‘This is the first time in the annals of history where unarmed prisoners, shackled together, ever repelled a mob. Such cool courage that preferred to fight against such great odds and die, if at all, in glorious battle rather than die ignominiously by a frenzied mob deserves to be commemorated in song and story’
—Judge Andrew Phelps McCormick, April 18, 1891
A cold moon shone down late in the evening of January 19, 1889, as two wagons and a buggy slowly crossed Dry Creek, two miles east of Graham, the seat of Young County, Texas. The lead wagon held six prisoners, chained together in pairs, and a guard, Phlete A. Martin. The second wagon carried Deputy U.S. Marshal Edward W. Johnson, three guards, weapons and ammunition, while four more guards followed in the buggy and on horseback.
Suddenly several masked figures rose from the roadside bushes, one man commanding: “Halt! Hold up your hands!” Diving clear of the lead wagon, Martin shouted, “Here they are—take all six of the sons of bitches!” What followed was a deadly gunfight between a vigilante mob and the prisoners—George, Charles, Alfred and Llewellyn Marlow and two others—the climactic act in a pageant of frontier justice that included misinformation, persecution, politics, mistakes, mob attacks, murder, lawsuits, a famous Texas Ranger, a coolheaded Colorado lawman and the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Marlows were a close-knit family. They were travelers, following their patriarch, Dr. Williamson Marlow, through Missouri, Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), Old and New Mexico, Colorado and Texas, holding small herds of horses and cattle. While rumors suggested they had acquired strays from others’ herds, no charges were filed, and the family caused no trouble. The elder Marlow died in 1885 in Texas, leaving his second wife, Martha Jane, and their five youngest surviving sons—George, Charles (Charley), Alfred (Alf), Boone, and Llewellyn (Epp, or Ellie)—to search for a place to settle down. The sons worked on railroad grading crews and as farmers and stock handlers. The family bothered no one until late 1885, when Boone shot and killed cowboy James Holston (or Holdson) in Vernon, Texas, allegedly in self-defense. Although a court hearing would later dismiss murder charges against Boone for lack of evidence, he fled to Colorado. The family followed, joined him in Trinidad and later that year moved to Indian Territory, where they felt Boone might be safer from prosecution.
After two quiet years, in 1888 the Marlows were living near Anadarko. George, Charley and Alf were married, George and Charley with a daughter apiece. George, Epp and Boone were farming, while Charley and Alf worked near Fort Sill for a Kiowa chief named Sun Boy. In mid-spring George rode to the Gunnison area of Colorado to visit his in-laws and his friend Cyrus Wells “Doc” Shores, the county sheriff and deputy U.S. marshal. All was peaceful until August, when Las Animas County Sheriff William T. Burns in Trinidad sent a letter to Deputy U.S. Marshal Edward W. Johnson in Graham, Texas, cautioning him to “look out for five Marlow brothers who are endeavoring to get away with 40 head of horses stolen from this place.”
Johnson, a career law enforcement officer who had lost his right arm in a gunfight earlier in the year (see “Gunfighters and Lawmen” this issue), was a most enigmatic character. Some contemporaries portrayed him as a scheming minion of the area cattlemen’s association, desperate to curry favor by prosecuting someone to discourage rustling. Others characterized him as a brave defender of the law. The truth is likely between these extremes. He was in fact employed as a range detective by the Stock-Raisers’ Association of North-West Texas (which later became the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association) in addition to his appointment as deputy U.S. marshal, not an unusual arrangement at the time.
Johnson supposedly received a second message from Sheriff Burns: “I find that I was mistaken in regard to the 40 head of horses. The parties owning them have since found them. They had only estrayed.” No action was taken on this message, and there is some doubt whether it actually existed. Both letters are puzzling, as with the exception of George the family had not been in the Trinidad area of Colorado for more than two years. Johnson headed for Indian Territory with a small posse but returned empty-handed. On a follow-up trip in late August he arrested Charley, Alf, Boone and Epp and took them to Graham for arraignment and trial.
On his return from Gunnison, George was detained for several days at Fort Sill, under orders left by Johnson, then released. He gathered up the rest of the family and headed for Graham to seek his brothers’ release. The family rented a cabin from area rancher Oscar G. Denson, but when George went to the jail on October 6 to ask about his four brothers, he was immediately arrested and jailed with them.
