was shot in the stomach.

A mob of men responded to the sound of gunfire and overpowered the two boys. Feild and Nance were taken to jail. Courtright was seriously wounded, not expected to live—a one-in-twenty chance, the newspaper said. A justice of the peace asked Courtright for a “dying statement.” Courtright said that he had no intention of dying but that if he did die, the two boys should not be prosecuted. Courtright said that the shooting was accidental, that the two boys were his “friends.”

Despite the “Fatal” and “Fatally” in the headlines, Courtright failed to die. And despite his inauspicious beginning as a lawman, thereafter Courtright performed his job well. Five months later, in the city election of April 1876, Courtright ran for the office of city marshal and won—by three votes.

Courtright had moved to Fort Worth the year the city suffered a severe letdown when the national economic panic of 1873 prevented the Texas & Pacific railroad from reaching town from Dallas. Fort Worth’s population that year had grown to about three thousand in anticipation of the railroad. But after the railroad failed to arrive, the population fell to six hundred in 1874. In 1875 Courtright was deputy marshal of a small town where most of the crime was committed by drunken buffalo hunters and by cowboys passing through town on cattle drives.

When Courtright took office in April 1876 he became marshal of a town about to become a city. Fort Worth’s population had increased to about two thouosand because Texas & Pacific at long last was again laying tracks toward Fort Worth.

After arrival of the railroad in July 1876, by the time Courtright was elected to the second of his three terms as city marshal in 1877, the city population would quadruple to eight thousand.

Courtright’s three years as city marshal were three of the most frenetic in Fort Worth history. The railroad changed everything. The population grew exponentially as immigrants arrived on every train (Fort Worth was the western terminus town on the T&P line). Housing was in short supply. People were living in tents.

Each edition of B. B. Paddock’s Fort Worth Democrat almost giddily chronicled the boom. Lumber and other building materials were in short supply as houses, hotels, saloons, restaurants, private schools, churches, and other buildings were being built, as jobs were created.

“The sound of the hammer, the saw and the trowel is ‘music in the air’ at the place where ‘the panther laid down.’”

Hell’s Half Acre, like the rest of the city, boomed. More saloons, more gambling halls, more dance houses, more “disorderly houses” (bordellos). And more crime, some of it violent, some of it violations of the blue laws controlling drinking and dancing and prohibiting gambling and prostitution.

According to Revised Ordinances of the City of Fort Worth 1873-1884, the first duty of Jim Courtright as city marshal was to “quell riots, disorder and disturbances of the peace within the limits of the city and . . . take into custody all persons offending against the peace of the city.”

Courtright took a laissez-faire approach to enforcing the blue laws, often looking the other way unless the offense was too egregious, especially in the Acre. He let the carousers carouse.

Firearms also were prohibited by city ordinance, but that ordinance also was only selectively enforced by Courtright, especially in the Acre.

In mixology terms, Hell’s Half Acre was a cocktail of whiskey, blood, and cheap perfume with a dash of gunpowder.

In addition to keeping the peace, the Revised Ordinances shows that it was the job of the city marshal to:

  • round up stray hogs.
  • seize and destroy horses diseased with glanders or farcy.
  • destroy stray dogs not claimed within twenty-four hours.
  • direct the city scavenger (another municipal position) to pick up and dispose of garbage, dead animals, and other offensive matter.
  • bring in people for vaccination to prevent spread of smallpox.
  • summon citizens for mayor’s court jury.
  • order owners of broken sidewalks to repair said sidewalks.
  • remove obstructions from sidewalks.
  • notify owners of mills or machinery if their smoke stacks are less than forty feet tall.
  • notify owners of theaters and public halls if their stairways and doors violate city ordinances.
  • arrest solicitors who harass people.
  • give directions to strangers.
  • warn strangers against places in town where “idlers, gamblers, or prostitutes congregate, and against all vicious persons.”

For performing his duties—some dangerous, some mundane—in a booming town, the Revised Ordinances shows that Courtright was paid only $10 a year. Ah, but the city paid Courtright a fee ranging from $1 to $2.50 for each arrest he made. A dollar in 1876 would be $24 today. Thus, Courtright essentially worked on commission: More arrests meant more money.

