A couple weeks ago, I posted a bit about the history surrounded Abilene, TX – the city where I live. As I started overturning research rocks, I ran across a gem that sparked excitemenet in my western-loving soul. A real-life shootout.
As with many railroad towns, the population boom outpaced the town’s ability to organize necessary law enforcement. By 1883, the town had officially incorporated and the leaders were desperate to get rid of their lawless reputation. They wanted to create a civilized reputation in order to draw settlers and businesses to the area. So they began passing ordinances. No gambling. No firing a weapon within city limits. They cracked down on disorderliness around the saloons. However, sometimes it takes more than a rule to make an impact on people’s behavior.
“On the evening of January 8, 1884, City Alderman Frank Collins and his brother, Walter, who was a Taylor County Deputy Sheriff, entered a saloon at the northeast corner of north first and pine streets (right side of picture above). The saloon proprietor, Zeno L. Hemphill, who had been convicted of assault in 1880 and was to be tried in April 1884 for killing a man the previous year, confronted Frank Collins about the newly-passed anti-gambling laws. Angry words and punches were exchanged, and Hemphill drew a gun and shot Walter Collins, who had stepped between the two men. Gunfire then broke out between Frank Collins and Hemphill. When the dust settled, Walter Collins and Zeno Hemphill were dead, and Frank Collins died from his injuries after two months.” (Quoted from the Abilene Texas History blog.)
As a result of this deadly shootout, the town leaders hired John Clinton as the city marshal and made it clear that enforcing the new ordinances would be top priority to prevent any similar incidents from occuring. Mr. Clinton must have done something right, for he served as marshal for 37 years. The citizens of Abilene continuously voted in favor of prohibition for thier town, county, and state. The state election in 2887 overturned their “dry” vote and it wasn’t until 1902 that Abilene successfully banned the sale of alcohol in their city. The saloons remained shut down for 75 years. Who knew the roots for this movement went all the way back to a rowdy saloon owner taking on a a lawman and city offical over the right to gamble in 1884?
One hundred twenty-seven years later, on January 8, 2011, a historical marker was erected at the corner of North First Street and Pine Street to commerate the shootout. It’s hard to believe today that a downtown area filled with museums and gift shops was once a place of lawless saloons and shootouts.
What do you think tamed the west? City ordinances and the lawmen who enforced them? An influx of “civilized” settlers and businessmen? Women with their emphasis on morality? I’d love to hear your thoughts.