Later that month a grand jury indicted the brothers for theft of horses from three Indians—a Caddo named Ba-Sinda-Bar, a Comanche named Black Crow and a Caddo named Washington. None of these Indians lived anywhere near Trinidad, and none testified against the Marlows. Ba-Sinda-Bar told the jury he did not “own that many horses” and that “Marlow men no steal Indian man’s horses anyway, because he [the Marlows] have better horses he get somewhere else, but Indian man thinks these white mans [meaning Johnson and his deputies] steal if Indian man don’t sleep with one eye open.” Even so, the brothers were bound over for trial, set for March 1889.
After fruitless weeks of trying to arrange bail for her sons, Mother Marlow got her landlord to back her, and in late October the court released all the brothers but Boone, who finally made bail on December 15. Convinced they would be acquitted, George, Charley, Alf and Epp went to work for Denson and a neighbor while awaiting trial. All was not quiet, however. While Johnson was transporting them to Graham, the brothers had repeatedly insisted they had never been in trouble with the law, except for Boone, who had killed that cowboy in self-defense several years before. While the brothers were in jail, Johnson had gone to Vernon and requested a warrant for Boone’s arrest on murder charges. The warrant arrived in mid-December. With Christmas approaching, the Marlows’ nightmare was about to get much worse.
While the family felt that Deputy U.S. Marshal Johnson was persecuting them, they had received fair treatment from Marion Wallace, the sheriff of Young County, whom they considered a friend. Wallace was universally liked in the community but did not get along with Johnson. He had warned the Marlows to be careful.
The day after the warrant for Boone’s arrest arrived, Sheriff Wallace and his deputy, Tom Collier, rode out to the Marlows’ rented cabin on the Denson spread. They arrived at midday, just as the family was about to have dinner. While Wallace took care of the horses, Collier went around to the cabin door, where Charley Marlow met him. Charley invited him in for dinner, but Collier refused, stepped inside, spotted Boone Marlow and said, “I’ve come for you, Boone.” Collier then drew his revolver and fired, but missed. Boone grabbed a Winchester and returned fire, grazing Collier and splintering the doorframe. As Collier fled, Boone rushed to the door and, seeing movement outside, fired another shot.
Wallace, on hearing the earlier shots, had hurried around the corner of the cabin, and Boone’s second slug struck him in the side, mortally wounding the sheriff. For a moment the others stood stunned. Then Charley called for Collier to come help treat Wallace, while Epp rode to town to fetch a doctor. Collier left after a few minutes and immediately began distorting the events to make himself look better, saying that it could have been Charley who shot Wallace, that Wallace had been shot while Collier was around back of the cabin, and that Wallace told him to run. In fact, Wallace clearly identified Boone as the shooter to the doctor while being treated.
Collier returned with a large posse and arrested Charley; Epp was already in custody in Graham. Boone had bolted before the posse arrived, which earned him a price on his head and triggered a massive manhunt. Although George and Alf were miles away at the time of the shooting, they too were arrested and placed in the Graham jail. All were charged with complicity in the shooting. Bail was set at $1,000 each, so they remained in jail with little hope of release. Wallace succumbed to his gunshot wound on Christmas Eve, and Collier was named sheriff.
The four jailed brothers were in serious trouble. Even though Boone alone had done the shooting and had not intended to kill Sheriff Wallace, the boys heard talk among their jailers of plans to lynch them, and Graham had a history of mistreating its prisoners. The Marlows thought they had been framed for horse theft and were likely to be lynched or convicted of Wallace’s killing by a hostile citizenry. Rightly or wrongly, they believed their best chance of survival was escape, so they obtained a large knife from another prisoner and patiently cut their way through the wall of their cell. On January 14, 1889, they broke through to freedom and started toward their families but were quickly recaptured. Collier promptly took the brothers to a blacksmith and had them chained in pairs—George to Epp and Charley to Alf—before returning them to jail under heavy guard.
News of the jailbreak spread quickly. Several people, including some deputies, began urging mob action. A few citizens warned Deputy Marshal Johnson, but he felt that Collier and his deputies had the jail adequately protected. Then, near midnight on January 17, a body of men entered the building, and jailer John Leavell led them to the prisoners’ cell. The mob first tried to force the brothers from their cell at gunpoint. When they refused, a young man named Bob Hill rushed in to grab Charley, but Charley walloped him. Falling back, Hill struck his head against a wall and later died of his injury. Other vigilantes tried to drag the brothers from the cell but were forced back by Alf, who had armed himself with a section of lead water pipe another prisoner had unscrewed from the plumbing. Eventually the mob gave up.
