Experiences of a Pioneer District Attorney

by J.F. Cunningham


I came to this country from Fulton County, Arkansas. The people of Texas were good to me. Before I had been here five years, and before I was twenty-eight years old, they elected me prosecuting attorney. Many lawyers and laymen of that day called me "the kid." It was in 1888 that I was elected District Attorney of the Thirty-ninth Judicial District. My district was bounded on the south by the north lines of Noland and Taylor Counties, on the east by the west lines of Baylor and Throckmorton Counties, on the north by the Red River, and on the west by New Mexico. In the thirty odd counties of the district, there were only three and one-third miles of railroad in the southern part, in Hardeman County. Fisher County was later cut out of the district and after that, we did not have a mile of railroad in the southern part. The district was about one hundred and twenty-five miles, north and south, by one hundred and fifty, east and west. The only bridge was that between Abilene and Anson, on the Clear Fork -- the Double Mountain, Salt Fork, the two Wichitas, Pease River, and various smaller streams were not bridged anywhere.

Judge J.V. Cockrell and I held court, going in one horse buggies. We travelled trails mainly; there were only a few stretches entitled to be called roads.

We had plenty of tough customers in our district; the north part of it bordered on Indian Territory and the west part on New Mexico. There were numerous bandits in both these territories and they didn't always stay out of Texas. There were no Texas Rangers to help then -- never a one in that district during the time I was district attorney, that I know of. We didn't them then and we don't need them now.

A few years before I took office, the Quakers established Estacado, in Crosby County, one hundred miles from the railroad. I remember well our first rip to Estacado, about May, 1889 -- a journey of one hundred and fifty miles from Anson. And we made it in our one-horse buggies. The cowmen had their strings of ponies and might ride down several in a journey like that; but we had just one pony each, hitched to a single buggy, and we always made it.

On the way out, we left Anson and travelled fifty miles to the Double Mountain Fork. There we bogged down and had considerable difficulty getting our horses and buggies out of that treacherous quicksand. Then we went on to the Salt Fork and about the same thing happened there. On our way back, these streams were rising and we had to swim the Salt Fork.

We had fun on those trips. We always carried six-shooters and shot guns -- there were myriads of quail and we had broiled quail for dinner, supper and breakfast. I could eat from three to five of those fine birds and Judge Cockrell could eat five at each meal. At night we would camp by the trail, a little blanket to keep us warm and a sack of oats under our head.

By the second night of this trip, we had reached the Plains and were at a windmill just above Old Dockum. Dockum was then the headquarters of the Spur Ranch; and this windmill was beyond that point, about ten miles from the caprock. It was a large windmill in the pasture of the Kentucky Land and Cattle Company, and after the experience of drinking water from muddy streams, we could relish this clear cold water. Here we found plenty of cow chips with which to cook our supper. By the third night, we had reached Estacado. On reaching the settlement, we observed an interesting practice which Judge Cockrell later turned to good advantage by way of illustration in the address he made to the grand jury on the opening of court. The Quakers had come from a country well watered and wooded. Ever mindful of the need for wood (incidentally, in each backyard was a pile of cow chips for fuel) those people had run furrows about every fifteen feet and had sown peach seeds. Some may have planted them for fruit and shade and ornament, but they had been planted mainly for wood. A few of the trees were living but most of them had been killed by the dry, hot winds.

Judge Cockrell and I were strangers to these men, but in his opening charge to the grand jury, he won their enthusiastic support. He said: "Gentlemen, we have come one hundred and fifty miles to plant the tree of law in your community. And I have faith enough in your and in the government I represent to predict that this tree will not wither and die, as have the peach trees you have planted, but will prosper and grow and spread out its branches like a great bay tree planted by the river's bank.

I observed these men closely. They were law abiding and stood for law enforcement. They leaned forward in their seats and fairly hung on Cockrell's words. This was the message and the assurance they been praying for; they drank in the judge's words and supported us with all the readiness and enthusiasm we could have asked for. I can say now, after forty-four years, that I have never known a community where there was better law enforcement than in this Quaker country.

On Monday, the grand jury indicted Tom Fulcher, a cowboy on the Spur Ranch, for killing A. Beamer, of the Matador outfit. The case was transferred and set for trial at Anson a month later. I will now give an account of this trial. We overruled every motion made by the defense attorneys and tried it as set. I selected twelve farmers for the jury. All the witnesses for the state were cattlemen, and those for the defense as well. In my closing argument, I asked the jury for the life of the defendant; and somewhat to my surprise, they did bring in a verdict of death. Eight Sur men swore in the trial that Fulcher was on the Spur Ranch the night Beamer was killed. I didn't believe them and neither did the jury; and yet the only evidence the state had, was the statement of the dying man that he recognized Fulcher by his voice. I certainly had some doubts about the guilt of Fulcher, and for that reason I intended to ask that the sentence be communted. The case went up on appeal and reversed, however, on the ground that evidence was incorrectly admitted proving that Fulcher turned pale at the time he was arrested. Incidentally, Judge Hut later told me that he would have reversed the case on the grounds that the evidence was not sufficient to sustain such a verdict, even though the other objection had not been raised b the defense attorneys., Fulcher later confessed that he was guilty.

In connection with this case, I began to realize the awful responsibility of a prosecuting attorney. hat if an innocent man should be sent tot his death through my eagerness to enforce the law? I could not get it off my mind; it became almost a nightmare with me.

But let us return to that first court session at Estacado. On Tuesday morning the judge called the appearance docket. There was only one case on the docket and only two lawyers were there, one for the defense and one for the prosecution. I might add that one of these men was from Mobeetie, Texas, and the other from Arkansas. Both sides announced ready for trail; and while the sheriff was out summoning additional jurymen, a squabble came up on a preliminary motion. The lawyer from Mobeetie called the Arkansas lawyer a liar and they went to fighting. I separated them and Judge Cockrell proceeded to give them a lecture in his fatherly fashion. "Don't you young men know its wrong to fight in court?" he admonished. "Yes, but he called me a liar," said the Arkansas man. "Well," said the other, "He is a liar," and the first thing we knew they were at it again. Finally when we had restored order Judge Cockrell said: "Well, we have been in session in this court twenty minutes and have had two fights; evidently the sign is not right for trial." Then he set the case up six months. He did not fine the young lawyers, neither did he berate them; be he administered an effective rebuke which they never forgot.

At Estacado, we put up at Hunt Hotel, maintained by an uncle of President J.W. Hunt of McMurry College. They fed our horses on oats hauled a hundred miles, fed us on good frying chickens and furnished us with good rooms, all for one dollar per day. The Quakers were honest and "square" in all their relations.

(Taken from the West Texas Historical Association Year Book, Volume 8, 1932)




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