The Hoodoo War of Mason County — Part I

Howard was an aficionado of the Bloody Lincoln County War, even traveling to New Mexico to see where it all happened.  A bit of that violent conflict even ended up in “Red Nails,” his final Conan yarn. Range disputes were pretty common in Texas during the 1870s to the 1890s and odds are Howard heard first hand accounts of these deadly conflicts from some of the participants and bystanders.

The violence created in the range wars and related feuds often occurred where there was no law, the law was too weak to enforce any type of change, or the law sided with one faction over the other. The conflicts also gave rise to vigilante groups who felt they were unduly wronged, so they were prone to take the law into their own hands.

Here are some general thoughts on range wars and western feuds that Howard expressed to Lovecraft in a letter written in December, 1934.

Concerning the problems which I mentioned as often causing warfare and bloodshed in the old West, you still miss the point, which is that frequently range-wars and feuds and fights were the result, not of deliberate aggression on either side, but simply because of economic, climatic and even geographical conditions beyond the scope of human control. I will admit that it is probably difficult, even impossible, for a dweller in an old, long-settled, industrial district to understand that statement, and I will not try to enlarge upon it. When you travel in the West, you’ll see what I mean, and realize that often enough wars and feuds were not caused by wanton encroachment on either side, but simply by inexorable natural conditions. You can hardly pick out a western feud and say definitely that one side was “right” and the other “wrong.” In almost every case right and wrong were about evenly balanced; and usually the moral question was beside the point, any way.

There was a range war right in Howard’s backyard that was almost as bloody as New Mexico’s Lincoln County War. However, he makes no mention of the Hoodoo War of Mason County, even though it happened just 100 miles due south of Cross Plains, in any of his letters, so it is unknown if he was aware of it. Due to the viciousness and violence of the war, I can’t imagine him not taking note of it if he knew about it.

During 1874, in the rural Hill Country county of Mason, bad luck was on the horizon – indeed, a war was brewing, a conflict that would come to be known as the “Hoodoo” War. Hoodoo is an archaic term used in the 19th century, often to describe the members of a vigilante committee. It also is said to have a relation to voodoo and the bad luck that can come with it. In some parts of the state, African-Americans applied the term to Ku Klux Klan members. The war started when large numbers of cattle began to be killed or go missing. Soon murderous combat raged in Mason County, the combatants being German immigrants and native born native Texans. For years, relations had been tense between the two groups. The tension got its start during the early days of the Civil War. The German immigrants felt a fierce loyalty to their new country and supported the Union cause.  However, they were living in Texas, deep in the heart of the South, and Texas was voting to secede from the Union and to join the Confederacy.  Due to the large German population, Mason County voted to stay in the Union, a fact that stuck in the craw of the non-German Texans. Although there were no reprisals in Mason County, Germans in other parts of the state suffered reprisals and the German population of Mason County harbored deep resentments toward the Anglos.

After the Civil War, the hardships of the reconstruction period did nothing to relieve the bad blood between the two groups. Texas had become a place where cattle was king and it was cattle that further aggravated the relations between them. Each Spring vast cattle herds were rounded up on the edge of the frontier and driven along the Chisholm and Goodnight-Loving Trails to the north where they were sold at high prices. The Anglo stockmen thought nothing of gathering herds from any “maverick” cattle they came across. There seemed to be an understanding among cattlemen that “if you brand some of my calves, I’ll brand some of yours.” This arrangement did not sit well with the Germans. Most of them held small gentle herds, but without fences it was impossible to keep strays from wandering off, and the loss of a yearling to these small spread “sodbusters” was a loss they could not afford.

In 1875, John Clark was the Sheriff of Mason County. He was elected in 1873, took the oath of office and got right to work. The problem was he was not working for all the people, just the Germans who voted him into office. Not much is known about Clark short of the fact that he enforced the law with an “iron fist.” Clark openly supported the lynching or shooting of anyone suspected of cattle rustling, even when there was little to no evidence to substantiate the charge. It was under Clark’s administration that the German faction and its Hoodoo mob struck first, eventually sparking the countywide conflict. Clark was assisted by a Deputy named John Wohrle, who was a German descendent. Wohrle helped Clark further the interests of the Germans, often at the expense of the Anglos.

On February 13, Sheriff Clark led a posse into McCulloch County, arresting nine cowboys he suspected of rustling, including brothers Elijah and Pete Baccus. Four of the cowboys made bail, while the remaining five cooled their heels in jail. Sheriff Clark then spread the word around town to several key people in the mob that he had no problems with the jailed men being lynched. Several days later, a young cowboy named Allen Bolt was found shot to death by the roadside just outside of the town of Mason. On his back was pinned a note saying “Here lies a noted cow thief.”

