Barney Kemp Riggs

There was a time in America when folks just up and died.  No one knew why … they just did.  No one in the mid-1800s knew much about influenza, cancer, congestive heart failure, or stroke.  And when they died, their next of kin buried them.  Family farms were often a long way from other farms, and miles away from the nearest town.  Farm work was unrelentingly hard, and, except for Sunday, there was never any time for sluffing off.  So, after the family member was laid to rest, after prayers were spoken, a meal consumed, everyone went back to their chores.  In a few days, someone would make an appropriate entry in the family Bible.

Sometime later, who really knows how long, a family member might take a trip into town for flour or cloth.  The family member’s passing might be mentioned to the store clerk, who told his wife, who mentioned it to the preacher, who told the sheriff, who told the court clerk, who made an entry in this census book.

In 1874, two friends were hunting when one of them accidently shot and killed the other.  Understandably, there was great sadness among his loved ones — perhaps some anger that a life had been taken so young and maybe at the foolishness that caused the accident.  There was also likely to have been some forgiveness; after all, accidents happen.  In any case, Hugh Armstrong was laid to rest in the family plot behind the house on the side of a hill on a small farm some distance away from the village of Salado, Texas — over in Bell County where a toddler named Jim Ferguson[1] was living at the time.  Well, accidents happen and there was nothing else to be done.

It wasn’t until 1879 when the county sheriff began asking questions about the incident.  I suppose it was a matter of someone from the Armstrong family finally making it in to town and mentioning Hugh’s untimely death to a store clerk.  In any case, the sheriff wanted to ask Hugh’s friend, Barney Kemp Riggs — the man who shot Hugh a few questions about what happened.  At first, Barney agreed to speak to the Sheriff but then, just before the meeting took place, Barney left Bell County for parts unknown.

The second eldest of seven children, Barney was born to Thomas and Hannah Riggs on 18th December 1856.  As with thousands of people in the mid-1800s, the Rigg family decided to risk moving to Texas where land prices were low and land a good investment.  They settled in the village of Salado where they could farm.  It was never an idyllic life, of course.  The Comanche made life a living hell for some folks, but things were getting better.  There was an army post not too far away, over in Coryell County[2] — Fort Gates (today, Gatesville — north of Fort Hood).

When Barney Riggs left Salado, he went to live with his father’s brother, James, in Cochise County, Arizona.  Jim Riggs had a ranch there and Barney was hired on as a ranch hand.  In 1881, Barney met Miss Vennie Hicklin from Dos Cabezas[3], a small mining town over by Willcox.  Barney and Vennie married on 21st February 1882.  Of course, marriage is a big step in any young man’s life and because a stockmen’s wages were slim Barney Riggs engaged in a little moonlighting to bring in a little extra income by helping Mexican horses and cattle find their way to freedom in the United States.  Of course, moving horses across international borders always incurs some risk, particularly if the transfer takes place without the owner’s consent or knowledge.  One day, Riggs and his cousin were resting ten or twelve recently liberated horses at a watering hole just north of the Mexican border when two vaqueros traveling with three women in a cargo wagon happened by.  The vaqueros noted the brands on the horses were from a spread in Mexico and started asking questions about how those horses found their way into Estados Unidos.

With some apprehension that the vaqueros were on to them, Riggs shot both men dead and then, leaving the three women unmolested, he and his cousin moved the horses along.  A few miles later, Riggs wondered about leaving witnesses who could later testify against him.  He solved that problem by returning to the watering hole and killing all three women.  Barney was very thoughtful in such matters.

I’m not sure if Barney Riggs was one of the Cochise County Cowboys, but he was definitely one of Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan’s deputies searching for Wyatt Earp during his so-called vendetta ride.  We know how that turned out.  At this point, one might conclude that Barney Riggs — in not finding Wyatt Earp — was a lucky man.

At the Riggs Ranch, Barney worked under Uncle Jim’s stepson, Richmond Hudson.  Richmond assigned Barney to a cattle-buying trip in Texas.  When Barney returned to the ranch in early September 1886, he began hearing rumors about Vinnie and Richmond.  Barney asked Richmond about this rumor, of course — as any husband would — and Richmond denied any improper relationship with Mrs. Riggs.  As it turned out, though, Richmond wasn’t all that bright.  A few days later, Barney overheard Richmond telling his friends about his seduction of Vinnie Riggs, how easy she was to coax into bed.  On 29th September 1886, Richmond Hudson was found shot to death.

Almost everyone at Uncle Jim’s ranch knew that Barney and Richmond had a falling out.  Richmond’s friends knew why — which led lawmen to name Barney Riggs as a prime suspect in the assassination of Richmond Hudson.  Barney soon took off into the Arizona mountains and a $250.00 bounty was offered for Riggs’ capture.

