His right arm lost in a gunfight, he became a deadly left-handed shot.
Lawman Ed Johnson was destined to play a lead role in the Marlow brothers’ remarkable story. In August 1888 he was part of a posse that ventured into Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) to apprehend the brotherhood one newspaper called “the most dangerous gang of outlaws that ever infested the Texas border.”
Arkansas native Edward Walker Johnson was born on December 13, 1854, on a plantation near Arkadelphia to plantation owner Henry Augustus (“Gus”) Johnson and wife Caroline. Gus Johnson fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and was severely wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg. Returning home, he became embroiled in the bitter factionalism of Reconstruction, and in 1868 assassins ambushed and shot him to death. Marked by this violence, Ed grew to manhood as a fearless fighter, quick with fist or gun.
Such attributes led to his appointment at age 22 as a deputy under Dallas County Sheriff Jim Abrams. Soon after, on Valentine’s Day 1877, he married 19-year-old Caddo Emily Wilson of Arkadelphia. The couple would produce 10 children.
Around 1880 his brother Gus, named for their father, was getting the worst of a fight when Ed jumped in and clubbed the other guy unconscious. Fearing the man might die, Ed left Arkansas in a hurry for an uncle’s farm in Ellis County, Texas. Johnson tilled the soil on rented land near Waxahachie for a season before taking his growing family northwest to Clay County for another year of farming. In 1883 he moved into Newport and resumed his law enforcement career as Sheriff Cooper Wright’s deputy.
In 1885 President Grover Cleveland appointed William L. Cabell, a former Confederate general, U.S. marshal for the Northern District of Texas. Cabell’s deputy marshals included his son, Ben E. Cabell, and Ed Johnson, who became fast friends. In 1893 Johnson would name one of his own sons “Ben” after his pal.
In early 1886 Johnson moved his family to Graham, Young County, the seat of a federal court, where he was responsible for enforcing federal law in a district stretching from the New Mexico Territory line east to Purcell, Indian Territory, and from the Kansas border south to the Texas & Pacific Railway. He augmented his federal pay by picking up a job as a detective for the Stock-Raisers’ Association of North-West Texas.
The hardest and most dangerous part of Johnson’s deputy marshal job was serving arrest warrants in Indian Territory, which swarmed with wanted men. He had 40 warrants and subpoenas in hand on one such expedition with posse members J.G. Hill and Charles Bingham in February 1888. On the 27th the three lawmen stopped for the night at Wichita Falls. They were partying at Valentine Faber’s lodging house along with Zack and Pete Randolph and several women when they exchanged harsh words with two uninvited, inebriated men—Rip Pierce and Frank James. The party crashers finally left, muttering threats.
Frank James, perhaps imagining himself the fighting equal of his notorious outlaw namesake, armed himself with a Winchester rifle and, with Pierce tagging along, returned to the Faber house. Johnson, with pistol in hand, met them at the door and told them to leave. Instead, James raised his rifle and fired. Johnson’s six-shooter response came so fast that witnesses swore the two shots sounded like one.
James, shot through the heart, staggered a few feet and keeled over dead. Johnson fell back into the room, his right arm shattered by the rifle bullet. Two doctors tended to him, but gangrene set in, and they could not save his arm. On leap year day, February 29, 1888, they amputated the limb between the elbow and shoulder. Johnson lost so much blood that one newspaper reported, “The room he was in looked like they had been killing hogs.” Adding insult to injury, he was charged with murder, and Bingham was named as an accessory. After a preliminary hearing on March 6, each was released on $2,000 bond. Johnson was back on the job within a month, but he would not be cleared until a jury acquitted him at his November trial. The court later dropped the charges against Bingham.
Johnson diligently practiced drawing and shooting with his left hand.“Ed Johnson was the quickest man ‘on the draw’ that I ever saw handling a six-gun,” recalled Phlete A. Martin, a young attorney in Graham who had served in posses with Johnson and later held the offices of county attorney and district judge. “Driven to the use of his left arm, he soon became a deadly left-handed shot, and I have seen him do some marvelous shooting with his left hand.”
In late August 1888, three months before he stood trial, Johnson pursued the Marlows. Holding warrants for their arrest on a horse theft charge, he ventured into Indian Territory with fellow Deputy U.S. Marshal Lon Burrison and possemen Sam Criswell, David “Dink” Allen and Marion A. “Little Marion” Wallace, nephew of theYoung County sheriff. The lawmen nabbed Charley, Alf, Boone and Epp Marlow, escorted the four brothers to Texas and locked them up in the Graham jail. After traveling to Graham to seek his brothers’ release, George Marlow was also arrested and joined his brothers in the calaboose.
Johnson played no direct part in the ensuing events of the Marlow saga—the release of the brothers on bond, the killing of Young County Sheriff Marion Wallace by Boone, the latter’s disappearance, the subsequent rearrest of the other Marlows, their escape from jail and recapture, and their desperate repulse of a lynching attempt. But Johnson’s boss, U.S. Marshal Cabell, concerned at this turn of events, wired his deputy to remove the Marlows from the Graham jail and transport them to Weatherford for safekeeping.
In an attempt at secrecy, Johnson made the move on the night of January 19, 1889, but news leaked out, and a gang intent on wiping out the Marlow brothers was waiting just outside of town for the buggy and wagons carrying Johnson’s prisoners and their guards. When challenged at Dry Creek by armed men, Johnson fired the first shot. In the ensuing gunfight he sought to protect his prisoners, but a bullet soon struck him in—of all places—his only hand, disabling the deputy marshal. He scurried to the nearby creek bed and, when the shooting was over, made his way on foot back to town, where Dr. Richard N. Price treated his wounded hand.
Ed Johnson remained in federal law enforcement until late 1889, when the incoming Republican administration replaced Marshal Cabell with George A. Knight, who appointed his own deputies. But Johnson still faced legal troubles. In the many and complicated court cases, criminal and civil, resulting from the attack on the Marlows and their guards at Dry Creek, Johnson was named as a lynch mob conspirator in some of the actions. He was jailed at Dallas from November 23, 1890, until released on bond January 30, 1891; the charges were later dropped.
Johnson remained in Graham, overseeing several businesses and providing for his family. His wife died in 1904, and for several years this man with one arm and a crippled hand was both mother and father for his children. What’s more, his law enforcement career was not over. He was a deputy sheriff for a couple of years under Young County Sheriff O.H. “Ol” Brown in the 1910s. By 1915 Johnson had moved to Los Angeles, where he served for 15 years as a deputy sheriff in the civil law department of the county court. Ed Johnson died in Los Angeles at age 76 in 1931.
Relying on two biased books published in 1892 and 1931, authored by William Rathmell, a close friend of Charley and George Marlow (the surviving brothers), most of the later published accounts of the amazing Marlow story have portrayed Ed Johnson as a villain. A close study of the history indicates just the opposite.
R.K. DeArment edited, annotated and introduced Rathmell’s Life of the Marlows: A True Story of Frontier Life of Early Days (University of North Texas Press, 2004).
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.