Doc Scurlock: From Lincoln County to Eastland County

Doc Scurlock was a friend of Billy the Kid, cowboy, outlaw, gunfighter, Regulator and a key participant in the Bloody Lincoln County War. In 1880, a year after that infamous conflict ended, he gave away his guns and settled down with his growing family to a life of anonymity in Tascosa, located in the Panhandle of Texas. Over the ensuing years, the family lived in several other Texas towns before moving to Eastland County in 1919 where Scurlock opened a candy store and lived out his remaining years.

Apparently Robert E. Howard was unaware that Doc Scurlock lived just up the road from him. Doubtless he would have liked to have met him, that is if Scurlock would have been willing to talk with him. But it was not to be since Howard and Tevis Clyde Smith didn’t really get into discovering the Old West legends until after 1929, the year Scurlock died. However, Howard eventually became fascinated with the Lincoln County War and in 1935 he and friend Truett Vinson visited Lincoln County, New Mexico. Howard later conveyed some of his thoughts on the town of Lincoln and the War to correspondent H. P. Lovecraft:

[Vinson and I] came to the ancient village of Lincoln, dreaming amidst its gaunt mountains like a ghost of a blood-stained past. Of Lincoln Walter Noble Burns, author of The Saga of Billy the Kid has said: “The village went to sleep at the close of the Lincoln County war and has never awakened again. If a railroad never comes to link it with the far-away world, it may slumber on for a thousand years. You will find Lincoln now just as it was when Murphy and McSween and Billy the Kid knew it. The village is an anachronism, a sort of mummy town . . .”

I can offer not better description. A mummy town. Nowhere have I ever come face to face with the past more vividly; nowhere has that past become so realistic, so understandable. It was like stepping out of my own age, in to the fragment of an elder age, that has somehow survived…. Lincoln is a haunted place, it is a dead town; yet it lives with a life that died fifty years ago…. The descendants of old enemies live peacefully side by side in the little village; yet I found myself wondering if the old feud were really dead, or if the embers only smoldered, and might be blown to flame by a careless breath.

[…]

I have never felt anywhere the exact sensations Lincoln aroused in me – a sort of horror predominating. If there is a haunted spot on this hemisphere, then Lincoln is spot on this hemisphere, then Lincoln is haunted. I felt that if I slept the night there, the ghosts of the slain would stalk through my dreams. The town itself seemed like a bleached, grinning skull. There was a feel of skeletons underfoot. And that, I understand, is no flight of fancy. Every now and then somebody plows up a human skull. So many men died in Lincoln.

Howard’s trip to Lincoln County also served to provide him with the needed inspiration to finalize a story he was working on — that story was “Red Nails,” which is considered one of his best Conan yarns.

After hanging up his guns and devoting his life to his wife Antonia and their eight children, Doc Scurlock worked in a myriad of professions including physician, teacher, farmer, store owner, poet, author, and worked for the Texas Highway Department during the later years of his life. But once upon a time this peaceful family man led a wild and violent life.

Josiah Gordon “Doc” Scurlock was born in Tallapoosa, Alabama on January 11, 1850. He studied medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana and at the age of twenty, he went to Mexico. The reason is unclear – some folks say it was to attend to the poorest of the Mexican citizens who were in the grip of a Yellow Fever epidemic, while others say he thought he had contracted tuberculosis and went there for the dry, hot weather. Like Doc Holliday, John Wesley Hardin and several others, Doc Scurlock was a well educated gunman of the Old West. He never stopped learning, even writing poetry and becoming proficient in five languages.

While playing cards in a Mexican saloon, an outlaw shot Scurlock in the mouth, the bullet exited through the back of his neck, knocking out his front teeth in the process. Despite the serious wound, Scurlock kept his wits about him and killed the shooter, surviving to fight another day.

Returning to the U.S. in 1871, Scurlock was hired as a cocrovwpuncher by the legendary John Chisum, who was based in Texas at the time. In 1873 Scurlock’s shooting skills again came in handy when he and fellow cowboy Jack Holt, were surprised by a group of Indians. During the gunfight, Holt was killed and Scurlock took refuge behind some rocks, exchanging gunfire with the attackers, and following several hours of gunplay, he killed the Indian leader. After nightfall, Scurlock managed to slip away, trekking 20 miles to find help. When his friend and riding partner Newt Higgins was killed by Indians in 1875, Scurlock left Chisum’s employment, despite Chisum’s insistence that he stay on.

