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  • Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

    West Texas Black Bear
    Kills an East Texas Man
    Named Brown

    by Mike Cox
    Mike Cox

    A posse formed quickly after the attack and soon a party of armed, grim-faced men worked their way along Live Oak Creek looking for the killer.

    Horribly mauled, his arms and legs broken and his chest crushed, former Crockett County constable William Thomas “Bill” Brown, Jr. had been found barely alive under the highway bridge that crossed the creek, a stream that emptied into the Pecos River near there. Rushed to the hospital in Iraan, the 66-year-old Brown was pronounced dead on arrival.

    Now, his friends and other volunteers moved warily through the brush along the creek seeking a primitive justice. They were looking not for a two-legged perpetrator, but a 400-pound black bear turned man killer.

    Brown and his family had come to Crockett County in 1916 from the small community of Hilton in Nolan County. He had the distinction of owning the only irrigated farm in the sprawling county bordered on the west by the snake-like Pecos, a large political subdivision covered with big ranches. As the well-worn westward route known as the Old Spanish Trail developed into a state highway, Brown opened a filling station and store to cater to the cross-country traffic. He also did a good business selling fruit and vegetables he raised to the roughnecks and roustabouts who worked in the Yates oil field.

    To lure motorists into stopping and buying something even if they didn’t need any gas, Brown put together what amounted to a small zoo – a collection of chained native Texas animals and caged birds. The star attraction was Oso, a three-year-old bear Brown had bought as a cub.

    Of course, by 1934 bears had become pretty scarce in Texas. What had been a robust population in the 19th century had dwindled considerably due to overhunting. But Royce Brownriggs of Ozona had captured a cub in the Davis Mountains and sold it to Brown for his roadside menagerie.

    Since selling a game animal wasn’t legal, the family story was that Brownriggs merely conveyed a stout chain that just happened to have a bear attached to it. Brown trained the bear and considered it tame. He even let his young sons wrestle the animal.

    On Nov. 11, 1934, a Sunday, the bear somehow slipped out of its chain and lumbered away from the filling station to the nearby creek. When Brown discovered the animal was missing, he and station attendant J.F.Bracheen set out to find it. Armed only with a supply of sugar and cornbread, the two men spotted the bear beneath the highway bridge.

    As Brown tried to lure the bear close enough to get its chain back on, the animal attacked him, ripping his clothes and skin with its claws and sinking its teeth into his flesh. While Brown desperately tried to fight off the bear, Bracheen did the only thing he could think of -- he started chunking rocks at it. Quickly realizing that had no effect on the animal, he ran back to the filling station and found some truck drivers who hurried back with him to help. But by the time they got there, the bear had disappeared and Brown lay gravely wounded.

    With Brown enroute to the hospital, a quickly formed posse took up the hunt for the bear. The men trailed the animal for about a mile, finally locating it in a thicket. The found the bear still in an ugly mood, its teeth bared and its blood-covered fur bristling.

    When the bear charged the men, Ford Chapman, who had driven from Pecos to help in the search, brought it down with his 32-20 rifle. Newspaper accounts of the incident do not report what they did with its carcass.

    The Depression-era incident in West Texas may have been the only fatal bear attack in Texas history. And that assertion comes with the qualifier that the death was attributed to a bear that had been in captivity. Certainly no bear-related death has occurred in this state in modern times, and records list only 14 fatal bear attacks in the lower 48 states in the last century.

    The possibly unique nature of Brown’s terrible death of course meant nothing to his surviving wife and seven children, not to mention other family members and numerous friends. Brown died on his son Cecil’s birthday, and for the rest of his life, Cecil Brown never allowed any celebration in his behalf on the anniversary of that fall day.


    © Mike Cox - August 15, 2013 column
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