Three days after the death of Bolt, several masked members of the Hoodoo mob entered the house of Deputy Wohrle, demanding the keys to the jail. He handed over the keys and the men removed the five cowboys from the jail, took them outside of town, and lynched them. Texas Ranger Dan Roberts happened to be in town at the time and intervened, preventing the hanging of cowboy Tom Turley, while cowboy Charlie Johnson was able to break free during the chaos and flee into the night.

Realizing a Texas Ranger was present, Sheriff Clark also made an effort to stop the lynchings. But it was too late for brothers Elijah and Pete Baccus, who were both hanged. The fifth cowboy, Abe Wiggins, was shot in the head by unknown parties, and died the next morning. No arrests were ever made for the lynchings, and this fueled tensions that would eventually explode into violent retaliation by the Anglo settlers.

Shortly after the lynchings, former mob member Caleb Hall was arrested, allegedly for rustling, but many believed it was due to his objections to the lynchings on February 18. Placed in a cell with Turley, the two men tunneled their way out and fled town. Another former mob member Tom Gamel, who also had objected to the lynchings had received death threats. However, instead of fleeing, Gamel  rounded-up a band of some thirty riders, and they rode into town to confront Sheriff Clark. The sheriff hastily left town, but on March 24, 1875, he returned with an estimated sixty riders to confront Gamel and his band. It looked like the two factions would clash, but eventually they reached a truce, and both groups of men left town.

On May 13, Sheriff Clark and Deputy Wohrle rode out to the ranch of Carl Lehmberg, to speak with foreman Tim Williamson. A few months earlier, Williamson had been falsely accused and arrested for possessing an alleged stolen calf. However, he was well liked within the community and released. The German owner of the calf, Daniel Hoerster, pressured Clark to arrest Williamson, and Clark decided to comply.

After a brief parlay, Williamson agreed to accompany the two lawmen to town, but after riding some ten miles, the party was confronted by a band of a dozen masked men. Wohrle and Lehmberg bolted up the road, leaving Williamson to his fate. Some accounts state that Williamson recognized Peter Bader, a member of the mob. Upon being recognized, Bader shot and killed Williamson. In Bader’s mind, the only good cow thief was a dead cow thief. This single murder would change the course of the Hoodoo War, as Williamson was a mentor and close friend to a young former Texas Ranger.

The Mason County Grand Jury was conducting their inquiry in to Williamson’s murder when a young man appeared in Mason and quietly began conducting an inquiry of his own. The man kept to himself and wore his hat down low over his eyes, seeming to be in his own world. He refused to shake hands with anyone, not wanting his gun hand to stray too far from his holster. But he did take interest in what people had to say about Williamson’s death.  Ultimately, no one was indicted for the murder of Tim Williamson. The young man was seen taking his gun to the local gunsmith and patiently waiting while he had his weapon cleaned and serviced.

On August 10, Deputy Sheriff Wohrle was helping a man named Harcourt and a hired man dig a well on the west edge of town. The young man rode up and struck up a conversation with Wohrle. Shortly, he asked for a leather strip to tie his rifle to his saddle and Wohrle provided him with one. The two exchanged farewells and Wohrle turned around to help the hired man pull Harcourt up from the bottom of the well. As soon as Wohrle was occupied with his task, the mounted man pulled his gun and pointed it at the back of Wohrle’s head. The shot went through his skull, exiting near his nose. The hired man let go of the rope and dove for cover, causing Harcourt to fall to the bottom of the well, where he was knocked unconscious. The man then leaped from his horse and shot Wohrle five more times at point blank range before taking out his knife. He then went to work methodically mutilating Wohrle’s body and finishing by taking his scalp. The man then remounted and rode off, whooping and waving the scalp in triumph. The man was Scott Cooley.

William Scott Cooley was born in 1852 in Missouri and raised in Texas. During that period of time, the Comanches were wreaking havoc among the frontier settlers. While still in their teens, he and his brothers were known as ruthless and relentless Indian fighters who carried the fight to the Comanches.

In 1872 he was befriended by a Texas rancher named Tim Williamson, who hired him to work on two cattle drives to Kansas. After the drives were completed, Williamson took Cooley home with him to Mason County where he was treated like a member of the family by the rancher and his wife. When he was suffering from Typhoid Fever, he was nursed back to health by Mrs. Williamson. He was also known to suffer from fits, supposedly due to a snake bite.

On May 2, 1874, at the age of 19, he joined the Texas Rangers and held the rank of corporal. During his service, he further enhanced his reputation as a fierce Indian fighter, giving no quarter to the enemy and expecting none in return. Standing just five feet five inches tall, he was not afraid of anything and was reputed to be one of the most dangerous men in Texas.  He was mustered out of the Rangers on December 4, 1874 after the state decided to reduce the amount of protection it was providing to the settlers.

He was working on his farm in Menardville when he got word of Williamson’s murder. Upon receiving the news, Cooley became emotional and vowed revenge on the parties responsible. He promptly saddled-up and left for nearby Mason County.

After the killing of Wohrle, Cooley was never the same man.

Read Part II