of the occupational hazards facing 19th Century Texas newspaper
editors was death by sudden onset lead poisoning-and not from hot
In the mid to late 1800s, readers offended by a newspaper's editorial
stance or coverage of a particular issue were not as likely to file
a libel lawsuit as they were to seek personal satisfaction, either
with their fists or a six-shooter.
Such was the case in Hempstead
in the spring of 1888, when relatives of the Waller
County sheriff and E. P. Alsbury, the editor of the local newspaper
became involved in what news writers of that era frequently termed
The East Texas editor
had criticized Sheriff Tom McDade for his seeming reluctance to
push for convictions in a murder case in which several of his relatives
Not pleased with the newspaper's coverage of the matter, Dick Chambers,
the sheriff's son-in-law (and also one of his deputies) confronted
the newspaper editor when he ran into him in a store. Rather than
demanding a retraction the deputy retracted his pistol, extended
a copy of the newspaper and ordered the editor to eat his words-literally.
The deputy had apparently caught the editor when he wasn't hungry.
Instead of making a meal of his newspaper, the journalist resisted.
At that, the deputy shot and wounded the editor. But when the deputy
left the store, the bleeding editor had enough starch left to grab
a Winchester lying on a nearby counter. He levered the .44-40 rifle
and shot and killed the deputy. Talk about manufacturing the news.
The newspaper editor recovered from his wound, but his health soon
took a sudden-and permanent-turn for the worse. Jack McDade, the
sheriff's nephew along with Dick Springfield, another relative,
ambushed the editor, emptying four loads of buckshot into him. When
the editor toppled from his horse, the assassins emerged from their
hiding place and one of them put several bullets in his head for
Though the killers were duly arrested for the editor's murder, the
sheriff favored the quick release of his relatives on bond. The
dead editor's friends protested, threatening to adjudicate the matter
That's when someone called for help from the Texas Rangers.
When Captain S. B. McMurry and several of his men reached Hempstead,
they found the sheriff and his supporters barricaded in the courthouse,
surrounded by angry partisans of the late editor. In the true tradition
of the legendary state lawmen, the captain went in alone and told
the sheriff to hand his prisoners over to him, but the sheriff refused
unless the Rangers agreed to release them.
The next day, McMurry went back to the courthouse
with other rangers. This time the sheriff surrendered his prisoners.
Before leaving, the rangers collected 17 rifles and a quantity of
revolvers from the sheriff's faction.
Following a two-week examining trial, the murder suspects were denied
bond. The Rangers transferred the prisoners to Brenham
for safe keeping, and eventually, as threats continued, all the
way to Galveston.
Tried in Houston in September
1888, the sheriff's nephew was found guilty and received an eight-year
sentence. His co-defendant got 25 years, but neither served their
In another instance involving freedom of the press versus a courageous
editor's freedom to continue living, a former Texas Ranger ended
up permanently canceling an offending scribe's subscription to life.
Walter Durbin, who served as a ranger from 1884 to 1889, later became
sheriff of Frio County
in South Texas. One
of his most enthusiastic supporters was newspaper editor A.W. Carpenter,
but that didn't last. Not only did Carpenter publish articles critical
of Durbin, they two men had been arguing over money Carpenter said
Durbin owed him.
On July 22, 1894, Carpenter went to Durbin's office in the courthouse
and made the mistake of pulling a pistol and shooting at the lawman.
Durbin had already killed three men in his career, and the newspaper
editor quickly became the fourth. When the gunsmoke cleared, Carpenter
had three bullet wounds in his chest and three more in his head.
In other words, the sheriff had emptied his revolver into the journalist.
Durbin was no-billed by a grand jury, but when another panel later
considered the facts of the case, it indicted the sheriff for murder.
However, a jury acquitted him in the matter.
Ironically enough, as a Texas Ranger, Durbin had been one of the
state lawmen on hand in Hempstead
to settle things down following the murder of the newspaper editor
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" March
21, 2018 column
An award-winning author of more than 30 non-fiction
Cox is an elected member of the Texas Institute of Letters.
A long-time freelance writer and public speaker, he lives near Wimberley
in the Hill Country. To read about more his work, visit his website
at mikecoxauthor.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.