Medium 9781574416503

No Hope for Heaven, No Fear of Hell

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Two family names have come to be associated with the violence that plagued Colorado County, Texas, for decades after the end of the Civil War: the Townsends and the Staffords. Both prominent families amassed wealth and achieved status, but it was their resolve to hold on to both, by whatever means necessary, including extra-legal means, that sparked the feud. Elected office was one of the paths to success, but more important was control of the sheriffÍs office, which gave one a decided advantage should the threat of gun violence arise. No Hope for Heaven, No Fear of Hell concentrates on those individual acts of private justice associated with the Stafford and Townsend families. It began with an 1871 shootout in Columbus, followed by the deaths of the Stafford brothers in 1890. The second phase blossomed after 1898 with the assassination of Larkin Hope, and concluded in 1911 with the violent deaths of Marion Hope, Jim Townsend, and Will Clements, all in the space of one month.

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1. The Murders of Bob and John Stafford at the Hands of Larkin and Marion Hope

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As the new decade of the 1890s began, Columbus and Colorado County could look back on several years of unprecedented growth and prosperity. Old Columbus had undergone a complete facelift from the modest and sometimes makeshift wooden buildings that had once lined Milam and Spring streets, the main corridors of commerce. A row of stately two-story brick structures with impressive facades and other elegant touches denoting prosperity and optimism had supplanted the old structures. Among the many businesses that lined the courthouse square were two jewelers, three drug stores, five general merchandise stores, a butcher shop, several grocery stores, law and medical offices, a newspaper office, a saddle and harness shop, and eight saloons.1

The newly constructed Stafford Opera House and Bank stood out clearly as the crown jewel among all the new structures, while R. E. “Bob” Stafford's imposing residence, next door to the opera house, counted as the grandest new home in town. The opera house was the largest of its kind in the state for the period and offered a convenient overnight venue for the numerous theatrical groups and minstrel shows that regularly travelled the rails between Houston and San Antonio. Thanks to R. E. “Bob” Stafford, the town and its citizens now had a claim to elegance and status that it had not previously enjoyed. Columbus was on the map.

 

2. The Seven Townsend Brothers (and One Sister) of Texas

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Seven Townsend brothers (and one sister), the progeny of Thomas and Elizabeth Stapleton Townsend of Florida and Georgia, made the move to Texas in the early decades of the nineteenth century. With one exception, all the brothers and the one sister eventually settled in Colorado County, which at the time of its establishment after the Texas War of Independence was considerably larger than it is today, embracing portions of present Fayette and Lavaca counties. As their father and grandfathers before them, the new generation resolved to carve a future on the shifting frontier, but this time the frontier was in far-away Texas.

During the nineteenth century an unmistakable restlessness characterized the family, and this restlessness drove them to pick up stakes and relocate every decade or so, first to Georgia from the Marlboro District of South Carolina, then to Florida, and finally to Texas. But there was method to their uprooted life: often taking advantage of bounty lands for military service, they positioned and re-positioned themselves on the leading edge of the frontier to profit from the inevitable growth to follow as land hungry masses followed in the footsteps of the vanguard. At least three Townsend generations followed the formula.

 

3. Robert Earl Stafford

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The Stafford side of the story, unlike the Townsend chapter, is essentially the tale of one remarkable man, Robert Earl “Bob” Stafford. In order to grasp the dramatic events of 1890, when Bob and his brother John Stafford fell mortally wounded at the hands of Larkin and Marion Hope, the reader needs to gain an appreciation for the astonishing rise of Bob Stafford in the Texas cattle business after the Civil War and the methods by which he achieved success.

