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Forced out of office, the Texas native did not give up the fight.

In the 1870s Texas was a stamping ground of some of the most notorious outlaws of the frontier era. Stillwell Heady Russell, who in March 1878 became U.S. marshal for the Western District of Texas, had to deal with the likes of Billy the Kid and Sam Bass. On April 10 of that year at Mesquite, 11 miles east of Dallas, Bass and his band held up their fourth train within six weeks, and though they gained relatively little loot, they drew the attention of the Texas Rangers and other manhunters. Russell, quartered at the Windsor Hotel in Dallas with 19 special deputies, strategized with Major John B. Jones of the Rangers. Agents of the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency also joined in the search. A reporter’s tip that Bass might be hidden in the bottoms of White Rock Creek in Denton County focused Jones’ search on that area. With Russell’s help, authorities arrested many members of Bass’ gang on federal charges, and that July Bass himself fell mortally wounded in a shootout with Rangers at Round Rock in Williamson County.

Outlaws, however, were not Russell’s biggest problem. Political adversaries were many. Although he had served in the Confederate Army, he was a Republican, of the party of Abraham Lincoln, whom most Texans had opposed. Most of Russell’s trials as a U.S. marshal involved politics, and these contentious battles landed him in hot water more than once.

Russell’s father, William Jarvis Russell (1802–81), was born in North Carolina but was living in Louisiana in 1828 when he moved to Mexican-controlled Texas. Four years later William married widow Eleanor Heady Guthrie, who hailed from Kentucky. They had a brood of children, including Stillwell, who was born in Brazoria County on February 13, 1846. Stillwell Russell grew up in Brazoria and attended Texas Military Institute. In 1863 he left the family farm to become a private in the Confederate forces. After the Civil War he clerked at a dry goods store in Brazoria and studied law, earning admittance to the Texas state bar in 1868. He moved to Galveston, married Louisianan Mary A. Carman (the first of his two marriages) and served as district attorney for Harrison and Rusk counties.

In 1872 Russell was elected sheriff of Harrison County. During his term he twice declined to run for a congressional seat on the Republican ticket. He finally acquiesced in 1876 but lost the election to a popular contender. His term as sheriff expired that year, and he became the county tax collector. On March 4, 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Russell U.S. marshal for the Western District of Texas. At the time Texas was divided into two districts, western and eastern. Russell’s jurisdiction stretched from Tyler to El Paso and up the Panhandle until formation of the Northern District of Texas in February 1879.

The first signs of trouble for the Republican marshal came during his first month in office when he complained to U.S. Attorney General Charles Devens about two subjects. The first complaint involved a federal government office building improperly sold to local businessmen during the Civil War, and the second was about former U.S. Marshal Thomas J. Purnell, who continued to, in Russell’s words, “execute process which was issued to him during his pro tem appointment & in his hands at the time of my qualification & states that you advised him that he has the power to do so.” Waging battle against powerful businessmen and politicians complicated an already sensitive situation. Grassroots politics were as difficult in Austin as anywhere in the former Confederacy, and Russell asked permission to make speeches during the off-year election campaigns for the Republican Party.

In August 1878 the clerk of the U.S. courts in Austin angrily wrote Devens that Russell had demanded an additional $75 from case expenses that overlapped with Purnell’s claim. In November Deputy U.S. Marshal William H. Anderson, one of Russell’s men, tried to arrest fugitive Texas train robber Bill Collins in Pembina, Dakota Territory, and both lawman and outlaw died in a shootout. Later that year a fire destroyed the Tyler courthouse, incinerating the papers in all pending cases.

U.S. Attorney Andrew J. Evans, in office since 1872 and a Unionist during the Civil War, began to clash with Russell. Their infighting might have started in March 1879, as the state established the new district in Dallas and a number of lingering counterfeiting cases were pending. Rus sell wrote in a telegram to Devens that he felt the defendants were “well represented” and quipped“A.J. Evans Esq. feels little interest and cannot come” to helm the prosecution. He then suggested an appointment for another prosecutor. Also in late 1879 Russell locked horns with the collector of customs over the arrest of an E. Weimar, who peddled stomach bitters. Russell wrote Devens of the collector’s interference, adding the “bitters” were whiskey and that Weimer’s clear purpose was to “practice a fraud.”

