Mob Vengeance Still Prevailed

Bonham Daily Favorite, December 19, 1993

When Joe Roff wrote of the murders of his two brothers and Deputy U.S. Marshall Guy by the members of the Lee gang, forty-one years had passed since the shootout took the lives of those three men. As a point of his writing he stated that general opinion held that among the members of the gang were the Dyer brothers of Fannin County.

Without other corroboration or in the absence of any legal documentation it is impossible to declare that the Dyer-Ragsdale affair was a direct result of those Oklahoma slayings. However, on the face of the evidence that is available, it remains plausible that those murders precipitated the confrontation in Fannin County ten days later.

Before a detailed discussion of the murder of Sheriff Ragsdale let us look at the participants in the tragedy in order to determine what influences might have come into play in this event.

What forces could have led two young men, ages 23 and 25, into a situation that could only have had the violent outcome that it had? As mentioned in the previous column much of the mid-western and southern states went through a period of almost unparalleled lawlessness in the two decades following the Civil War. We were a restless nation on the move to find a better life, a brighter future. But those who had been affected by the war seemed unable to accept the changes that the war had brought. As a result criminal activity seemed to provide what seemed to be missing in so many lives.

A hundred years before the anti-establishment movement of the 1960's the same attitudes were evident in much of the post war society resulting in the elevation to hero status those persons who engaged in criminal activity against the established order. Cattle rustling and horse theft reached new heights in many areas of the southwest. And though the general population was not as guick to resort to mob action as in earlier years, such situations had not completely disappeared from the scene.

The Dyer family were relatively early settlers in Fannin County, just after the close of those founding years of the Texas Republic. The patriarch, James L. Dyer, a native of Tennessee, had probably joined that westward migration of the nineteenth century. The 1850 census shows that his three oldest children, sons, were born in Indiana and Iowa between 1836 and 1845.

Dyer brought his wife Sally, a Kentucky native, and the three sons to Texas about 1846/48. The first daughter, Mary, was born here in 1848. A fourth son, Robert was born in 1854 in Fannin County probably on the Dyer farm about eight miles southwest of Bonham. Sally Dyer probably died around 1856 for James was married a second time to Susannah F. Addison on December 14, 1857. James and Susannah's first child and fifth son for James was born in 1859 and named for his father.

The 1860 census for the Dyer family shows a four month old unnamed male who was to be named Samuel . Eli was born two years later and the family was completed with the births of Joseph in 1865, Susannah S. in 1867, and Thomas in 1869.

James L. Dyer was a highly regarded member of his community. In 1856 he ran for and was elected to the Commissioners Court for Fannin County, a position that he continued to hold until 1865. Two of his eldest sons served in the Confederate army. William was first a member of the Oakhill Home Guard and later was transferred to the Cavalry Volunteers Unit of the Texas 14th Brigade. John Dyer's exact service record is unknown but his widow did receive a Confederate pension based on his service.

Nothing in the history of this family points to any reason for Sam and Eli Dyer to embark on criminal activity. Both boys were much too young to have harbored any resentment as a result of the outcome of the Civil War. Both of their brothers returned home after the war and as far as is known lived healthy, productive lives. One regional historian, many years ago, suggested that both Dyers were influenced by the infamous Lee - Peacock feud of Fannin County. This seems highly unlikely. Most of the events that shaped this feud came to a climax with Bob Lee's death in 1869 although scattered incidents did occur for some years after. Too, there is no information to connect Bob Lee with the infamous Lee gang associated with the Dyer brothers.

The other major participant in this drama, A.T. (Tom) Ragsdale, arrived in Fannin County nearly thirty years after the Dyer family. Tom Ragsdale was also a native of Tennessee as was his wife Angeline. Genealogical research by Mrs. Blake VanLeer shows that he was a member of the large Ragsdale, clan some of whom were settlers in present day Red River County before the Texas revolution. Members of this family spread out through the Red River Valley in Lamar County as well as Fannin County. William Ragsdale, Tom's cousin served as Fannin County Treasurer in the 1880's.

Tom Ragsdale brought his family to Fannin County in 1873 after stops in Missouri and Arkansas where four of his children were born. The family first settled just northwest of Savoy on a sixty-five acre farm. In 1875 he is recorded as operating a general store in Savoy. About this time a daughter, Belle, was born.

On August 20, 1878, Tom Ragsdale bought lot 8, Block #28 of the John Simpson donation to the City Of Bonham.  The $800 purchase price indicates that he probably also purchased a house located on the lot. The location was just three bocks west of the square on State Street, (present Sam Rayburn Drive). It seems that Tom Ragsdale intended to move his family to Bonham for he had filed for the race for Constable of Precinct #1 in the November 1878 general election.

Ragsdale won the election and was sworn in and filed his bond at the December 8, 1878 term of the Fannin County Commissioners Court. Ragsdale was reportedly a popular peace officer. The Commissioners Court records show his appointments to several special committees during his tenure in office. Ragsdale was re-elected to the position in 1880 and 1882.

The family had two losses after the move to Bonham. In 1879 daughter Belle died. In January 1884, 25 year old son George also died. Both children were buried in Elizabeth Grove Cemetery north of Savoy.

Tom Ragsdale's popularity as Constable was such that he was encouraged by several county residents, among them former Sheriff Smith Lipscomb, to run for the Sheriff's office. Ragsdale filed and in the November general election he was elected. On November 14, 1884 he was sworn in as the 20th Sheriff of Fannin County.

Fannin County Museum of History


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