Born Timothy Isaiah Courtright near Springfield, Illinois, during the spring of 1845, Courtright married Sarah Elizabeth Weeks in 1870 and may have had three children. Courtright enlisted in the Union Army when he was just 17-years of age and fought with the Seventh Iowa Infantry under General John (Black Jack) Logan. During his civil war service, Courtright distinguished himself by his display of courage under fire at Fort Donelson and Vicksburg. Courtright acquired the nickname Jim when someone mistook Tim for Jim. While serving as an Army Scout after the war, Courtright acquired the name “Longhair Jim” because of how he wore his hair.
One source indicates that during the Civil War, while assigned to General Logan’s staff, Courtright took a bullet intended for Logan. Logan supposedly admired Courtright for his selfless act and manly conduct, although such a proposition assumes that Courtright intentionally took the bullet. In any case, after the war, Logan enlisted Courtright as a hired gun in New Mexico.
Courtright was fascinated with firearms, even as a teenager —and reputed to have practiced shooting and drawing his guns out of their holster for hours on end. Courtright always wore two six-shooters as a gunman, butts forward, drawing from the right hip with his right hand. Two gunmen were known to be faster on the draw than Hickok, Earp, and Masterson: Robert Clay Allison and Jim Courtright. Drawing fast is one thing; drawing fast and shooting accurately is another; Allison and Courtright could do the latter. Jim Courtright was such a good shot that he traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show with Hickok offering marksmanship demonstrations. Sarah Courtright was also an excellent marksman.
Still, scripture tells us, “… for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” That is exactly what happened to Big Jim Courtright.
In 1873 living outside of Fort Worth, Texas, the Courtright’s tried their hand at farming, but the farm failed, and the family moved to a town where Jim worked as a jailer. In 1876, the citizens of Fort Worth elected Courtright as city marshal, although by the closest of margins: three votes. Since its incorporation as a city in 1873, Fort Worth managed to attract unsavory society elements —the kind of men who preferred to gamble, drink, bully others with fists or guns, and chase loose women. One sobriquet for Fort Worth was “Hell’s Half-Acre.” With crime increasing, the citizens of Fort Worth needed a marshal who would protect them —but gambling and other vices brought money to the city.
Courtright had to learn how to balance the enforcement of city ordinances with keeping the peace. What the city’s merchants wanted most was the income that vice brought in, and this put Jim Courtright into the cross-hairs of the city council, who made it clear: stop the flow of blood, but not the liquor. Of course, Courtright failed to do this, so a candidate for city marshal named S. M. Farmer handily defeated Courtright in the election of 1879.
The loss of this election should come as no surprise to Jim Courtright; during Courtright’s tenure as City Marshal, he was responsible for killing at least four men who contested his authority and was responsible for the murders of several unwilling business owners to pay into Courtright’s protection racket. After losing the election, Courtright attempted to start a detective agency. That, too, was a failure, and Courtright began drinking and gambling.
Courtright may have relocated to New Mexico as early as 1881, leaving his family behind at Fort Worth. There appears to be some basis that Courtright obtained an appointment as a lawman at Lake Valley, worked as a guard for mining operations, and worked as a ranch foreman for the American Valley Cattle Company.
In 1880, former Civil War General John A. Logan, a serving United States Senator from Illinois, became interested in developing a cattle interest in New Mexico. He hired Captain John P. Casey, W. C. Moore, and Henry M. Atkison to purchase this land.
By 1883, the company controlled a vast territory measuring around sixty-six miles by seventy-two miles. By this time, Casey and Moore had already run off some 90 residents in the area of Rito Quemado, New Mexico. This vast range was insufficient; Casey and Moore wanted to increase their holdings by another 3,400 acres, the acquisition of which would give them access to water rights and a de facto expansion of about three million acres.
