THE MASON COUNTY
HOO DOO WARS

by Glenn Hadeler

Part 1 of 2 Parts

 

"Hoodoo": It’s an old an old term for bad luck or what brings it, and in 1875 Mason County had plenty of both. People would bolt their doors and post guards for fear of what might come with the next day; but, this terror was not wrought from the usual frontier threat of Comanche raiders or wild beasts, those had been subdued for some time. No, this fear was of their own neighbors, and perhaps even one time friends. So bitter were the passions that spawned this strife that it even divided the Texas Ranger Company sent to quell the bloody affair.

As I drove up Highway 29 toward Mason one morning in June, I was taken by how green the Hill Country was. Cattle grazed in the fields in a pastoral setting of perfect tranquillity. I had owned land in Mason County for some time, but had only recently become aware of the violent conflict which raged over the hills some 120 years before. My curiosity on the subject had led me to make an appointment with the local authority on the feud, Mrs. Jane Hoerster. Jane was the head of the Mason County Historical Society, and had a special connection to the war. Her late husband was the grandson of Dan Hoerster, one of the victims of the feud. I pulled up to the stylish new library building in the town of Mason and went inside where I was introduced to Jane, a short, silver haired lady in her seventies who embodied the feisty, outgoing nature common to a woman raised in the rural Texas hill country. Jane took me to an outer office and began bringing out books and news paper articles written by persons who had witnessed the war first hand. I began to understand the background which led to this turmoil. The first thing I learned was that the trouble did not begin with cattle rustling in the 1870s, but many years before.

In the late 1840s thousands of German immigrants came to Texas under the sponsorship of the ill-fated German Immigration Company, or "Adelsverein". Despite the fact that these immigrants occupied land well beyond the boundary of any white settlement at that time, they were still greeted with a certain amount of national prejudice by the Anglo-Texans. The Germans had been drawn to Texas by promises of free land in a vast tract between the Llano and Colorado Rivers, known as the Fisher-Miller Land Grant. Although the land grant contract was eventually annulled by the Texas Legislature, the State upheld the right of any immigrant who arrived under an agreement with the Immigration Company to claim land within the grant, including parts of what would later become Mason County. As Anglo settlers followed in the stampede to settle the Hill Country, friction arose between the two peoples when the Texans discovered that headrights to much of the premium lands were owned by German immigrants, despite the fact that they had never laid eyes on the property they claimed.

The animosity hit its peak with the onset of the Civil War. Most Germans were small farmers who did not own slaves and felt a deep loyalty to their adopted nation. They thus openly professed their support of the union government which caused them to be viewed as nothing less than traitors. Some became the targets of random acts of violence such as the hanging of four Germans on Grape Creek in Gillespie County. In 1862 the Germans were regarded as such a threat that the entire town of Fredericksburg was placed under martial law and garrisoned by Confederate militiamen. In August of that year, a band of young men from the Fredericksburg and Comfort area attempted to make their way to Mexico to avoid conscription into Confederate service. They were pursued by a group of Confederate partisans, many of whom held old hostilities against the Germans. On August 10, 1862 their camp near the Nueces River was surrounded and attacked. The so called "Battle of Nueces" ended with 32 Germans being killed, including 9 wounded who were summarily executed on the spot. Two days later 8 more Germans were shot as they attempted to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico.

The end of the Civil War and the hardships of the reconstruction period did nothing to relieve the bad blood between the two groups. The Texans held a deep resentment toward the Germans. The rise of the "Cattle Kingdom" years further aggravated the relations between them. Early 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 brought high prices. The Anglo stockmen thought nothing of gathering herds from any "maverick" cattle they came across. There seemed to be an understanding between cattlemen that " if you brand some of my calves, I’ll brand some of yours". This 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 "sod busters" was a loss they could not afford.

