The Ranchhands at Spanish Fort Texas
A true story and screenplay by Alan Nafzger
THE WINTER OF 1896
The late winter of 1896 was incredibly cold and miserable.
Two Waggoner Ranch cowboys took a notion that robbing banks would be less work and warmer than working cattle – and definitely more profitable.
W.T. WAGGONER’S FAVORITE HORSE
Without any formal notice of resignation or even a goodbye, William Foster Crawford and Elmer “Kid” Lewis left the huge ranch and rode East to Wichita Falls, a county seat and cowtown only 15 miles south of the Red River. One of the men sat on a thoroughbred that just happened to be ranch owner W.T. Waggoner’s favorite horse.
Be sufficient it to say, the horse had not been a going-away present. Whether Crawford or Lewis stole the horse has blurred with time, but whoever rode Waggoner’s prized horse did so without permission.
THE BANK ROBBERY
Bursting into City National Bank with pistols drawn, the two cowboys demanded money from chief cashier Frank Dorsey. After the well-liked teller handed over $410, the robbers gunned him down and ran from the bank to their waiting horses.
Happening to be checking a nearby saloon, deputy sheriff Frank Hardesty heard the commotion and ran outside to see what was going on. As the robbers raced by, Hardesty opened fire. The lawman missed the riders, but one or more of his bullets brought down the stolen thoroughbred.
Showing there is at least some honor among thieves, the robber who still had a healthy horse beneath him waited for his partner to jump up behind him before galloping out of town. Local officers and a number of deputized citizens soon took to the saddle to track down the killers.
THE TEXAS RANGERS
Texas Ranger Capt. Bill McDonald and most of his company worked out of Wichita Falls, but were on the 1 p.m. train headed toward Fort Worth when the holdup occurred. When the train stopped at Bellevue, the captain received a telegram informing him of the robbery-murder. The captain wired back to request that horses be waiting for him at the station and took the next train back to Wichita Falls. Arriving that evening, the rangers rode out of town to catch up with the posse.
The 25 of the townsmen had been hunting them northeast of Wichita Falls. Meeting the empty-handed posse members on their way back to town, McDonald declared that he and his men would press on. Inspired by the captain’s tenacity, the posse decided to return to the chase. Late that night, the captain and two of his men slipped up on the suspected robbers as they rested under a tree near the Red River.
THE LURE OF SPANISH FORT
They could have easily slipped across the river into Oklahoma Territory, but they were confident they had lost the posse and they slept near Spanish Fort, which ironically was the best place to ford the river.
The site that Spanish Fort now occupies was once a Taovaya Indian village. Mostly, the natives peacefully farmed and traded with the French. In 1759, Spanish troops under Diego Ortiz Parilla tried to claim the territory after a Taovaya and Comanche raid on the San Saba mission. To thwart the Spanish, the Taovaya built a large fort, surrounding it by a moat. The Taovaya and Comanche tribes (some say with French help) captured a Spanish canon, and used it successfully in a battle that made the Spanish Lords of the South run for the hills.
The Chisholm Trail cut its way to Spanish Fort, which now had a population of about 1,000. The crossing at the Red River signaled the entry into untamed Indian Territory, which provided the cowhands a reason to need lots of wine, women, and song. Spanish Fort complied by opening 4 hotels, several saloons, bordellos, and a few specialty shops.
The town also boasted a doctor, who remained busy tending to the dying after gunfights. The night the two cowboys arrived, 4 men died after a poker game at the Cowboy saloon went awry. The cowboys were about to join the game when the shooting began. In shock, they retreat to the what remained of the actual Spanish Fort.
Both men held cocked pistols, but they decided against a shootout with 25 men and surrendered.
WICHITA COUNTY JAIL
Back in town, the rangers locked their prisoners in the Wichita County jail and went to get some sleep. The next day, satisfied that local officers augmented by 20 deputized citizens could protect the two cowboys, McDonald and his rangers left again for Fort Worth. Unfortunately for the two men behind bars, the captain had underestimated the speed and determination of local citizens to reach justice.
A mob surrounded the jail, using a telephone pole to break down the back door. Once inside, they quickly convinced the jailer of the pointlessness in trying to shield the two cowboys. The vigilantes hog tied the two bank robbers with ropes, dragged them from their cells and more or less returned them to the scene of their crime.
OUTSIDE THE CITY NATIONAL BANK
At the intersection of Seventh and Ohio, in front of the Bank, two wooden boxes stood beneath a telephone pole. A pair of ropes dangled from the cross arm of the pole. Nearby sat a coffin and the crate it had come in.
Showing no fear in his final moments, the 19-year-old Lewis cursed the mob until he had no more breath to do so.
Showing discretion, Crawford, a man in his mid-30s, kept a Christian tongue and ask for for mercy. As soon as he grasped that he had no realistic expectation of survival, he asked for whiskey. The mob allowed him to a bracing shot of alcohol, but before the drink could have taken affect, Crawford had begun a suspended sentence not subject to appeal.
Downstate in Austin, when Adjutant General W.S. Mabry learned of the double lynching, he ordered McDonald to make a full report on his actions in the affair. The adjutant general accepted McDonald’s assertion that he had thought the prisoners would be safe and took no further action.
With one of their bodies in a coffin and the other in the crate it had come in, the two robbers ended up in Riverside Cemetery. Someone was at least thoughtful enough to place a white marble marker over their grave bearing their names and date of death, Feb. 27, 1896.
When the the Museum of North Texas History was closed, an unusual artifact was found – a horsehide covered jewelry box that Waggoner Ranch foreman William Carrigan paid a taxidermist to make from one of the hide of his boss’s dead horse.
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