One Man’s Tale of Vigilante Justice

The following free article is for entertainment purposes only. It is not intended as scholarly research or as a final authority on the topic.  

It’s Freaky Friday.  Since we talked paranormal last week, this Friday will be all about true crime.  We’re going to travel back in time to 1870s Mason County, Texas.

The red dot represents Mason County

This story is about Scott Cooley, a Texas Ranger who turned vigilante.  He lived 1845 to 1876.  Cooley was orphaned as a youngster and informally adopted by Tim Williamson and his wife.  The Williamsons nursed Cooley through a serious illness (probably typhoid), and he had deep feelings for them.

Cooley grew up and became a Texas Ranger.  He was respected, even feared, because of his relentless pursuit of outlaws.  Everything changed for Scott Cooley on May 13, 1875.  Tim Williamson, Cooley’s adoptive father, was falsely arrested for cattle rustling and shot to death by a mob of German cattlemen.

Scott Cooley–Texas Ranger turned vigilante

Cattle rustling was and is a serious crime.  Just last month, a Texas man received a 99-year prison sentence for stealing cattle.  The man who got swindled called in law enforcement who tracked down the criminal.  The case went to trial.  It was all nice and civilized.

Back in the 1870s, Texas wasn’t such a civilized place.  The rolling plains were a cow rustler’s heaven.  County seats were far apart, and law enforcement was sparse.

Late 1800s cattle drive

Mason County, Texas was a hotbed of conflict between early German settlers and native born Texans.  This conflict went back to German support of Union troops during the Civil War.  It was escalated by native Texan cattlemen’s lackadaisical attitude toward cattle ownership.  In 1873, the German settlers supported the election of  John Clarke as sheriff of Mason County, quite possibly because Clark took a zero tolerance approach to cattle rustling.

Clark ruled with an iron fist.  He openly supported the lynching or shooting of suspected cow rustlers–whether or not any evidence against the accused existed.  His deputy was John Worley (sometimes spelled Worhle).  With these two in charge, Mason, Texas became a place where justice was swift, brutal, and not always fair.

A period of mob justice followed.  Suspected cow rustlers were rounded up and shot or hanged.  The law was not being followed by those elected to uphold it.  Tim Williamson–Scott Cooley’s adoptive father–was under suspicion by a German cattleman of being a cow rustler.

Sheriff Clark’s German constituents pressured him to arrest Williamson, which he did.  Tim Williamson agreed to accompany the two lawmen to town to settle the matter.  While en route, the group was approached by a masked posse who shot Tim Williamson to death.  This event began the Mason County War (also called the Hoodoo War).

Upon hearing of his adoptive father’s death, Scott Cooley openly mourned at the Texas Ranger camp where he was stationed.   He knew his adoptive father was innocent and that someone–likely John Worley–needed to answer for his death.   Cooley waited for justice to be served, but nothing happened.   Scott Cooley left the Texas Rangers to serve up some homemade justice.

Cooley traveled to John Worley’s home.  He found Worley working on a well and shot and killed him.  Cooley then scalped Worley and displayed the scalp as a prize to the Germans whom he believed were responsible for the lawlessness that led to his adoptive father’s death.

Cooley then began picking off the men he believed had a hand in Tim Williamson’s murder.  He formed a group of vigilantes with the outlaw Johnny Ringo, and they raised some serious hell.  The German cattlemen retaliated, killing a few members of the Cooley-Ringo gang.

The dead bodies piled up, and the killings became random.  Sheriff Clark was on the side of the German cattlemen.  Many Texas Rangers were unwilling to go after Cooley.  The governor of Texas was receiving letters stating public support of Cooley’s vigilantism.  Mob rule had taken over.

1870s Texas Rangers

At the end of December 1875, Cooley and Ringo were arrested for threatening the life of Burnet County Sheriff, A. J. Strickland.  Cooley and Ringo escaped from the jail and were never prosecuted, but the killings ended with their arrest.   Cooley escaped a posse near the Llano River and fled into Blanco County, Texas.

Scott Cooley died a short time later.  His death is shrouded in mystery.  He is said to have died of “brain fever.”  There is some speculation that he was wounded by the posse he escaped at the Llano River.  An unsubstantiated rumor claims that Cooley died in the Nimitz Hotel in Fredricksburg, Texas.

The Old Nimitz Hotel

Fun Factoid: The Nimitz Hotel in Fredricksburg, Texas is the modern day home to the National Museum of the Pacific War.  It is truly worth a visit, but be prepared to spend all day if you want to see it all.

Johnny Ringo

Johnny Ringo went on to have many adventures.  In November 1879, Ringo was elected constable for Precinct #4 in Loyal Valley, Texas.  It is not known if he took the position.  What is known is that he traveled to New Mexico in 1878.  By December 1879, Ringo was known to be in Arizona, where met up with Wyatt Earp…but that’s a different story for a different day.


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