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The Johnson-Sims Feud

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In the early 1900s, two families in Scurry and Kent counties in West Texas united in a marriage of fourteen-year-old Gladys Johnson to twenty-one-year-old Ed Sims. Billy Johnson, the father, set up Gladys and Ed on a ranch, and the young couple had two daughters. But Gladys was headstrong and willful, and Ed drank too much, and both sought affection outside their marriage. A nasty divorce ensued, and Gladys moved with her girls to her father’s luxurious ranch house, where she soon fell in love with famed Texas Ranger Frank Hamer. When Ed tried to take his daughters for a prearranged Christmas visit in 1916, Gladys and her brother Sid shot him dead on the Snyder square teeming with shoppers. One of the best lawyers in West Texas, Judge Cullen Higgins (son of the old feudist Pink Higgins) managed to win acquittal for both Gladys and Sid. In the tradition of Texas feudists since the 1840s, the Sims family sought revenge. Sims’ son-in-law, Gee McMeans, led an attack in Sweetwater and shot Billy Johnson’s bodyguard, Frank Hamer, twice, while Gladys—by now Mrs. Hamer—fired at another assassin. Hamer shot back, killed McMeans, and was no-billed on the spot by a grand jury watching the shootout through a window. An attempt against Billy Johnson failed, but a three-man team shotgunned the widely respected Cullen Higgins. Texas Rangers and other lawmen caught one of the assassins, extracted a confession, and then prompted his “suicide” in a Sweetwater jail cell.

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11 Chapters

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1. Introduction to a Blood Feud

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Chapter 1

Introduction to a Blood Feud

“‘Vengeance is Mine!’ saith the Lord. But in and out of Texas he has always had plenty of help.”

C. L. Sonnichsen

T

here was bad blood between W. A. Johnson and Ed Sims. Johnson was a pioneer cattleman of Scurry County, and as president of Snyder’s First National Bank he was a prominent citizen of the community. Sims, the oldest son of another pioneer ranching clan, had married Johnson’s headstrong daughter, Gladys, in 1905 when she was fourteen.

The marriage between Ed Sims and Gladys Johnson seemed to signal the union of two successful ranching families. But while two baby girls were born to the young couple, the marriage proved stormy.

Ed and Gladys both were proud and hot-tempered. Ed drank heavily, and each spouse accused the other of extramarital romances. Amid charges and countercharges, Ed and Gladys divorced in 1916.

During the bitter aftermath of divorce, Ed became convinced that the Johnsons were trying to turn his daughters against him. On Friday evening, December 15, 1916, Ed came to Snyder so that he could pick up the girls the next day for a prearranged custody visit. Encountering his former father-in-law in a drugstore that evening, Ed brandished

 

2. Billy Johnson, Cattle Baron

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Chapter 2

Billy Johnson, Cattle Baron

“I was on an easy fox-trotting bay gelding riding point on a mixed herd of South Texas cattle . . . when I heard the sweet sound of running water as my horse broke stride to jump the creek.”

Billy Johnson, cowboy

B

y the time that pioneer cattlemen Billy Johnson and Dave Sims arrived in West Texas, Americans had become captivated by the range cattle industry. This fascinating enterprise evolved in Texas during the nineteenth century. Cattle were introduced to the Western hemisphere in the early 1500s by Spanish colonizers. On the ranges of northern Mexico, vaqueros handled cattle from horseback, developing special attire, techniques, and equipment. Roping, branding, heavy-duty saddles, wide brimmed sombreros, high-heeled boots, jingling spurs, leather chaparejos—everything had utilitarian purposes, but came to seem colorful and even romantic.

Through the centuries cattle strayed into the brush country above the Rio Grande, multiplying freely in a harsh, unpopulated land. The animals became hardy survivors, good at finding water and forage, and aggressive against predators, fighting with horns that evolved into long, dangerous weapons. During the mid-1800s, Anglo Texans

 

3. Dave Sims, Cattle Baron

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Chapter 3

Dave Sims, Cattle Baron

“The changeable weather, the distances, the soil, and the loneliness were merely hardships or dangers to be overcome.”

