When Africans were brought over on slave ships they brought their beliefs and practices with them, as all migrating people do. Their form of spirituality shared a commonality with other African religions and practices, which was an abiding faith in the power of a spirit-world. They called a spirit that was conjured up from the spirit world a “hoodoo.” The hoodoo could perform magical powers, which meant that if Africans feared anything at all, it was probably associated with the spirit world.
In Mason County Texas, the hoodoos were masked gunmen and members of the vigilante committee who were able to work the magic of life and death over their adversaries. Accordingly, the Mason County War also became known as the Hoodoo War —a period of lawlessness ignited by a tidal wave of cattle rustling in Mason County, and the hostility produced between German immigrants and Anglo Americans.
Mason County is located on the Edwards Plateau. As of the last federal census, the population was around 4,000 —which are far fewer citizens than in most other areas of Texas. Before 1850, Mason County set squarely inside Indian country and the native peoples included Lipan Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche. In 1860, barely 600 people lived in the area surrounding Fort Mason but that would change when settlers moving into Texas realized what a great place it was for raising cattle and horses.
Nevertheless, bad luck was on the horizon for this Hill Country area when quite suddenly, in 1874, large numbers of cattle began to disappear. Back then, cattle were the same as gold; steal a man’s cattle and you’re just looking for trouble. It was this issue that started the so-called Mason County (Hoodoo) War. It was a war fought between Texans and German immigrants. In all honesty, the problem had been simmering for a while. During the Civil War, for example, native Texas declared themselves for the Confederacy; Germans remained loyal to the Union —which did not sit well with the Texans.
As early as 1874, county justice Wilson Hey wrote to Governor Richard Coke requesting troops to help deal with large scale cattle rustling inside Mason County. Both German immigrants and native Texans believed that the state was ignoring their problems, and neither group was able to secure the protection of lawful authority against cattle rustling. A young cowboy by the name of Allen Bolt may have been the first casualty of the Hoodoo War; he was discovered lying along a dirt trail, shot to death, with a note penned to the back of his vest: “Here lies a noted cow thief.”
Mason County Sheriff John Clark subsequently arrested nine men and charged them with stealing cattle. He placed them in the Mason County Jail, which at this time was no more than an open coral of oak logs. Before trial, however, four of these men escaped. Texas Ranger Dan Roberts happened to be in Mason at the time, but he had only a few men and was powerless when a mob of about forty men showed up at the jail on 18 February 1875 to remove the five remaining prisoners and hang them. In the minds of these vigilantes, it was justice, by God. Roberts attempted to stop the mob, but the Rangers were significantly outnumbered.
The five victims included Lige Baccus and his cousin, who died, a Mr. Tom Turley who was hanged but survived, another fellow named Johnson, who escaped, and a fifth man by the name of Wiggins, who was shot in the head. A district court investigated this incident, but nothing ever came of its examination.
On 13 May, Sheriff Clark sent his deputy John Wohrle (variously, Worley) and the county brand inspector over to Castell, in Llano County, with orders to arrest Tim Williamson. Williamson worked as ranch foreman. In the previous year, Williamson had been charged in Mason County with selling a yearling with someone else’s brand. Historians point out that Williamson may not have been guilty, as no trial had been convened in this matter, but it was nevertheless required that Williamson post a bond. Williamson stood in good stead with his employer, who offered to sign the bond himself, but Deputy Wohrle refused this offer, saying that the bond would have to be taken care of in Mason Country. (Shown right, Mr. & Mrs. Tim Williamson).
While enroute back to Mason, a gang of twelve men with blackened faces ambushed Wohrle and Williamson. The unarmed Williamson was killed. Wohrle was said to have offered no good defense of his prisoner, causing some folks to think that Wohrle was in on the assassination. No trial was ever ordered for the murder of Williamson, and in all likelihood, Williamson’s murder triggered the Mason County War.
Hoodoo violence continued in earnest after Williamson’s death. In July, gunmen fired on three German men from the dark. One of these was gut shot and died within a few days. The circulating rumor was that this shooting was in retribution for the murder of Williamson, but there was no evidence of any complicity by any white men. Tracks found in the area were those of a moccasin wearing persons.