The next morning the town awoke to claims that a mob of 40 men, possibly a gang of outlaws led by Boone, had tried to rescue the Marlows, but Collier’s men had stopped them. While the Graham Leader reported that none of the mob had been recognized, Charley, George and two other prisoners later testified they knew at least 10 of the men, including guards Eugene Logan and Dick Cook, County Attorney Phlete Martin (a convicted killer from North Carolina), Sam Criswell and Frank Harmiston, and that jailer Leavell had helped the mob.
A concerned citizen named Marion Lasater urged Deputy Marshal Johnson to protect the Marlows from further mob action, and Johnson telegraphed U.S. Marshal William Cabell in Dallas for advice. On January 19 Cabell ordered Johnson to move the prisoners to Weatherford, about 60 miles southeast, where they could be held in safety until trial. Cabell also instructed Johnson to move quickly and in strict secrecy.
Johnson decided to move the prisoners that same night. He arranged for wagons and guards, including several friends of the late sheriff, supposedly to keep them from organizing another attack. The guards were Marion A. “Little Marion” Wallace (nephew of the dead sheriff), Sam Waggoner, John Leavell, Sam Criswell, John B. Girand, Will Hollis, Eugene Logan and Phlete Martin. All were told to keep the transfer secret, but as at least five of these men were members of the mob at the jail, news of the transfer spread quickly.
When Johnson told the Marlows of the transfer order and identified his guards, the brothers thought another attack likely. As the guards walked the Marlows and fellow prisoners Lewis Clift and William Burkhart to the wagons, some 30 men gathered to watch, and the boys knew the move was no longer a secret. “You lied to us, Ed,” Charley accused Johnson. “You are taking us out to have us mobbed again.” When the marshal denied the charge, Charley asked, “If they do, will you give us guns?” Johnson replied, “Yes, and die with you if it comes to that.”
The transfer party left Graham at 9 p.m. on January 19. As the wagons reached Dry Creek, Johnson called loudly for his men to pause for a drink, which the Marlows interpreted as a signal, and when they reached the far embankment, the fight began. Accounts of the clash differ, but when Johnson saw his trusted guards run, he knew he had been double-crossed. Johnson’s descendants claim he fired the first shot, killing one of the mob before taking a bullet through the hand, which rendered the one-armed marshal defenseless and prompted him to seek cover.
The Marlow brothers, Clift and Burkhart leaped from the lead wagon, shuffled back to the second wagon and armed themselves. Their situation was desperate; shackled together, they could not run, so they stood behind the wagons and fought for their lives. Vigilante Criswell fell, followed by mob leader Bruce Wheeler. Clift took a shot to the thigh, while Alf Marlow fell dead, riddled by 15 bullets. Charley Marlow kept firing, and although George Marlow was struck in his right hand, he kept fighting as brother Epp died at his side. The surviving Marlows stood back to back, firing at every muzzle flash.
Charley was struck in the head and chest by a shotgun blast that nearly killed him as George shouted to his attackers: “Come again, you cowardly bastards! We have plenty of ammunition and nobody hurt. Come on!” Only one mob member, Frank Harmiston, took up the challenge. He walked straight toward George, revolver raised, and both men fired. Harmiston fell dead in the road. While George dueled with Harmiston, Charley spotted Eugene Logan taking aim at George. Charley shot Logan down.
By then the mob, completely demoralized, had fled. Three vigilantes lay dead, as did Alf and Epp, with several more wounded. George and Charley had survived, but both were seriously wounded, and they remained chained to their dead brothers. Charley bore nine buckshot wounds. George found a clasp knife on Criswell’s body and cut the feet off the bodies of Alf and Ellie, enabling him to flee with Charley, Clift and Burkhart. They drove one of the wagons to the Marlow family cabin, stopping at a farmhouse along the way to break their leg irons. Clift stayed with them, while Burkhart disappeared. When the survivors reached the cabin, they treated their wounds and prepared to defend themselves again, for they knew Sheriff Collier would find them.
