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Murder Mystery
at Fort Griffin

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

One of West Texas' more bizarre and long-standing mysteries began at Fort Griffin in 1877.

In Shackelford County near the Clear Fork of the Brazos on the western frontier of the state, Fort Griffin was a U.S. cavalry post. The town that grew up next to it, also called Fort Griffin, catered to the non-military needs of the soldiers, offering saloons, gambling dens and brothels. Troopers on a payday spree and the less-than-delicate buffalo hunters who came to town to sell hides and buy supplies made Fort Griffin the town one of the wildest and woolliest places in the West.

A smaller element of the population were the ranchers, folks who knew that once Indians no longer posed a threat a living could be made raising and selling cattle.

One of those early-day West Texas ranches was owned by James A. Brock and his two cousins, Ed and Frank Woosley. Brock, originally from Madison County, OH, had come to Texas in 1870 at the age of 25. Three years later, he had started ranching in Shackelford County. In 1875, his two cousins joined him in the cattle business.

Though the same blood flowed in their veins, it was well known in town that the three men disagreed over investments and other financial matters. And then on May 22, 1877, Frank Woosley disappeared.

Local authorities, with the assistance of the military, organized search parties. Two hundred friendly Indians living in the area also aided in the manhunt. Ed Woosley offered a $1000 reward for his missing family member.

When the search proved fruitless, suspicion began to focus on Brock. Woosley's relatives convinced local officers that Brock must have killed the now-missing man in a step toward realizing sole ownership of the ranch and livestock.

The criminal case against Brock, however, lacked two essential ingredients: Any proof that a murder had been committed and the body of the victim. Brock was released.

Unfortunately for Brock, the law-abiding citizenry decided to take the case to another court: Judge Lynch's. Only the intervention of federal troops saved Brock's neck from getting stretched.

Following Ed Woosley's death of natural causes in 1880, Brock sold his interest in the ranch and left town, not to start a new life but to find his missing cousin. His family and the people around Fort Griffin did not believe it, but Brock knew he had not killed his cousin.

In searching for Woosley, the cattleman from Ohio spent all the money he made from the sale of the Fort Griffin property, borrowed and spent more, and then took any kind of work he could get to fund his continuing search for the man whose disappearance had cost him his reputation and nearly his life. Nationwide, Brock circulated flyers offering a reward for information on his missing cousin.

The end came unexpectedly in a small Arkansas lumber town in 1891. A private detective, searching for someone else, noticed a man who fit Woosley's description. The detective contacted Brock, who immediately left for Arkansas.

Brock spotted his cousin at a train station in Augusta, AK.

"You scoundrel," he said, "I knew I'd catch you!"

The man at first denied his identity, but the barrel of Brock's six-shooter refreshed the long-missing man's memory. His pistol tucked out of sight, Brock told Woosley that they were going back to Ohio so their family could see that he was not a murderer.

At Memphis, Woosley tried to escape, but Brock got the drop on him and said if he attempted to get away again, he would kill him for real this time.

"Here's your murdered man!" Brock said in presenting Woosley to his astonished parents. Vindicated but no less bitter with the family that had accused him of murder, Brock turned and walked away.

Since all concerned were native Ohioans who still had family there, the discovery was big news.

"The Brock-Woosley sensation...while having lost its freshness, continues to be uppermost in the minds of the talking public in this vicinity," the London, OH Times observed.

Woosley told the newspaper he had been returning to the Shackelford County ranch following a roundup when what he called a "depressed feeling" came over him. He said he got off his horse and laid down under a tree.

"I have no recollection of anything further until about a year afterward, when I found myself in the country," Woosley continued. He did not explain what he meant by "country," but said that he next remembered being in Jewett (in Leon County) and then ending up in Arkansas in the pottery jug-making business.

Woosley also said he'd had no idea that Brock had been accused of murdering him and that he would have come forward had he known.

His name finally cleared, Brock went back to Texas, settling in El Paso to make his living dealing in real estate. He died there on April 1, 1913--his 68th birthday--and is buried in the city's historic Concordia Cemetery.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" October 19, 2017 column

Mike Cox's "Texas Tales"

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