History: The Law and the Lawless – Part 1

By Dana Stubbs – Special to the Navarro County Gazette

In October, the Navarro County Genealogical Society and the Corsicana Public Library with Pioneer Village put on the Corsicana Odyssey. The Society and the Library started this event in 2014. The event is a walking tour where actors perform a first-person narrative of someone with a past in Navarro County. During the last two Odysseys, they also put on a seated performance for those interested who did not wish to walk a tour.  

This year was themed “The Law and the Lawless.” It highlighted several well-known events concerning the subject matter in Navarro County’s past.

The definition of law: “The system of rules which a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and which it may enforce by the imposition of penalties.”

The definition of lawless: “Not governed by or obedient to laws; characterized by a lack of civic order.”

1846 Texas map shows Navarro County in yellow. – Courtesy Photo

When Navarro County was founded, Texas was still a very wild place and very few if any laws were enforced. In 1846 the first election was held in Navarro County and Indian fighter and surveyor James A. Johnson was elected sheriff. With a population of just about 100 residents in the whole area which stretched into what is now Parker County, his duties were not heavy as far as the lawlessness was concerned.

In 1848, he was appointed commissioner of survey and sold lots for the new town of Corsicana. He built the first courthouse for a cost of $100 ($2,884.82 in today’s funds). It was a 15×17 foot log cabin with cracks large enough to “throw a coyote through,” as one lawyer has been reported to say.

Sheriffin’ was not really Johnson’s forte, and in 1849 he resigned to become road overseer. Navarro County has had a continuous line of mostly good sheriffs from that time on. Only a few years during Reconstruction was the office not filled. At that time Federal troops were in power and ruled the law over the county. Crime and disorder was rampant.

Over the years laws have been added to community, state, and country in which to take care of certain aspects of “disorder” in their local situations.

Here’s a list of a few laws that, at one time or another, may have caused some eye raising or head shaking from someone passing through the country. 

  1. Texas had two towns in which prostitution was legal (State licensed). Corsicana was one of them, Galveston was the other.
  2. It’s illegal to milk another person’s cow.
  3. It is against the law to carry a pair of wire cutters on your person.
  4. When two trains meet at a railroad crossing, both shall come to a full stop. Neither train shall proceed until the other train has gone.
  5. The “no shirt, no shoes, no service” rule is taken a bit further in some Texas cities. There are some towns that have made it illegal to walk around barefoot without obtaining a permit.
  6. If you intend on making a victim of a crime you commit, you must give them 24 hours’ notice, either orally or in writing, to explain the nature of the crime. Otherwise, you’ll just look like an inconsiderate jerk.
  7. In most scenarios you can shoot a buffalo anywhere. But, if you plan to shoot a buffalo out the second story window of a hotel please check with the local law enforcement because in some Texas towns the second story shooting is a no-no.
  8. Texans love riding horses, but doing so at night in Texarkana is potentially illegal. You can only be a law-abiding horse rider if you put tail lights on your horse after dark.
  9. Did you know it was illegal to own the “Encyclopedia Britannica?” The whole collection is banned in Texas because it holds a formula that Texans could use to make beer at home.
  10. You may have joked about selling a limb for a quick buck but you cannot sell your eyeballs because it is totally illegal in Texas.
  11. Having respect for the dead is very important, so it is not a real surprise that it is against the law to use profanity in front of a corpse.
  12. In Texas you cannot drive without windshield wipers… but you don’t necessarily need a windshield.

Concerning the law of prostitution in Corsicana:

In the early days of the first oil booms all the boomtowns and their nearby communities had what was referred to as the “Red Light District.” Illegal “street walking” was rampant but not in Corsicana or Galveston. Texas legalized prostitution in these two towns. During this time a buxom blonde German girl who went by the name Dora Raymond set up the “commerce industry” for her business in Corsicana.

