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Wild West Auld Lang Syne
Six-shooter salute to
New Years in Abilene

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

New 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 problem.

Abilene's newly 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.

Born 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 to reservations.

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 offense.

A 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
"Texas Tales" - December 30, 2015 Column

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