Texas Tales: Don’t shoot the messenger

By Mike Cox

One of the occupational hazards facing 19th Century Texas newspaper editors was death by sudden onset lead poisoning-and not from hot type.

In the mid to late 1800s, readers offended by a newspaper’s editorial stance or coverage of a particular issue were not as likely to file a libel lawsuit as they were to seek personal satisfaction, either with their fists or a six-shooter.

Such was the case in Hempstead in the spring of 1888, when relatives of the Waller County sheriff and E. P. Alsbury, the editor of the local newspaper, became involved in what news writers of that era frequently termed a “difficulty.”

The East Texas editor had criticized Sheriff Tom McDade for his seeming reluctance to push for convictions in a murder case in which several of his relatives figured.

Not pleased with the newspaper’s coverage of the matter, Dick Chambers, the sheriff’s son-in-law (and also one of his deputies) confronted the newspaper editor when he ran into him in a store. Rather than demanding a retraction, the deputy retracted his pistol, extended a copy of the newspaper and ordered the editor to eat his words-literally.

The deputy had apparently caught the editor when he wasn’t hungry. Instead of making a meal of his newspaper, the journalist resisted. At that, the deputy shot and wounded the editor. But when the deputy left the store, the bleeding editor had enough starch left to grab a Winchester lying on a nearby counter. He levered the .44-40 rifle and shot and killed the deputy. Talk about manufacturing the news.

The newspaper editor recovered from his wound, but his health soon took a sudden-and permanent-turn for the worse. Jack McDade, the sheriff’s nephew, along with Dick Springfield, another relative, ambushed the editor, emptying four loads of buckshot into him. When the editor toppled from his horse, the assassins emerged from their hiding place and one of them put several bullets in his head for good measure.

Though the killers were duly arrested for the editor’s murder, the sheriff favored the quick release of his relatives on bond. The dead editor’s friends protested, threatening to adjudicate the matter themselves.

That’s when someone called for help from the Texas Rangers.

When Captain S. B. McMurry and several of his men reached Hempstead, they found the sheriff and his supporters barricaded in the courthouse, surrounded by angry partisans of the late editor. In the true tradition of the legendary state lawmen, the captain went in alone and told the sheriff to hand his prisoners over to him, but the sheriff refused unless the Rangers agreed to release them.

The next day, McMurry went back to the courthouse with other Rangers. This time the sheriff surrendered his prisoners. Before leaving, the Rangers collected 17 rifles and a quantity of revolvers from the sheriff’s faction.

Following a two-week examining trial, the murder suspects were denied bond. The Rangers transferred the prisoners to Brenham for safe keeping, and eventually, as threats continued, all the way to Galveston.

Tried in Houston in September 1888, the sheriff’s nephew was found guilty and received an eight-year sentence. His co-defendant got 25 years, but neither served their full terms.

In another instance involving freedom of the press versus a courageous editor’s freedom to continue living, a former Texas Ranger ended up permanently canceling an offending scribe’s subscription to life.

Walter Durbin, who served as a ranger from 1884 to 1889, later became sheriff of Frio County in South Texas. One of his most enthusiastic supporters was newspaper editor A.W. Carpenter, but that didn’t last. Not only did Carpenter publish articles critical of Durbin, they two men had been arguing over money Carpenter said Durbin owed him.

On July 22, 1894, Carpenter went to Durbin’s office in the courthouse and made the mistake of pulling a pistol and shooting at the lawman. Durbin had already killed three men in his career, and the newspaper editor quickly became the fourth. When the gunsmoke cleared, Carpenter had three bullet wounds in his chest and three more in his head. In other words, the sheriff had emptied his revolver into the journalist.

Durbin was no-billed by a grand jury, but when another panel later considered the facts of the case, it indicted the sheriff for murder. However, a jury acquitted him in the matter.

Ironically enough, as a Texas Ranger, Durbin had been one of the state lawmen on hand in Hempstead to settle things down following the murder of the newspaper editor there.

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