Into this mix enters Scott Cooley (shown right), a former Texas Ranger, and a longtime friend to Tim Williamson. Left fatherless by frontier violence, Williamson and his wife had more or less adopted Scott Cooley. Mary Williamson nursed Cooley back to health when he contracted typhoid fever. So, when young Scott learned of Williamson’s murder, he just sat down and cried; Williamson was his best friend in the world. When his crying stopped, Cooley announced that he was going to Mason County to put things right. He started by putting together a group of his own: John and Moses Baird, George Gladden, and a fellow by the name of Johnny Ringo. They’d begin their campaign with Wohrle.
Scott Cooley found Deputy Wohrle on 10 August 1875; he was working on a well at the Wohrle ranch. Cooley took the time to engage him in a calm conversation and then Scott asked him point blank, “Wohrle, why’d you kill Williamson?”
Wohrle answered, “Because I had to…”
Scott promptly shot him through the head and then, according to some, scalped him. The Wohrle shooting was followed by several other acts of violence. Ten days later, Cooley found Peter Bader’s brother Charles working in the field and shot him down but had mistaken him for Peter.
After Sheriff Clark learned of the Bader killing, he set a trap for Scott Cooley. He sent James Cheney to lure Moses Baird and Gladden in to Mason. It was there that Clarke’s fifty-man posse waited in ambush near Keller’s General Store, which was situated along the Llano River. Baird died in the shootout that followed; Gladden was severely wounded. The Mason County attorney wrote to Governor Richard Coke and told him that if he did not take immediate action, a civil war would develop inside Mason Country.
Baird was avenged on 25 September when Johnny Ringo (shown right) and one other gunman visited Cheney and shot him down in front of his family.
Governor Richard Coke directed General Steel to send Texas Ranger Major John B. Jones to Mason County —to clean the mess up.
When Major Jones (shown left) arrived in Mason, Sheriff Clark nearly opened fire on him. Clark reported that the Cooley Gang could be heading toward Loyal Valley to “burn out” the German settlements there. Jones hurried over to Loyal Valley, finding everything quiet. He ordered his men into bivouac for the night.
Cooley arrived in Mason at about the time Jones reached Loyal Valley. Now riding with Cooley was Gladden, who had healed sufficiently to carry a firearm once more —and John Baird. Citizens reported hearing a lot of shooting up by the county court house. Dan Hoerster had been killed. Cooley tried to kill Peter Jordan and Henry Pluenneke too but missed. Historian Mike Cox chronicled, “…a few hours later Jones and the rangers rode into town too late to do anything other than inspect Hoerster’s body and marvel at what a load of buckshot could do to a man’s neck.”
Mason County Sheriff Clark filed murder charges against Scott Cooley, but there was one small problem. In spite of the $300 reward offered for information leading to his arrest and capture, no one was stepping up. Even the Texas Rangers, recalling that Cooley had served in their ranks, seemed unable to locate him.
Major Jones assembled his men and explained that he understood the ranger’s unwillingness to go after one of their friends. He offered an honorable discharge to anyone who wished to withdraw from this onerous task. One source report that fifteen rangers resigned; historians, however, are only able to identify three. Nevertheless, the Texas Rangers never located Scott Cooley —and herein lies an important lesson. Major Jones understood that the Texas Rangers could only be an effective law enforcement arm when they had the cooperation of local authorities. When those officials were as divided as their citizens, there was no magic that the Texas Rangers could perform that would resolve local conflicts.
The Texas Rangers and local law enforcement did eventually arrest a few people, but magistrates dismissed most of the cases. Mason county courts never convicted anyone of either faction of murder. George Gladden later hunted down Peter Bader and killed him. Gladden was eventually tried for murder and sentenced to 99 years in prison; he was released after only three years.
Scott Cooley fled into Blanco County where friends sheltered him. He died some time later from a brain fever. After many months of murderous violence, peace eventually returned to Mason County in the fall of 1876. Mysteriously, on the night of 21 January 1877, the Mason County courthouse burned to the ground. Any and all records of the Hoodoo War perished with it.
- B. Eilers, A History of Mason County, Texas, 1939
- G. Polk, Mason, and Mason County: A History, 1966
- L. Sonnichsen, Ten Texas Feuds, 1971