Bob Stafford was born in Glynn County, Georgia, March 27, 1834, to Robert and Martha A. Stafford. Like the Townsends he had several brothers and, similar to them, the brothers decided to seek their fortunes in Texas. The Staffords were tall and fair-haired, reflecting their Anglo-Saxon roots. As an adult, Bob, similar to his brother John, stood well over six feet tall and, in later years, with his flowing red beard, cut an imposing figure, which he used to full advantage to intimidate others. He received his education at an academy in Waynesville, Georgia, but even with schooling appears only to have mastered the rudiments of reading and writing, as his extant letters reveal.1 On December 27, 1854, he married Sarah E. Zouks of Liberty County, Georgia, who blessed him with seven children, but only two lived to adulthood.2 The Staffords were never as prolific as the Townsends, which, as one commentator noted, contributed to their political disadvantage.3

 

4. The Rise of Sam Houston Reese and the Assassination of Larkin Hope

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Sheriff Townsend appointed his kinsman Sam Houston Reese to be his chief deputy soon after the deaths of the Stafford Brothers in July 1890. Sam Reese had already acquired law enforcement experience as a constable, was known to be a solid family man, and was considered untainted in respect to the Stafford difficulties. His appointment, therefore, was greeted favorably in most quarters. Light Townsend apparently intended to groom him to be his successor.1

At the time of his appointment, Sam Reese was thirty-one years old, married, with five children: two sons and three daughters. Like the Townsends, the Reese family came from an old-line Texas family. Sam's father had settled initially in Austin County when Texas was still a republic, but after the Civil War had moved with his growing family, which came to include six sons, to Lavaca County. The family befriended Spencer Townsend, who had also established himself in Lavaca County although his home base was at Oakland on the Colorado County side of the Navidad River. Through this association, young Sam Reese made the acquaintance of Keron Blanche (Keetie) Townsend (1858–1944), one of the many children of Spencer Townsend. The two married in 1876 when he was just seventeen and she was eighteen. Keetie was the sister of Stapleton Townsend, who was killed by a sheriff's posse at Oakland in 1867, and a first cousin of J. Light Townsend.

 

5. The Killings of Sam and Dick Reese

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In the general election of November 1898, Will Burford received 1,952 votes, Sam Reese 1,391, and a third candidate, James Shropshire, 871. Burford outpolled his opponents handily in Columbus, Weimar, and Eagle Lake. Perhaps most painfully, he soundly beat Sam Reese in Reese's hometown of Oakland.1 Black voters played a pivotal role in the race and although at first they were unsure of whom to support, in the end they went strongly for Burford.

Their uncertainty resulted from the fact that both Sam Reese and Will Burford claimed to be the rightful heirs of Light Townsend and deserving of their loyalty. On September 3 black activists met in Weimar to sort things out and discuss the upcoming election.2 Two things swayed them to support Will Burford: first, Mark Townsend appealed to them personally and, according to multiple sources, sweetened his appeal with generous amounts of cash;3 secondly, Sam Reese had not shown the same deference and respect toward the black community during his tenure as sheriff as had Light Townsend, and this fact came back to haunt him.

 

Photo Insert

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Colorado County map, ca 1875. Courtesy Alex Mendoza.

Antebellum Plantation House (Tait House) Columbus. Courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library Archives.

Black women Colorado County, ca. 1900. Courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library Archives.

Colorado County cowboys on the Prairie, ca. 1900. Courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library Archives.

Wegenhoft brothers, Colorado County cowmen, ca. 1900. Courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library Archives.

Asa Townsend. Courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library Archives.

Rebecca Townsend, wife of Asa Townsend. Courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library Archives.

Bob Stafford as a young man. Courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library Archives.

Bob Stafford bank and residence, Columbus, Texas. Courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library Archives.

John Stafford residence, three miles south of Columbus. Courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library Archives.

Stafford meat packing plant, Columbus, Texas. Courtesy Nesbitt Memorial Library Archives.

