The people of Big Spring mourned the passing on Jan. 13, 1885 of the English earl who had been their boozy benefactor for the past year and a half.
Thirty-six years earlier, Joseph Heneage Finch was born into the good life of the English aristocracy. His father was the sixth Earl of Aylesford, which made Heneage the seventh in the series if he succeeded in outliving his sire.
In late 1874, Heneage began hanging around with none other than the Prince of Wales. The future King Edward VII would not inherit the throne for 37 years, so he passed the time drinking, womanizing and hunting. Since those happened to be Heneage’s three favorite pastimes, the two became best friends and inseparable companions.
Promising the hunting trip of a lifetime, the prince talked his bosom buddy into accompanying him on a four-month tour of India. But halfway through the dream vacation Heneage hurried home to confront an unfaithful wife.
He caught the countess-to-be fooling around with another blue-blood. Rather than reach some sort of quiet understanding, he broke an unwritten rule of Victorian society by filing for divorce.
Much to the delight of the public, the scandalous case dragged on for two years. Then it was thrown out of court after the hypocritical husband’s own adulterous affairs came to light.
A century or two earlier, Queen Victoria would have had Heneage’s head for his disgraceful behavior. In the fifth decade of her 63-year reign, the stern monarch did the next best thing by letting him know that he was no longer welcome in England.
So Heneage Finch left his native land in 1881 never to return. With an annual income or “remittance” of $50,000, he could look forward to a very comfortable exile.
Finch’s first stop was New York, where he was introduced to the tycoon Jay Gould. When he expressed the usual Englishman’s interest in the wild frontier, the robber baron referred him to the Lone Star State and suggested that he take one of his railroads, the Texas & Pacific, to the end of line.
Finch followed Gould’s advice and rolled into Colorado City in the summer of 1881. The first person he met was a Texas Ranger turned saloonkeeper named John Birdwell. They had nothing in common except a love of hunting and alcoholic beverages, but that provided the foundation for their odd-couple friendship.
Vowing to return after seeing the sights in America, the exiled earl, whom the ex-lawman called “Judge,” boarded an eastbound train. When he saw neither hide nor hair of the odd English fellow for almost two years, Birdwell figured he must have found a locale more to his liking.
But he figured wrong because who should show up in his new saloon in Big Spring, the current end of the line, in August 1883 but Heneage Finch and his valet?
The earl had arrived the previous evening and gone to the Cosmopolitan Hotel to bed down for the night. Informed by the female proprietor that she was full up, Finch asked what she would take for the place. The woman named a price, he paid her in cash and instructed his valet to evict the guests from the two best rooms.
When he came down the next morning, Finch made her a present of the inn he had bought only hours before. It was hers free and clear on one condition: that the two rooms in which he had spent the night always be reserved for him.
A Chicago newspaper sent a reporter to West Texas the next spring to track down an English earl rumored to be living in a “castle” north of a place called Big Spring. Finch’s “castle” turned out to be a nine-room unpainted plank house. While the residence was hardly newsworthy, the interior rated a full-page story.
“It is a formidable arsenal and contains one of the most valuable private collections of guns and hunting paraphernalia in the United States,” wrote the reporter. “The walls are covered with rifles, shotguns, revolvers, derringers, cartridge belts, spurs (and) game bags” used by Finch and his brothers Clement and Daniel in their daily hunts.
Even more impressive was the evidence of heavy drinking. “The most conspicuous thing about the premises was a pile of empty bottles as big as a haystack.”
The Finch boys did not drink all that booze by themselves, which explained the earl’s popularity in those parts. Generous to a fault, he picked up the tab for everything.
The “castle” burned to the ground in the fall of 1884, a minor setback that did not keep Finch from throwing a big Christmas Eve party in town. But he could not shake off the effects of the festivities and spent the next three weeks in bed.
Heneage Finch took his last breath on Jan. 13, 1885. According to local folklore, death came less than 15 minutes after his doctor told him that he had that long to live.
The same physician prepared the bloated body of the exiled earl for shipment back to England. The frontier sawbones swore that the life-of-the-party’s liver was as hard as a rock and weighed 14 pounds!