But Courtright could not be an enforcement zealot just to pad his own pocket. His laissez-faire approach to enforcing the blue laws reflected the approach of City Hall. Fort Worth was ambivalent about vice. Yes, the rampant wickedness caused some residents to tsk-tsk and wring their hands. But vice was an alcohol-fueled economic engine. It spread money around town. Fines levied for blue law offenses also were revenue for the city. As were licensing fees paid by saloons and dance halls.

And vice was profitable to its purveyors. They viewed fines as just a business expense.

Thus, City Hall danced a coy morals/money waltz with purveyors of vice. The city choreographed the steps for its partners: (1) Confine your goods and services to the Acre, (2) constrain your violence, and, in return, (3) with only an occasional fine and morality-driven crackdown your saloons, gambling halls, dance houses, and bordellos can go about the business of pleasure.

This report of police court cases shows how fines were levied for being drunk and disorderly, being an inmate of a house of ill fame, and keeping a dance house.

One of those morality-driven crackdowns came in November 1876. The Fort Worth Daily Standard praised Courtright for planning to close the city’s dance houses, which were “dens of vice,” “a blot the most foul on our moral escutcheon,” and “depots of sin.”

Mercy!

But a month later N. H. Wilson accused Courtright of directing “how and where all kinds of illegitimate business can be run.” Of course, Wilson was a longtime saloon owner and may have had an economic reason for complaining if Courtright was directing business away from his saloon.

On the day Wilson’s ad appeared, Courtright confronted Wilson on Main Street and searched him for a concealed weapon. Wilson resisted and in the tussle was shot in the leg by Courtright. Wilson claimed that Courtright was “under the influence of liquor.”

It would not be the last time.

Courtright was a brawler. In 1877 he and O. F. Cheney argued over a bet on a horse race.

The race may have been held at Fort Worth’s first race track. The two men resumed the argument at the Cattle Exchange Saloon until both men were “covered with blood.”

In 1878 Courtright chased after Sam Bass a month before Bass was killed in Round Rock.

By 1878 Courtright also held a commission as a deputy U.S. marshal and may have been chasing Bass in that capacity.

When Courtright ran for a fourth term as city marshal in 1879 Paddock’s Democrat endorsed him. Courtright, the Democrat said, had performed his duties “fearlessly, efficiently and devotedly.” “No braver man than Jim Courtright exists. He would arrest a circular saw if necessary.” “We all know him to be a good man in a good place.”

The endorsement of the Democrat notwithstanding, Courtright lost re-election to a fourth term.

Deprived of his income and the prestige of the city marshal’s badge, Selcer writes, Courtright began to drink and gamble and fight more. He frequented the very saloons and gambling halls he once was tasked with policing.

In 1880 Courtright was brawling again at the Cattle Exchange Saloon, this time with John C. Morris.

Note that the article says Courtright was still a lawman—a deputy U.S. marshal.

Another year, another brawl. In May 1882 in a restaurant in Cleburne Courtright and another man engaged in a fight using sauce bottles, dinner plates, coffee cups, and pistols.

Later in 1882 Courtright went west to New Mexico Territory, where he and a friend, Jim McIntire, shared the position of city marshal of Lake Valley, a silver-mining community.

A year later in New Mexico’s American Valley, Alexis Grossetete and Robert Elsinger were homesteading a small ranch on land to which they felt legally entitled. When an adjacent rancher accused them of squatting and ordered them to vacate, they refused.

Biographer DeArment says that by May 1883 Courtright and McIntire had been commissioned as deputy U.S. marshals in New Mexico and were members of a posse of six men that was formed ostensibly to find cattle rustlers but that in actuality was formed to eliminate squatters such as Grossetete and Elsinger.

Cattleman William C. Moore was the leader of the posse as it rode out. The men carried pistols, buffalo guns, Winchester rifles, and shotguns.

The posse confronted Grossetete and Elsinger traveling by horse and wagon and disarmed them.

Moore alone shot and killed Grossetete. He told the other five members of the posse—including Courtright—to kill Elsinger so that all six would be equally guilty.

Both victims were shot from behind.