 

6. The Terrible Affray at Bastrop and the Shoot-out at Rosenberg

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As the new century dawned, Columbus grew lively with talk of the approaching trial of Jim Townsend, set to begin in the Bastrop County District Court on Monday, January 15, 1900. On January 11, a headline in the Columbus newspaper asked rhetorically, “Are you going to Bastrop?” Scores answered in the affirmative for, reportedly, about 300 people made the trip, necessitating a special train from Columbus on the Sunday before the trial.1 Among the passengers were the defendant, Jim Townsend, and three of his sisters, Keetie Reese, Jennie Brown, and Molly Dudley, all three of whom were scheduled to testify against their brother as witnesses for the prosecution. The rangers took pains to seat the two factions in separate cars.2

Just as with the 1899 fall term of district court in Columbus, the people of Colorado County anticipated the coming trial of Jim Townsend in Bastrop with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. In the fall, the three cases associated with the feud—the case against Jim Coleman for the murder of Larkin Hope; the case against Mark Townsend, Marion Hope, and Will Clements for the death of Sam Reese; and the case against Jim Townsend and Step Yates for the murder of Dick Reese—had generated a threefold potential for violence. But in the end, it had been anti-climactic; District Judge Kennon had disposed of the cases in quick order, either through change of venue or dismissal, while the rangers had showed up in force and by all accounts had acted to keep the peace in a firm but impartial manner.3

 

7. The Interim

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The events of 1899 and 1900 had left Mark Townsend and his allies firmly in control of law enforcement in Colorado County. The Reese attempt to challenge Townsend by both legal and extralegal means had failed miserably, and even led Keetie, the widow of Sam Reese and the matriarch of the family, to pack up and move away from Colorado County. The Reese family had been expelled, literally and figuratively, from the circle of power and influence built up and maintained over the years by Mark and Light Townsend with the help of the black vote. But events larger than an internal dynastic row portended the end of Townsend dominance.

Will Burford ran for reelection in 1900,1 but drew a strong opponent in W. E. “Dick” Bridge, a fifty-year-old resident of Columbus. Burford had been overheard to say that the sheriff's office had brought him nothing but heartache and pain and had been a financial burden on his family. During the election he felt it necessary to write a letter to the editor of the Citizen countering these rumors.2 Sympathy existed for Burford over the loss of his son, but there was also an undertow of resentment. Burford represented a power structure that many in the white community had long resented and now considered a relic of the past. On Election Day, Burford lost Columbus, but garnered comfortable majorities in Eagle Lake and Weimar. Burford won with 54 percent of the vote, but this was closer than anticipated.3 Once again, the black vote reduced the margin of his loss in Columbus and carried the day in Eagle Lake, while hometown sentiment bolstered his tally in Weimar.

 

8. The 1906 Skating Rink Shoot-out

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By 1906 the shootings at Bastrop and Rosenberg had receded into the past. The Townsend political machine that had controlled law enforcement in the county for decades was a relic of a bygone era. Mark Townsend now resided in San Antonio where he presided over his far-flung business empire and also served as the lead attorney for the Southern Pacific Railroad in Texas. The rapidly expanding rice industry, which Mark Townsend and Will Burford had helped to pioneer with the establishment of the Red Bluff Irrigation Company and the town of Garwood in 1901, attracted Will Clements to Wharton County where his brother Jim Clements had established a large and successful rice farm at Lane City. Jim Townsend also made the move with his family to the area. For the time being Marion Hope remained. He opened up a saloon in the railroad community of Glidden a mile west of Columbus, but later testified that he lived in constant fear of his life from the Reese boys and from Jim Coleman.1

 

9. The Assassination of Jim Coleman

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After the big shoot-out on the streets of Columbus in the summer of 1906, Marion Hope traded the saloon business in Glidden for another saloon in Lane City in Wharton County where Jim and Will Clements as well as Jim Townsend now lived. The area to the south, it seems, had become a safe enclave for former supporters of Mark Townsend. After the death of his first wife, Hope had remarried and, in a familiar replay, once again chose to wed within the family, this time to a second cousin, the daughter of Jim Townsend. It appeared as if the intensity of the family conflict had somehow reinforced this old habit on both sides of the conflict.