Adding to the tension were a number of men who had wandered into Texas following the Civil War. These men victimized the sparsely settled frontier with all forms of lawlessness, but their chief means of support was cattle rustling. In 1872 the German majority in Mason County elected two men to office they felt they could trust. John Clark was elected Sheriff and Dan Hoerster was made the County Brands Inspector. Little is known of John Clark before this time. He seems to have found his way into Mason County and made himself very popular among the Germans. He was reported to have been a union soldier, as Captain Dan Roberts of the Texas Rangers referred to him as "one of the blue hen’s chicks". Hoerster on the other hand, was a well known local German, a big man who would not run from a fight. Both men pledged to stop the rustling that had plagued the area. They soon found that this was easier said than done. Many Anglo stockmen lived in the northern part of the County and made it difficult to prosecute offenders. The Germans found that it was practically impossible to prove the ownership of a stray calf, and brands were easily changed. Even the State laws seemed to favor the cattlemen. Under the law a man who found a neighbor’s cow on his land could sell the cow, as long as he turned the money over to the cow’s owner. Thus by 1875 the situation had reached a crisis.

In February of 1875 a posse formed and made a sweep northwest of the town of Mason, where they found a large herd of cattle under the care of a group of men led by Pete and Linge Baccus. The cattle found in the hands of Baccus brothers were said to have had almost everyone’s brand but their own. Seven men were arrested and brought back to Mason where a second posse was raised which swept south along the James River. This posse, led by Sheriff Clark, succeeded in locating another herd of stolen cattle, but the rustlers who had possession of this herd had seen Clark’s men coming and fled the area. The second posse returned to Mason, where the imprisoned men were to stand trial for the crime of rustling.

On February 15, 1875 a man named Adam Brayford was traveling between Llano and Mason and saw a body lying beside the road. Brayford got out of his wagon and found a dead man with a note pinned to his back, saying "Here lies a noted cow thief". The young cowboy was Allen Bolt and as far as can be determined he was the first victim of the lawlessness that would come to be known as the Mason County "Hoodoo" War.

Three days later on the evening of February 18, the silence of the evening air in Mason was shattered by a woman’s screams. A group of men had broken into the home of Clark’s German deputy John Wohrle and forced him to give up his keys to the jail. The men then proceeded to the jail and began to take out the prisoners awaiting trial for cattle rustling. John Clark was alerted by the uproar and went to the hotel where he found Captain Dan Roberts of the Texas Rangers, who was visiting Mason to buy grain for his men’s horses. The two hurried to the jail but could do nothing against the overwhelming numbers they faced. They watched as the mob took five of the men and rode out of town on the road to Fredericksburg. As soon as Roberts and Clark had gathered enough men to take pursuit, they followed the mob up the road for about a half mile where they found them in the process of stringing up the accused culprits. Shots rang out and Clark and Roberts returned fire at the mob, fleeing in the darkness. When they arrived on the scene they found the Baccus brothers dangling from a tree along with Abe Wiggins and Tom Turley. Sheriff Clark cut down the prisoners but found that Pete and Linge Baccus were both dead. Abe Wiggins was still alive but had most of his skull shot away and Tom Turley was nearly dead. The fifth man, Charlie Johnson was nowhere to be found. It was later discovered that when the posse began shooting at the mob, he had not yet been hung and was able to throw the noose off his neck. Despite being barefoot with his hands tied, Johnson was able to leap a tall fence beside the road and raised dust across a plowed field making his escape. The bodies of the Baccus brothers along with the wounded Abe Wiggins and Tom Turley were brought back to the Mason County Courthouse where Wiggins died the next morning. The reign of terror had begun.

After Tom Turley had recuperated he was returned to the jail house. By mid March he was joined by Caleb Hall, who only a few weeks before had been a member of the posse headed by Sheriff Clark, but was now also accused of being a cattle thief. Another member of the Clark posse named Tom Gamel later stated that the idea of lynching the Baccus gang had begun among some of the members of Clark’s posse, and Gamel had voiced strong opposition to the suggestion. In the coming days rumors began circulating the town that Turley, Hall, and Gamel, were all slated to be the guests of honor at another "neck-tie party". The rumor was taken seriously by all three. Turley and Hall tunneled out of the jail one night and fled the county. Tom Gamel preferred a more offensive approach. He gathered around thirty stockmen from the surrounding area and rode into Mason to confront Sheriff Clark and the Mob. As soon as Gamel’s party arrived at the edge of town, Clark made a hasty retreat out the other end. For the next couple days Gamel’s stockmen held the town, then departed.

On March 24 Sheriff Clark returned to town leading a party of some 60 armed men, all Germans. On Clark’s return Gamel quickly gathered his forces and returned to town, and it looked as though a battle was about to be fought in the streets. The two parties met at the Courthouse square and for a few tense moments conferred with each other. Then suddenly both parties stacked their arms and began mingling as friends. A truce was proclaimed under the condition that the mob justice would end.

The truce might have held had other old quarrels not intervened. Some weeks before the lynching of the Baccus gang a man by the name of Tim Williamson had been arrested for possession of a stolen yearling. Williamson was a popular 33 year old cowboy employed by Carl Lehmberg who ran a sizable cattle operation from the nearby community of Castell in Llano County. Lehmberg, who ironically was himself a German, had agreed to pay Williamson five dollars a head for every stray calf he brought in, and thus had added to the tension between the two sides. Upon Williamson’s arrest, Dan Hoerster had posted bail for him and he was released. Aside from this incident, Williamson also owned a home in Loyal Valley which Clark, as County tax collector, had appraised at an inflated value, even higher than the property owned by John O. Meusebach who operated a store in the settlement. Clark showed up at Williamson’s home to confront him over the unpaid taxes and found Williamson not at home. He unleashed a tirade of abuse on his wife instead. When Williamson discovered this he rode into Mason and suggested that the two settle the matter man-to-man but Clark refused. This set the stage for the next tragedy of the feud.

On the morning of May 13, Deputy Sheriff John Wohrle arrived at Carl Lehmberg’s ranch and informed Tim Williamson that his bond had been withdrawn. He was to accompany Wohrle to Mason and be held until a new bond was posted. Carl Lehmberg offered to post bail for Williamson however the bond would have to be made in Mason. The two men agreed to go with Wohrle but before they left Wohrle disarmed Williamson and forced him to trade his young horse for Wohrle’s old plug. The trio had traveled about ten miles when they were set upon by a party of about a dozen masked men. Wohrle and Lehmberg bolted up the road but Williamson was abandoned to the mob and may have had his horse shot out from under him. The next moment Williamson lay in the road riddled with bullets. He reportedly recognized one of his assailants as a German farmer named Peter Bader and begged for his life, but old acquaintances were now disregarded. Williamson was a rustler and rustling had to stop. Bader shot him dead.

The members of the "Hoodoo" mob could not have imagined what they had unleashed in their zeal to end stock thefts. Anglo cattlemen all over the area began carrying arms and talking of vengeance against the Dutch. In response the Germans kept to themselves and began traveling only in groups. It wasn’t long before revenge killings began. On a hot July night three Germans named Henry Doell, August Keller, and Fritz Kothmann were camped on the open prairie near Willow Creek, when they were fired on from the darkness. August Keller was hit in the foot. Doell was shot in the stomach and died several days later. The shooting was blamed on Indians, but cigarette butts found near where the ambush occurred proved the assassins to be whites. When the term of the Grand Jury was convened in Mason, Charlie Johnson, who had been found wandering the countryside after his escape from the mob, was questioned about the identity of the mob members. Johnson however, would say nothing, perhaps because some of the faces he had seen in the mob were now staring at him from the jury box.

While the Grand Jury was conducting their inquiry, a young man appeared in Mason and quietly began conducting an inquiry of his own. He took particular interest in anything people had to say about Williamson’s death. He had his gun worked on by the local gunsmith Miller and when he later picked it up he proclaimed "now I’m about ready to use it". Around August 10, Deputy Sheriff Wohrle was helping a man named Harcourt and a hired hand dig a well on the west edge of town. The young man rode up and began conversing with Wohrle. He asked for a leather strip to tie his rifle to his saddle and Wohrle complied to his request. The two bid farewell and Wohrle began helping the hired hand pull Harcourt up from the bottom of the well. As soon as Wohrle was busy doing this the mounted man pulled his gun and leveled it at the back of Wohrle’s head. The shot went through his head, killing him instantly. The hired hand dove for the brush and Harcourt fell to the bottom of the well where he was knocked unconscious. The man then leaped from his horse and shot Wohrle five more times before taking out his knife, mutilating the body and finally taking his scalp. The fiend then remounted and rode off waving the scalp in triumph. This man was Scott Cooley.

CONTINUE TO PART TWO: CLICK HERE