Moore noticed that one posse member, Daniel McAllister, a Mormon deacon, had been hesitant to shoot. So, Moore insisted on one more insurance policy. The six men swore an oath: “That if I reveal anything that has transpired to-day, may all of you kill me.”

But soon after, McAllister turned state’s evidence.

By that time two members of the posse had already been arrested and were on trial.

Based on McAllister’s testimony, murder warrants were issued for Courtright and McIntire. A $500 reward was posted for Courtright’s capture.

Biographer Crocchiola concedes that Courtright had been at the scene of the killings but insiss that “he was never known to have shot an unarmed man, nor one whose back was turned to him.”

Courtright was soon arrested but escaped from jail.

He reconnected with McIntire, who had evaded capture.

Courtright and McIntire skedaddled into Old Mexico and then to El Paso. McIntire in 1902 wrote a book about his life: Early Days in Texas: A Trip to Hell and Heaven. He writes that in El Paso the two men took a train east to Fort Worth, paying $15 extra to have a smoking room to themselves.

McIntire writes that upon arriving in Fort Worth they were “not molested.” But to be safe, Courtright and McIntire “slept in the graveyard at night, with a grave for a pillow . . . Two nights, when we were making a lodging-house of the cemetery, it rained, and we slept in a vault.”

McIntire does not name the cemetery. But Courtright would have been very familiar with Oakwood, site of his former farm. If the cemetery that McIntire mentions was Oakwood, Courtright’s brief time sleeping there in 1883 was a homecoming—past and future.

Courtright and McIntire soon felt safe enough to appear among the living.

McIntire went to Wichita Falls and bought a share of a gambling hall.

Courtright was soon a lawman again—twice over. DeArment writes that Courtright was appointed deputy U.S. marshal and deputy Tarrant County sheriff.

Courtright may have been a lawman again, but he was betting that the long arm of the law was not long enough to reach from New Mexico to Texas.

He would lose that bet.

The first ominous development came in June 1883 when a lawman from New Mexico passed through Fort Worth on his way to Austin with a requisition for Courtright’s arrest for the New Mexico killings. Courtright—and his friends—vowed that he would not return to New Mexico, where he feared he would be killed “as soon as he crossed the border.”

During the next few months legal wrangling over extradition of Courtright continued in Austin and between Texas and New Mexico authorities. Meanwhile, now and then lawmen or bounty hunters tried to arrest Courtright.

For example, in February 1884 Texas Rangers Captain Sam McMurray and four Rangers came to Fort Worth to arrest Courtright. Courtright’s friends told McMurray that Courtright was hundreds of miles away, that they considered it “certain death” for him to return to New Mexico to stand trial, and that “Courtright says he had rather die right here.”

Another time four Texas Rangers told Fort Worth lawman Abe Woody they had come to Fort Worth to arrest a “bad man.”

When Woody suggested the Rangers enlist the help of Jim Courtright, the Rangers said, “That’s the very man we’re after.”

Woody, a friend of Courtright, warned the “bad man.”

On another occasion as Courtright and a friend left town to go fishing they were followed by three Texas Rangers on horseback. Courtright suddenly stopped, loaded his Winchester rifle, and turned to face the Rangers with his rifle across his lap.

They shifted their horses into reverse.

Yet another time three strangers rode into town and bragged that they had come to kill Courtright for the reward on his head. They were seen talking to two local men and soon left town. A night or two later Betty Courtright opened her front door to find the two local men standing there with pistols drawn. She slammed and bolted the door and sent a neighbor boy to fetch her husband. When Jim Courtright reached his home one of the two men ran, and Courtright pistol-whipped the second, “inflicting eight or ten wounds.”

Meanwhile in 1884 Courtright received yet another appointment: deputy city marshal.

He also rejoined the M. T. Johnson fire brigade, Selcer writes in Fort Worth Characters.

Also in 1884 Courtright opened his T.I.C. [for “Timothy Isaiah Courtright”] Commercial Detective Agency. Two of his detectives were Abe Woody and future police chief James Maddox.

In short, Jim Courtright resumed his life in Fort Worth. New Mexico began to seem long ago and far away.

Fast-forward to October 1884. Seventeen months had passed since the killings of homesteaders Grossetete and Elsinger.