Cochise Deputy Sheriff Charlie Smith partnered with Tombstone Constable Fred Dodge[4] to bring Barney Riggs in.  The two men set up a surveillance of the Riggs Ranch from an overlooking hill top position.  A day or two later, Smith and Dodge observed a rider on an adjacent hill signaling to Vinnie Riggs.  Smith and Dodge followed her at a discreet distance to the rendezvous and took them both into custody.

At the Sheriff’s Office in Tombstone, Vinnie, who was guilty of little more than occasional marital infidelity, was released.  Barney, however, went to trial.  Actually, there were two trials. The first event ended up as a mistrial because half the jury thought that Riggs’ shooting of Hudson was justifiable homicide.  The jury in the second trial took a different view.  A man may warrant killing on account of making sexual advances to another man’s wife, but cold blooded assassination could only be regarded as a premeditated murder.  On the very last day of 1886, Barney Riggs was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison at the Arizona Territorial Prison in Yuma, Arizona.

One might think that this tale would end with Barney being sent away to serve a life sentence.  Not quite.  No one likes having to go to prison — not even today — so when seven convicts managed to get ahold of firearms, they took Arizona Territorial Prison Warden Thomas Gates hostage and used him to secure their escape.  When the inmates learned what was going on, pandemonium broke out inside the prison.

Barney Riggs was an observer of this fracas.  At just the right moment, Riggs disarmed one of the escapees and shot and killed the convict who was holding Warden Gates as a shield.  This act of bravery earned Riggs the warden’s undying gratitude and the Territorial Governor’s commutation of Barney’s life sentence.  Riggs was released from prison on the very last day of 1887.

During the year Barney spent in prison, Vinnie and their son William Earl went to live in California.  After his release, Riggs traveled to California to inform Vinnie that the marriage was over.  Barney collected his son and returned to Texas where he took up residence with his brother Tom.  Within a year or so, Barney and Tom started up a ranch along the Texas/New Mexico border.

In the 1890s, few people bothered with formal divorces.  Barney Riggs didn’t.  While still married to Vinnie, who remained in California, Riggs married a widow woman named Annie Stella Frazer Johnson.  She was the widow of Pecos County Sheriff James Johnson and the sister of Reeves County Sheriff George A. “Bud” Frazer.

Bud Frazer was born in Fort Stockton, Texas.  He and Annie were the children of George M. Frazer, who had served as an Arizona Ranger, Pecos County Sheriff, and as County Judge.  Noted for their violence, the Frazer family feuded with the Sosa family in the mid-1880s.  It seems that the Frazer’s objected to Crispin Sosa cutting Jim Frazer’s throat.  Jim was Bud’s brother.  In any case, Crispin ended up shot to death.  His brother, Pablo, went into hiding in Presidio, Texas but he didn’t run far enough because sometime later, Pablo’s body (or what was left of it) was found in a hog pen riddled with bullets.  Pablo’s death more or less ended the feud, which had no effect at all on Bud Frazer’s reputation in Reeves County because in 1890, Bud was elected Sheriff.  Bud Frazer was 26 years old.

In 1891, Bud hired a fellow named Jim Miller as one of his deputies.  Miller was a bit odd, but he was a church-going fellow and he read the Bible frequently.  He was so religious, in fact, that folks began calling him “Deacon Jim” Miller.  Well, some of them did; other folks called him “Kill ‘in” Jim.  Jim Miller’s signature firearm was a shotgun, so it was somewhat easy to conclude that Deacon Jim hated Mexicans by the number of shotgun riddled Mexicans found at various places throughout Reeves County.

Bud Frazer’s brother-in-law, Barney Riggs warned Bud about hiring Jim Miller, but Bud was one of those hard-headed cusses who knew everything and pretty much disregarded what Barney had to say.  After Miller was hired, the county noted a sudden up-tick in cattle rustling and misappropriation of horse-flesh.  Miller’s task was to get to the bottom of the theft of livestock.  He must have chuckled to himself as he said “Yes sir” … He never actually caught any rustlers, of course, but there were several “suspects” who were shot while trying to escape.  It was probably only a coincidence that most of those men were Mexicans.

Riggs, who had no deep love for Mexicans, did have an affinity for other people’s cattle.  He suggested that if Bud wanted to resolve the cattle rustling problem, he might take a closer look at Jim Miller.  It was only after Miller shot yet another Mexican “trying to escape” that Frazer began his investigation.  Barney suggested that the Mexican was shot because he knew where Miller was hiding the stolen livestock.  Bud found the missing animals and promptly fired him.  This was the event that started the famed Frazer-Miller Feud[5].