The next morning, the 20th, Collier and a large group of men surrounded the cabin. Disgusted at the turn of events, Marion Lasater sent a dispatch to Texas Ranger Charles Auburg, who lived nearby, to come help defuse the situation. At the same time Little Marion Wallace recruited Sheriff George Moore of neighboring Jack County for help, telling him that the mob had been in cahoots with the Marlows, and that all of the dead were guards. Lasater, Auburg and a doctor arrived about the same time. Lasater quickly stood up to the posse, declaring that there had been enough bloodshed, that he and the doctor were going to attend to the wounded, and that if anyone were to attack the cabin, they would have to kill him first. With that, Lasater and the doctor strode down to the cabin and went inside.
George and Charley told them they would only surrender to U.S. Marshal Cabell or his deputy, and Lasater sent the doctor to get word to Cabell. By then Sheriff Moore had learned the mob was composed of men from Graham and had also grown disgusted with the affair. He told Collier he lacked jurisdiction. Collier became angry and pushed for an attack. Moore left the scene and immediately telegraphed Marshal Cabell.
The following two days were tense, the Marlows expecting an assault by Collier’s men at any time. On January 21 the bodies of Alf and Epp were delivered to the cabin after having been displayed at the courthouse in Graham. The grisly appearance of the bodies may have given pause to some of Collier’s force. Mother Marlow made arrangements to have the boys buried in the nearby town of Finis.
Cabell’s deputy, W.H. Morton, arrived January 22. After an argument with Collier, Morton was on the road with his prisoners within 20 minutes. A member of Collier’s posse asked where they would board the train, and Morton immediately changed course for another station. On the trip Charley coughed up several balls of buckshot and began to improve.
George and Charley Marlow and Lewis Clift were safe, but Boone Marlow was not. On January 29, 1889, Martin Beavers, G.E. Harbolt and J.E. Direkson brought his body into Graham and claimed the reward. On closer examination of the body it was determined they had poisoned Boone, then shot him and claimed he had resisted arrest. They were charged with murder and convicted. Boone was buried beside Alf and Epp at the cemetery in Finis.
The brutal mob ambush at Dry Creek shocked most citizens of Graham. Even the partisan Graham Leader demanded speedy punishment for the attackers. In late January a grand jury indicted Phlete Martin, Eugene Logan and Sam Waggoner for obstruction of justice and murder. Bail was set at $2,500 each, and they were freed within 30 minutes. Their trial was set for October.
George and Charley were tried for horse theft in March and acquitted, but they remained in custody as federal witnesses in the mob trial. They lived in Dallas until August, when Charley heard that Collier had obtained a warrant for his arrest for the murder of Sheriff Wallace. Certain they would be killed if they returned to Graham, the Marlows moved to southwestern Colorado, near the new railroad town of Ridgway. They worked for rancher Arthur Hyde, who was also a friend of Sheriff Doc Shores of Gunnison.
When the mob case came up for trial in October, and the Marlows did not appear to testify, the trial was postponed until March 1890. When they failed to appear in March, U.S. Marshal George A. Knight of the Northern District of Texas issued a warrant for their arrest as witnesses. Shores saw the notice and knew he had to act. The Marlows were his friends, but he also had a duty to fulfill. He and a deputy traveled more than 90 miles out to the Marlow homestead and argued the situation with the brothers. George and Charley were adamant they would be killed if they returned to Texas. Shores proposed they travel with him to Gunnison, where he and Knight would arrange to provide them with disguises and an armed guard to transport them safely to court. Eventually they trusted Shores and agreed. After meeting with Knight, they were provided with new clothes, hats and gray wigs and testified against the mob not once but several times. For his part in resolving the affair, Shores drew a reprimand from Albert H. Jones, the District U.S. Marshal for Colorado, for going outside official channels and negotiating directly with Knight rather than going through him.
On the strength of the Marlows’ testimony, the grand jury issued warrants for a dozen more Graham residents, including Sheriff Collier and Deputy Marshal Johnson. Learning of Collier’s rumored murder warrant against Charley, Marshal Knight in January 1891 appointed George a deputy U.S. marshal, specifically to hold Charley in custody as a witness in the mob trials; he then appointed Charley to hold George. This farsighted action would prove crucial in months to come. On April 17, 1891, a jury found Logan, Waggoner and Little Marion Wallace guilty of conspiracy but not guilty of murder. Collier and another defendant had died before the trial began; the other defendants were acquitted. Logan, Waggoner and Wallace were sentenced to 10 years in prison, but their lawyers appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. In April 1892 the Supreme Court set aside the verdict on procedural technicalities and ordered a new trial. Despite the order, the case was never retried.
