Taylor County TXGenWeb

Who was Zeno Hemphill?
by James R. Hewitt
Great-grandson of Dave Barker


In 1909, the W. B. Conkey Company published the first edition of the "Quirt and the Spur: Vanishing Shadows of the Texas Frontier" by Edgar Rye. This work is a fine work of fiction centered on Fort Griffin "The Flat" and Albany, Shackelford County, Texas during the 1870's and 1880's. Mr. Rye was a citizen of the area during those times. He was known as "Edgar Rye with the crocked eye." He served as a Justice of the peace, County prosecutor, City attorney and founded the Tomahawk Newspaper in Albany. He was considered somewhat inept as a prosecutor because he prosecuted 14 consecutive cases in less than one year where the defendants plead not guilty, and he had no convictions.

We shall quote a statement of Mr. Rye as it appears in the preface of his book:

 "All that has passed before appear to me as vanishing shadows, into whose hazy depths I now dimly see as in a dream; too far away to grasp the details, yet a vision clear enough to quicken my mind and allow imagination to supply the perspective, and to even incarnate the actors, and bid them come forth from that mystic realm of long ago, and once more give a realistic performance for the mutual pleasure of old friends.

'Tis true, the cycle of time has whirled us along so fast that we have drifted into the broad field of commercialism, and now we can hardly realize that there is a past worth remembering---a time before the flood of immigration set in with its ever increasing population, gradually covering all traces of the Texas frontier.

In these modern days I find it a most difficult task to secure any data, much less to tell the true story; nevertheless, I think it is worth while.

And there is much that is interesting in the telling, too, notwithstanding my friend the critic may not find, in the “warp and woof " of the story, the weaving of a narrative that he can pronounce "all wool and a yard wide." I will be content if the few remaining frontiersmen and their descendants can unravel a thread or two that will prove interesting."

Edgar Rye

In the inside cover of the current edition published by "Double Mountain Books" is the following statement:

"Through The Quirt and the Spur was taken as history for many years, Rye did not intend it as historical record.  He filled its pages with tall tales and outright fabrications. At center stage is the frontier village of The Flat, which Rye portrayed in the tradition of such kindred towns as Dodge City and Tombstone, places that became known for their violence and lawlessness..."

Paul H. Carlson,
Series Editor

In the forward of this book is the following statement from noted Author Ty Cashing of Sam Houston State University:

"-indeed you can find this volume cited in many a faithfully documented chronicle — it is full of errors of fact as well as outright fabrications..."

Ty Cashion

The Myth of Zeno Hemphill

"Quirt and the Spur: Vanishing Shadows of the Texas Frontier" by Edgar Rye, in chapter ten titled,  "The Genuine Cowboy at Work and Play", Rye tells a tale about a cowboy named Zeno Hemphill, which starts on page 289. According to Rye, the story takes place during the Fall of 1877 when the Cattle Raisers Association Convention was to have taken place in "The Flat" at Fort Griffin, Shackelford County, Texas. Henry Herron read this book and because he is mentioned as a principle participant began to use Rye's tale to enhance his own notoriety.

Some thirty years later, Henry Herron embellished his memories with Rye's tales then he repeated these tales as facts to J. R. Webb who was documenting the history of the area.  Subsequently, modern authors have taken this story to be a true fact of history because they believed that the statements of Herron during his interview with Webb  corroborated Rye’s tale as fact. The story as told by Mr. Rye is as follows:

“No statesman or lawyer had planned the formation of an association. It was to be a convention of, by and for the cattlemen of North West Texas, growing out of the conditions of the range that demanded the cooperation of mutual interests. Therefore, it commanded the presence of delegates from all the ranches within 500 miles.

But it is not with the business end of this convention, but of the incidents concomitant thereof, that commands our attention.

'Tis the escapades of cowboy life under high pressure that are worthy of note on this occasion. For if the innate cussedness aroused by one cowboy full of bad whiskey could set a town by the ears, how much more to encounter them by the hundreds?

There was Bland and Peeler from the Millet ranch, Hemphill and Biggs from the Jim Reed ranch, Tucker and Batts from the Lynch ranch, Gentry and Jeffrys from the Mathews ranch, Glen and Phil Reynolds from the Reynolds Brothers ranch, Jim and Cal Greer from the Greer's ranch, and space forbids the mention of several hundred more cowboys from outlying ranches who were not delegates. 

These boys were there to have the time of their lives, while the bosses attended to business, and a rip-rousing old time they had too.

Everything was wide open and the whiskey tanks full. If you didn't waltz up to the counter and chalk your name down for a drink of your favorite brand, it was your own fault and there was no kick coming. 

Sheriff Green Simpson and his deputies, Henry Heron and Marshal Dave Barker, were on hand 'tis true, but unless a fellow became too reckless with his shooting-irons, they never interfered with the festivities.

It was late in the evening of the first day. The convention had adjourned, after Kit Carter President and Jim Loving, secretary treasure.  

