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The Mason County
Hoo Doo War

by Mike Cox

A complicated tale with a lot of twists (some at the end of a rope), .... a cattle theft problem that quickly morphed into vigilantism and finally into an ever-escalating quest for revenge.
Mike Cox
After nearly 130 years, folks in Mason County have finally started talking about the Hoo Doo War.

The Hill Country county has some of the prettiest rural cemeteries in Texas, and back in the 1870s, it wasn't hard to get buried in one. Twelve to 14 people died violently - some scalped and mutilated - in a feud that was one of the more vicious in Texas history. At the time those deaths occurred, the county had little more than 1,000 residents. Excluding women and children, who in the case of this feud seemed exempt from harm, the mortality rate from this epidemic of violence was on the order of 1 out of every 60.

"No one in the first generation after it ended ever talked about it," recalled Mason resident Julius DeVos, one of several independent historians who has spent a considerable amount of time trying to tie down the details of the bloody story. "If anyone asked about what happened, what they would hear was something like, 'The trouble's over, let it die."

The trouble's been over for a long time, but only in recent years have descendants of people who lived in Mason County during the war begun to openly discuss what happened. Seven panelists - some locals, some from as far away as Indiana - recently participated in a symposium in Mason on the Hoo Doo War.

As historian Chuck Parsons pointed out, a writer of Western fiction could get a dozen movies out of the Hoo Doo War story. It's a complicated tale with a lot of twists (some at the end of a rope), but it boils down to an effort to deal with a cattle theft problem that quickly morphed into vigilantism and finally into an ever-escalating quest for revenge. Another major component was a cultural clash between those of Anglo and German heritage.

One of the first things anyone who hears about the war asks is what the term "Hoo Doo" means. The answer is easier than other questions connected to the conflict. Hoo doo is an old term often applied in the 19th century to members of a vigilante committee. It also is said to have a relation to voodoo and the bad luck that can come with it. In some parts of Texas, blacks applied the name to Ku Klux Klan members.

Others say that hoo doo is a play on words, a shortening of "who done it?" But that's a more modern term and not likely the origin of the name given the Mason County disturbances. That, incidentally, was what Texas newspapers tended to call the trouble, if not the Mason County War.

Whatever it was called, the feud - in reality a small civil war - was well known across Texas at the time.

"Law and order once more prevail in Mason County," one newspaper correspondent wrote late in 1875, tongue in cheek, "almost as completely as it does down in DeWitt County - that is to say, that the people are shooting each other with renewed energy."

What finally ended the war is another good question. The Texas Rangers, despite their reputation, did not have much luck as peacekeepers in Mason County. The state officers also had a lot of trouble finding one of the wanted participants, a former ranger.

It took the violent deaths of the most enthusiastic participants, or their departure from the county, to conclude the open hostilities.

Only one person ever went to prison in connection with the violence. In the interest of not overburdening the county's criminal justice system and of letting bygones be bygones, some never identified person took one final step for posterity's sake. On the night of Jan. 21, 1877, the Mason County courthouse burned to the ground in an obvious case of arson. Inside were all the legal records connected to Hoo Doo War.

Memories, of course, are not flammable. It still took hundreds of funerals for people who died naturally before all the simmering ill will finally died out.


Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" August 3, 2003 column
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The Mason County "Hoo Doo" War,
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