Over in Fort Stockton, Andrew J. Royal was elected to serve as Sheriff of Pecos County and, perhaps on the good recommendation of Sheriff Bud Frazer, Royal hired Barney Riggs as one of his deputies.  As reported last week, Royal was one of those fellows who could fool some of the people most of the time.  In his two years in office, Royal made a transition from lawman to gangster, and it took the Texas Rangers and one very pissed off citizen to sort A. J. out.  When the matter of his corruption came to a head in 1894, just in front of the bi-annual election cycle, Texas Rangers arrested Royal and his deputies, Barney Riggs, Camilio Terrazas, and J. P. Meadows.  It was alleged that Royal had allowed a Mexican prisoner to “escape” from jail so that the Mexican could help Royal win votes within the Hispanic community in Pecos County.  Well, as it turned out, Royal lost the election in October 1894, and lost his life in November on account of the fact that a mysterious person shot gunned him to death while he was sitting inside his office.

By this time, Riggs had learned how to “go along to get along,” This is not always a winning strategy, however.  Over in Reeves County (next door to Pecos County), Riggs was arrested several time for public drunkenness, unlawfully carrying a firearm, and assault.  In March 1893, Riggs was indicted by a Reeves County grand jury for assault with intent to kill Augustin Palanco.  It was Augustin’s story that when he went over to the Riggs ranch to claim one of his burros, Riggs shot at him and then beat him about the head and shoulders.  This tidbit reminds us that no matter how long Mexicans have been liars, they’ve never been any good at it.  But since Riggs was acquitted of the charge, another possibility arises — which is that the Reeves County jury pool had an ethnic bias against Mexicans.

Not everything was peachy for brother-in-law Bud Frazer, either.  In May 1893, Frazer was out of town for some reason or another and town marshal Miller and his gunmen took over the town of Pecos.  It might have been the ideal setting for one of those made for television westerns in the 1950s.  Businesses were suffering because everyone was afraid to go into town out of fear for their safety — and this was long before traffic lights and stop signs.  Miller and his boys decided that when Frazer returned, they’d shoot him down and make it look as if he’d been hit by a stray bullet from a staged gunfight.  Frazer found out about this plan from an informant named Con Gibson.

Frazer contacted the Texas Rangers and when he arrived back in town, he was in the company of Captain John R. Hughes of the Texas Rangers.  Hughes arrested Miller and deputies Mannie Clements (Miller’s brother-in-law) and Martin Hardin and charged them with conspiracy to commit murder.  A grand jury indicted all three men on 7 September.  Because of the Frazer family influence in Reeves County, the trial was scheduled to take place in El Paso.  The primary witness in this case was Con Gibson who tried to outrun a bullet fired by John Denson over in Eddy, New Mexico.  Gibson lost the race.  Without Gibson’s testimony, there was no case against Miller and his henchmen.  The only consequence of this incident to Deacon Jim was that he lost his job as town marshal.  He bought a hotel in Pecos, instead.

Bud Frazer was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he wasn’t a coward, either.  On 18 April 1894, Frazer encountered Miller on the street in Pecos and shouted to him, “Miller, you’re a cattle rustler and a murderer.  Here’s one for Con Gibson!”  Frazer then drew his weapon and fired on Miller, striking him in his right arm.  Miller fired back, shooting a shopkeeper, instead.  Frazer then emptied his pistol into Miller’s chest.  Everyone was amazed that Miller was still alive when they carried him to his hotel — until they noticed he was wearing a metal breast plate under his long coat.  In November, Frazer lost the election and he moved over to Carlsbad, New Mexico where he opened a livery stable.

A second gunfight followed in December, with similar results, and for the same reasons.  Again, Frazer got the best of the gunplay, having shot Miller twice in the left arm, once in the leg, and twice in the chest — but Miller’s breast plate saved him again.  It was only then that Frazer figured out about the breast plate.  A lesson too late learned, perhaps.

In March 1895, a famed gunman-turned prisoner-turned lawyer arrived in Pecos to file charges against Bud Frazer for attempted murder on behalf of his brother-in-law, Deacon Jim Miller.  Frazer’s trial was scheduled to convene in El Paso.  Fortunately for Frazer, John Wesley Hardin was murdered in El Paso before the trial date and ultimately, Bud Frazer was acquitted.

Miller would have his revenge — and not only with Bud Frazer.  By this time, Barney Riggs was known as a dangerous gun-fighter.  He was also the man who exposed Miller’s involvement in cattle rustling.  But Barney Riggs was likely the only man Miller truly feared.  Miller was an assassin, however, in league with John Denson and Bill Earhart — all of whom were back-shooters.  While drinking in a saloon in Fort Stockton, a friend of Riggs overheard Denson and Earhart muttering threats against Barney.  When Deputy U. S. Marshal Dee Harkey learned of this, he telegraphed a warning to Riggs in Pecos that Denson and Earhart were looking for him.

