The Cornett-Whitley Gang: Violence Unleashed in Texas

The Cornett-Whitley Gang: Violence Unleashed in Texas


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During the late 1880s, the Cornett-Whitley gang rose on the Texas scene with a daring train robbery at McNeil Station, only miles from the capital of Texas. In the frenzy that followed the robbery, the media castigated both lawmen and government officials, at times lauded the outlaws, and indulged in trial by media. At Flatonia the gang tortured the passengers and indulged in an orgy of violence that earned them international recognition and infamy.

The damage that the gang caused is incalculable, including the destruction, temporarily, of a Texas Ranger company. The gang tarnished reputations, shed light on what news media was becoming, and claimed lives. As a whole the gang was psychopathic, sadistic, and murderous, prone to violence. They had no loyalty to one another and no redeeming qualities.

But the legacy of the gang is not all evil.  Private enterprises, such as Wells Fargo, the railroads, and numerous banks, joined forces with law enforcement to combat them. Lawmen from cities and counties joined forces with federal marshals and the Texas Rangers to further cement what would become the “brotherhood of the badge.” These efforts succeeded in tracking down and killing or capturing a good number of the gang members.
Readers of the Old West and true crime stories will appreciate this sordid tale of outlawry and the lawmen who put a stop to it. Those who study the media and “fake news” will appreciate the parallels from the 1880s to today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781574417685
Publisher: University of North Texas Press
Publication date: 06/13/2019
Series: A.C. Greene Series , #21
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 369,217
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

DAVID JOHNSON has received degrees from Pennsylvania State University and Purdue University. He is the author of John Ringo, King of the Cowboys; The Horrell Wars; and The Mason County “Hoo Doo” War, 1874–1902, all published by the University of North Texas Press.

Read an Excerpt


At the Mustang Pen in Butler's Pasture

Some were wary of the others as they gathered, predators taking in both their surroundings and each other, evaluating those who had come. Some were eager, excited, blinded by the lure of fast money and unmindful of the risks they would undertake. Others regarded their new companions with caution, their cold eyes gauging those present, calculating the odds and who they would kill first if things went sideways. Some were misguided heading down a path from which they could never return. Some were cruel, hard men growing harder with every passing breath. One of them was mad, a sociopath whose sadistic and violent tendencies were frequently at the forefront, a killer whose conscience, if he ever had one, had long since fled his mortal frame. They were not friends but necessity had drawn them together in early 1887 to accomplish their purpose. There were seven of them and none of them had known the others long. Ed Reeves recalled their meeting well:

I met Brack Cornett in Kansas [sic: Karnes] County, at the mustang pen in Butler's pasture, in February 1887. Bud Powell, or more properly Jim Powell, was present. Charley Ross brought Cornett up there. I had know[n] Charley Ross only two or three weeks prior to this time. … I met John Barbour [sic: Barber] and Bill Whitley about a week before the McNeil robbery, in De Witt County, about seven miles east of Cuero, in the woods close to Joe Bennett's house. I went to that place with Brack Cornett, Charley Ross, Ike Cloud and Bud Powell.

Joe Bennett was loosely affiliated with the gang. Bennett provided aid to the outlaws at times but never participated in their raids. In an unrelated matter, during 1893 he was convicted of cattle theft. He drew a three-year sentence but was pardoned the following year.

Those who gathered were not a pack bonded by extreme loyalty and devotion to the group, as are wolves. Rather they were solitary predators — sharks — concerned only with their own wellbeing. At best this was the formation of a gang, and like sharks whose social hierarchy is defined by survival of the fittest, these men had a hierarchy of sorts, one established instinctively by their own natures and their recognition of the natures of the others.

There are challenges in the identification of these men, even knowing their names. That all of them were liars is no surprise, but it goes beyond that. Even today some of their families refuse to discuss these men. Most, if not all, used aliases at one time or another to cloak their identities and not a few of them assumed multiple identities. Only Ed Reeves left a statement discussing the original gang, a statement that is limited in many ways. They did not trust one another nor confide in their companions. They did, however, need each other, at least for the moment.

Ed Reeves

Ed Reeves, who provided the only account of the gang's formation, was born Edwin James Reeves around 1857 in Arkansas to Green William Reeves and Elizabeth Courtney. The couple had been married in Montgomery County, Alabama, on July 7, 1846. Elizabeth was nearly fifteen years Green's junior.

