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A Close Shave for the Barber of Dodge City

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: December 06, 2007 
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The killing was remarkable, less for what it said about the jealous husband and the innocent victim than about the growing pains of the turbulent town. It occurred on a night of brutal cold, of wolf winds searching the Kansas prairie for prey. On January 14, 1876, a man named Uriah T. Lawrence left one of the establishments strung along Dodge City's Front Street. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad tracks dividing Front were known locally as the "Deadline" and separated the wild, uncivilized, anything-goes south side of town from the respectable if not entirely teetotaling north. Perhaps it was from one of the sedate north-side saloons—the description is relative—that Lawrence took his leave into the bracing night air.

A contemporary account of what happened next relates that he was taking a shortcut home. He may have been heeding a call of nature as well, since the saloons planted their outhouses to the rear of the Front Street premises, near a bypath of "female boarding houses" known officially as Chestnut Street and unofficially as Tin Pot Alley, from the habit merchants had of chucking their battered utensils into it.

Whatever Lawrence's intentions, he had not walked far, not so far as the length of a block, when a flash split the dark and 18 buckshot ripped into his left groin. It would be comforting to report the shock of the concussion rendered the 25-year-old farmer insensible to his fate, bringing with it an instant, painless passage from life to death, but such was not to be. Information filed in the case states that he "did languish" for five whole days, until January 19, when he died of his wounds.

Nobody doubted who the midnight assassin was or what motive impelled him to touch off his double-barreled shotgun. John Tyler, a former slave from Missouri and the owner of a barbershop and residence on Front Street, readily confessed. His motive was one with which his past had made him all too familiar: property rights, the property being his wife, Malvina. The intended victim was not Lawrence but a mulatto bootblack, Allen E. Brice, who lived with the Tylers. According to local gossip, Brice was a paramour of Malvina Tyler, sharing bed as well as board.

Having uttered public threats, Tyler had armed himself and lain in wait for his rival, sure that Brice would come tomcatting around the rear of the household. Blinded by pent-up hatred, the barber snapped the trigger before realizing his target, soft-footing through the rubbish, was the shadowy outline of the white man, Lawrence. Surprisingly, for several weeks after the remains had been consigned to Boot Hill, no one—officers of the law, vigilantes or a garden-variety mob—was inclined to take action against Tyler. It appeared that the citizens of Dodge City, already bogeymen to the prim burghers of Middle America for their heedless, heathen and widely reported disregard of human life, were about to live up—or down—to their reputation.

In January 1876, the local legal situation was unsettled. Though the A.T. & S.F. Railroad had laid tracks as far west as Dodge by September 5, 1872, the city was not incorporated for another three years. Until 1875 law enforcement was in the hands of the county sheriff, and even with the November election of two constables (one of whom was the owner of a dance hall and brothel) to serve Dodge City and Township, the only available jail was under the jurisdiction of the sheriff,  and he had to patrol not only Ford County, where Dodge was located, but also a number of unorganized counties to the south and west that were  havens for horse and cattle thieves. It would not be until April 1876 that Dodge would elect a mayor, a city council and a marshal to head up its own police force.

But with a lucrative cattle trade looming on the horizon, the "better class" of citizens—as permanent residents liked to think of themselves in opposition to itinerants such as buffalo hunters, gamblers and prostitutes—discovered a motive in cold, hard cash to dispel Dodge's reputation as a camp full of wanton murderers, and the mechanism of the law cranked up after some  initial sputtering. That Tyler made no attempt to flee following the shooting of Lawrence is evident. On February 8, the justice of the peace for Dodge Township, William Y. McIntosh, issued a warrant for his arrest, and on the same day, Ford County Undersheriff Ed O. Hougue brought the prisoner before the bench. Tyler pled not guilty. The justice fixed his recognizance at $750, to appear at the June term of the Ford County District Court, and Tyler produced the sureties to cover his bond, thus avoiding incarceration.