Madam Dora was a smart lady. At first, the ladies had no boundaries, but over the years they were “reined in” with laws to the point they were only allowed to walk to the doctor’s office and back, to the courthouse/jail and back or one way to the train station. Many of today’s old timers will tell you when they were kids they were not allowed to go on “Commerce Street.”

Rufus Pevehouse

During the Odyssey this year, Rob Jones portrayed one of Navarro County’s longest running sheriffs, Rufus Pevehouse. Rufus was described as a man who had encountered many rough characters, but he never had to kill a man.

Rufus was born in Blooming Grove, Navarro County, Texas. His parents were Walter and Lula (Herrin) Pevehouse. In Rufus’ early years his father was a constable in the Blooming Grove area. Before that, Walter had been sheriff of Navarro County, and then later he became a merchant in Blooming Grove.

After the medium height, slender built, brown haired, blue eyed Rufus graduated from high school he went to work driving a truck in the oil fields for C. G. Duncan. It was in 1921 he started on a career in law enforcement. He hired on with the Navarro County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy under Walter Hayes, John Stewart and Tom Wilson. When Rufus started with the sheriff’s office, they had one horse with a saddle and a T-Model Ford they had to crank to start. And the sheriff had only two deputies.

During prohibition, the lawless fraction of Navarro County made a reputation for themselves. The law was always on the lookout for stills making moonshine. One day in 1922, Deputy Pevehouse and Deputy Tom Smith were called out to the Fesmire farm in the Winkler area on a still run. As they neared the farm, just before they reached the Richland bottoms, they met B. O. Franks and Fred Russell in a wagon.

Upon examination of the wagon, they found two jugs of whiskey, two shot guns, and the coil and copper horn of a still. The duo stillers were arrested and brought to jail. However, Pevehouse was also aware many of these moonshiners were simply trying to feed their family so he made allowances for them. Other actions Pevehouse worked on while a deputy were the Frank Norton and the J. P. Dukeminier murder cases.

Candidate flyer for Rufus Pevehouse – Courtesy photo

In 1928, Pevehouse, along with W. T. Wilson, Walter Hayes, D. C. Kelley, Jess Speed, Will Knight, John Stewart, and E. W. Warnell, dropped their hat in the ring for the office of Navarro County Sheriff. The race came down with a Pevehouse win over Warnell by a vote of 6938 to 1875. That made the 28-year-old Rufus one of the youngest sheriff’s in the history of Texas.

About a year after his election, he received a call from Lillie Mae Yarber of Blooming Grove. She told him she had just killed her husband. Other cases he worked during his first ten years as sheriff, other than the humdrum every day lawless cases, were the Cerf kidnapping case, and another wife killing husband case. That time it was Hattie Goodman who simply drove up to the hospital in Corsicana as her husband, Howard, was walking out and she pulled her gun from her purse and shot him twice.

Newspaper article about the Cerf extortion case. – Courtesy photo

In April 1935, Rufus led the first ever bookie raid in the county. In north Corsicana three men were arrested, two ticketers and racing forms were confiscated with names and addresses of fifteen customers which was taken as evidence. And, he worked several bank robberies. Of course, he was always on the alert for the Clyde Barrow gang, but he never made contact with him. Rufus held the office for ten years.

In 1939, history repeated itself. Back when Walter Pevehouse was unseated in the election for sheriff, he was beaten by John R. Curington. In 1939, Walter’s son Rufus was unseated as sheriff by the son of John R. Curington, C. O. “Cap” Curington.

After he lost the election, Rufus moved to Dallas. In 1939 he served as a US Marshall over seven counties in the Dallas Division. He came back to Corsicana and ran again for sheriff in 1950. He won over seven other candidates which included Cap Curington. In 1956 the terms of office increased from two to four years.

Rufus has been described as having a “knack of getting along with people and getting the job done in a quiet unobtrusive manner.”

Fence Cutting War

In station two of this year’s Corsicana Odyssey, it was all about local events during the Fence Cutting War.

The Fence Cutting War – Courtesy photo

The cattle industry became very important after the War Between the States. Many areas had been depressed from the effects of combat, and beef was needed all through the lower states to feed the war ruined areas. The mid-northern sections of the country also became desirous for the Texas beef. They were growing by leaps and needed food stuffs to survive while they built their futures. Texas cattle barons developed great cattle trails to move their South Texas beeves to other states to meet the demand for the beef.

The main cattle trails moved from South Texas to the railroads in the north for distribution to the markets across the open country. Near Waco, a branch broke from the main trails which moved through Navarro County. This track is a much lesser known trace called Cow Head Trail. It was used to move cattle from the main trails to Shreveport, Louisiana, and Texarkana, Arkansas.

Moving the cows over the open country was a hard dirty job. Many of these trails were first “mapped” by the Native American following the buffalo. The Native American made “road signs” in the form of tree markers across the country marking their trails, favorite campsites, etc. They “groomed” certain trees into a form to show where the good camp/creek crossings, etc., were located. There is a tree on Beaton Street that could be one of these markers.

Over the few last years it has broken up some, but its unique obviously man shaped form is a trademark for these Native American “tree signs.” This particular one is close to Post Oak Creek and could have been a favorite camping site for the Native Americans.

Back to the subject at hand, a German by the name of Joseph Gibben worked in an iron foundry in Austin, Texas. He had a problem keeping his personal orchard and garden safe from depredation from the town cows so in 1874 he invented and patented barbed wire with hopes to keep his produce safe. By the next year the fencing was being sold by the car loads across the states.

As the wire was stretched across open prairies the open lands began to dwindle and the cattle trails began to have problems. Farmers were putting up the mean wire around their farms to keep out the cattle and cattlemen put up their mean fences to keep the other cattle from using waterways.

Fences had been stretched around water and grass which had fed passing cattle for many years. In 1883, a severe drought in Texas brought a fierce conflict between the fencers and the non-fencers. The fencers cut off roads and access to public lands and waters. The cutters were well organized. They stationed armed guards to protect the men while they worked. Half the counties in the state of Texas reported fence cuttings. The newspapers are full of reports of cutting damage that amounted to 20 million dollars in 1883, ($510,833,663 in 2021).

A vintage fence cutting tool. – Courtesy photo

In January 1884, Texas governor John Ireland called for a special assembly and they passed a bill mandating prison sentences for the fence cutters. Property owners were ordered to remove fences across property they didn’t own, provide gates every three miles, and keep the gates in good repair. By the end of 1885 large-scale fence cutting had ended in Texas. But, smaller incidences continued to occur.

Several of those incidences happened during the 1880s in Navarro County and at the Corsicana Odyssey this year, Camille McClanahan told this story in first-person as the bar keepers wife.

Portrayal of Camille McClanahan. – Courtesy photo

The summer of 1885 a mass meeting was held on the Navarro County courthouse lawn where it was decided to put up a one thousand dollar reward for the capture of men who were slipping around at night cutting fences.

The wife of the bartender at the Washington Saloon had lost at the horse races, so she came up with an idea to replenish her pocketbook with reward money. She went into action when she noticed two cowboys already drinking in the saloon. She offered them more to drink, then she brought up the subject of the mean farmers and their awful fences. With one more drink, a pat on the back and a pair of cutters she suggested, “just for fun,” the cowboys ride out to Sam Frost’s place and cut his fence down.

The Washington Saloon. – Courtesy photo

One of the cowboys was so drunk he could not even mount his horse, but the other man rode pell-mell for Frost’s fences. As soon as he was out of sight of town, the woman wasted no time in informing the sheriff that she had overheard this plan to cut Sam Frost’s fence. The sheriff caught the cowboy with the cutters in his hands cutting the wire. He spent two years in the penitentiary at Huntsville for the deed. The “woman with a plan” story was brought out at trial. 

In 1887 the “knights of the nippers” cut fence at F. W. Carruthers, James Kerr, L. B. Morse, George T. Jester, Mr. Rich, Richard Beale and at Fish Tank No. 2, (today the Corsicana Country Club Lake.) A reward of $250 was offered for the capture of the cutters. This did not put a complete end to the issue. It took the work of a couple of Texas Rangers with dynamite to close war in Richland, Texas.

Minorities on the Beat in Corsicana

At the Corsicana Odyssey, Deb Miller, curator of the museum at Pioneer Village, talked about the early minorities on the Corsicana beat.

Deb Miller speaks at Corsicana Odyssey event. – Courtesy photo

During the late 1940s, a host of cities in the heart of segregated Dixie began recruiting African-Americans for their police force. A survey in 1944 by Paul Jones who was secretary of the inter-racial committee in Birmingham showed more than 100 cities employed African-Americans as policemen in their sections of town.

Jones reported: “Many more cities will begin utilizing them when they consider how useful to both races they are.”

There were a few African-American officers in the state of Texas before World War Two, and their addition to law enforcement was very successful. By the 1950s, many more cities added their service to their own forces. 

African-Americans said it lifted their morale and spirit to have a member of their own race uphold the law in their local areas; only the lawless aspects objected. At first, taking baby steps, the line was drawn as to who the new officers could arrest. They were advised to patrol only in their own race areas and not to arrest whites except in emergencies.

In Corsicana Police Commissioner Albert Fullerton and Chief Bruce Nutt had made promises to the East Side residents to hire new officers for their area. It was just a matter of process to find someone with the skill their standard required to fill the job. Their promise was fulfilled in 1953 when Officer Timothy B. Barge, 25, began his duties on July 1.

At first, he worked alone in a patrol car. His recommendation by the East Side ministerial alliance and business leaders along with his two years’ experience as a military policeman, several years with the Houston police force and the Mexia police force gave him the required training desired by the Corsicana commission. The native Worthamite was the son of a Baptist minister and a high school graduate who had taken a course in business administration while in the US army. His appointment was unanimously voted on by the Corsicana Commissioner’s court on July 7, 1953.

In September the second African-American officer was hired by the city commission. He was Ernest Davis, 39, who was born and reared in Navarro County. Although he had some experience with the law he had no previous law enforcement experience. He had a good reputation and with training was expected to make a good officer. He worked with Officer Timothy Barge for one month. Then, “for reasons beyond his control,” Barge resigned and moved out of Corsicana. However, in less than a month he was back on the force and continued to train Officer Davis.

In the summer of 1954, Officer Barge resigned his position for the last time. He left Corsicana to attend Prairie View College under the GI bill. His replacement came with the addition of Officer Percell Milton. Milton, 30, was a native of Corsicana. Although he had no previous experience, he rode a night patrol with Officer Barge for several weeks in order to get familiar with the beat routine.

Milton did have three and a half years of high school education and was married with three children when he joined the force. He also had US military experience as he served with honor in World War Two. The Commissioners court confirmed his appointment in September, 1954.

Davis and Milton took care of business alone until October 1957. That was when Theodore R. (Honeybee) Hall was added to the East Side police team as a night patrol officer. Honeybee had worked fourteen years at the shoeshine stand of the R. and M. Shoe Shop. He was widely known in Corsicana a good character.

Theodore R. “Honeybee” Hall – Courtesy photo

Aside from the endless liquor and traffic law violations, the first East Side police force dealt with some very serious and dangerous events. The lawless fraction of East Side did not except them with pride, and gave them problems on many occasions.

Officers Milton and Hall went to work to find the shooter after shots rang out from a Greyhound bus which carried fans from Hamilton Park after a game at Bear Stadium. The small caliber bullet found a target in the right leg of Bear right guard Wilbur Collins.

Milton was promoted to Sergeant in 1969 on the basis of competition of the civil service examination. Although he had some issues early in his career with some of the white law enforcement, he resigned in good standing with much respect from his commanding officers.

To Be Continued in Part 2….

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Categories: History