The Reeves family did not linger in Alabama. According to family records, their oldest child Mary Francis "Fannie" was born July 6, 1848, at Big Springs, Arkansas. Between Fannie's birth and 1858 the couple produced five more children. Following their sixth child's birth, the family moved to Bowie County, Texas, where they were enumerated on June 23, 1860. The census shows that the oldest four children had all attended school within the previous year. Green is listed as a farmer with $500 in real estate and a valuation of $1020 in personal property. In Bowie County the Reeves family had two more children. Three years later, on November 6, 1866, Green Reeves died.

Perhaps it was fortuitous that one of Green's younger brothers, Jesse Winchester Reeves, was recently widowed. Almost hastily, Elizabeth married Jesse. It appears likely that their marriage on January 24, 1867, in Coryell County, Texas, began as one of practicality. The union would produce several more children.

By 1870 the Reeves family was in Davis (present-day Cass) County, Texas, where Ed Reeves is recorded as twelve years old. One account notes succinctly that Reeves "was born in Arkansas, but moved to Texas with his parents when he was quite young. He has lived in Ellis, Hays and other counties. He married in Ellis County in 1879, and has one boy about 8 years old. He has a sister, a Mrs. [Rachel Matilda Reeves] Hamilton, who lives near Round Rock, and she has charge of his son, his wife having died several years ago." Ed Reeves was living in Ellis County, Texas, during 1879 when he married Emma (or Inez) Burt on September 18. Emma, eighteen, was the daughter of John and Margaret Jane Abbey Burt, and had been born around 1861. The 1880 census confirms Ed and Emma Reeves living in Ellis County along with Reeves's brother James H.

Here the records become less clear. Emma, listed as age eighteen in the 1880 census is noted as Inez in the 1870 Navarro County, Texas, census. Sometime after June 1, 1880, when the census was enumerated, Emma gave birth to a son. Contemporary sources state that Emma died prior to 1887, but this appears erroneous. The couple separated, and Hill County, Texas, marriage records indicate that "Miss Ines Burt" married James Page on December 9, 1880, possibly without divorcing Reeves. Ed and Emma's son was left in the care of Ed's sister Rachel, apparently indicating that Emma and her family wanted nothing to do with Ed Reeves.

The reasons Emma left Ed Reeves can only be speculated. Perhaps they were simply too young when they married, but it appears more likely that Reeves's chosen vocation was the cause. When Ed's stepfather Jesse died in October 1881, Ed Reeves was already well on his way to establishing a reputation. U. S. District Attorney Jack Evans later stated that he had "known of Reeves and his exploits for a number of years and regards him as one of the hardest tough citizens whose daring has led him into many horse-thieving expeditions." Reeves did not confine himself to horse theft. On October 3, 1883, Ed Reeves was convicted for theft of a steer in Ellis County and sentenced to two years in prison. On October 11, 1883, he and a number of other prisoners were transferred to Rusk Penitentiary in Cherokee County by J. D. Snow. "They are from Ellis county, and all claim to be native Texans" reported the Galveston Daily News. Among them was Ed Reeves's brother James, also convicted for "theft of steer." Prison records state that Reeves entered prison on October 11, 1883, as convict 1479. His nativity is incorrectly given as Texas and his birth around 1858. One contemporary description notes:

A casual glance at Reeves would detect nothing to indicate a desperate or dangerous man, but a close study of his face and head and eye and movements will disclose much combativeness, firmness and nerve.

He is one of — those men if he plans a train robbery, or joins in with others to accomplish the pleasing pastime, is going to do his share toward making it a success.

He is poorly educated, but has a deal of horse sense, coupled with much cautiousness!

In his prison record Reeves stated his residence was Waxahachie in Ellis County and claimed that he was married, although his wife had left him years earlier. The records give his age as twenty-eight and his birthplace as Texas. Descriptions of Reeves vary. Penitentiary records show that Ed Reeves was six feet three quarter inches tall, 155 pounds with a fair complexion, blue eyes and black hair at the time of his incarceration. Reeves arrived at the penitentiary with twenty-five cents to his name. He was distinguished by a bullet scar on his rump. Both Ed and James drank and smoked, and both had only a limited education. James had two dollars on his person when he entered the penitentiary.

Three years later Wells Fargo provided another description: "Ed Reaves, alias 'Pat;' 32 years old; about 6 feet high; weight 180 pounds; red complexion; ring-worms on face; black hair; big black moustache." The same circular that described Ed also contains the statement that "His brother was killed by a constable at Breckenridge, in Karnes Co., a few months ago."