During his years as U.S. marshal, Russell lived in Marshall in Harrison County, but he crossed the state regularly— spending time in San Antonio, the new district office, and handling court duties in Brownsville on the Mexican border. One time he went to Huntsville to inspect the state prison after several federal inmates complained of mistreatment. Russell reported the conditions humane and that the facility practiced “proper treatment and discipline of United States convicts.” He added that the complaints came from convicts weighted by ball and chain due to “repeated attempt to escape by cutting through one of the walls.” Not long after the marshal’s visit, Jessie Evans, former associate of Billy the Kid, walked away from a Huntsville work camp. That escape may have contributed to Russell’s assessment in the spring of 1881 that the Huntsville facility was “an insecure place for the confinement” of mail robbers and other violent felons.

Russell’s collected enemies eventually found enough support to undermine him politically. In early 1882 Attorney General Benjamin Harris Brewster rebuked him for a sudden absence from the district and subsequent appearance in Washington, D.C. Russell responded with a long, meandering letter explaining that he was personally presenting his accounts to the Treasury Department and that he was unaware a formal request for leave was necessary. Other enemies included the attorney general’s nephew Brewster Cameron—who some years before had been an agent of the U.S. Post Office and now worked as a special agent of the Department of Justice—and former ally Texas Republican leader Edmund Jackson Davis, a former Union officer and Texas governor. While Davis supported Russell early in his career, he became irritated with him as U.S. marshal.

On March 25, 1882, the Austin Leader published an editorial titled “The War on Colonel Russell” that zealously defended him against Cameron and a man named Lane, described as a “hireling” of Davis. The editorial accurately stated that several agents from the Department of Justice had arrived in Austin to look into Russell’s affairs. In a four-page letter to Cameron marked “confidential,” Special Agent Joel W. Bowman blasted the article, saying, “We have no hesitancy in saying that this article was written for the benefit of Colonel Stillwell H. Russell and perhaps paid for by him.” Bowman’s letter also stated his belief that Davis was “a clean pure man of brain, energy and nerve.” Another special agent, Zan L. Tidball, wrote Cameron in April that he had found a large stash of personal checks belonging to Russell, who, according to Tidball, had worked through an Austin banker to draw public funds. With his enemies closing in, Russell resigned as U.S. marshal for the Western District of Texas on June 1, 1882, and was replaced five days later by Hal L. Gosling.

As Evans prepared to prosecute the fallen Russell the following January, one of the key witnesses to the financial transactions, Peter B. Freer, fell ill, and Deputy U.S. Marshal Ferdinand Niggli could not locate another witness. Only Edward Huppertz, the former deputy U.S. marshal whom Evans believed was Russell’s collaborator, appeared in court with his old boss on January 13, 1883. Evans ended up savaging Gosling, hinting at collusion between the current and former U.S. marshals to destroy the case. Russell was acquitted at a trial, but a congressional committee under Illinois Representative William McKendree Springer looked further into the former marshal’s activities and in 1884 issued a report that fully stained Russell’s reputation. The report cited Russell for handling $40,000 in such a “mysterious” manner that the whereabouts could not be discovered, for withholding money from deputies and for falsifying reports. Russell was indicted and transported to the federal pen, but evidence of the political feud emerged, and Russell never served a day of time. Already infirm, Edmund Davis died a few weeks after Russell’s first trial in January 1883. In late 1882 agent Tidball left the Department of Justice to take a position as U.S. marshal for Arizona Territory. Less than two years later Brewster Cameron joined his former subordinate there. Tidball became known for his unsuccessful chase of the elusive Apache guerrilla leader Geronimo, while Cameron became a rancher and office holder before he died in October 1908—carried over Niagara Falls in an accident.

Russell, meanwhile, quietly resumed his law practice, first at Marshall, then at Dallas and finally at Ardmore, Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). At the time Ardmore was a district office seat for the U.S. marshals, and the courts welcomed a lawyer with Russell’s experience. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Russell became a district judge. Soon after Russell heard some good news—the governor had appointed him to a seat on Oklahoma’s Supreme Court—but only weeks later, on May 16, 1914, the 68-yearold onetime marshal died in Ardmore. The political feuding and accusations against him had marred Stillwell Russell’s stint as U.S. marshal, and he no doubt deserved better. Still, he outlived many of his enemies and continued to have a fine career, even if in the end the multitalented Texas native was in self-imposed exile in neighboring Oklahoma.


Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.