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Brown County Historical Scrapbook: Jail breakout

Brownwood Bulletin
Donnie and Ronnie Lappe

The following newspaper story is from a scrapbook belonging to Henry Ford. There is no date nor the name of the newspaper on the article. According to T. R. Havins, author of “Something About Brown”, R. B. Willson served as sheriff of Brown County from 1872 to 1882 and Henry Ford was county clerk from 1876 to 1884.

On Friday , about 3 o'clock p.m., a commotion was observed at the jail located on the public square. It was soon ascertained that the commotion was caused by a party of men, who had quietly entered the jail. They suddenly drew and aimed revolvers at R. B. Willson, sheriff, Henry Ford, county clerk and Charles Allen, and forced Sheriff Willson, with threats to kill him if he did not act at once to open the doors of the outer and inner prisons, so that they could rescue certain of their friends, confined inside.

In a short time, they rescued their friends, emerged from the jail, mounted their horses and escaped from the town. This happened so quickly and unexpectedly that the citizens had no time to respond, sufficiently to inflict any injury upon the outlaws, much less make any resistance. There were six men at the jail, four inside and two outside, the latter acting, apparently as sentinels.

Sheriff Willson and those inside the jail office with him exhibited great nerve and determined bravery, under the circumstances. Sherriff Willson kept the keys for some time, telling them that his deputy, Mr. James Burns, who was outside, had them, and this at a time when two revolvers, with raised hammers and fingers on their triggers, were being shoved directly against his head, accompanied by threats to shoot him instantly from an outlaw whose eyes indicated that he was serious.

Mr. Willson did this, it seems, to give his friends outside time to rally and come to his assistance, but unfortunately a man named Caldwell, who had been carrying notes between one of the prisoners and his wife for some days previously, had seen Mr. Willson a little while before with the keys and told the rescuers so. This prevented the Burns ruse from availing anything.

The rescuers took the sheriff's Winchester rifle, but left him with a pocket pistol. They also failed to find Deputy Sheriff Burns' Navy Revolver that was under the bed at the time, and as soon as the jail was cleared and the door could be closed, Sheriff Willson shot with his revolver outside the window at the men as they fled. It was thought at the time that he hit one of the escaping prisoners, but nothing was discovered to indicate that he hit one of them. It is probable that, if one of therm were hurt at all, it was very slightly. Henry Ford found Mr. Burns' pistol and fired several parting shots at the outlaws, who went galloping out on the Coleman city road, firing back toward the town now and then.

Sol Tanner, John and Ed McMinn, and perhaps one or two others took a long range shot or two, but no damage was inflicted except for a horse standing in front of Lyons, Cohn & Co's store that was shot in the neck and knocked down, but not thought to be seriously hurt. There were altogether 11 prisoners in the jail at the time, and though the doors were thrown wide open, only seven men came out, of which five escaped and two were captured and re-ncarcerated.

The outlaws went off, in some instances, two on a horse and barebacked. They appropriated three horses: one belonging to A.C. Ashley, one to Mr. Avery, and one to Thomas Clark. Sheriff Willson and his efficient deputy, James Burns, called for mounted volunteers. He gathered a party of poorly armed and mounted men — 10 or 12 in number. They went a mile or two from town. They heard that the outlaws, by that time were well mounted and superbly armed, ranging in number from 12 to 20, according to different reports. Because the lawmen failed to get further assistance and the outlaws had gotten too far away, they came back to town. The rescuers are believed to have been John Wesley Hardin, William Redding Olney, and three others, names unknown. The prisoners escaping were: John Robison, Thomas Redding Gertner, Hill and Olney, the first charged with murder, and the others with cattle stealing.

Taken from Brown County Historical Society Book II from “In the Life and Lives of Brown County, which is for sale by the Historical Society.