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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Earl of Excess

by Clay Coppedge

Joseph Heneage Finch was an English nobleman with a fancy title and a life of luxury, excess and debauchery behind him when he bought a ranch near present-day Big Spring and moved there with his entourage in 1883. Finch was the seventh Earl of Aylesford, a title that meant a lot in England but nothing to the people of West Texas in the 1880s.

Finch had married Edith Williams, daughter of a Member of Parliament, and partied, globally, with the Price of Wales, later to be King Edward VII of England, before he came to Texas. Of the Prince, it was said that "no gait was too fast for his going."

Finch, eight years the prince's junior, held his own with the future king. The two embarked on what was to be a 17-week "goodwill tour" of India in 1875-76 featuring a lot of whiskey drinking and animal killing. While the noblemen were inadvertently illustrating the need for hunting regulations, Finch's wife was home in England, carrying on without him in an overtly adulterous manner. The Earl cut the safari short, rushed home to confront his wife, divorced her and in the process drew the ire of his family, other noble families and even Queen Victoria herself.

The young Earl's debt from his escapades in England ran into the millions of dollars. The British courts deemed this a bit excessive, even for an Earl, and curtailed his expenses to $50,000 a year (more like $1 million in today's money). So insulted by this pittance was the Earl that he left for the United States, becoming in the process one of the more colorful examples of the Remittance Man.

Remittance men played a small but curious role in the settlement of the West. Typically, the remittance men were rowdy but noble young men who were banished from their home countries for one discrepancy or another and paid to stay away from home until they reformed or perished.

In New York, Finch - aka the Earl - met Jay Gould, the railroad magnate, who suggested Finch take his money and sense of adventure to the wide open spaces of Texas where Gould just happened to be building railroads that needed people living near them. Finch happily obliged, and, with the help of former buffalo hunter John Birdwell, found that place near Big Spring. He arrived there in 1883 and inquired at the local hotel about a room. Told that the hotel was full, the Earl offered the buy the hotel. The owner named a price twice what he thought it was worth, and the Earl paid him in cash on the spot, kicked some people out to make room for his people and returned the hotel to the owner the next day with the understanding that a room would always be reserved for him.

In coming days he'd build a meat market and, for one day, owned the local saloon, where everyone drank for free while he was in charge. -----

The people of West Texas didn't address Finch as Earl because that wasn't his name and the title didn't mean anything to them. His ranch foreman suggested a compromise. The cowboys called him the Judge, which they understood. The Earl, a.k.a. The Judge, settled at Big Spring in a house described by a Chicago newspaper as "a plain unpainted board structure, a story-and-a-half high, and merely comfortable, without any sign of luxury, convenience or decoration."

The walls of the hallway were "covered with rifles, shot guns, revolvers, derringers, cartridge belts, spurs, game bags, and other articles of the same sort in bewildering numbers, and they say it requires the attention of one man to keep them." A pile of empty bottles "as big as a haystack" was made up of three-fourths whiskey bottles and one-fourth beer bottles, according to the diligent Chicago reporter.

According to saloon records that Howard County historian John Hutto uncovered during research for his 1938 county history, the Judge routinely ordered a half gallon of whiskey a day and sometimes a quart bottle or two of gin extra. "But according to all who knew him he carried his whiskey well. He was rarely ever seen entirely under the influence of liquor," Hutto noted.

Unlike most remittance men, the Judge was popular with the cowboys who worked on his ranch. Their loyalty was no doubt tied at least partly to the Earl's generosity with his liquor, which he supplied in mass quantities for free.

From the Chicago reporter: "There is much to be said to the Earl's credit in his association with the cowboys, and he has won their confidence in a most remarkable manner. They will spill their blood in his behalf as readily as he opens his bottle for them, and many a gun has been pulled by an indignant cow-puncher at a fancied reflection on his Lordship's character and manners. He has won their devotion and allegiance, and no knight ever had a more loyal legion."

The party the Judge threw in December of 1884 is as legendary in Texas as the trip he took to India with the Prince of Wales. This one lasted a couple of weeks and featured, as might be imagined, copious amounts of alcohol. Finch was the life of the party until he said something along the lines of, "Well, boys, I must be going" and went to his bed, where he died on Jan. 13, 1885 at the age of 36.

According to a coroner in England, Finch's liver was as hard as a rock and weighed more than 30 pounds.


Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" August 2, 2017 column


Related Story:

A Man to Count on in Big Spring by Brewster Hudspeth

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