This incident is described in one contemporary newspaper account. On February 12, 1887, a man using the name Jim Butler "got his hide full of Karnes county tangleroot" and rode his horse into the freight depot in Breckenridge. When the local constable approached Butler and ordered him to surrender, he "made a bad break, but [Manuel] Espizer got there first" and dropped Butler from his horse after the third shot. The constable surrendered himself at Helena to authorities, and on February 13 he, Sheriff W. L. Rudd, three deputies, and William Green Butler rode to Breckenridge to examine the body. Not only was Butler not dead, but he was not a son of William Green Butler as he had claimed. An examination of his papers indicated that his name, possibly, was Sparks. His wound was not considered fatal at the time.

Sheriff Rudd prudently distributed an inquiry through the media.

BRECKENRIDGE, Feb. 14. — A man giving his name as Butler was shot here Saturday night by the Constable. Description as follows. Five feet 10 inches high, dark brown eyes, black hair, dark mustache, about 25 years old, weight, about 160 pounds. In his memorandum book is the names J. Thorp and J. S. Sparks. Any information of above will be gladly received, as he is a suspicious looking character. W. L. Rudd, sheriff of Karnes county.

From this description, "Butler" appears to be Reeves's brother James. Upon his entry to the penitentiary in 1883, James was described as twenty-two, six-feet one-inches tall, 160 pounds, dark complexion, black hair, and grey eyes. James had a large wart on his right hand.

Ed Reeves was neither the leader nor the brains of the gang, and evidence suggests that he was likely recruited by Bud Powell. When he rendezvoused with the others at Butler's pasture Reeves was one of the least deceptive, using his real name. Not all of them did.

Bud Powell

While some apologists might cite the death of Reeves's father as a reason for his descent into outlawry, no such claim can be made for Bud Powell. To look at him Powell appeared out of place among the others. Wells Fargo describes James Asberry Powell as a "small man with florid complexion; light hair; dark eyes; little, thin, light, downey [sic], boyish moustache; about 27 years old; weight about 140 pounds." Commonly known as Bud Powell, he was born February 21, 1859, to Samuel S. and Agnes Stone Powell in De Witt County. Both of his parents were alive and well when he headed down the outlaw trail.

Samuel and Agnes Powell had a number of children before their move to Texas in 1854. Unfortunately the family chose to settle in DeWitt County, which would become a battleground of the Sutton-Taylor War following the Civil War. Here more children, including Bud Powell, were born. By 1870 the census indicated Samuel Powell was a small farmer with a total personal and property value of $1000.

Bud Powell's family background is deceiving, for he himself did not enjoy a good reputation. As a child he had heard a great deal concerning the infamous Sutton-Taylor War where violence and lawlessness were perpetrated by a Reconstruction government that ruled a disenfranchised populace. In DeWitt County the infamous Jack Helm provided a brand of justice best described as murderous, helping to fuel the war and an unhealthy disregard for the law, which in many cases was as bad or worse than the outlaws they claimed to suppress. Tempting as it might be to claim that Powell was collateral damage arising from the feud, it appears that he had simply fallen into bad company. In 1883 he, Eli Harrell, and a number of others went into a Karnes County church armed with pistols. Had Powell confined himself to this youthful indiscretion very likely he would not be known today. He did not.

It is known here that shortly before the McNeil robbery Reinhardt Schneider, Will Kelley, Will Jacobs and Bud Powell were in their old range near the line of this Karnes & Gonzales Cos that horses were stolen from this neighborhood one of which is said to have been found near the place of the robbery. Since then they have again been reported as again in this country and immediately preceding this last robbery another lot of horses have disappeared. These facts and the knowledge I have of the character of these men suggest a possible clue to these robberies which you can consider with other information you may have of the matter.

Jacobs was later involved with the gang. Wells Fargo adds that one of Powell's sisters was "the wife of the notorious Rheinhardt Sneider. [sic: Reinhardt Schneider]. At the time Schneider was an escaped convict and well known as a horse thief. Powell was a follower, drawn to the gang by the siren's lure of fast and easy money. Like Ed Reeves he was probably recruited by John Barber.

Ike Cloud

Like Powell, Ike Cloud came from good stock. Cloud was the youngest son of William Augustine Cloud and his wife Elizabeth Kennedy, who was Tennessee-born. His father had come to Texas via Alabama and Louisiana. In Alabama, William lived in Cypress Creek with two of his brothers, working as a merchant. The Clouds had three children while living in Alabama, the youngest of whom, Mary, lived only one day.