On the afternoon of October 18 Albuquerque City Marshal Harry Richmond stepped off of Texas & Pacific’s eastbound train no. 305 accompanied by two Texas Rangers, extradition papers, and a murder warrant for the arrest of Courtright.

They planned to hustle Courtright onto T&P’s westbound train no. 301 at 8:55 p.m. back to New Mexico to stand trial. That timetable gave them less than four hours. They wasted no time. The New Mexico lawman and the two Texas Rangers tricked Courtright into meeting them at Ginocchio’s Hotel (managed by John Laneri) next to the Texas & Pacific passenger depot. They told Courtright they wanted him to identify a sketch of a wanted man they sought. Instead the lawmen arrested Courtright at gunpoint and held him in a room on the second floor of the hotel.

So far, so good.

Now all that the three lawmen had to do was hustle Courtright next door to the train depot and onto the train at 8:55 p.m. But soon word of Courtright’s arrest spread through downtown. Courtright was popular. People feared that the three lawmen would kill Courtright for the reward on his head or take him back to New Mexico to face vigilante justice. An angry mob gathered at the hotel, demanding to see Courtright, demanding that the lawmen release him.

The three lawmen allowed Courtright to stand at a window of the hotel. Each time he stood in the window and held up his manacled hands for the mob to see, “people seemed to lose all control of themselves and yelled in most exquisite abandonment, swaying and surging the while like an angry sea,” the Gazette wrote on October 19.

“Attacks on the hotel were spoken of, and the crowd was in a condition to do anything upon the word of a leader,” the Gazette wrote.

The two Texas Rangers knew that William Capps, who was Courtright’s attorney, was respected in the community. They sent for him, asked him to reason with the rawhide rabble. Leonard Sanders writes in How Fort Worth Became the Texasmost City: “Estimates of the armed mob ranged as high as two thousand.”

Capps climbed onto the roof of the train station’s ticket office and addressed the roused citizenry milling below. He held “the howling mob” in check long enough for the three lawmen to smuggle Courtright out the back of the hotel into a “flying ’bus” (omnibus) and on to the safety of the jail.

Peace prevailed.

But Jim Courtright would not be on the 8:55 train to New Mexico. The three lawmen decided not to risk trying to get their prisoner from the jail to the train while emotions were running so high among townspeople.

Instead the lawmen would make their move the next day after folks had simmered down.

The next day, October 19, Albuquerque City Marshal Richmond and the two Texas Rangers escorted Courtright from jail to Merchants’ Restaurant for breakfast and lunch. The restaurant was just across Main Street from the White Elephant Saloon. DeArment writes that assisting in guarding Courtright at the jail were his friends Abe Woody and James Maddox. Woody and Maddox alerted Courtright that a plot to liberate him was under way by a group of FOJ (friends of Jim).

Just before 6 p.m. when Marshal Richmond and the two Texas Rangers escorted Courtright to supper at Merchants’, DeArment writes, the restaurant was packed with almost one hundred FOJ. The buzzing throng fell quiet as prisoner Courtright and his three captors entered. An FOJ lured one of the lawmen outside the restaurant, trimming the opposition by one-third, and the two other lawmen and Courtright took seats at a reserved table.

Years later gun shop owner A. J. Anderson recalled his role in the great eat-and-run escape:

“The clock struck six, and at this instant, Courtright reached beneath the table and arose to his feet holding a six-gun Colt .45 in each hand, which he leveled on the officers. The officers jumped quickly to their feet and reached for their guns, but at the back of each officer were two men. These men each grabbed one arm of an officer, locking the arm behind their back. Courtright walked out through the back door.

“My part in the arrangements was placing the guns at the end of the tables. I hung the guns from screw eyes by a light cord which would hold the gun’s weight but break easily. The table cloth hid the guns.”

The daring escape made headlines around the state. The Galveston Daily News wrote that after Courtright, escaped from the lawmen in the restaurant, a “fiery-footed steed” was waiting for him in the alley. Courtright “mounted . . . and galloped down Second street. He cleared the crowd by firing several shots in the air, and in a moment more disappeared around the corner and darted up Rusk [Commerce] street.”

Marshal Jim: Cowtown’s First Citizen or First Gangster? (Part 2)

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