Those who hastened to bail Tyler out were a trio of dubious repute. Edward D. Cowen, living in Dodge at the time, would become a reporter in Colorado in the 1880s. Along with Bat Masterson and others, he would successfully pressure the governor of Colorado to keep Doc Holliday out of the clutches of the Arizona Territory authorities that sought to prosecute the deadly dentist in the aftermath of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Cowen himself was no stranger to violence. His loose tongue once provoked his near-fatal beating at the hands of a Leadville, Colo., alderman. William F.  Sweeney had been Ford County clerk since 1873 and was associated with the  political power structure known as the "Ring." Sweeney's wife of the moment, Bessie—she went through three husbands in as many years—had a reputation as a woman of easy virtue and was a con artist, a self-described "clairvoyant," sporting the cognomen Mrs. Dr. Guy.

The Sweeneys and Cowen set upon the desperate and illiterate Tyler, who had no personal property to speak of, and gulled him into signing a deed of conveyance to his Front Street barbershop, disguising it as a simple IOU. With the prospects of Dodge soaring on the wings of the fledgling cattle trade, this shop, located on the north side of the street between a billiard hall and a drugstore, was prime real estate, sure to appreciate many times over. Two months later, May 13, a formal indictment was handed down against Tyler. About this time, the Sweeneys and Cowen took possession of the shop, and the full realization of his predicament broke upon the barber. Not only was he due to face a murder charge in District Court in less than a month, he had also signed away the only equity available to him to hire a defense lawyer.

In addition, as a black man whose victim, albeit accidental, was white, he had to be acutely aware that vigilantism was not unknown in Ford County. A recent victim of mob law, the son of a respected clergyman, had been accused of horse theft and strung up on Sawlog Creek, 14 miles south of Dodge. In 1876 the frontier code of swift justice still coexisted with the legal efforts of town and county police such as Charles Bassett, Bat Masterson and Wyatt and Morgan Earp.

Tyler seized the only option open to him if he was determined to stand his ground. On May 31 he broke into the barberhop and took possession of it, running Sweeney off by force, and no one, it seems, stepped forward to oppose him. There may have been several reasons why.

First, the Sweeneys were not upstanding citizens. Bessie's shenanigans in the town were no secret, and William Sweeney was tainted by long association with county commissioners often seen as corrupt and self-serving. In January 1876, an Atchison, Kan., newspaper reported the Ford County commissioners had issued bonds in the amount of $8,000 to build a bridge across the Cimarron River in Seward County—a swath of wilderness attached to Ford as a municipal township—where no bridge was needed and there was no one to pay interest or principal on the bonds.

The chairman of the county commission, Alfred J. Peacock—incidentally, the owner of the billiard hall next to John Tyler's barbershop—signed the bonds, and William F. Sweeney, the county clerk, certified them. However, the state auditor received an objection to the proceedings and issued an injunction. The case was to come up for a hearing. The newspaper concluded: "The bonds will not be registered. Nobody will be swindled this time. A thin scheme has been nipped."

Second, some of the leading citizens of Dodge rallied to lend their support to Tyler. More than moral support, it was financial and with no strings attached and no nefarious schemes afoot. When Tyler came before Judge Samuel R. Peters on June 27, 1876, his new group of bondsmen represented power points all along the grid of Dodge City. Henry L. Sitler was the first settler on the Dodge townsite in 1872 and an original member of the townsite company. George M. Hoover, a successful liquor dealer and mayor, had been on hand to greet the Santa Fe railroad contractors when they arrived in June 1872, selling his liquid fire from a tent saloon, his plank bar held up by stacked strips of prairie sod. George Cox was a Georgian who had served in the Confederate Army, moved west and built the Dodge House, the premier hotel in town. Sam Galland, a doctor, and Jacob Collar, a dry goods merchant, had both emigrated from Germany and represented a strong foreign constituency in the county. Philander G. Reynolds ran a stagecoach operation and Ham Bell a livery stable. And perhaps the most unexpected bondsman of all was the marshal of Dodge, 300-plus-pound Lawrence E. Deger.

On the face of it, it is puzzling why these prominent merchants and officials, all of European heritage, would champion a black ex-slave who had admitted to killing a white man, even though he entered a not guilty plea to the charge of murder, claiming mistaken identity. Certainly, mid-century Kansas contained a strong abolitionist element. And the spirit of the Western frontier—the sense of equality and interdependence regardless of color, class or creed fostered among pioneers—tended to lessen instances of friction due to bigotry. Yet Kansans were not unique among Americans, and given a strong enough impulse, which murder surely was, violence across the color line proved to be the rule rather than the exception nationwide.

The explanation for why John Tyler's bondsmen were willing to put up $1,000 they knew they might very well forfeit—his chances for acquittal were not hopeful and the sensible choice for him was to cut and run—emerges from the circumstances of Dodge City itself. In part there was a struggle for power between cliques with different visions for its future—an essential struggle to give it a future, to keep it from dying, vanishing, being swept away by the harsh prairie winds, a fate that befell more than one ghost town on the high plains west of Wichita.

While the "better class" would not recognize Tyler as one of their own socially, they embraced him when it came to business affairs. In their eyes he was an honest businessman harried by the jackal element of town, particularly the Sweeneys— a situation in which any one of them could easily imagine himself. An assessment done in July 1875 lists the following properties on Merchants' Row, Block 4 of North Front Street: Beatty & Kelley's saloon and restaurant; Jacob Collar's dry goods and furniture mart; A.J. Peacock's billiard hall; John Tyler's barbershop; Morris Collar's clothing store; George Hoover's wholesale liquors; and the two-story brick building of outfitters Charles Rath and Robert Wright. By and large, these men and those who put up Tyler's bond were in Dodge for the long haul, desiring a stable and secure town. But in the summer of 1876, as Tyler's case first came before the District Court, security and stability were uncertain.

Though no issues of the Dodge City newspaper, the Times, survive from that summer, correspondence from the now bustling cattle emporium was printed in other papers throughout the state. The July 27, 1876, issue of the Star, published in Ellis County, the former home of many prominent Dodgeites, described a mass meeting of 150 men held to select delegates from Ford County to the state congressional and senatorial conventions. According to the correspondent, "For downright lawlessness and violence the convention exceeded anything I ever saw or heard of….The best citizens of the city made up a slate and determined to elect every delegate thereon if within their power." The "best citizens" were the businessmen who ran stable enterprises that did not depend for their existence on the transient cowboys who were flooding the town, replacing buffalo hunters and the soldiers from Fort Dodge as prime targets for exploitation. Those opposed to the businessmen were "the gamblers, drunkards, etc," in other words, the exploiters, the sporting class, which also counted con men, pimps and prostitutes.

Speaking for the businessmen was Richard W. Evans, a stock raiser who had come from Hays City, known as "a Dodge in miniature," the seat of Ellis County 100 miles to the north and a shipping point for cattle along the Kansas Pacific line. Before he could speak, though, Evans had to beat back an attempt to run him off the floor by a jeering, pushing, pulsating mob. With chaos swirling around him, he leaped onto a table at the front of the meeting hall and shouted above the din that he and his supporters would accept the mob's choice of chairman, Harry T. McCarty, if there was agreement that each side would appoint one teller to count votes. This bold stroke quieted the hooligans while assuring a fair tally.

Order was restored, a vote taken, and the candidates of the businessmen—Fred C. Zimmerman and Morris Collar, Tyler's neighbor merchants—won a slim victory over the favorites of the sporting crowd, A.J. Peacock and "Colonel" Charles Norton, a notorious gambler and con man who would later be lynched in Sweetwater, Texas. It was judged that "the action of this convention is a rebuke to the roughs who for many years have manipulated the affairs of the county." Combine this with the election in April 1876 of George Hoover as mayor and his choice of Larry Deger as marshal, and the merchants must have felt they had gotten the upper hand at last.

However, they had not reckoned with the consequences of prosperity. In 1875-76 there were nearly 250,000 head of cattle driven to Dodge along the Western Trail. This spate of trade, taking up where the dwindling buffalo market left off, was an irresistible lure to scoundrels looking to pluck the trail-weary cowboy, his pockets packed with months' wages. By late summer 1876, reports from Dodge told of a tidal wave of gamblers, confidence tricksters and other sports flooding in just as some police officers lit out for the latest gold strike, in the Black Hills. The Hays City Sentinel, September 13, noted, "Gamblers are congregating at Dodge and Larry Deger has his hands full." A gambler fleeced a cattle buyer out of $800 and the citizens rose up, captured the grifter and thrust him into jail.

Alarmed at the lack of manpower to handle the explosion of crime, they organized a vigilance committee and addressed the following pointed note to each and every gambler, "Sir: You are hereby notified to leave the city before 6 o'clock a.m., of Sept. 17th, 1876, and not return here." It is not known how many pasteboard artists took the hint. But it is certain that however many did, they did not stay away for long.

The general election of November 1876 announced to anyone who could read the cards that the reprieve from lawlessness and disorder would be temporary. The Ring that had controlled the affairs of Ford County since 1873 had coalesced around the county commissioners: Chairman Alfred J. Peacock, Charles Rath, Andrew J. Anthony and, for a time, A.C. Myers, who shortly after resigning from the board became chief of a horse theft gang headquartered in the Panhandle—not a radical change in his line of work, some would have said. Rath and Anthony were both business associates of the politically powerful Robert Wright. He and Anthony had been partners since 1867, when they became post sutlers at nearby Fort Dodge. Other members of the Ring were County Clerk Sweeney, Sheriff Charles Bassett, Treasurer Herman Fringer and Township Trustee Peter L. Beatty.

The election overturned the victory of the upright businessmen in the July convention: Wright was elected state representative; Fringer probate judge, defeating Richard Evans; Beatty retained his office, winning handily over Zimmerman; and a newcomer from Missouri, Mike Sutton, took over as county attorney. The Ring, in fact, was morphing into what would come to be known as the Gang, the ruling party for the remainder of the decade. The only missing crony  was William F. Sweeney.

Sweeney's plot to hook John Tyler's barbershop, that tempting property on the main thoroughfare of a suddenly booming cattle town, had gone awry almost from the start. First, he lost possession of it to his intended dupe, who showed himself frighteningly adept with razor or shotgun. Then, turning to the law, Sweeney likewise ran against a roadblock. On June 8, 1876, he filed an appeal to recover the barbershop, but before it could be adjudicated, Sweeney himself went missing, not only from Dodge but also from his wife, the fascinating Bessie, a woman who never lingered alone for long.

The county commissioners, meeting on August 10, 1876, declared, "Whereas William F. Sweeney, the duly elected and qualified County Clerk of Ford County Kansas, has absconded from the County of Ford and has been absent from and neglected the duties of his Office since the 24th day of July…we the Board of Commissioners of Ford Co. Kansas hereby declare the office of County Clerk of Ford County to be vacant." The reason for his absconding became clear a little over a week later when it came out that he had forged and fraudulently put into circulation a county warrant made out to himself for $125. It may well be that Sweeney, familiar as he was with the tortuous course of the law, realized that when his audacious swindle failed to succeed and Tyler did not bolt even with a murder charge hanging over his head, the game was up.

Sweeney was not around to share in the Gang's triumphal sweep of the April 3, 1877, municipal election, led by new Mayor James "Dog" Kelley. In fact, if the story in the Dodge City Times is to be credited, Sweeney was not around anywhere but had been crushed beneath the wheels of an engine near Cascade Station, Calif., his body too badly mangled to be shipped back to Kansas for burial. A letter sent to Mayor Kelley is given as a source for the report, and some suspicions about the authenticity of it arise since Sweeney was still on the run, wanted for forgery, and in January 1877 John Tyler had won a personal judgment for $250 against him and Bessie when it was ruled they had obtained the deed of conveyance to the barber shop by fraud.

Tyler's victory in the civil suit with the Sweeneys turned out to be crucial to his fate, since it secured title to a building he could then use as collateral to hire an impressive team of defense lawyers. He had another stroke of good fortune in January when Judge Peters agreed to move the trial (already postponed once due to the illness of Tyler's attorney) out of Ford to Pawnee County 75 miles north. Though a core of influential merchants backed Tyler, he ran the risk that the pool of eligible jurors in and around Dodge would be prejudiced against him. His chance of acquittal or a reduced sentence was much better in a venue where passions were not inflamed or memories sharp.

Eventually jailed for about a month while he awaited trial in Larned, the seat of Pawnee County, John Tyler had his day in court on June 12, 1877. The case caused a stir in the community, if for no other reason than, as the local paper said, "It is seldom more than one or two negroes are seen in Larned at one time." But on the 12th, a half-dozen appeared at the courthouse, a veritable invading army, and yet nearly outnumbered by Tyler's phalanx of attorneys. The legal talent was a star-studded ensemble: the venerable Sam Wood, an old hand at arguing before the Kansas Supreme Court; Joseph Waters of Topeka, attorney for the A.T. & S.F. Railroad; A.A. Hurd of Great Bend; and Daniel M. Frost, once a state representative for Ford County and a staunch foe of the Ring. Frost would later become editor of the Ford County Globe and carry on a war of words and, on occasion, fists with the Ring's political progeny, the Dodge City Gang.

The trial was as anticlimactic as it was brief. The Pawnee County Herald summarized the outcome:

In the case of the State vs. Tyler (colored), in which there was a change of venue from Ford to Pawnee County, the proceedings were quashed on the grounds of a defect in the information.

The prisoner confessed, we believe, to the killing of a white man, but plead [sic] that it was accidental; that in attempting to shoot a colored man he by mistake killed the wrong man. It does seem strange that in case a man premeditatedly attempts to murder a man and by mistake kills the wrong man that he should go unpunished. It would seem that he was even more guilty for having killed an innocent man than he would have been had he killed his intended victim, for aside from the crime of murder he was guilty of a criminal carelessness in the use of a deadly weapon.

The Herald's reasoning may have been sound, but it went unheeded. The defect in the information, the legal document instituting criminal proceedings, turned out to be none other than the misspelling of Lawrence's last name as "Lieurance." The error seems to have come about because the county district attorney who originally charged Tyler retired from office, and for some reason the new D.A. or more likely his clerk—William F. Sweeney!—wrote over the correct spelling, thus inadvertently opening a loophole for Tyler to slip through.

The case could have been re-filed, but by now the third Ford County district attorney in little over a year, Mike Sutton, had no taste for it. He was connected to the Gang and was politically astute. Already audible was the gnashing of teeth over the expenses to which the case had put the county—above $350—and the Gang newspaper, the Times, placed the blame squarely on the previous administration, several of whom had been Tyler's bondsmen:

In justice to Mr. Sutton we wish to say that this was one of the cases handed down from the old administration, and that the information was prepared by ex-County Attorney D.M. Sells….At one time much interest was manifested in the case, but the tardy working of the machinery of the law has induced a forgetfulness of this pitiless spilling of innocent blood, and the result of the trial provokes but little expression of opinion. Notwithstanding the technicality that liberated the prisoner, there still remains the naked fact that even time cannot wash away—the cool, calm, deliberate murder. 

Roger Jay of Baltimore is a frequent contributor to Wild West. Suggested for further reading: Dodge City, by Fredric R. Young; and Early Ford County, by Ida Ellen Rath.



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