The surviving Marlows had filed a series of damage suits related to the wrongful deaths of Alf, Epp and Boone. After several compromises, the cases were settled for around $6,500. George and Charley’s problems should have been over. They were exonerated, safe and free, living happily in southwestern Colorado, having been warmly accepted into the community. But one more chapter remained in their ordeal.
On May 22, 1891, Texas Governor James S. “Big Jim” Hogg issued an arrest warrant for Charley Marlow as an accessory in the killing of Sheriff Wallace, even though the mob verdict had been issued and Collier was dead. On June 20 two Texas Rangers—Captain William Jesse McDonald and Sergeant James M. “Grude” Britton—stepped off the train in Ridgway, and a large crowd gathered. Bill McDonald was not just any Ranger. The newly appointed captain of Company B of the Frontier Battalion, he would become one of the most legendary of the Texas Rangers. He was known for reckless bravery and, according to one account, “would charge hell with a bucket of water.” His tombstone carries the motto NO MAN IN THE WRONG CAN STAND UP AGAINST A FELLOW THAT’S IN THE RIGHT AND KEEP ON A-COMIN.’
The Texas Rangers contacted Sheriff J.F. Bradley of Ouray County, Colo., to request that he arrest Charley and place him in their custody. A friend of the Marlows, Bradley brought them to town for a meeting and pledged to oblige the Rangers to make any arrest. The meeting was tense. “The Texas Rangers,” the Ridgway Herald reported, “were armed to the teeth with Winchesters and revolvers in anticipation of trouble in making the arrest. The Marlows were likewise ‘heeled,’ and when they all met and shook hands, it was noticeable that the shaking was all done with the left hand. The boys treated the officers courteously, however, and everything passed off smoothly.”
The Marlows refused arrest, as Charley remained held by George, and vice versa, as federal witnesses and were not subject to civil authority. They requested the Texas Rangers telegraph Colorado Governor John Long Routt. After several days of negotiations between Governors Routt and Hogg and Marshal Knight, McDonald and Britton left empty-handed. In Ridgway the story circulated that if Texas again sought the Marlows, they would need to send 2,000 Texas Rangers instead of two, and the newspaper circulated a petition “setting forth that the Marlow boys are known by the signers to be good and law-abiding citizens of Ouray County and praying the governor that they be permitted to remain here.” The newspaper’s petition concluded, “The Marlows deserve the support of all citizens in their endeavor to be freed from persecution.”
George and Charley Marlow were indeed good citizens in Colorado. They had large families, became successful small ranchers and were active in the community, serving as lawmen for more than a decade. They helped Doc Shores put down a labor strike in Crested Butte, Colo., chased stagecoach robbers, assisted with cattle sales and arrested a murderer. Charley eventually moved to California to be near his children and died on January 19, 1941, 52 years to the day of his wounding in the Dry Creek ambush. George stayed in Colorado, passing away on July 3, 1945. In Charley’s obituary the Montrose Daily Press reported: “The wildest Western fiction magazines have never produced men of greater courage or more daring and remarkable incidents than were enacted in real life by these famous brothers.…Arriving in this country, the Marlows were always perfectly law-abiding citizens and earned hundreds of friends, not one of whom was ever let down.”
Jim Pettengill, once a geologist with the U.S. Department of the Interior who retired near Ridgway, Colo., in 1999, has been a freelance writer for more than a quarter century. He has sold more than 160 articles and 700 photographs to many national magazines, including Wild West. The Wild West History Association awarded him for his article “The Marlow Brothers—Their Texas Ordeal and Their Lives in Colorado,” published in the 2010 edition of the Ouray County Historical Society Journal. For further reading on the Marlows, Pettengill suggests: The Fighting Marlows: Men Who Wouldn’t be Lynched, by Glenn Shirley; Life of the Marlows: A True Story of Frontier Life of Early Days, revised by William Rathmell, edited with an introduction by R.K. DeArment; and Marlow Brothers Ordeal, 1888–1892: 138 Days of Hell in Graham on the Texas Frontier, by Barbara A. Neal Ledbetter.