the peak of his career, someone asked John Barrymore, the patriarch
of America's famous family of thespians, what he thought about Texas.
In his deep, resonant voice, Barrymore replied: "Texas is a no man's
land where sudden death lurks in every bistro."
He had good reason for feeling that way.
In 1879, after performing in a play at Marshall's
old Mahone Opera House, Barrymore and his co-star, Ellen Cummings,
walked to the Marshall
railroad depot to wait for a train that would carry the stage
troupe to another city on their tour.
While at the depot, Barrymore, Miss Cummings and fellow actor Ben
Porter decided to have a late dinner in the railroad restaurant.
While they were eating, Jim Currie, a drunken railroad detective,
wandered into the restaurant and demanded a drink. The waiter refused,
telling Curry he had already had enough to drink.
Incensed, Curry focused his attention on Miss Cummings at the table
with Barrymore and Porter. He made several remarks about the actress'
character even though he apparently didn't know her.
In his usual chivalrous fashion, Barrymore rose from his chair to
protest, removed his coat, and told Currie to leave.
Currie then pulled a gun. He fired once at Barrymore, striking him
in the arm. When Porter jumped up to help Barrymore, Currie shot him
in the stomach.
With Currie drunk, on the loose and armed with a pistol, the three
actors ran for their lives. Barrymore and Miss Cummings fled through
a back door and Porter left by the front door, but fell on the sidewalk,
weak from a loss of blood. Observers went for a physician, but Porter
soon died from the wound.
Barrymore recovered from his wounds, but Texas newspapers had a field
day with the crime. "This is no reasonable way for the people of Marshall
to treat so distinguished a guest in our fair state," editorialized
Some state newspapers were quick to point out that Currie was not
a native of Texas. "Like three-fourths of the murderers who have disgraced
our state, he comes from abroad," said the Marshall newspaper, apparently
a reference to Currie's home state of Louisiana.
A year later, Currie was tried for murder in Marshall
in one of the city's most famous trials. During the nine-day trial,
Currie's attorney portrayed Barrymore as the cause of the incident
and described Currie as a well-regarded, upstanding member of Marshall
society. Currie's brother, revealed the defense, was the mayor of
In the end, after only ten minutes of deliberation, the jury returned
a verdict that stunned the prosecution team. They found Currie not
guilty on the grounds of insanity.
For years, Marshall wondered how Currie was able to win his release,
despite the presence of eyewitnesses and seemingly irrefutable evidence.
The prosecutor claimed he had the answer. He said the verdict was
bought and paid for by Curriešs brother...the mayor of Shreveport.
22-28, 2003 column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
Published with permission
This column is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical
Association. Bob Bowman is a former president of the Association and
author of nearly 30 books on East Texas.