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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Shoot-out in Gatesville

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Once upon a time, practically every town in Texas from county seat-size on up had more than one newspaper.

While the owners of the competing sheets shared a desire to make money, they generally held differing political views. One newspaper, for example, would advocate local-option prohibition while the publisher of the other stood four-square for his county remaining "wet." Too, Republicans tried to out-rhetoric Democrats and vice-versa.

Newspaper owners knew they needed as many readers as possible to attract advertisers, since business owners naturally wanted their ads to get as much attention as possible. Editors well understood that sensationalism sold newspapers.

Finally, beyond generating revenue and espousing one's viewpoint, most publishers and their editors honestly saw themselves as the public's watchdog, the inky guardian of the First Amendment. Of course, this could be dangerous, especially in early day Texas. Whipping a newspaper editor, or even killing him for what he published was not unheard of.

But what happened in Gatesville in the summer of 1894 was far less common.

In the course of producing their product -- despite their common fealty to truth, freedom and the American way -- rival newspaper editors often had running feuds. As only professional wordsmiths can, they expressed their vitriol quite effectively.

That was the case in Gatesville. The seat of Coryell County had two vigorously competing weeklies, the Messenger and the Forum. Thirty-one-year-old James L. Goodman edited the Forum; 30-year-old Bascom Young Armstrong held the same position at the rival Messenger. Unconcerned with libel, both editors regularly blasted away at each other in their respective editorial columns.

Robert Saunders, a latter-day editor of the Messenger, told the story in 1949.

On the afternoon of September 15, 1894, then around 13, Saunders walked barefoot on the hot stone sidewalk on the north side of the courthouse, heading home with a package of fresh beef he'd been instructed to pick up at the butcher shop. Suddenly, pistol shots broke the afternoon quiet. Rather than running in the opposite direction, Saunders hoofed it toward the gunfire.

The excited teenager arrived just as Sheriff John Hammack ran up from the courthouse, his .45 in hand. Moments later, deputy Bill McClellan got there, "blowing like a heavy horse." He, too, had his pistol ready for action.

A knot of men stood in front of the Forum office, "all talking at once." Even though they were voters, the ranking lawman told them to "keep their damned mouths shut" so he could sort things out. Having quieted the crowd, Hammack said that if anyone had seen anything, "Now is the time to tell it so I can do something about it."

While by all accounts Hammack made a good officer, it would not have taken Sherlock Holmes to deduce what had taken place. Goodman sat slumped over on his desk, his life's final paragraph punctuated by a bullet to the chest. Near the dead editor lay a gasping John Beemon, a freight wagon operator who had taken a bullet but remained alive.

As young Saunders took all this in, he saw several men carrying the lifeless body of Messenger editor Armstrong down the sidewalk toward the Gatesville Hotel.

After talking with all the witnesses willing to admit that they had seen anything at all, the sheriff put the story together.

The two editors had been feuding in print for weeks. The proverbial final straw came when a local doctor had a handbill printed at the Messenger. As Saunders put it, the text consisted of "some kind of April Fool doggerel...that didn't read too good and lots of Gatesville folks didn't like...."

Goodman editorialized that Armstrong should not have accepted the inflammatory printing order. While in hindsight Armstrong agreed, they continued to rail against each other.

Shortly before the shooting, Armstrong left the Messenger to go to the post office. Passing the Forum and seeing Goodman at his desk, Armstrong apparently decided to advance beyond the use of lead type and settle their dispute with lead of the .45 caliber variety.

The Messenger editor opened fire at Goodman. Unfortunately for the innocent Beeman, who had only been making a delivery to the newspaper office, an errant round seriously wounded him.

Though mortally wounded, Goodman opened his desk drawer, pulled out a smaller handgun and shot his attacker. Armstrong staggered next door, found a chair, sat down and died.

Hearing all this, Sheriff Hammack declared it a closed case, Goodman having killed his attacker. Both editors had been part of the biggest news story Gatesville had seen since a legal double hanging in 1891, but neither got to write the story.

Goodman, who left a wife and three children, was buried in Gatesville's Oddfellows Cemetery. Though Armstrong came from Center in Shelby County, he lies in the same cemetery as the man he killed. He, too, had been married but had no children.

In telling the story 55 years after the fact, editor Saunders offered advice still good today: "The best thing you can do is...keep your mouth shut and not pop off, and if you are just hell-bent on toting [a pistol] you had best get one made out of candy so that when the other fellow makes you eat it, you can digest it better."

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - March 17, 2016 Column

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