Hendry Brown: Armed and Really Dangerous — Part Two

The Bloody Lincoln County War was effectively over by the autumn of 1878. It had climaxed in the savage five-day siege of the McSween house in Lincoln, New Mexico, where Billy the Kid and his companions held off the gunmen of the Murphy-Dolan faction until the house was fired by treachery around them. Their employer Tunstall had been murdered some time before, and his partner McSween had died during the siege, shot by Murphy man Bob Beckwith. Four of Tunstall’s “Regulators” made their escape from the burning house one by one at the end, under massive fire from the besiegers. They were Josiah “Doc” Scurlock, Tom “Bigfoot” O’Folliard, Ignacio Gonsalez and Jose Chavez y Chavez. Last to make the perilous dash was Billy the Kid. Like the others, he received covering fire from three of their comrades who had taken positions elsewhere; “Tiger” Sam Smith, who was killed by Apaches two years later, George Coe, and the redoubtable Hendry Brown.

Billy the Kid out of all of them is the only name everybody recognizes today. He’s a western legend, and like many figures of the past who’ve become legendary, the myth-makers have blended his feats and deeds with those of other men, chief among them Hendry Brown. They battled on the same side, were often together in the same fights, were both trigger-fast and deadly, and even resembled each other physically to a degree. Neither was a large man; both were between five foot six and five foot eight, slim, young (Brown one year older than Bonney) and fair in their coloring.

Since many of the fights in the Lincoln County War were mass affairs with a number of combatants on both sides shooting, it’s likely that Billy the Kid received credit for some killings that other men did. Some skeptical modern estimates have Bonney killing only four men in person, one on one, and maybe five others in fights he shared with other Regulators. Well, as this writer mentioned last post, I tend to regard the extreme debunkers (on this matter and others) as Pecksniffian know-alls, but I also recognize that the legend-makers never let facts get in the way of a good story. I might suppose that Billy the Kid shot nine men in personal combat and others in mass firefights, and that the tradition that he’d killed his first man at twelve, with a victim for each of his years when he died at twenty-one, as just that, a tradition – but it’d be sheer guessing, from a man who’s no expert on the south-west’s history. Robert E. Howard knew enormously more, and he wrote that Bonney had “eleven or twelve killings to his name” before he even reached Lincoln County at the age of nineteen.

This is certain. REH regarded Billy the Kid as the greatest western gunman ever. He considered the top three to be Bonney, Hickok and Hardin, with Bonney coming first. As he contended in a letter of May24th, 1932, to H.P. Lovecraft:

If I expressed my opinion as to the three greatest gunmen the West ever produced, I would say – and doubtless be instantly refuted from scores of sources, since you cant compare humans like you can horses – but I’d say, in the order named, Billy the Kid of New Mexico, Wild Bill Hickok of Kansas, and John Wesley Hardin of Texas. The Kid killed twenty-one men in his short eventful lifetime; Hardin had twenty-three notches on his pistol-butt when John Selman shot him down in an El Paso saloon; how many men Wild Bill killed will probably never be known; conservative estimate puts the number at fifty-odd. But Wild Bill had a somewhat softer snap than the Kid, since the quick draw had not attained its ultimate heights when he was at his best.

In the same letter, referring to Pretty Boy Floyd, he says:

He’s being touted as a second Billy the Kid, but deadly as he undoubtedly is, I doubt if he has quite the ability of that young rattlesnake. I consider the Kid the greatest gunman that ever strapped a holster to his leg, and that’s taking in a lot of territory.

REH rated Hendry Brown extremely high, too. In another letter to Lovecraft, written in September 1934, he refers to Brown as “a former partner of Billy the Kid, one of the warriors of the Bloody Lincoln County War, and one of the deadliest gunmen that ever wore leather.” Later in the letter he says, “It was not merely physical superiority that made such men as Billy the Kid, John Wesley Hardin, John Ringo and Hendry Brown super-warriors. It was their razor-edged intelligence, their unerring judgment of human nature, and their natural knowledge of human psychology.” Putting Brown in the same bracket as Billy the Kid, Hardin and Ringo is pretty strong evidence that REH took his gun-prowess seriously. The term “super-warrior” isn’t one that errs on the mild side, either.

