Wrecked Lives and Lost Souls: Joe Lynch Davis and the Last of the Oklahoma Outlaws, by Jerry Thompson, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2019, $24.95
Jerry Thompson, regents professor of history at Texas A&M University and the author of many books on the history of the West, wrote a stirring story about the bloody if often overlooked Porum Range War in the October 2019 issue of Wild West. The war was triggered in east central Oklahoma by pervasive rustling and efforts by the local Anti-Horse Thief Association (AHTA) to stop the principal perpetrators—the Davis Gang. The Davis brothers—Cicero, Sam, Jack and Bob—were mixed-blood Cherokees who came to what was then Indian Territory in the 1880s and became among the biggest ranchers. Their way of life included gathering cattle from what they perceived as the open range, which angered the farmers and smaller ranchers who owned some of those cattle. Things heated up in May 1911 after Bob Davis killed Muskogee County Deputy Sheriff Jim Work, the AHTA putting a price on Bob’s head. Three weeks later 19-year-old Joe Lynch Davis (Jack’s son) and friend Samuel “Pony” Starr battled a posse in a ferocious 10-minute gunfight in which 14 men were shot, eight mortally wounded or killed outright.
Joe Davis survived the range war, which Thompson says left more than 30 men dead and many farms and ranches in ruin. Joe would jump bail and flee to Arizona, take an alias and rob trains and banks before authorities finally nabbed him in 1916 and sent him to the penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., for 14 years. As the center of so much lawlessness, Davis was worth profiling in a book.
Thompson had one other big reason for tackling the project—the mixed-blood outlaw was the grandfather he never knew. The author only learned about Davis’ criminal activities and other shocking family history after his mother died in 1982, and he discovered a shoebox full of letters and cards in an old dresser. Busy teaching and writing other things, Thompson finally set out on the trail of grandfather Davis in 2000. The result of the historian’s painstaking detective work is this fascinating book about a man who truly was one of the last of the old Oklahoma outlaws, and who to the end—Joe Lynch Davis died at age 86 on July 15, 1979—refused to talk about his outlaw past or time spent at Leavenworth.
As dramatic as Joe’s involvement in the Porum Range War was, the drama that followed in his life at least matched that. “Davis [at age 24] had established a record unsurpassed perhaps in the criminal annals of Oklahoma or any other state,” writes Thompson. “Within three months he had been arrested four times on four different felony charges, on warrants out of four different jurisdictions, and each time he was released.” The author contends Davis was no typical hard case living on the edge of society. His uncles were wealthy ranchers and, according to the author, “In the socioeconomic and political order of eastern Oklahoma during the Progressive Era, his banditry was not so much an example of lower-class social resistance but more about protecting wealth and power.” The bottom line was that Joe Davis robbed railroads and banks “as much for the thrill as for the money.”
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