Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal, Volume 3, Number 2, May, 1993 Page: 58
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Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal
Thomas', Francis Garner watched the two men approach her husband. She saw Durham
stop a few yards from the spot where her husband was talking to Thomas. She saw
Simpson ride up to the two men and chat with them for a few minutes. She saw Durham
and Simpson pull guns. She heard the first shot and saw her husband fall. She jumped
off her porch and ran screaming toward her husband. She saw Thomas jump off his
horse, leap his fence, and run behind his crib to hide. She saw Durham and Simpson
fire a few more shots, then ride away, firing back on her husband as they left. She got
to her husband first and found him lying on his back, dead, with one arm draped across
his forehead, covering the wound that had killed him. His pistol was still tucked in his
James Light Townsend, who always went by his middle name, had been first
elected sheriff of Colorado County in 1880. He was destined to serve through some of
the most turbulent times in the county's history. A farmer, businessman, and lifetime
resident of the county, described by The Weimar Mercury of March 5, 1892 as a "church
member" who "doesn't swear" and who "does not lose his equanimity often," he was
not one to look for trouble. More than once he quelled a disturbance without gunplay
and often was credited with clever detective work in solving crimes and tracking down
fugitives. But with many men routinely carrying small arms and more than a dozen
saloons in Columbus alone, no man in his position could avoid violence entirely.
Townsend was ready with his pistol when he felt the situation demanded it and expected
that his deputies would be also.
Despite his seemingly good record in office, Townsend remained somewhat
controversial throughout his fourteen-year tenure as sheriff. He was deeply resented in
some quarters for having influenced many of the county's blacks to vote for him by giving
them money, a practice known as boodling. Secondly, he habitually appointed his
relatives to law enforcement positions within his control and used his influence with the
voters to benefit his relatives who ran for elected law enforcement offices, giving him,
many said, undue influence if not a monopoly on the policing of the county. In later years,
he was said to be a party to an active feud within the county.
The two most celebrated incidents of his first decade in the sheriff's office
involved what many of his constituents felt was the use of excessive force. The first
such incident occurred about eight o'clock on the morning of August 17, 1881. Dave
King, serving a short sentence in the county jail for stealing a pig, bolted from his cell
when Deputy Larkin Hope opened the door to give him breakfast. The surprised Hope
shouted to the sheriff, who was eating his own breakfast downstairs, and Townsend
ran out the door after King. As King sprang over the fence onto the courthouse square,
Townsend yelled to Deputy Columbus City Marshal Victor H. Byars, who was walking
nearby, to stop him. Byars drew his pistol and ordered King to halt. When he kept
running, Byars shot him three times in the back. King was strong enough to keep running
for another block, but then collapsed, dead. The sheriff's department came under
criticism for allowing King to escape in the first place, and, since he was unarmed and
due to be released in about ten days anyway, for killing rather than recapturing him or
simply allowing him to escape. He easily weathered the controversy, however, winning
reelection without opposition the following November.
Five years later, on the morning of October 22, 1886, Sheriff Townsend
received a telegram notifying him to be on the alert for a horse thief who was thought
to be riding in the direction of Columbus. About five o'clock that afternoon, he spotted
a man who matched the description coming across the east river wagon bridge in
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Nesbitt Memorial Library. Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal, Volume 3, Number 2, May, 1993, periodical, May 1993; Columbus, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth151388/m1/6/?q=nesbitt%20memorial%20library%20journal: accessed July 27, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Nesbitt Memorial Library.