With the battle of the McSween house, as stated above, the Lincoln County War had for practical purposes ended. The Regulators who survived were still wanted for the murder of Sheriff Brady – described in the previous post. Billy the Kid, Hendry Brown, John Middleton, Fred Waite and Tom O’Folliard left New Mexico for a while, rustling a herd of cattle and driving it to Tascosa, Texas, where they sold it. (Or by some accounts, a herd of stolen horses, not rustled cattle.) They remained in Tascosa, whoring, gambling and drinking on the proceeds for a time. Billy, growing bored – and remembering the revenge he’d sworn on the surviving members of the “House,” the Murphy-Dolan faction — headed back to New Mexico. Tom O’Folliard went with him. Waite and Middleton didn’t. Hendry Brown opted to stay in Texas and, according to some old (none too solidly verifiable) plains gossip, made a trail drive with one Perry LeFors.

Hendry may have gone to Kansas and then Oklahoma with John Middleton in the first part of 1879. Again, that can’t be solidly supported, but a man named Charles Colcord is supposed to have said that the pair stayed at his camp on the Cimarron River in Oklahoma for some weeks, both in poor shape – Brown ill and Middleton having trouble with his old lung wound. Middleton eventually married Colcord’s sister, so Colcord should have known what he was talking about.

It is definitely known that Hendry Brown drifted back to Texas and worked as a cowboy on George Littlefield’s LIT Ranch in the Panhandle, once again in the vicinity of Tascosa. He worked on other ranches there, though not for long on any of them, as his employers found him more trouble than his abilities as a cowhand were worth. He was “always on the warpath.” It’s consistent with his reputation, and also with what REH wrote about him. “He was like a blood-mad wolf at times … He killed anyone who displeased him – and he was very easy to displease.” Must have taken real early 1880’s Texas nerve to tell him to his face, “You’re fired.”

As best I can ascertain, he moved on from the Littlefield ranch in the autumn of 1880. Then, in a complete turnaround, though one that had been performed before, he became a lawman. One Cape Willingham was then the Sheriff of Oldham County and town marshal of Tascosa. He hired Hendry Brown as his deputy because of his gunfighter’s rep, but turned him off early in 1881 because of his aggressive nature. “He always wanted to fight and get his mane up.” Not really what you want in a deputy marshal. He’s supposed to stop fights.

Brown worked on other ranches here and there. The foreman who was his boss on one of them was named Barney O’Connor. They were to meet again.

Hendry Brown drifted up to Kansas, and in the midwinter of 1881 the city marshal of Caldwell, Meagher, died of gunshot wounds. The Wellington newspaper, The Sumner County Press, took a sniping crack at its neighbor town in its June 29th, 1882 issue, saying that Caldwell was wild and violent because of bad whiskey and prostitutes, made available through the venal city administration. The Caldwell Post fired back on July 6th. It declared, “The editor [of The Sumner County Press] states what he is pleased to call facts, what in reality is a string of falsehoods or mistakes.” It points out that Mike Meagher was killed in a riot, by an outlaw named Talbot, over a supposed insult, “not caused by whisky or women.” Meagher’s successor as marshal, George Brown, had been shot and killed on June 22nd, “in the discharge of his duties. The men who did the killing were not under the influence of whisky or lewd women … They were outlaws and would have made the same play anywhere else in the state.”

Another newspaper not based in Caldwell, the Dodge City Times, declared in November that “The cowboys have removed five city marshals of Caldwell in five years.” The Caldwell Post replied, “We most emphatically deny the charge … ” and went on to assert that only one marshal had been “removed” by cowboys – George Brown – and even his killers had really been escaped convicts posing as cowboys to cover their rustling and other crimes. The outlaw Jim Talbot had killed Mike Meagher. “The other marshals spoken of by the Times were not killed by cowboys, but by male prostitutes, to put it mildly.”

Whether cowboys, outlaws, or male prostitutes, it looks certain that a rowdy and homicidal element existed around Caldwell that made quite pastime of assassinating lawmen. Caldwell, in fact, was to go through fifteen marshals in just six years, between 1879 and 1885. Despite the Post’s denials, wild cowboys just off the cattle drives through Indian Territory must have accounted for the demise of several.

By November 1882, though, Bat Carr had been Caldwell’s city marshal for months, following the murder of George Brown. The citizens seem to have been satisfied with him from the start, since they took up a collection and presented him with a handsome matched pair of six-shooters within a fortnight of his pinning on the badge. The Commercial, Caldwell’s second newspaper, had printed: “Carr is a quiet unassuming man, but there is that look about him which at once impresses a person with the idea that he will do his whole duty fearlessly and in the best manner possible. We have not the least doubt that he will give entire satisfaction . . . ”

On July the 6th Hendry Brown became his deputy. The Caldwell Post commented: “We have a new Assistant marshal on the police force now – Mr. Henry (sic) Brown – and it is said that he is one of the quickest men on the trigger in the Southwest.”

Robert E. Howard had a few things to say about Hendry’s appointment, and the real reasons for it, in a September 1934 letter to H.P. Lovecraft.

The phenomenon of an outlaw looting a section under the guise of an officer of the law was not unknown in the early West – as witness Henry Plummer, and some others. In some cases there was a legal aspect about their appointment to office; honest men were too busy working to vote, so the lawless element – which always works together better than the honest element – got together and elected, or caused to be appointed, one of their own gang. These sort of conditions led to a peculiar state of affairs in Caldwell, Kansas, back in the early ‘80’s.

The city marshal stood in with the toughs, but, to placate the honest elements, always appointed some man for his deputy who was not on the inside, and who sincerely tried to establish law and order. These deputies were quickly killed, if not with the aid, at least with the permission of the marshal. Then one day he hired a stranger from New Mexico, and presented him as a burnt offering to the wild gang. But that stranger happened to be Hendry Brown, a former partner of Billy the Kid, one of the warriors of the Bloody Lincoln County War, and one of the deadliest gunmen that ever wore leather.

The way they generally trapped the deputy was to start a commotion in a saloon. Ordinarily the deputy ran in and saw one drunk – apparently – standing in the center of the saloon and shooting at the ceiling, while a large gang looked on from the bar. When the deputy started to arrest the drunk, the lights suddenly went out, and when they were lit again, there was a deputy with several lead slugs through him. But Brown was wise. When the commotion started he didn’t rush in blindly, turn his back on the gang at the bar and collar the drunk. Your real gunman was always a man of keen perceptions and a high order of intelligence. It was not merely physical superiority that made such men as Billy the Kid, John Wesley Hardin, John Ringgo and Hendry Brown super-warriors. It was their razor-edged intelligence, their unerring judgment of human nature, and their natural knowledge of human psychology. Well, that night in Caldwell Brown entered the saloon with his long easy stride, unhurried, unruffled. He seemed to be watching the pseudo-drunk staggering about in the center of the saloon; in reality he was watching the crowd, and the three desperadoes who crouched back among their fellows with their hands on their guns. Without warning and quick as a striking rattler he wheeled and his guns were out and roaring death before the slower-thinking outlaws realized that the new deputy knew their play. They were down, riddled, dead on the floor without a chance to fire a shot in return. With the methodical air of a man who does his job thoroughly, Brown stretched the “drunk” on the floor with the barrel of his six-shooter and dragged him off to jail. That was the beginning of a new era in Caldwell.

If REH is correct, the crooked marshal who set Hendry Brown up to be killed in the saloon would have been Bat Carr. I haven’t been able to ascertain whether Carr was really dishonest or not. The consensus seems to be that he was quiet, competent, and tough on cheating gamblers. They didn’t stay long in Caldwell while he was the law. Which doesn’t prove that he eschewed association with harder sorts of criminals, like robbers and rustlers. I’m no expert on the Southwest, and REH lived there. The most I can say is, “Possible but not proven.”

As mentioned in the previous post on Hendry Brown, REH based a western story of his own – “The Vultures of Wahpeton” – on that incident. His fictional gunfighter from Texas, Corcoran, is hired by a crooked sheriff as a cover for his alliance with a murderous gang. The sheriff in the story is named John Middleton. The real-life John Middleton was one of Hendry Brown’s fellow Regulators in the Lincoln County War, and rode with him to Oklahoma after it ended. The attempt on Corcoran’s life in the saloon, in “Vultures”, occurs exactly as REH describes the failed murder scheme against Brown.

If it happened, it probably occurred after Hendry had temporarily resigned as Assistant Marshal in September, 1882. He rode with a posse led by Sheriff J. Thralls to find the killers of Mike Meagher – the Talbot gang. There had been a report that the outlaws were in Indian Territory with a sizeable herd of stolen horses and cattle. The posse, even accompanied by a detachment of troops from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Agency, didn’t find their quarry, and Hendry came back to Caldwell after two weeks. Carr appointed him Assistant Marshal again, and if REH’s sources are right, probably tried soon after that to have him killed by the criminals who were Carr’s associates. Howard wrote:

The gang who had hired Brown for a sheep for the shearing, found they’d picked up a rattlesnake. Single handed he fought the mob to a stand-still and while he was marshal of Caldwell — for he deposed the reigning official and took over his job — law and order was respected — by everybody except Brown. He was like a blood- mad wolf at times; he did not limit his activities to the hoodlums; he killed anyone who displeased him — and he was very easy to displease. Without flinching he would face roaring guns and terrific odds and shoot his way to victory, and he would as quickly put a bullet through the heart of some wretch who accidentally jostled him on the street. In that respect he was infinitely worse than Billy the Kid.

Marshal Carr did take a leave of absence shortly after Hendry’s return. Maybe Hendry had told him it was that or occupy a coffin. He became acting city marshal, and while Carr returned on November 2nd to become marshal again, with Hendry Brown taking his old position of assistant, the city council appointed Brown marshal permanently, just before Christmas. What sort of power struggle went on beneath the surface of those events I can’t say, but REH states that Brown “deposed” Carr.

All my reading about Hendry Brown’s career suggests a contradictory character. As a general thing he appears to have been “all business, yet withal quiet and unobtrusive” as The Commercial printed on October 19th, 1882. The town appears to have been fully satisfied with his services as its assistant marshal, and later marshal. The descriptions of him and his qualities in the town newspapers verge on the sycophantic. The citizens, through the mayor, presented him with a very fine new Winchester rifle, its black walnut butt and stock “beautifully engraved and plated with gold.”

He wasn’t a large man and didn’t look formidable. He didn’t smoke or gamble and was pretty abstemious with liquor, too. He even attended the town Methodist church on a regular basis. Still, he evidently didn’t need whisky to make him mean when the unpredictable savage whim seized him. He’d been an outlaw in Billy the Kid’s company; he’d been fired from jobs on ranches because just under his quiet manner he was explosively ready to fight and didn’t need much of an excuse; he was past any doubt a sudden killer when it suited him.

I haven’t found any record of the triple killing in the Caldwell saloon outside REH’s account. Hendry Brown shot (fatally) a Pawnee named Spotted Horse who was making trouble in the town, in May of 1883. In December of the same year, it’s recorded that he killed a gambler, Newt Boyce, who had been arrested, jailed and fined for getting too free-and-easy with a knife. Boyce should have had the sense to leave it at that. Instead, he started drinking and made threats against Marshal Brown and his assistant, Ben Wheeler (whose real name was William Sherod Robinson). Boyce almost shot Wheeler in the back while searching for Brown (who’d warned him to settle down and keep the peace) and when the gambler and marshal met, Brown shot Boyce twice with the handsome Winchester the town had bestowed on him. Boyce staggered back into the saloon, where he fell, and he died from loss of blood the next morning in spite of a doctor’s attentions.

Maybe Hendry Brown convinced himself that the wild days of Lincoln County were far behind him now, that he’d achieved respectability, that he was a city marshal and not just a drifting deputy that he’d matured and was capable of settling down. He courted and then married – on the 26th of March, 1884 – a local girl, Alice Maude Levagood Rue, the (adopted) daughter of a prosperous local brick-maker. Twenty-two and a school teacher, Alice had a college degree – unusual in a young woman at the time. The former Regulator, outlaw and rustler hadn’t done badly. But someone prescient might have said that it was a poor omen for their married future when Brown refused to remove his six-guns while the ceremony was performed – until the minister told him he wouldn’t proceed otherwise. Then, reluctantly, the marshal unbuckled his gun-belt, but would put it no further away than the back of a nearby chair, and once he and Alice were man and wife, he swiftly buckled it back on – before kissing his bride.

The marriage didn’t last.

Neither did Hendry.

In April he purchased a house to start married life, and was appointed city marshal for the third time. What else was going through his mind that month I can’t fathom. If a normal, decent life was what he wanted, he had it made. Maybe he realized that being what he was, he couldn’t settle down. Maybe he felt the old life calling to his wild side. It’s very possible, too, that his past caught up with him and someone from New Mexico, or someone who knew about events in Lincoln County, appeared in Caldwell to blackmail or expose him. The upstanding citizens of Caldwell didn’t know that Hendry, among others, was wanted for his part in the murders of Sheriff Brady and his deputy, George Hindman, as well as for the murder of Buckshot Roberts at Blazer’s Mill. Brady had been so crooked that the most appropriate use for him would have been extracting corks from bottles, but nevertheless he’d been a sheriff. General Lew Wallace, most famous today as the author of Ben-Hur, was Governor of the New Mexico Territory, and he’d granted a general pardon at the time. When that had no effect on the conflict he rescinded it four months later. The indictment against Hendry and the others came back into force, and still stood at the time he was married. The prospect of exposure in Caldwell would have meant trouble. Even if he’d remained the town marshal, his respectable wife would have been appalled.

REH wrote of Hendry Brown in his letter of September 1934, “The red period was written after his career in 1884. A friend of his was cashier in a bank at Medicine Lodge. He revealed to Brown that he had taken the bank’s money, and was bound to be discovered. He begged Brown to stage a robbery, in order to cover the shortage.”

Even that could have been his motive. If it was, Hendry never said so, and it’s hard to see how anybody else could have known about it, the way events fell out. Perhaps it was a part of Hendry Brown’s legend that became told and accepted in the half-century that followed.

I wonder myself if Brown hadn’t decided to become a crooked marshal, as Bat Carr before him had been, if REH’s version is the right one. Perhaps he intended to stage a series of bank and train robberies from behind the shelter of his badge, and the respect and trust he’d won in Caldwell. Perhaps the Medicine Lodge job was meant to be the first of a methodical series. If it was, it went terribly wrong. It couldn’t have been a bigger snafu if the Three Stooges had carried it out.

According to REH:

Brown rode over with three deputies in broad open daylight, still wearing his marshal’s badge. Hardly had they entered the bank, when the president, who they thought many miles from the town, entered the building. The cashier had assured them that he was gone; and so he was, but had returned for some reason or other, before setting out on his journey. Men like Brown are alert and suspicious as a wolf. Instantly concluding that it was a trap of some kind, and that the cashier had betrayed them, Brown killed the cashier, and then shot down the president.

That doesn’t seem to be quite the way it happened. Marshal Brown and his deputy, Ben Wheeler, obtained the Mayor of Caldwell’s okay to go into Indian Territory on the pretext of hunting a murderer. Brown may have deputized the other two men who went with them, cowboys from Cherokee Outlet named Bill Smith and John Wesley. Then they rode to Medicine Lodge to rob the bank instead. If Brown had planned the job with any care, they would have covered their faces and changed horses first, and that he entered the bank wearing his marshal’s badge is unbelievable. Also, Hendry Brown shot neither the bank president nor the cashier, George Geppert. The president, Wylie Payne, lived a short while after being shot, and a friend who sat by his deathbed said that he identified Wesley as his murderer. Ben Wheeler and Wesley were the ones who shot down Geppert. He lived long enough to seal the bank vault and prevent the robbers from getting their hands on the cash – which he’d hardly have troubled to do if he’d been the inside man. To this writer it seems likeliest that Wheeler and Wesley got trigger-happy and turned the job into a fiasco, to Brown’s dismay.

Whatever really happened, they had to flee the town without a dollar of loot. Then one of the robbers’ horses foundered, the others stuck with him, apparently got lost, and were trapped by the angry following posse in a muddy local canyon – called, aptly enough, Jackass Canyon. One member of the posse was Barney O’Connor, who had once been Hendry Brown’s boss. They were meeting again – and for the last time.

Taken alive, they were hauled back to the Medicine Lodge jail. The town was furious over the double murder at the bank and a lynch mob was gathering. The robbers knew it. Hendry used his time in jail to write a last letter to his wife. It read, in part:

Darling Wife:

I am in jail here. Four of us tried to rob the bank here and one man shot one of the men in the bank. I want you to come and see me as soon as you can. I will send you all of my things and you can sell them. But keep the Winchester. It is hard for me to write this letter, but it was all for you, my sweet wife, and for the love I have for you.

Do not go back on me. If you do it will kill me. Be true to me as long as you live, and come to see me if you think enough of me. My love is just the same as it always was. Oh, how I did hate to leave you last Sunday evening. But I did not think this would happen. I thought we could take in the money and not have any trouble with it, but a man’s fondest hopes are sometimes broken with trouble. We would not have been arrested but one of our horses gave out and we could not leave him [the rider] alone. I do not know what to write. Do the best you can with everything …

If a mob does not kill us we will come out all right after a while. Maude, I did not shoot anyone and didn’t want the others to kill anyone. But they did and that is all there is about it.

Now, my darling wife, goodbye. H. N. Brown.

As always, there are a few versions of what happened next, and they don’t completely agree. Not astonishing. John F. Kennedy was murdered in public, in front of a crowd, the terrible moment caught on television cameras, and to this day there’s vehement dispute over just what happened; who shot him, how many people shot him, how many shots were fired, and whether it was one man or a conspiracy. We needn’t wonder if the legend-makers and even the prosaic, down-to-earth witnesses who were there, produced different accounts. Ask the survivors of any firefight what happened, and you’d swear you were hearing them talk about separate actions.

REH wrote to Lovecraft:

 A mob, led by an ex-Texas Ranger, was instantly on their heels, and they were run to earth not far from the town. Officers were there, too, but unable to control the mob. What happened is not entirely clear as to details; but three men were hanged and one was shot as he made a break for the horse. That man was Hendry Brown. There is reason to believe that he parleyed with the officers, and they, realizing that the robbery had been made with the intention of aiding a friend, rather than any desire of theft, gave him the opportunity to make the break so that he could perish by lead instead of a rope. He knew he couldn’t get away; all he asked was to be shot rather than hanged.

Other accounts say that the prisoners were well aware that a lynching was on the cards. They managed to slip their shackles, and when the mob charged the jail and opened the door, the robbers, less helpless than the mob expected, made their escape bid. Hendry made it as far as an alley beside the jail before both barrels of a shotgun blasted close behind him. He probably died at once. He was almost torn in two. Wheeler made it somewhat further – about a hundred yards. Then gunfire from about twenty weapons brought him down, dreadfully wounded. Barely alive, he was still dragged to a nearby tree and strung up with Smith and Wesley. Then the mob used them for target practice. They may have hung the remnant of Hendry Brown beside them. He’d been born one year before Billy the Kid, and survived him by four or five, but he was still only twenty-seven when he came to his bloody end.

His widow, Alice Maude Brown, left Caldwell in bitter shame at what had happened. She returned to the teaching profession at Devil’s Lake in North Dakota, and in 1891 moved to Frankfort, Indiana, where she went to work for two doctors, Strange and Palmer. When the latter opened the Palmer Hospital, Alice became its superintendent until it closed in 1924. Later she was appointed matron of a park playground and opened the first aid station there. She died, much respected, in 1935. Her obituary in the Frankfort Morning Times said, “In 1883 she was married to H.N. Brown, who passed away many years ago,” – and, tactfully, nothing more about him.

Read: Part One