With most of the confederates of Mark Townsend now residing in Wharton and Matagorda counties, the Reese family felt comfortable in taking up full-time residence in Columbus for a while. Lillian Reese had already made the move in 1906 while her mother soon followed suit. In June 1907 Hub Reese married Ivy Ilse at the First Baptist Church in Houston. The bride was the daughter of a prominent Columbus businessman. Only a small crowd of relatives and close friends attended the ceremony. There is no clear reason why the wedding was conducted in Houston rather than in Columbus, where both the bride and groom lived. Perhaps the family feared one of their enemies might disrupt the ceremony. In any case, Hub and Iva Reese returned to Columbus to start their married lives. Later that year in November, Walter Reese returned to Columbus and purchased a brick livery stable, formerly the possession of Thomas Bouldin.1

 

10. The Deaths of Marion Hope, Will Clements, and Jim Townsend

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During a three-week span in the summer of 1911, Jim Townsend, Will Clements, and Marion Hope all suffered violent deaths. It was a most extraordinary coincidence. The first to die was Marion Hope. After the murder of Jim Coleman, Hope had moved with his family from Wharton County to Mark Townsend's ranch near Nixon, a few miles southeast of San Antonio, where, it was said, he hoped to live out his declining years in peace and free from the troubles.1

On the afternoon on August 11, 1911, he saddled up a large Norman horse and rode out alone along a road to a calf pasture to drive up some calves. Passers-by found him unconscious sometime later, lying in the road, his neck broken. He expired shortly thereafter without ever regaining consciousness. The coroner ruled that his horse had fallen and broke his neck, although a large and visible bruise on the back of his neck could not be explained by the fall. The remains of Marion were brought back to Wharton by train August 9, 1911, for interment and were laid beside the graves of his two children who had predeceased him. Mark Townsend and other close family members accompanied the remains.2

 

11. Postscript

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Walter and Herbert Reese, sons of Sheriff Sam Reese, also died untimely deaths, but their deaths were unconnected to the feud. In March 1912 Herbert “Hub” Reese accidentally dropped his pistol, a .32 Colt's automatic. The pistol was supposed to be accident proof, but when it struck the floor it discharged, and struck the right leg just above the knee, inflicting a slight flesh wound. From there it ranged through the testicle, on up through the groin, and lodged somewhere near the upper part of the left hip. The family telegraphed for a specialist from Houston, but before he could arrive on the night train, Hub Reese expired. He was buried in Weimar the following day at the side of his father. Reese was just thirty years of age and, in addition to his wife, was survived by his brother Walter, mother, and three sisters.1

Walter Reese followed his brother Hub to the grave in 1919. In the twelve years between his move back to Columbus in 1907 and his death in El Paso as the result of a car accident, Walter Reese led a very unsettled life. He bounced between failed business ventures and various stints as a lawman. He applied at one point to be a Texas Ranger but was turned down.

 

Appendices

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Brooks, John (1855–1944): Texas Ranger captain John Abijah Brooks was born November 20, 1855, in Kentucky. He joined the rangers in 1883 and became a captain in 1889. He is regarded as one of the “Great” captains. He resigned in 1906. Later, he served two terms in the state legislature and, from 1911 to 1939, served as the county judge of Brooks County, which was named in his honor. He died January 15, 1944. Captain Brooks and eight rangers were detached to Columbus in September 1899 to insure no trouble broke out during the fall term of district court. He was in charge of maintaining the peace during the murder trial of Jim Townsend that had been moved to Bastrop January 1900 on a change of venue.

Brown, Jennie (1845–1942): Jane Elizabeth Townsend was the daughter of Spencer Burton and Louisa Drusilla (Dillard) Townsend, and thus the sister of Keetie Reese and Jim Townsend. She married Hiram Walter Brown on August 1, 1867. She was prepared to testify against her brother Jim Townsend at his trial for murder in Bastrop in 1900.

 

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