Perhaps it was Mary's death that prompted the Cloud family to leave Alabama. During 1839 William had been serving as a justice of the peace in Alabama, but in 1840 the family moved to Union Parish, Louisiana. Here a number of Cloud children were born. Fate dealt the family a cruel blow during the summer of 1850 when three of their children died within a month. The death of these three children so closely together may indicate one of the summer plagues. William's health also deteriorated, and the family resolved to move west. When they reached Williamson County, William's health abruptly improved. The Cloud family settled near Bagdad where their youngest son, Isaac Kennedy Cloud, was born on August 15, 1860. Texas appears to have improved the family's luck, and the 1860 census notes William as a farmer. He again served as a justice of the peace.

William Augustine Cloud died on May 27, 1870, of a prostate condition and his son Thomas assumed the farming responsibilities. By 1880 Ike was living with his mother and brother George close to the home of Penelope Cloud, his oldest brother James's widow. Elizabeth Cloud died on May 9, 1881.

No physical description of Cloud has been located to date, but like Powell he was already in trouble with the law in Williamson County. When he arrived at Newt Butler's horse pasture he was under bond on two separate charges of theft and receiving stolen property, one of which was augmented by driving livestock from their accustomed range. It is possible he had partnered with John Barber in some of these affairs.

Sion Secrest, alias Charley Ross

Charley Ross trusted none of the others. Reeves was clearly suspicious concerning Ross's real identity, noting, "I only knew him as Charley Ross." He recalled Ross as "about 140 to 145 pounds, has dark skin, black hair, brown moustache, dark hazel eyes." Reeves added that Ross lived in Kerrville for roughly three years, 1884 through 1887, which is undoubtedly what Ross told him and the others. Tax records, however, show no one named Ross in evidence in Kerr County during this time period. His uncle, Abraham Francis Secrest, was living there however, and Ross may have been living with him under yet another assumed name.

Reeves's suspicions were shrewd. Ross's father was Tennessee-born Thomas Carroll Secrest who had married Mariah Bird Dismukes. In Arkansas a number of children were born to the Secrest family, but by 1850 they had moved to Fayette County, Texas, where the census enumerated on October 6 notes Thomas Secrest as a small farmer.

During the decade from 1850 to 1860 the Secrest family prospered significantly. Financially their holdings increased from $400 to a combined value of $9200. Texas was good to them, and during this decade three sons were born to them. On December 12, 1859, the man later known as Charley Ross was born to Thomas and Mariah Secrest. His parents christened him Sion Searcy. His name appears for the first time on legal records as Sion S. aged six months in the 1860 census.

The Civil War apparently had little financial impact on the Secrest family. Their finances remaining much the same in 1870 as they had been in 1860. The family's relationship had deteriorated however, and following the 1870 census Thomas and Mariah were divorced. On January 29, 1874, Thomas married Martha M. Paddock. The same year, one of Sion's older sisters, Barbara Allen, died, probably due to complications of childbirth. Mariah remained in Fayette County, and in 1880 "Searcey Sun" was enumerated as a farm hand living with his mother.


Excerpted from "The Cornett-Whitley Gang"
by .
Copyright © 2019 David Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Doug Dukes vii

Acknowledgments x

Dramatis Personae xii

Introduction xvi

Chapter 1 At the Mustang Pen in Butler's Pasture 1

Chapter 2 Demonic Laughter 21

Chapter 3 The Headwaters of Ugly Creek 37

Chapter 4 Without a Single Train Robber 53

Chapter 5 Fiendish Atrocities 67

Chapter 6 Immunity from Unpleasant Consequences 83

Chapter 7 A Stream of Fire 100

Chapter 8 I Will Make Things Lively 116

Chapter 9 Wild, Woolly and Hard to Curry 132

Chapter 10 Prefer Them Dead 148

Photo Gallery after 162

Chapter 11 Lawless and Violent 163

Chapter 12 The Wages of Sin 182

Appendix 1 Editorial in the Fort Worth Daily Gazette, May 24, 1887 200

Appendix 2 "Song of the Train Robbers" 202

Appendix 3 Editorial in the Fort Worth Daily Gazette, June 20, 1887 204

Appendix 4 Jim Stephens's letter to Fort Worth Daily Gazette, December 12, 1888 206

Appendix 5 Buck Powell in the Galveston Daily News, July 10, 1892 208

Endnotes 213

Select Bibliography of Sources Consulted 259

Index 274

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