York City drops a giant sparkling ball, London has the chiming of
Big Ben and Sydney a huge fireworks display over that Australian
city's iconic Opera House and Harbor Bridge, but for years the sharp
bark of a lawman's six-shooter ushered in each new year in the West
Texas town of Abilene.
City Marshal John J. Clinton had fought Yankees in the Civil War
and hostile Indians on the Great Plains, but as a peace officer
would not shoot unless he had to. That didn't mean the frontier
peace officer had any reluctance to use his revolver to handle a
created city ordinances called for the rowdy railroad town's numerous
saloons to close at midnight, and the law offered no exception to
the rule for New Year's Eve. Folks inclined to celebrate the changing
of the calendar needed to do so prior to midnight or spend part
of the first day of the year in the clink.
Not having enough deputies to go from saloon to saloon to remind
celebrants and bartenders of the midnight curfew, Marshal Clinton
passed word around town that he would signal the arrival of closing
time by discharging his pistol into the air from the corner of South
First and Chestnut streets.
The marshal was an old-school lawman, not a scientist. But he readily
understood that when he pulled the trigger of his .45, the discharge
was loud enough to be heard in every watering hole within his jurisdiction.
Accordingly, on Dec. 31, 1884, Abilene's
top cop emptied his handgun into the night sky to let it be known
to all revelers that the party was over.
For science trivia buffs, the sound of an exploding .45 cartridge
measures 157 decibels. By way of comparison, a jet engine at takeoff
produces 140 decibels. And anything higher than 85 decibels is bad
on the ears. Multiple variables affect how far the sound of a pistol
shot will carry, but on a cold, otherwise quiet night, the marshal's
shots likely were heard just about everywhere in Abilene
-- assuming a train wasn't rumbling through town at the time.
in Dublin in 1848, Clinton had served in Co. G of the 2nd Arkansas
Volunteers and later in Co. M of the 7th Regiment of the Arkansas
Cavalry during the Civil War. The mounted regiment, organized in
1864, participated in the battles of Poison Spring, Marks' Mill
and Pine Bluff in Arkansas and later in Gen. Sterling Price's Missouri
raid. The war-weary Confederate unit surrendered at Galveston
in 1865, which may have been what got Clinton to Texas
for the first time.
After the war, like so many other former rebel soldiers, he drifted
westward. He first saw the area that would become Abilene
in 1867 while taking part in a cattle drive up the Western Trail.
He spent some time as a buffalo hunter and despite his recent history
as a Confederate soldier, he hired on as a U.S. Army scout as the
military conducted its final campaign to relegate the Plains Indian
In 1884, having cut his teeth as a lawman in wild and wooly Dodge
City, Kansas, Clinton came to the three-year-old railroad town of
Abilene and soon got elected as both city marshal and volunteer
fire chief. Clinton and Abilene got along just fine, and he never
held another job.
The saloons stayed in operation until the first
world war, but by then, the chief's New Year's Eve pistol shooting
had become a holiday tradition, a Wild West-style Auld Lang Syne.
So every December 31, when both hands of his watch overlapped on
12, Clinton pulled his six-shooter and rang in the new year with
orange muzzle blasts and flying lead.
Scientific trivia, Part II: Fired horizontally, a .45 slug leaves
the barrel at around 850 feet per second with a maximum range of
1,800 yards. Of course, with the bullet going straight up, gravity
would considerably shorten that distance. Even so, a hunk of lead
dispatched heavenward by the marshal's Colt would have smarted had
it fallen on anyone, which apparently it never did.
After Clinton died on June 1, 1922, his friend Jinks McGee, a horse
and mule trader who did business at North Third and Walnut streets,
continued the December 31 tradition for a few years longer.
Alas, in increasingly litigious times, neither a private citizen
nor Clinton's successor as police chief could get away any longer
with using his pistol as a means of communication in an urban area.
Discharging a firearm within the city limits was and is a misdemeanor
huge crowd turned out for the longtime lawman's
funeral, but the flat gray granite marker over his grave in the
Masonic section of Abilene's
Municipal Cemetery reveals nothing of the man's colorful life other
than his name and dates of birth and death. There was talk for a
while of putting up a more fitting monument to the frontier city
marshal, but nothing ever came of it and in time Clinton and his
unusual way of observing New Year's Eve was mostly forgotten.
Finally, in 1967, a state historical marker commemorating the chief
and his six-shooter salute to so many new years was dedicated at
South First and Chestnut streets. But these days, the fireworks
in Abilene on the
final night of the year are strictly the traditional kind.
© Mike Cox
- December 30, 2015 Column
| Columns | Texas