Two men stood in their way: Mr. Alexis Grossetete and Mr. Robert Elsinger, who were ranching at Gallo Springs. According to an article published in the New York Times, October 22, 1884 [Extract]:
“In 1882, two men, one known as Moore, the other as Capt. Casey made their appearance in our locality and began to locate ranches. How they spent money and generally conducted themselves soon showed that they had power behind them. They were entirely unknown in the country, and it afterward transpired that they had no means of their own, yet they were able almost immediately to hire several men, arm them to the teeth, and terrorize and crowd out men who had settled upon claims. These settlers were mostly natives of Mexico, who were either too ignorant to know or too weak to protect their rights. It seems that after Casey and Moore had started their career, it became known that they were the agents of what is now called the American Valley Cattle Company. I have no means of knowing their interest in the concern, but judging from how they spent money, the men they controlled, the sums they expended from time to time in acquiring property, I should say they must at least have had the full confidence of their backers. They commenced their operations at Rito-Quemado, a hamlet inhabited by New-Mexicans who were mostly poor and ignorant. After acquiring strength, they reached out in other directions. It was generally believed by the people at that time in the country that Casey and Moore intended to drive out the settlers that stood in their way by fraud, or if need be, force.”
Among the guns brought in to assist Casey and Moore was Jim Courtright, former subordinate to General John A. Logan and a trusted lackey. (See also: New York Times, October 21, 1884). The men Jim Courtright and Jim McIntire murdered in New Mexico were not Mexican squatters; they were two ranchers with a legitimate claim to land at Gallo Springs, New Mexico: Robert Elsinger, and Alexis Grossetete. Ranchers all across the territory were almost immediately outraged over these murders. Courtright quickly returned to Fort Worth after authorities in New Mexico charged him with murder.
Soon after, Texas Rangers and New Mexico territorial officials arrived at Fort Worth and announced their intention to arrest Jim Courtright. Fort Worth citizens numbering some 2,000 armed and refused to allow the Rangers to take Courtright into custody, but eventually, Courtright agreed to cooperate, and he stood trial in 1884. The fix was in, apparently: a jury acquitted Courtright of these two murders.
Returning to Fort Worth, Jim became a deputy marshal during the Great Southwest Strike of 1886. Against the wishes of striking railroad workers, Courtright attempted to move the trains along. After two men lost their lives to union violence, railroad workers blamed Courtright for siding with the railroads.
In February 1887, gunman Luke Short was invested in a gambling hall/saloon called the White Elephant near Fort Worth stockyards. Luke was attempting to sell his interest in the saloon because he needed the money to address two serious legal issues. One of these involved his brother Henry, charged with murder in San Angelo, Texas. Courtright’s protection racket made the sale of Short’s interest difficult —especially because Short refused to pay Courtright any protection money.
On the night of February 8, 1887, Jim Courtright and Luke Short stood facing the sidewalk outside the White Elephant Saloon. If the two men exchanged words, no one heard them. This is the testimony given by Luke Short, the only man standing after the confrontation:
“Early in the evening, I was getting my shoes blackened at the White Elephant when a friend of mine asked me if there was any trouble between Courtright and myself, and I told him there was nothing. A few minutes later, I was at the bar with a couple of friends when someone called me. I went out into the vestibule and saw Jim Courtright and Jake Johnson. Jake and I had talked for a little while that evening on a subject in which Jim’s name was mentioned, but no idea of difficulty was entertained. I walked out with them upon the sidewalk, and we had some quiet talk on private affairs. I reminded him of some past transactions, not in an abusive or reproachful manner, to which he assented, but not in a very cordial way. I was standing with my thumbs in the armholes of a vest and had dropped them in front of me to adjust my clothing when he remarked, ‘Well, you needn’t reach for your gun,’ and immediately put his hand in his hip pocket and pulled his. When I saw him do that, I pulled my pistol and began shooting, for I knew that his action meant death. He must have misconstrued my intention in dropping my hands before me. I was merely adjusting my clothing, and never carry a pistol in that part of my dress.”[
Before his death, people feared Jim Courtright. While serving as City Marshal, he did reduce Fort Worth’s murder rate by half. Courtright was a man to fear: he was a murderer, a bully, and a thief. While many people did attend his funeral, it is impossible to know whether this was an expression of sadness or relief.
- Oliver Knight, Fort Worth: Outpost on the Trinity, 1953
- L. Stanley, Jim Courtright, 1957
- H. Williams, The News-Tribune in Old Fort Worth, 1975
- K. DeArment, Jim Courtright of Fort Worth: His Life and Legend, 2004
The largest strike in Texas history was called by the Knights of Labor against railroad baron Jay Gould. The walkout lasted for more than a year and ended when Gould agreed to cease discriminating against union workers.