THE ENGLISH WESTERNERS' SOCIETY
AUGUST 2018 BOOK REVIEW
This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Spring 2017, Volume 63, Number 2)
NO HOPE FOR HEAVEN, NO FEAR OF HELL: The Stafford-Townsend Feud of Colorado County, Texas, 1871-1911.
By James C. Kearney, Bill Stein, and James Smallwood. (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2016. Pp. XVI + 288. 43 illustrations, one map. Appendices. Endnotes. Bibliography ISBN 978-1-57441-650-3. $29.95.
No one who has never written a book dealing with history appreciates the time and effort that is required from beginning to the final product: a published book. Once the idea is within you and the research begins, followed by the writing, and re-writing, years may have passed. Writing a history of a blood-feud is no different. Of the three authors named above as authors, two have since passed: Bill Stein, Colorado County native and at his death director of the Nesbitt Memorial Library in Columbus and James Smallwood, a university professor and author of numerous books, some of which dealt with Texas blood feuds. Gratefully, Jim Kearney, a history professor at the University of Texas and also a Colorado County native, who also had a keen interest in the feud, had the responsibility of continuing the work to get the first book-length study of the feud. The result is a masterful study of the lesser-known east Texas feud between the Staffords and the Townsends. Author Kearney claims the Colorado County blood feud “was the last major Texas feud that had not received serious and unbiased book-length treatment.” (157) In spite of Dr. Sonnichsen having included this feud in his classic I’ll Die before I’ll Run: The Story of the Great Feuds of Texas, his treatment of the feud was limited to a single chapter. No Hope for Heaven, No Fear of Hell provides the complete history. Other historians may argue the point of whether this feud was a “major feud” or a minor one, but there is no question as to this work being a full and unbiased account. Readers will quickly realize after reading No Hope for Heaven that it was not a mere county affray but an important conflict in Texas history equaling the significance of the little wars of the more famous Sutton-Taylor feud or the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
The authors clarify the question as to why this feud has not reached the attention of other historians. After a period of time (letting the gun smoke drift away perhaps) those people who experienced the feud chose not to talk about it. Bringing up the past troubles would raise again the hatreds and start the feud over again. The wrong word uttered might remind someone of a forgotten slight, which might stir up vengeful feelings, upon which to act with fatal results. Sonnichsen was not the first historian to realize that in many situations his interviewee remained tight-lipped, or stone-walled him, in his investigation for those very reasons.
But with the original research done by Bill Stein and James Smallwood, and Kearney’s continued research and his devotion to county history, the Colorado County feud no longer has those deep dark secrets. The authors have scoured the county newspapers (surprisingly most are extant for that period) of Weimer and Columbus and other state publications – there are 38 listed in the bibliography - as well as court records, Texas Ranger reports preserved in the Adjutant General’s files as well as other documents. The prize document was the interview with John Goeppinger whom Kearney interviewed back in 1972. Mr. Goeppinger was the last participant of the feud and history is blessed because of his willingness to be interviewed. The man was 90 years old when he sat down with Kearney to talk about those events; some of what he told was self-incriminating. Due to that fact, he agreed to the interview only after the promise of it not being released until after his death. Kearney kept his word; the interview remains one of the rare documents of history in which the speaker reveals information which had been kept secret for years. It is presented in full as Appendix B.
As difficult as it is to provide a synopsis of the feud it might be equally frustrating to keep all the characters straight. To help the reader keep the characters straight, Kearney has provided us with an 18 page “Feud Biographies” providing a brief biography of the many men and women who played a part in the feud. This indeed was a family feud and on occasion a member of one party acted out of character.
The Sutton-Taylor feud of DeWitt County and the Horrell-Higgins Feud of Lampasas County may be the best known feuds of Texas, but the Stafford-Townsend feud has the unique distinction of bringing in the top-level Texas Rangers, not only the “Four Great Captains” (John H. Rogers, John R. Hughes, Bill McDonald and James Brooks) but also Quartermaster Lamartine Sieker and no less an important personage than Adjutant General Thomas Scurry. No other feud in Texas brought in such big guns to settle the differences between families.
As early as 1871 Captain Leander H. McNelly, a captain in the Texas State Police force, was called to Colorado County to end the occasional shooting on the city streets. Five men were arrested: three Staffords and one of their cousins. On the opposing side, they arrested one Townsend. McNelly was a highly effective lawman, and if he had remained there with his one private the events in the county might have ended differently. An additional aspect of this feud is the racial question: the sheriff at every election courted the black vote; no other feud was so concerned with the racial issues which candidates of today’s elections use as well. This political aspect of the feud continued for years. Sheriff J. L. “Light” Townsend was elected in November 1880 and served nearly fourteen years; he would have probably served longer had he not died in office in 1894. Playing the “race card” had assured him of his position, a method which is used by politicians even today.
Another differing aspect of this feud is that it began in 1871 with the street shooting and continued until the murder of two of the Stafford brothers in 1890. Years passed and the citizens may have hoped for quietude, but then came the assassination of Larkin Hope which caused the feud to flare up again. The feud was finally over after the violent deaths of three men: Marion Hope, Jim Townsend and Jim Clements, all in the space of one month in 1911. Kearney makes no attempt to list all the victims of the feud; it would be an impossibility, as during the “feuding years” there were numerous lynchings, murders, and acts of private vengeance which in all likelihood had nothing to do with the feud.
With this book one may attempt to compare the various feuds of Texas as to the most violent or which one had the most victims or which lasted the longest. Dr. Sonnichsen entitled his chapter on the Sutton-Taylor troubles as “Thirty-Years of Feuding.” Dave Johnson dated the Mason County feud, or “Hoo-Doo” war as lasting from 1874 to 1902. One must conclude now that with the evidence Kearney has presented the Stafford-Townsend Feud can rightfully claim to be the longest lasting. Which feud had the most victims will remain forever an unknown.
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