T. R. Fehrenbach, Texas historian

W

hile Billy Johnson was progressing from teenage cowboy to pioneer rancher to family man to cattle baron, Dave Sims was following a similar trail. Five years older than Billy Johnson, Dave was born during a family migration from Arkansas to Lampasas County in the Hill Country of Texas. On July 6, 1857, Samuel David Sims was born in a covered wagon in Rusk County, amid the Piney Woods of

East Texas. His father was David Sims, and his mother was Frances

Emeline Sparks Sims. At twenty-six Emeline was the mother of three daughters and, now, a baby boy. Her parents were Samuel and Sarah

Sparks, and she named her son after her father and her husband.1

Samuel Sparks was a farmer, born in Maryland, raised in Georgia, and married in Alabama. Acquiring a few slaves to provide labor,

Samuel restlessly moved from one frontier farm to another. Emeline was born in Alabama in 1830, while her nine younger siblings were born in Mississippi and Arkansas. At nineteen Emeline married David

 

4. Gladys and Ed

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Chapter 4

Gladys and Ed

“A pair of star-cross’d lovers . . . .”

Romeo and Juliet

G

ladys was the princess of the Johnson ranch. She was the baby of the family and the only daughter. And she was the apple of her father’s eye. After three sons, Billy Johnson was ready for a daddy’s little girl. He spoiled his daughter and let her have her way and shielded her from the anger of her mother. And ultimately she drove him to despair.

Emmett Johnson was five-and-a-half-years-old when his baby sister was born. The oldest Johnson son was affable and even-tempered, kind and generous—as a boy and as a man. Joe was three-and-a-half when Gladys was born, and like Emmett he was a genial big brother.

But Sid was only sixteen months older than Gladys. Close in age, they also shared such traits as willfulness, nerve, hot tempers, and ruthless determination to have their own way. They grew up as playmates, companions, confidants, and accomplices—in matters small and large.

Billy Johnson taught all of his children to ride. Although fullskirted female attire of the 1890s demanded sidesaddles for equestriennes, Billy—a lifelong horseman—knew that stride riding was safer.

 

5. E. C. Sims vs. Gladys Sims

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76 �

Chapter 5

With an unhappy, short-tempered wife, Ed Sims found himself in a perplexing situation. In a male-dominated society, many husbands made scant effort to coddle their wives. It is not known how hard Ed may have tried to please and pamper his young wife, but probably there was little he could have done to bring her happiness at this stage in her life. Ed later would swear that he “did all in his power . . . to render her life one of happiness . . . making special preparations for her comfort and welfare . . . .” Ed emphasized that “he continued at all times affectionate toward her . . . .”1

Ed did not find much response to all of the affection and special preparations he claimed to have lavished upon Gladys. She merely

“was reasonably considerate” of Ed, despite his best efforts. A deeper problem, according to Ed, originated in her upbringing. Gladys, he explained, “was reared in her girl hood in a life of luxury, her parents being wealthy, and she being unrestrained acquired habits of extravagance and of following her own ideas as to worldly pleasures without restraint.”2

 

6. Storm Clouds

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Chapter 6

Storm Clouds

“Gladys adored Frank Hamer.”

Beverly Sims Benson

B

y the time that her divorce from Ed Sims was finalized, Gladys had found the love of her life. Frank Hamer already was famous as a Texas Ranger and deadly gunman, and he would prove a formidable ally for the Johnson family.

Francis Augustus Hamer was born on March 17, 1884. He was the second of eight children born to Frank and Lou Emma Francis Hamer.

A former cavalryman, the senior Hamer had served in Texas as a farrier with Col. Ranald Mackenzie and his crack Fourth Cavalry Regiment. Following his discharge, the young veteran married a Texas girl, and they raised their family in adjoining San Saba and Llano counties.

Young Francis—also called Frank or Pancho—learned his way around his father’s blacksmith shop. He grew up riding and roping, fishing and hunting, and he became an excellent shot. While reveling in the outdoor life of the Texas Hill Country, he was a bright student in the rural school at his home village of Oxford, about eight miles south of

 

7. Tragedy in Snyder

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Chapter 7

Tragedy in Snyder

“You see what you have done. I am unarmed.”

Ed Sims, after being shot by his ex-wife.

