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Pale Horse Revelations #27: The Mason County War

Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures.

In the last entry we took a look at the legendary Texas Rangers. Today, we follow that up by exploring the Mason County War, an event in which they played a decisive role. Taking place in Mason County, Texas between 1875 and 1876, the "war" was a time of lawlessness and vigilante justice. Ultimately, twelve lives would be lost to the conflict.

By the time violence erupted, Mason County was heavily populated by German immigrants and their descendants. They had begun settling in the area as early as 1840. As these immigrants sought to scrape out a living, they continually fell prey to both Native American raiding parties and rustlers.

In 1872 they elected John Clark as sheriff and Dan Hoerster as Cattle Inspector. The two men organized a posse to deal with the rustlers and reclaim stolen cattle. While patrolling in 1875 the posse came upon a herd stolen by the Backus brothers and their gang. The posse succeeded in capturing five of the rustlers, Lige Backus, Pete Backus, Charley Johnson, Abe Wiggins, and Tom Turley. The rustlers were taken back to Mason and imprisoned in the local jail.

On the night of February 18, 1875, a mob of forty men forced their way into the jail using a battering ram and forcibly removed the prisoners. It was later alleged by one of the posse members that Clark and Hoerster suggested lynching the rustlers. Whether involved or not, Clark failed to prevent the mob from carrying out their own brand of justice after being warned that should he attempt to interfere he would be shot.

Despite this Clark did gather six men and, along with visiting Texas Ranger Lt. Dan Roberts, set out in pursuit of the mob. They caught up with the mob at the south edge of town where the prisoners were being hung from a large oak tree. By the time Clark and his men arrived both Backus brothers and Abe Wiggins were dead. Clark and his men did manage to save Turley while Charley Johnson escaped in the mayhem.

Thus began a year long reign of terror as the mob, calling themselves a vigilance committee, resorted to ambush and midnight hangings against those they suspected of rustling. Tensions between the German and American factions increased steadily. The situation grew even more tenuous in May of that year when deputy sheriff John Wohrle arrested a man named Tim Williamson. Williamson worked on a ranch whose owner was known for paying five dollars a head for unbranded cattle. Wohrle and Williamson had only traveled a short distance from the ranch when they were confronted by a dozen German ranchers led by Peter Bader. Without any pretense, Bader shot Williamson from the saddle. Bader and his men were taken before a grand jury but never indicted for the murder.

This event brought a new player into the conflict, former Texas Ranger Scott Cooley. As a boy Cooley had been abducted by the Native Americans who murdered his parents. After escaping, Cooley was taken in by the Williamson family. Upon learning of Tim Williamson's murder Cooley traveled to Mason and began asking questions. After learning as much as he could about the circumstances and those involved, he sat out on a path of vengeance.

His first act of vengeance was the cold-blooded murder of deputy Wohrle. Cooley shot Wohrle in the back of the head while the other was engaged in digging a well. Cooley then scalped his victim, adding insult to injury. But Cooley was just getting started.

Cooley formed a gang that included George Gladden, John Beard, Mose Beard, and Johnny Ringo (who would later play a role the events leading up to and following the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona). Two of Cooley's men, Gladden and Mose Beard, were ambushed by sixty men that included Peter Bader, Sheriff Clark, and Inspector Hoerster. Beard was killed in the ambush but Gladden managed to escape.

Cooley and his men retaliated by killing the man who had led the two gang members into the ambush. They followed this up by gunning Hoerster down as he rode past the Mason barber shop. One of the gunmen, Bill Coke, was captured and killed by members of the vigilance committee the following day.

It was at this point that the Texas Rangers became involved in the dispute. Forty Rangers, led by Major Jones, arrived on the scene on September 28, 1875. Among the Rangers were ten men from Cooley's old unit. Jones immediately sent scouts out in search of Cooley. While the Ranger's searched fruitlessly for Cooley the remaining Justice of the Peace issued warrants for Sherrif Clark and others. Clark was arrested but the charges failed to stick. In the aftermath, Clark resigned was never heard from again.

As the Ranger patrols continued to come up empty Major Jones began to suspect the willingness of his men to take down one of their own. Jones eventually confronted his men and gave those with any sympathy towards Cooley the opportunity to stand down. Fifteen men took him up on the offer. The remaining men captured Gladden and Ringo.

In November Cooley and his gang killed both Peter Bader and his brother in short order. In December of 1875 the rangers finally succeeded in capturing Cooley. He was imprisoned with Johnny Ringo, but both men soon escaped from the Lampasas County Jail.

The violence and lawlessness would continue through the summer of 1876. The conflict came to a sudden end with the mysterious death of Cooley. His cause of death remains a mystery. According to some theories he was poisoned while dining in the Nimitz Hotel. Others claim he died as a result of "brain fever." Yet another theory posits that he died as a result of wounds suffered previously.

Whatever the cause, his death brought a sudden end to the yearlong wave of terror that had consumed Mason. In the aftermath, George Gladden was imprisoned for the murder of Peter Bader. Johnny Ringo, meanwhile, took off for Arizona territory. In January of 1877 the Mason County Courthouse burned to the ground, destroying the official records of the bloody dispute.

This brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.

As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found near the bottom of my home page ( and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.

Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.

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