When the two shooter arrived in Pecos, Riggs avoided them.  On 3 March, however, Riggs was working the bar in Johnson’s saloon when Denson and Earhart burst in and shot at Riggs.  Earhart’s shot grazed Riggs, who returned fire, killing Denson.  Riggs then grappled with Earhart, who was able to free himself and escape down the street.  Riggs stepped into the street and shot Earhart dead.  Riggs surrendered to the law, was tried for murder, and acquitted.

Bud Frazer wasn’t so lucky (or as skilled) as Riggs.  While visiting his family in Toyah, Texas, on 14 September 1896, Frazer was playing cards with friends in a saloon when Miller stepped inside the doorway and fired both barrels of his shotgun into Frazer, which nearly took his head off.  Later, Bud’s sister approached Miller with a firearm and Miller told her, “I’ll give you what your brother got — I’ll shoot you right in the face.”  Amazingly (or not) Jim Miller was acquitted of murder on account of the fact that “he had done no worse than Frazer.”[6]

Over the next several years, Barney Riggs continued living inside a whiskey bottle.  Annie finally tired of it and left him.  She purchased Koehler’s hotel and store in Fort Stockton.  She was granted a divorce in 1901 and it was this divorce, not Jim Miller’s vendetta, that would be Barney’s undoing.

Annie’s divorce settlement required that Barney Riggs pay her periodic child support payments.  The court ordered Daniel J. Chadborn (known as Buck) to handle the payments as trustee.  Buck was the 21-year-old husband of Annie Rigg’s daughter from a previous marriage.  Barney resented Buck’s involvement in the divorce, which was a contentious one, and loudly berated Buck whenever he found the opportunity.  Within a year, Buck petitioned the court to relieve him of the duty, which the court declined to do.  In April 1902, Barney took a cane to Buck and beat him thoroughly.  Barney intended to beat him again the next day, but Buck had had enough.  As Riggs raised his cane toward Buck Chadborn to strike him, Buck slapped leather and shot Riggs center chest.

Barney Riggs was buried in the Fort Stockton “old fort” cemetery — next to A. J. Royal.

Sources:

  1. DeArment, R. K.  Deadly Dozen: Twelve Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
  2. James, B.  Jim Miller: The Untold Story of a Texas Badman.  Henington Publishing, 1989.
  3. Nash, R.  Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen & Outlaws.  Da Capo Press, 1994.

Endnotes:

[1] Texas’ infamous 26th governor.

[2] Ohio-born James Coryell moved to Texas when he was 18 years of age.  In 1831, Coryell was a companion of James Bowie who made several explorations with the Bowie party in search of silver mines. He afterward traveled to Sarahville de Viesca (present day Falls County) where he served twice as a Texas Ranger.  Granted land in the area of present day Coryell County, James was killed in 1837 when attacked by hostile Caddo Indians.

[3] After 1960, a ghost town.

[4] Fred Dodge (1854-1938) was an undercover Wells Fargo detective, a Tombstone, Arizona constable, and a Texas cattleman.  Some say that Fred Dodge was a near look-a-like of Morgan Earp.  Dodge’s initial visit to Tombstone was in his official capacity as an  undercover agent.  He was looking for the thugs who robbed Wells Fargo stagecoaches in Cochise and Pima County, Arizona.  He later worked with famed lawman Heck Thomas in hunting down the Doolin and Dalton Gang members.

[5] In 1892, Miller ran against Frazer for sheriff and lost.  Instead, Miller became the town marshal in Pecos, Texas and surrounded himself with gunmen, whom he hired as his deputies.  One of these men, John Denson, was related to John Wesley Hardin. 

[6] “Kill ‘in” Jim Miller was hanged by vigilantes in Ada, Oklahoma on 19 April 1909 for assassinating Allen “Gus” Bobbitt.  Bobbitt’s murder was arranged and paid by rival ranchers Jesse West, Joe Allen, and Berry Burrell.  


About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Southwest, Arizona Territory, Gunfights and such, History, Texas. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Barney Kemp Riggs

  1. kidme37 says:

    Seems like lots of people think stuff like this only happened in the Wild West, though I’d bet this kind of stuff goes on at a level consistent with the number of people running around on a per capita basis and that little of it actually results in justice for the perps.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Agree. If our system of justice was working well in conjunction with every other aspect of American society, we’d have fewer victims and far fewer prisons.

      Like

  2. Andy says:

    This was a tale told well. Fast-paced and clever, never dull. Bits of humorous narrative kept the story moving at giddy-up pace.

    One might think that the Old West had run its course by the end of the 1800s. The story of the life of Barney Kemp Riggs belies that notion and sheds new light on people, places, and events of that era.

    Especially well-done with this account, Mustang

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.