The trigger-happy state police opened fire without warning on a crowd of Saturday shoppers in Brownwood on Aug. 19, 1871.
In his inaugural address in April 1870, Republican Edmund J. Davis asked fellow Radicals for a new law-enforcement legion to bring Reconstruction order to the chaotic countryside. Two months later, the governor got his wish – hired guns who answered only to him.
The state police was made up of quasi-autonomous companies who often acted as judge, jury and executioner. The worst of the bunch was the roving band of cutthroats under the command of Capt. Jack Helm.
In August 1870, Helm and his henchmen murdered two unarmed prisoners in DeWitt County for purely private reasons. The helpless victims were affiliated with the Taylors, and their assassins were Sutton sympathizers in the epic Gulf Coast feud that lasted nearly 40 years.
During his four bloody months on the state payroll, Helm was blamed for as many as 20 cold-blooded killings. Although he never stood trial for his crimes, gunfighter John Wesley Hardin abruptly ended the ex-captain’s retirement.
While Helm headed an all-white unit, many members of the state police were recently emancipated slaves. The volatile mixture of freedmen with an ax to grind and former Confederates, who could not accept any black in a position of authority, frequently exploded with fatal consequences.
A tragic example was the unnecessary bloodshed at Waco in August 1870. A petty incident escalated into a violent racial confrontation, when a black policeman killed a white shoplifter in an argument over a stolen watermelon. State cops and their civilian supporters stormed a hotel, but the local sheriff averted more casualties by negotiating a cease-fire.
Sometimes white criminals exploited the racial antagonism for their own gain. At Brown-wood in August 1871, a white man, who had slain another man in a quarrel over a gambling debt, sought the protection of the black state police.
The next Saturday, the murderer and his new friends fired upon a group of the dead man’s associates killing one. The state gendarmes warned bystanders to leave the body alone because they planned to mutilate the corpse and send the scalp to the governor as a trophy.
In December of the same year, two black policemen disrupted a court at Lynn Flatt near Nacogdoches and threatened a lawyer for challenging their testimony. The justice of the peace issued warrants for their arrest on contempt citations, and a constable aided by a civilian volunteer went after the culprits.
Confronted at a nearby store, one of the policemen agreed to go along peacefully. But his partner resisted arrest shouting, “Die before you surrender!”
In the close-quarters gun battle, all four participants were wounded and the civic-minded civilian fatally. The state cops went into hiding only to surface five days later and ambush the constable on his doorstep.
James Davidson, chief of the state force, normally refused to turn over his subordinates to county authorities. However, with much of East Texas up in arms, he made an exception in this sensational case and personally delivered the two fugitives to the Nacogdoches sheriff.
Within the year, Davidson disappeared with $34,000 in state funds. He bought comfortable sanctuary in Belgium and never again showed his face in Texas.
A state policeman passing through Paris in January 1873 heard a youth under indictment for a trivial offense was not yet in custody. After downing a bottle of whiskey and talking a brother officer into accompanying him, he headed for the boy’s home.
The frightened teenager went willingly to his doom. In the front yard and in plain sight of the adolescent’s horrified family, the drunk policeman shot him in the back.
Cradling her mortally wounded child in her arms, the grief-stricken mother cried, “You have killed my son. Now kill me.” The murderer laughed and walked away.
By 1873 disenfranchised Democrats had regained the vote and elected commanding majorities in both wings of the legislature. Their first order of business was the elimination of the governor’s goon squad.
Bills calling for the abolition of the state police sailed through the senate and the house on April 12, 1873. Gov. Davis, as expected, vetoed the measures, but his last-ditch defiance was a futile gesture. The house voted 58-7 to override the veto, and in the senate, where three Republicans broke ranks, the count was 18-7.
Texans far and wide celebrated the downfall of the outlaws in uniform. The reaction of one newspaper editor was in tune with the times: “Glory to God in the highest. On earth, peace and good will towards men!”
— Bartee Haile can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .