The Cornett-Whitley Gang: Violence Unleashed in Texas, by David Johnson, University of North Texas Press, Denton, 2019, $29.95
Countless volumes have been written about certain Western characters striding along on either side of the law—and sometimes on both at various times—who had the good fortune to get the right writeup from the press for posterity. For Western buffs desperate for a change of pace, David Johnson (known for, among other things, a biography of John Ringo) has churned up a wealth of research to recount the careers of a lesser-known pack of desperadoes. The Cornett-Whitley Gang is as much a term of convenience for its own time as it is for the book title. Even gang leaders Braxton Cornett and William Whitley don’t seem to have trusted their fellow railroad robbers enough to forge an enduring alliance.
They didn’t achieve the lasting fame of the James-Younger Gang, but from 1887 to 1889 this gang terrorized Texas with a series of daring heists. If anything distinguished them, it was a sadistic streak that manifested itself most overtly at a train robbery in Flatonia, where they brutalized men and women alike even after they’d given up what they had, to the extent that three of the thieves had to replace their guns, whose barrels had bent from all the pistol whipping. Oh, yes, and there were a few outright murders.
Although all the comings and goings within its ranks made the Cornett-Whitley Gang as elusive to Texas law enforcement agencies then as it is to research now, the author tracks it well through the myriad contemporary news articles he found, taking time to point out the degrees of deviation from reality attending each (oft serving to remind the reader that “fake news” isn’t all that new). One may question Johnson’s claims to objectivity (he leaves little doubt as to who the good guys and bad guys are and extends his conclusions to suggest that “the evil that men do” cursed the lives of all involved, good or bad), but he weaves a compelling narrative on a brief but momentarily sensational event in Texas’ struggle out of lawlessness.