Dallas in 1879 — Not a Good Time to Be Mayor

by Paula Bosse

main-jefferson_1879_greeneA view from the courthouse, looking north (click for larger image)

by Paula Bosse

Above, a view of Dallas in 1879, looking north from the courthouse (one of many in the city’s past that eventually burned down); the intersection in the right foreground is Main and Jefferson (now Record Street).

This is such a cool photo that, on a whim, I checked to see what exciting things might have happened in Dallas in 1879. I found that the city’s voters had just elected a new mayor, James M. Thurmond, who had run on an “independent reform and morality ticket.” Yawn. On the surface, that hardly seemed very interesting — a  historical fact, yes, but not all that exciting. But, wait, there’s more to the story.

Thurmond’s post-election honeymoon was short-lived because, even though he had won a second (one-year) term, he had made some serious enemies in his first term. He was removed from office in 1880 by the city council in a lack-of-confidence vote, the result of a nasty trial and probably slanderous accusations by lawyer Robert E. Cowart.

The feud between Thurmond and Cowart grew more and more bitter as time passed, and on March 14, 1882 — moments after the two men had exchanged angry words in Judge Thurmond’s courtroom — Cowart shot and killed Thurmond. Witnesses described the shooting as an act of self-defense. They said that Cowart shot when the judge reached for his pistol. (For an incredibly gruesome account of this incident, the contemporary newspaper report is linked below.)

The photograph above was taken from the courthouse where this shooting took place. When the photograph was taken in 1879, the animosity between the new mayor and an unhappy lawyer had already begun to percolate. I suppose men with “Esq.” after their names in the 1880s were predisposed to shoot-outs indoors in well-appointed courtrooms rather than out in the dusty streets at high noon. It’s classier.

thurmond_headstone_greenwood-cemetery_findagraveGreenwood Cemetery, Dallas (photo: David N. Lotz)

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Top photo is from Dallas, The Deciding Years — A Historical Portrait by A. C. Greene. (Austin: The Encino Press for Sanger-Harris, 1973); photo is from the collection of the Dallas Public Library.

Photo of J. M. Thurmond’s headstone in Greenwood Cemetery is from Find A Grave, here. Cowart — who died in 1924 — is buried in a nearby plot in the same cemetery. (Incidentally, Cowart’s claim to fame — other than shooting a judge in his own courtroom — appears to be that he was the person who inadvertently came up with Fort Worth’s nickname, “Panther City” when he wrote a tongue-in-cheek newspaper article about Fort Worth in 1875. Read a great history of this amusing kerfuffle in Hometown by Handlebar’s post, here — scroll to the second story.)

For an interesting contemporary report of the shooting — including gruesome eyewitness accounts — check out the article from the March 15, 1882 edition of The Dallas Herald (under the headline “The Deadly Pistol”), here, via the Portal to Texas History.

A short background on the Thurmond-Cowart feud, from the WPA Dallas Guide and History (which includes the verdicts of Cowart’s two trials for murder), can be read here.

Click top photograph for HUGE image.

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Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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