Early Lawless Days in Fannin County
Bonham Daily Favorite, December 12, 1993
The early settlers of Fannin County were seemingly not averse taking matters into their own hands when they deemed that the wheels of justice were grinding too slowly. In most cases such individuals felt completely justified in their actions at those times when they felt persons accused of criminal activity were guilty beyond any doubt.
In the developing years of this county there were at least five instances in which mob action usurped the legally elected authorities and carried out majority punishment. The first of these instances was the mob execution of several men accused of murdering peaceful Delaware Indians in the eastern part of the county. Seven men were accused in the incident and all were tried by an "unofficial court" of their peers and four of the seven were sentenced to be hanged. The sentences were carried out in the southeast section of the county on Sulphur River.
The most infamous of these examples of mob action came in 1845 as a result of the murder of Captain John Nail by a strange reclusive man named Big Horn Smith. Smith, who had fled the authorities, was arrested in Travis County and returned to the custody of Fannin County law officials. Reportedly a very large group of citizens, in response to a perceived delaying tactic by Smith's attorney, removed Smith from a room in Bonham when he had been confined, and summarily hanged him from a tree near the town square.
The third action came after a rigged trial of a slave woman accused of murdering the six year old son of her master. The woman had already been adjudged guilty before a trial of sorts was held at the Fannin County Courthouse where the woman was to be sentenced to either hanging or burning. It seems that no official sentencing was held, only a vote of those present who voted for hanging and the woman was immediately taken from the courtroom, dragged through the streets before being hanged.
In the 1860 case of accused horse-thief Cab Witty a legal trial was conducted and a jury found Witty guilty of the charges. No record of the sentence exists, but at the conclusion of the trial the spectators in the courtroom took Witty out and hanged him from a tree near Inglish Cemetery without waiting for the sentence to be officially carried out.
Lawlessness of all sorts was certainly not unknown on the Texas frontier; for Fannin County was certainly the frontier in those early days. So, perhaps it is not surprising that in those troubled years after the Civil War, at a time when Fannin County had shed much of its frontier roughness, that one of the most discussed crimes of the nineteenth century took its place in the annals of the area.
The stressful times of Reconstruction in the Confederate states and adjacent areas gave rise to a different type of crime and a different criminal. Much has been written about the turbulent years of the 1870's and 80's when common bank robbers, stagecoach robbers, and sometimes wanton killers became folk heroes.
The most famous of these being, of course, the James Brothers, the Youngers, and the Daltons. To many an unreconstructed southerner, these men were doing nothing more than exacting the retribution due to those men and women who supported the Southern cause. The perpetrators of these crimes, and the members of the criminal gangs assumed almost a god-like men among the general populace. There were untold copy-cat crimes committed by generally very young men who chose to emulate their heroes.
One such situation developed in the Red River Valley in the mid 1880's that led to the shattering crime committed in Fannin County. From the late 1870's on, a certain criminal element was present in the Red River Valley engaging mostly in horse theft and cattle rustling with suspected occasional robberies. Nothing of the magnitude of the crimes committed by the James, Dalton, and Younger gangs occurred but the local crimes were considered to be of the same sort of lawlessness which was rampant throughout the country and in some ways was deemed to be a heritage of the days when Quantrill's men wintered in the area during the Civil War.
In the Spring of 1885 the elements which were to forge a Fannin County tragedy were beginning to come together in the area just across Red River from Cooke County. In 1926 an early settler of the area, Joe Roff, detailed these incidents in "A Brief History of Early Days in North Texas."
A number of brutal murders were committed in Cooke and Grayson Counties as well as in Indian Territory. Strongly suspected of these crimes were the members of the Lee gang, a notorious band of outlaws and cattle rustlers. Jim Lee, leader of the band had acguired a large section of land in Indian Territory through his marriage to an Indian woman.
Much of Lee's land was fenced pasture on which roamed a large and constantly changing herd of cattle and horses. The general opinion was that most of the livestock had been acquired by Lee and others in a large scale rustling operation. This was verified when members of the Roff family came upon a herd, near Lee's ranch, which were marked with the brands of area ranchers.
After Cooke County Sheriff and a posse had killed Lee cohort Frank Pierce at his store, the Lee gang went on the immediate defensive and a sizable group of them gathered at Jim Lee's ranch.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Jim Guy arrived in the area with warrants for the arrest of Jim and Pink Lee as well as an Indian member of the gang. Against their better judgement he organized a group of area men into a posse to affect the arrest of the men at Lee's ranch.
The morning of May 1st the posse arrived at the Lee ranch about sun-up. Because of boggy ground they were forced to leave their horses at the perimeter of the ranch and proceed on foot. As they approached the ranch house a window shutter was opened and voice asked their business. When Guy announced that they were there to make the arrests, a shot rang out and Guy fell to the ground mortally wounded. This was followed by a volley from the house in which two other posse members were killed and another fatally wounded.
When word of the ambush was spread, large groups of men spread out through the territory to arrest the perpetrators. Tom Lee and Ed Stein eluded capture and surrendered to officials in Denison. Pink and Jim Lee escaped capture until September when they were taken north of Gainesville.
Several lesser members of the gang made good their escapes including two who fled to their home in Fannin County, Sam and Eli Dyer.
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas