Murder Ranches and Gunmen

Robert E. Howard wrote quite a number of letters to H. P. Lovecraft.  He admired the New England recluse’s work, of course, and he thought one of the most effective aspects of Lovecraft’s tales was the sense of “place” his fictional New England backgrounds, like Arkham, gave the stories. REH brought a strong sense of “place” to the eerie backgrounds of his own stories, notably “Pigeons From Hell,” which some people think was his best, “The Horror From the Mound,” and “Old Garfield’s Heart.” The last two have a Texas setting, and in a letter to Lovecraft of September 1930, after some speculations on the racial type of the Etruscans and the characteristics of the different Semitic groups, he says in passing:

… I have been repeatedly urged to make an article or tale of a certain murder-ranch which lies several miles west of here, and on which, some thirty years ago, a series of unspeakably ghastly crimes were enacted, and on which skeletons are every now and then found to this day. However, I have not the slightest idea of putting it on paper – more especially as one of the men who committed some of those crimes is still living and at large!

In another letter to Lovecraft, about a month later, he expanded on the subject.

As to the murder-ranch I mentioned, such ranches were fairly common in Texas during an earlier day. The owners would keep a cow-puncher working for perhaps a year without pay, then when he demanded his money, he was driven away; if he showed fight, he was shot down and his body thrown into a gully or an old well. This particular ranch lies some miles west of this town and is now in different hands. The old man who owned the ranch, was, I have heard, of particularly repellent aspect and more dangerous than a rattle-snake. His worst crime, at least I consider it was, was the murder of a servant’s baby; its noise irritated him and he dashed its brains out against the ranch house wall. He lived to be very old and was doubtless partly insane in the latter part of his life.

His son now has a ranch some hundreds of miles west of here, and some twelve or fifteen years ago killed a Mexican, sewed the corpse up in a cow-hide and flung it out on the prairie to rot. The Cattlemen’s Association sent out a detective – just why so much trouble was taken about a Mexican I cannot understand, unless he was some way connected with the Association – and this detective, playing the part of a deaf mute, worked for months on the murderer’s ranch and finally got full evidence. No one would have [thought] _ of looking into the cow-hide, for it merely appeared that a cow’s carcass was rotting out there on the plains. The killer was brought into court and got a sentence of two or three years, though I cannot say as to whether he ever served his time or not. The last I heard of him, he was prospering in the western country.

It doesn’t surprise me that REH decided not to record the deeds of characters like these, some of whom were still around and likely to take offense. In Texas in the ‘30s, people who were offended expressed their chagrin with pistols. Well, baling hooks or pick handles if no firearm was ready to hand, but one usually was.

It’s appropriate that REH should have been writing to H. P. Lovecraft on the subject.  The rancher he describes might well have inspired the character of the former pirate in Lovecraft’s own yarn, “The Terrible Old Man.” (Three intruders with robbery on their minds are later found slashed to death by cutlasses – swung by the ghosts of the Terrible Old Man’s perished shipmates, it would appear.)  They resembled each other, as Howard described the rancher — “of particularly repellent aspect and more dangerous than a rattlesnake.”

If Howard had written the story, as he had been “repeatedly urged” to do, he probably would have picked a forbidding and dreadful locale of his native Texas for its setting. The “plains south of the Llano Estacado” might have done. “Sandy, drab plains with never a tree,” REH wrote, reminiscing about his boyhood, “only tufts of colorless bushes, haunted by tarantulas and rattlesnakes, buzzards and prairie dogs; long-horn cattle, driven in to town for shipping, stampeding past the yard where I played; and screeching dust winds that blew for days, filling the air with such a haze of stinging sand that you could see only for a few yards.”

That would have been an appropriate setting for the old rancher and his hideous deeds, all right. If Howard had ever written the story, he might have made the old man a vicious, hard-bitten character, barn-burner and outlaw as a boy, who had ridden on trail drives and rustled cattle to get his start, an adept at changing brands and back-shooting. After gaining a spread of his own, isolated on the grim plains described above, he would – ultimately – have run it as a murder ranch. REH notes that “such ranches were fairly common in Texas during an earlier day.” It wouldn’t have been a sound idea to work as a cowhand on a remote spread unless you were damned sure of your ability to look after yourself!  An incident in which the old man murdered a servant’s crying baby by dashing out its brains against a wall could form part of the story, to illustrate his nature.

The procedure of hiring hands and letting them work for a year without pay – or at least until they demanded their wages – and then murdering them, would have struck him as sound business. Howard could have written the yarn as a straight western, or he could have added an element of supernatural horror. I’d have preferred him to handle it the second way, myself, considering how effective “Old Garfield’s Heart” and “The Horror From the Mound” were.

That raises the question of what sort of pulp supernatural element REH would have used.   There’s always the tried-and-true EC Horror Comics shtick of the murderee’s corpse coming back from the grave for revenge, rotting, long-nailed and white-eyed.  Since in real life the ghastly old rancher’s son murdered a Mexican and hid his corpse inside a rotting dead cow out on the plains, which could be incorporated in the story too. One of the ranch hands murdered by the old man could have been a Mexican – with, let’s say, ancient Zapotec blood, and an uncle south of the border who was a Zapotec wizard. The uncle could have known by occult means of his nephew’s murder and come north pretending to be an ordinary drifting Mexican looking for work. To the murderous rancher, of course, a Mex would be a Mex, and he wouldn’t know the difference between a Zapotec and a Mayan. The uncle would naturally use some very common name as an alias. If crafty, as sorcerers tend to be, he could have pretended to be a deaf mute too – as did the real-life detective from the Cattlemen’s Association.

Working on the old man’s ranch, he would have soon discovered his evil nature and gained an idea of the way in which he got work out of his hirelings for nothing.  Through sorcery he could discover his nephew’s precise fate and the whereabouts of his body. The malevolent rancher, however, being crafty himself, and trusting nobody, might have spied on the uncle as he worked his magic, and heard the murdered nephew’s name among the Zapotec incantations, repeated many times.  He wouldn’t have needed to hear more. And even a sorcerer is vulnerable to a double blast in the back from a shotgun.

REH could have used the motif of the corpse being hidden in a cow’s carcass out on the dusty plains. While the murdered man in the story wouldn’t have had any connection with the Cattlemen’s Association, still, the homicidal rancher could reason that if one Mexican came looking for the truth about the nephew’s death, others might too, and the demonstration of the uncle’s occult knowledge he’d witnessed might make even him uneasy.

Time would pass. The rancher would have bad nightmares about the corpse in the cow’s carcass – and since he wasn’t the type to have nightmares about men he’d murdered as a rule, which would bring home to him more closely that this wasn’t just any case. And finally, judgment night would arrive.

Out of the lonesome windy dark the Zapotec sorcerer’s desiccated corpse might appear, grinning hideously, the skull of the dead cow in which he’d been concealed held in his hands. Perhaps he’d be accompanied by the corpse of his nephew, and those of several ordinary Texas cowhands who’d met similar fates over the years, in all states from sun-dried bodies to complete skeletons. While they held the screaming rancher down the dead sorcerer would give him Zapotec justice. Sometime later he’d be discovered with a look of unspeakable horror on his dead face, the two horns of the cow’s skull driven up under his rib cage and deep into his lungs. Scattered around him in the parlor of his murder ranch would be the bodies of his victims.

It really is a pity REH never wrote the story. He’d have done it as only Robert E. Howard could. Still, as he said, some of the people involved were still alive, and this was 1930s Texas.

There existed hard men of the old breed, of course, who wouldn’t have cared a damn for the malice of all the murderers in the state. REH himself, in the same letter that describes the murder of the servant’s baby and the corpse hidden in the dead cow, refers to “the great Norfleet, one of modern Texas’ three greatest gunmen – the other two being Tom Hickman and Manuel Gonzalles, captain and sergeant of the Rangers respectively.” Norfleet, according to REH, became a United States marshal, and while in Chicago, outshot and killed two big city gangsters even though they “had the drop on him.” Not for long, apparently.

Before reading that letter of REH’s, I’d never heard of Norfleet, Hickman or Gonzalles. Searching out information about all three proved interesting – not at all to my surprise. Norfleet would have to be J. Frank Norfleet. The “Old West Gunfighters Index” on the internet says that he was a rancher of Gonzales County, who tracked, captured, and was instrumental in sending to prison, a gang that swindled him out of more than $100,000. This in 1930 money! He’s obviously the man to whom REH refers, since Howard says that Norfleet “gained national fame by tracking down a band of con-men who had swindled him out of considerable money; he landed them all in the pen, instead of shooting them.”

Considerable money is right.  Brian Leno, in a blog post titled “J. Frank Norfleet” refers to the “almost mythical fashion” in which REH describes the man, and also considers that the amount the con men removed from him was actually $45,000. Still big bickies for those days. But in hunting them down, Norfleet spent another 75 grand of his own money. Clearly he was a fellow who took being fleeced as a serious affront, and not one to be ignored. My search for more information about him hasn’t, as yet, confirmed that he became a U.S. marshal or that he outshot two gangsters in Chicago. I’d like to believe it.

Thomas R. Hickman (1886-1962) was a redoubtable Texas Ranger. He joined the Rangers in 1919, and by the end of l920 he captained Emergency Company 2. In 1922 he became captain of Company B. Through the “Roaring 20s” and into the 30s, Hickman spent a lot of time and effort keeping order in the oil boom towns of Texas, no job for marshmallows. As REH sourly observed, “There’s one thing about an oil boom; it’ll teach a boy that life’s a pretty rotten thing as quickly as anything I can think of.”

As for Manuel Gonzalles (his name is usually spelt “Gonzaullas”, he was born in 1891 to a Spanish father and Canadian mother. He joined the Rangers in 1920. Like Hickman, he enforced the law on the Texas oil fields, and became known as “The Lone Wolf.” He chased such various bad men as gamblers, bootleggers and dope peddlers. In 1933 he was fired by the state governor. The ever-individualistic Texas legislature seems to have considered this a very bad move. In 1935 it created the independent Department of Public Safety. Gonzaullas was appointed the superintendent. Up yours, governor. While REH is correct in referring to Gonzallas as a sergeant, he doesn’t mention that “The Lone Wolf” eventually became, like Hickman, Captain of Company B of the Rangers. He was the first American of Spanish descent to achieve that rank.

REH thought this trio, Norfleet in particular, were the equals of “John Wesley Harding, Sam Bass, Al Jennings or any of the other old time Texas warriors.”  Harding, or Hardin (and REH also spells his name “Harden,” was just a multiple murderer in my view, though he wasn’t helped to remain honest and law-abiding by being a lad in the Reconstruction era. He started his killing career in his early teens, shooting a freed slave named Mage with whom he quarreled after having a public wrestling bout with him. Hardin himself, and some of his sympathizers, tell the story in a way that makes Hardin look justified, and maybe Mage did try to bully the lad Hardin was then. Robert E. Howard thought so. He wrote in a letter that when Hardin was fifteen he shot a black freedman (Mage) who attacked him with a club.  In the sequel, Hardin killed some white Yankee soldiers and three black Reconstruction police who came to “arrest” him – which in that milieu would very likely have meant savagely beating him and then bringing him in dead.  Hardin eventually killed at least twenty men; it may have been thirty. His own reported claims of more than forty I suspect were too high, though I’m not all that well informed about his career and certainly wouldn’t have been game to call him a liar to his face.

He appears to have been a wild gunman who had seen his side defeated in war and hated the winners, as exemplified by freed blacks and Yankees. The Reconstruction era certainly had its full number of crooked exploiters who came south like vultures to a carcass, and crooked politicians, white and black … but it also had the first effective schools for poor whites (as well as freed blacks) that the South had seen, the first equal voting rights, and the first years in which anybody other than the (actually damned few) large plantation owners had a chance at a decent life. Before the Civil War “poor white” was a more scathing term of contempt in the South than “nigger.”  And the rich aristocrats played both groups against each other to maintain their own wealth and power.

There were other outlaws like Hardin, for instance his contemporaries Bill Longley and Cullen Baker. They all burned with fury against Yankees, carpetbaggers and freed blacks. They considered it no crime to murder them where they found them, even unarmed, and racked up a large score of victims. Longley and Baker seem to me to have been, if anything, desperadoes more vicious than Hardin.

REH sympathizes with the latter.  A 1933 letter of his to H.P. Lovecraft reads, in part, “Why, as far as that goes, John Wesley Hardin himself was deputized in Abilene, Kansas, to hunt down a Mexican murderer who was too tough for the Kansas officers. Wild Bill Hickok had a warrant for John’s arrest at the time, which he would not or could not enforce; he swore the young Texan in as a special officer, and Hardin killed the criminal before another sun set.” Howard also declares, “There was one man prison could not break. I make bold to say no prison-system in the United States, or anywhere else could have broken him, for in those days Texas prisons were hell on earth.  John Wesley Harden. (sic). He was a bloodthirsty killer, a murderer – what you will. Yet I respect him more than I respect some of the men that hunted him.”

Even REH, though, doesn’t dispute that John Wesley Hardin was guilty of cold-blooded, casual murder. He tells the story of how “Once he (Hardin) and a friend were coming out of a saloon, and John was pretty drunk. Seeing this, his friend pointed some distance down the street to where a loafer lounged on a whiskey-barrel, and bet John that he couldn’t, in his condition, shoot the fellow off the barrel. For answer a long-barreled .44 flashed into John’s hand as if by magic and at the crack of the shot, the loafer toppled from the barrel, shot cleanly through the head. The friend paid the wager.”

The creator of Conan mentions Sam Bass in the same sentence as Hardin. Now, Hardin was a fast and deadly gunman, all right, but the little I know of Bass would indicate that he wasn’t in the class of Hardin, or Ben Thompson, or King Fisher, with a pistol. Sam Bass was a gifted rider who made a living from horse races for a while – most of which he won, on his superb mount the Denton Mare. Apart from that his main claims to fame were his activities as an outlaw, robbing stages and trains, and it appears that the only big shootout or gun duel in which he was involved was the one with the Rangers in which he was killed.  Hardin, on the other hand, killed three Union soldiers sent to arrest him for the murder of Mage, using a double-barreled scattergun and then a six-shooter. He was fifteen. For him it was just the beginning.

Well, as I’ve admitted, I’m not sufficiently well informed to marshal the full facts about Hardin or the others. But perhaps I can illustrate my attitudes through a couple of desperadoes from my own country of Australia. Ned Kelly has become a legend of resistance to cruel, unjust authority, “game as Ned Kelly” is a catch phrase down here, and his blood-and-guts last stand at Glenrowan is famous beyond Australia’s shores. Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger both portrayed him in movies.

Kelly was actually from a family of Irish lags who hated the police. He began when young as a horse-thief and associate of an older bushranger, Harry Power, who taught him the business. Later, when Ned was grown, his gang ambushed four lawmen that were out hunting them. They killed three at a place called Stringybark Creek. There are different versions, and Ned Kelly’s justifies what he did. But even he didn’t deny that he personally hunted the twice-wounded last one through the scrub and finished him off.

I’ll take Ben Hall any time. Ben began as a respectable man. Like the Kellys, he came of convict stock, but his father had made good as an honest farmer, and Ben excelled while young as a horseman and cattle worker. He turned outlaw after his wife Biddy betrayed him with a trooper. Not giving much of a damn after that, he neglected his property, lived at a loose end and became friends with the bushranger Frank “Darkie” Gardiner. (That was probably one of his various fake names; his real one seems to have been Francis Christie.) This led to Ben’s being arrested on suspicion a couple of times – wrongfully. When he got out of jail after the second arrest, and returned to his spread, he found his house had been burned and his stock were dead in the yards for lack of water. The troopers who arrested him had not let the cattle out, perhaps from spite. Ben exclaimed bitterly, “That’s it … there’s no getting out of this. May as well have the game as the blame,” and joined Frank Gardiner’s gang of outlaws in earnest. He was involved in the famous Eugowra Escort gold robbery – the biggest ever carried out in colonial Australia. When Gardiner decided he’d head north to Queensland while his luck lasted, Ben took over as leader.

He committed literally hundreds of robberies, and matched the Kelly gang in more than once holding up entire towns (Canowindra and Bathurst), doing as he pleased before leaving. For guts and daring he and his associates, O’Meally, Gilbert and Dunn, were the Kellys’ equals any day. Unlike Ned Kelly, though, he never murdered anyone, much less a helpless wounded man. As bush poet “Banjo” Patterson put it,

Gilbert and Hall and O’Meally, back in the bushranging days,

Made themselves kings of the district – ruled it in old-fashioned ways.

Ben was reportedly decent to women as well, despite his wife’s behavior. One of his gang (none of the three named above) was crass and insulting to the wife of a man whose station (ranch) they had raided. Ben gave the bloke a one-on-one belting and tossed him out of the gang. And he finally died in a lone battle with the troopers, greatly outnumbered.

So did his associate, Gilbert. Old Banjo wrote a poem about him, too, and the way he shot it out with the troopers to cover his pardner Johnny Dunn’s escape. Dunn got away, but Gilbert was “riddled with rifle balls … as he lay on the blood-soaked ground.” The poem opens with the lines,

There’s never a stone at the sleeper’s head,

There’s never a fence beside,

And the wandering stock on the grave may tread,

Unnoticed and undenied –

But the smallest child on the watershed

Can tell you how Gilbert died.

Bringing them into the matter doesn’t demonstrate a thing, of course. Except that some right bastards do become legends and icons, while better men are largely forgotten. Forget Ned Kelly. Raise a glass to Ben Hall.