Neither Fist nor Fire Held Fear for Canada Bill

Jim Courtright wasn’t the only Fort Worth volunteer fireman who made a name for himself in the nineteenth century. Another volunteer fireman also made a name for himself. In fact, at least three names.

William Heffron was born about 1860. His 1910 census notwithstanding, according to the Star-Telegram he was born in Canada and raised in England by British parents.

William Heffron was living in Fort Worth by 1877, working first at a saloon, then at a restaurant, and then as a driver of a hack (horse-drawn public vehicle).

Heffron also was a sport (gambler) who raised dogs for dog fights and both trained prizefighters and himself boxed in prize fights locally. In 1891 Heffron was featured in the Police Gazette.

“Canada Bill,” as Heffron was known to his friends and the local press, was quick to draw a gun or throw a punch. He was in court so often that he began to act as his own defense attorney.

And won!

About 1 a.m. on June 10, 1886 in front of the White Elephant Saloon Heffron and gambler Jack Thompson argued, not over aces and spades but rather over a queen: Jessie Reeves, a queen of the soiled doves. Reeves was the madam of a brothel on Rusk Street in Hell’s Half Acre.

A newspaper wrote of the two men: “Thompson at one time was a sheriff in New Mexico and is regarded as a bad man to handle. Heffron is a fighter of local reputation, having a record of one man killed.”

In front of the saloon both men drew their pistols, but friends intervened. Both men were arrested, released on bond, and again confronted each other in front of the White Elephant about 3 a.m. Repeat scenario: Pistols were drawn, friends intervened, both men arrested, both released on bond.

Shortly thereafter Heffron and Thompson confronted each other a third time, this time at Jessie Reeves’s brothel. Thompson drew his six-shooter and said, “I don’t want to kill you, Bill, but I will just wing you to save myself.”

There were no friends to intervene this time.

Thompson indeed winged Heffron, shooting him in the arm. Thompson was arrested for the third time in three hours. Heffron was taken to his room to be treated by a physician.

Note that the newspaper said Heffron had killed one man.

That man may have been Bay T. Singleton.

About 4 a.m. on February 14, 1881 in the Paragon Saloon Canada Bill and two other hack drivers got into an argument with a barber and Walter Whittie (real name: “Bay T. Singleton”). The Gazette wrote that “a general rough and tumble ensued, with a promiscuous mixing of hackmen and barbers.” Canada Bill and his fellow hack drivers left the saloon to get their guns and returned to continue the confrontation.

A police officer arrived to break up the brawl and ordered Canada Bill to surrender his gun. When Bill refused, the officer tried to take the gun from Bill by force. The pistol discharged, “wounding Bill in the groin.”

Canada Bill and Bay T. Singleton would meet again the next year.

In 1882 Heffron and Singleton got into an argument in a saloon after midnight. Heffron shot Singleton. Wounded, Singleton ran out of the saloon. Heffron followed and shot Singleton two more times. Heffron was indicted for murder. As far as I can determine he was acquitted or never tried. A plea of self-defense absolved many a man of a murder charge.

Singleton’s widow was Nellie Ashley, a first cousin of Frank and Jesse James. The James brothers had attended the Singleton-Ashley wedding in 1875. Mrs. Singleton was said to be the best woman marksman in Texas and to have been a spy for William Quantrill. When she married Singleton he was a wanted man using an alias (“Walter Witty/Whittie”). When Nellie discovered his ruse, she persuaded him—at the point of a gun—to remarry her using his real name.

When Canada Bill was not fighting other men, he was fighting fires as a member of M. T. Johnson Hook and Ladder Company No. 1. Again he was fearless. He was injured at least three times in the line of duty.

For example, about 5 a.m. on June 11, 1888 the upper end of downtown was shaken by first one huge explosion and then three lesser explosions. Some people suspected a boiler explosion, others an earthquake.

It was, in fact, a fireman’s nightmare: a fire in a gunstore. The store contained gunpowder, dynamite, boxes of bullets, and loaded guns.

After the four explosions came “a furious fusillade” as “hundreds of thousands of bullets exploded” in the intense heat. Bullets in boxes detonated, bullets in guns detonated, causing the guns—literally loose cannons—to ricochet around the gun store and even smash through a partition into an adjoining store. Bullets pierced the front wall of the gun store and broke windows of buildings across the street.

Bystanders watched the inferno at their own peril.

William Heffron was among the firemen responding to the alarm. He was standing on an awning eighteen feet off the ground when the awning gave way. He was “badly hurt” when he fell to the ground.

Evidence indicated that the fire had begun as burglars were attempting to open the gun store’s safe.

When the Texas Spring Palace burned in 1890 it burned so quickly that firefighters could do little. But Heffron was among firemen cited by the Gazette.

In September 1891 fire destroyed the Ellis Hotel downtown. The Gazette called the fire “one of the most destructive fires known in years.” William Heffron was injured fighting the fire. But even with his arm in a sling he continued to fight fires. The Gazette said, “He says he can’t keep away, the habit being too strong a one to break for trivial matters.”

Also in 1891 the Gazette singled out Heffron for “a dangerous but pretty bit of work” as he pushed ahead of City Marshal James Hodge Maddox to climb a ladder and enter a burning house to fetch a woman’s trunk.

In 1892 two events changed Heffron’s life.

In February 1892 Heffron was again injured in the line of duty. While responding to a fire alarm he was thrown from the hook and ladder truck as it turned a corner at Main and 9th streets. Heffron’s head hit the roadbed, and he suffered a fractured skull. He was partially paralyzed. Canada Bill’s days of fighting—fires and other men—were over.

In November Heffron married Nellie Putnam.

In late 1893 the volunteer fire department that Canada Bill, Jim Courtright et al. had known became a fully financed and staffed part of the city.

Unable to work, Heffron struggled financially. In 1897 Winfield Scott appealed to the city council to grant Heffron a monthly pension of $25 ($800 today). According to the Star-Telegram, Scott’s request was granted.

In the 1907 city directory Heffron is listed as rooming at the central fire station, where he was “supply driver” for Hose Company No. 2. The title may have been honorary.

Fast-forward to 1913. Canada Bill—called “J. F. Blake” in his obituary—died alone in his hotel room at the lower end of the Acre. Rooms in his hotel rented for $3-5 a week ($3 would be $84 today). The Star-Telegram referred to him as “Fort Worth’s only city pensioner.”

Canada Bill, the multimonikered man who feared neither fist nor fire, was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in a pauper’s grave. Almost a century later his grave was given a headstone—“William Blake”—by the Fort Worth Police and Firefighters Memorial Association.

His name is engraved on the wall of the Fort Worth Police and Firefighters Memorial in Trinity Park.

(Thanks and a tip of the fire helmet to Fort Worth historian Donna Humphrey Donnell for the tip.)


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