After leaving Chisum’s ranch, he wandered a bit, owning part interest in an Arizona cheese factory before settling in Lincoln County in 1876 and purchasing a ranch on the Rio Ruidoso with friend Charlie Bowdre from the corrupt L. G. Murphy & Co. — the pair unknowingly becoming victims of Lawrence Murphy, the man who would instigate the Lincoln County War.

For the next year or so, Scurlock and Bowdre were in several posses tracking and capturing horse thieves, hanging some of them on the spot. During this period, life had its ups and downs for Scurlock. On September 2, 1876, Scurlock accidentally shot and killed his friend Mike Harkins while he was examining a pistol and on October 19, 1876, he married Antonia Herrera.

Scurlock soon befriended several area ranchers including John Tunstall and Dick Brewer. When Tunstall, along with a lawyer named Alexander McSween, set up a rival business to oppose the Murphy & Dolan Mercantile and Banking Company, which monopolized the trade in Lincoln County, Scurlock supported their operation, openly defying Lawrence Murphy and partner James Dolan.

Meanwhile, serious trouble smoldered in Lincoln County, with frequent clashes between John Tunstall’s cowboys and a group of gunman under the leadership of James Dolan. On February 18, 1878. an armed and drunken posse met Tunstall on the road to Lincoln and killed him. Tunstall’s cowboys, including Billy the Kid, swore revenge for Tunstall’s death. Scurlock, ranchers George and Frank Coe, Billy the Kid and forty other supporters deemed themselves the Regulators and set out to liquidate the posse they held responsible. Thus, the killing of Tunstall was the spark that ignited the Lincoln County War.

Scurlock was one of the Regulators involved in the Battle at Blazer’s Mills on April 4, 1878. During the bloody shoot-out he was wounded in the leg by Buckshot Roberts.  Soon after that battle, Scurlock became the third leader of the regulators after the first and second leaders (Dick Brewer and Frank McNab) were killed. Following the Blazer’s Mills gunfight, the Lincoln County War came to a climax in July 1878 over a span of five days as outlined in this excerpt from Educated Gunfighter:

During the Five-Day Battle in Lincoln, Doc took over to Ellis house at the east end of Lincoln along with Frank Coe, Charlie Bowdre, Dan Dedrick, John Middleton, John Scroggins, and Dirty Steve Stephens. It was also during the Five-Day Battle that Doc basically stopped acting as the Regulators’ leader, letting Billy the Kid take over from then on. After the war, he and Charlie left their Rio Ruidoso ranch and moved with their wives to Fort Sumner, in San Miguel County. While there, he quit the Regulators with Charlie, and the two got jobs working as ranch-hands on the ranches of Pete Maxwell and Thomas Yerby. Doc later joined Billy the Kid, Tom O’Folliard, George Bowers, and Yginio Salazar in Lincoln on Feb. 18, 1879 in a failed attempt to make peace with Dolan and his gunmen. After witnessing Dolan and his men kill Sue McSween’s lawyer, Huston Chapman, that same night, and after Billy had been promised a pardon by Gov. Lew Wallace if he testified to this fact before a grand jury, Doc and Billy turned themselves in to Sheriff George Kimbrell on March 21, 1879. For the next twenty-seven days, they were under house arrest at Juan Patron’s house. After Billy testified before the grand jury, at it became clear that Wallace was not going to pardon him, both Doc and Billy left the Patron house and returned to Fort Sumner. In the Fall of 1879, Doc joined his fellow former Regulators Billy, Tom O’Folliard, and Charlie Bowdre in forming a new gang called The Rustlers. However, after they stole 118 head of Chisum cattle and the law started to come down on the gang, Doc took his family and left New Mexico Territory for Tascosa, Texas.

Marie Tollett, Scurlock’s granddaughter, once told an interviewer that her grandfather did not talk a lot about his experiences in the Lincoln County War, shunned public appearances and notice, even turning his head when a picture was taken.

Additionally, Scurlock indicated he had enemies who would kill him if they ever found him and he said the law enforcement officials in Lincoln County at the time of the War were corrupt, and that he would never stand a fair chance with them. So during the rest of his life he refused any position of prominence, or any situation that would bring him public notice.

On July 25, 1929, Doc Scurlock suffered a heart attack and died the same night. After his burial in the Eastland Cemetery, the remains of his wife, who predeceased him by 17 years, were moved from Acton to Eastland and buried beside him.

Scurlock is one of the most intriguing gunfighters of the Old West and also one of the most overlooked, despite a wealth of information about him on the internet. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he escaped a violent death and lived a long and fulfilling life.