T

he divorce of Ed and Gladys Sims was finalized in September

1916. Soon afterward Ed married Mildred Girard, the dressmaker from Dallas, but he continued to find it difficult to arrange custody time with his daughters. He stated flatly that Gladys and her parents were “prejudicing his children against him.” While little Beverly retained warm feelings for her father, nine-year-old Trix clearly was becoming hardened against Ed. He bitterly expressed his resentment, and Cullen Higgins later described “a long series of insulting conduct” by Ed against Gladys and other members of the Johnson family. Relations between Ed and the Johnsons worsened. 1

The frequent divorces of contemporary society produce countless conflicts and immeasurable antagonisms between parents over child custody. At least the fact that this wrenching problem is commonplace today is an initial step toward accommodation. In 1916 divorce was uncommon, and to the social stigma of legal division was added the unexpected pain of separation from children. In the months following their acrimonious divorce, Gladys and Ed were jealous of the time the other parent spent with their children.

 

8. The Search for Revenge

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116 �

Chapter 8

their oldest son. Tall and handsome, Ed had been gunned down on a public street in view of his daughters. At thirty-two the beloved son and brother was wrenched from his close-knit family. Soon a large stone monument was placed over Ed’s grave. His name and the dates of his birth and death were cited, and a carefully selected sentiment throbbed with meaning:

Our precious one from us has gone,

A voice we loved is stilled,

A place is vacant in our home,

Which never can be filled.

Such a devastating loss cried out for retribution, for Old Testament vengeance. On the weekend of Ed’s death, a contingent of his kinsmen and friends came to Snyder to deliver the body to Post City.

Feelings were ugly over the killing, and Sheriff Merrill was alarmed by the threats he overheard. He wired Governor James Ferguson, requesting “two experienced rangers . . . to remain through Christmas holidays.” Ranger Captain J. M. Fox sent word that two of his men were on the way. Rangers John D. White and A. G. Beard soon arrived, and Sheriff Merrill managed to keep them in Snyder through the March term of the District Court.2

 

9. Assassination and Retribution

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Chapter 9

Assassination and Retribution

“JUDGE CULLEN C. HIGGINS MURDERED SUNDAY NIGHT”

Snyder Signal, March 22, 1918

A

da Sims McMeans took the remains of her husband back to

Odessa for burial. The oldest daughter of Dave and Laura Belle

Sims now was a widow, her husband killed in a shootout with Frank

Hamer—who was married to Gladys Sims Hamer. The oldest son of

Dave and Laura Belle earlier had been shot to death by Gladys and her brother Sidney. The losses of the Sims family were staggering.

But while the family tried to cope with their latest loss, Gladys was vacationing in California and Sidney, out on bail, returned to his wife,

Ruth, and three-year-old son, Weldon. Gladys was free from all charges in the death of Ed Sims, thanks to the legal skills of Judge Cullen Higgins. Judge Higgins had represented Gladys in her bitter divorce from

Ed Sims and in custody arrangements for Trix and Beverly. Currently

Judge Higgins was acting as a special prosecutor, preparing a murder case for the pending trial of Will Luman, who was free on bail. Soon

 

10. Aftermath and Redemption

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Chapter 10

Aftermath and Redemption

“I sometimes think of the long ago as the most harrowing terrible dream imaginable….”

Rocky Higgins Johnson

A

n important element of classic tragedy is redemption. In Romeo and Juliet the Capulets and Montagues reconciled over the corpses of the young lovers. But there would be no Johnson-Sims reconciliation in West Texas.

Kelly Sims remained so unreconciled to the murder of his older brother, Ed, that he refused ever to set foot in Snyder. Kelly was certain that if he ever sighted Sidney Johnson that he would kill him.

Although his wife could not be deterred from occasional trips into

Snyder for shopping, Kelly insisted that she carry a gun in her purse.

Kelly always packed a pistol, a .45 automatic that was the deadliest handgun of the time. At night the .45 always went beneath his pillow, and before going to bed Kelly propped an automatic shotgun beside the bedroom window. Many years later Kelly refused an opportunity to buy a four-section parcel of land because it belonged to Weldon

 

Rest in Peace

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