The crowds surged around the hotels and restraints, where the fumes of baked meat and coffee sent forth tempting odors. Many were already in the mellow state that comes from imbibing too much. Consequently, the conversation was hilarious and more forceful than elegant. 

As darkness approached the whole avenue burst forth in a flood of light form the open windows and doors.

The time for merry making had come. And the boys who knew how to make merry were on hand to see that the fun was fast and furious.

It was well enough to eat baked beef and drink coffee as a necessity, but throats used to alkali dust and gip water craved the cheering spirits sold over the bars - "Drink'r down, boys; drink'r down."

One by one the older and wiser heads became dizzy and drowsy and they rolled up their blankets. But not so with those wild and bitter cusses from "Bitter Creek." Their blood was warm and heads hot, and the devil spurred them on to all kinds of mischief. A grand rush was made for the dance halls, and the atmosphere soon became charged with tobacco smoke and whiskey.

As the night advanced the sprit of recklessness grew, and men dared to do those things that in their saner moments would have been called foolhardy.

The front room of the old adobe saloon was crowded to suffocation when Zeno Hemphill jumped upon the counter and dared Peeler to help "shoot the lights out."  And the fusillade that followed soon "doused the glims." Considerable confusion followed in the dark, and several were wounded by stray bullets. But by the time Jack Casey and Mike O’Brien, the proprietors, had procured new lamps, the crowd had surged into the street on their way to Dick Jones' saloon, shooting right and left as they advanced up the avenue.

And so the night wore away, and the morning's sun peeped o'er the eastern brakes and shot a shaft of light along Griffin Avenue, revealing bunches of cowboys sleeping off their stupor under the awnings in front of the business houses.

The second day was full of stirring incidents that at times almost amounted to a riot.

One of the most exciting events was between a local sport named Mike Harrity and Zeno Hemphill, relative to whether a "bronco buster" could ride a three-year old steer as easily as an unbroken mustang.

Zeno claimed he could ride anything that wore hair. Mike bet him $50.00 that he could not ride a steer. The money was put up in Harve Biggs' hands and two men were sent out to bring in a bunch of cattle from which to select the animal. They were gone about an hour and reported a bunch in T. E. Jackson's corral.

Bill Hitson and Jim Reed were selected as a committee to pick out the steer. Two of the boys roped him, turned the balance of the bunch loose, and led the wild, cavorting bovine out in the open prairie, threw him down, tied and blindfolded him and a saddle was cinched on his back when he arose to his feet. Blindfolding always had the effect of keeping an animal quiet until it could be saddled and bridled. And this proved no exception, for the steer stood and trembled until the saddle was fastened. The lassoes were removed and two boys held him by the horns and nose until Zeno mounted, then jerking the blinds off turned him loose.

Did you ever see a man attempt to ride a wild, untamed steer? No? Then you can have no conception of the real performance.

Wild-eyed, snorting and bellowing at every jump, that untamed steer pitched stiff-legged down the trail, humping and hunching his back until the saddle slid back to his hips while Zeno was holding on to the horns for dear life. Finally the saddle worked back over his tail and went rolling with Zeno into the dust.

Both Zeno and Harrity claimed the stakes, and a first class shooting bee came near being pulled off. But friends surrounded the angry combatants, and a compromise was agreed to, giving Zeno half of the stakes.

The evening and the night following was a repetition of the day before, except the arrest of Hemphill, which came near bringing on a bloody conflict between the cowboys and the officers.

Hemphill was making a rough house in Dick Jones' saloon, and it was reported to the officers that a pre-concerted movement was on foot to start a row and kill the officers in the conflict. The plan unfolded to the sheriff was, that Zeno would start a rough house, and when the officers came the Millet outfit, led by Peeler, would do the rest.

Zeno performed his stunt all right, but the two deputies nabbed him before the Millet outfit could come to his rescue, though he fought like a savage, and the deputies were compelled to knock him down several times with their six-shooters before they could drag him to the calaboose. In the meantime Peeler called his men and they came running after the officers with their pistols in their hands. The deputies, joined by the sheriff, arrived at the calaboose just in time to throw Zeno inside and face the mob. Pointing six-shooters at the men the officers prepared to give them battle, but Captain Millet came up and ordered Peeler to desist."

The Facts

Contrary to Rye's implication that Zeno Hemphill worked for and represented the Jim Reed Ranch during the Cattle Raisers Association convention in the fall of 1877, Zeno was an independent cattle raiser who represented himself at the convention which actually took place in August of 1878. (There Cattle Raisers Association Organizational meeting held in February of 1877 in Graham, Young County, Texas.) In 1878, Zeno resided in "The Flat" at Fort Griffin. His neighbors on ether side of him were the families of John Hammond a bar tender and Jack Grice the Town blacksmith.

Rye's story also says that "Marshall Dave Barker" assisted "Sheriff Green Simpson's Deputy, Henry Herron" in arresting Zeno Hemphill. Dave Barker was not even a law man at the time. Precinct #4 Constable John Poe had just assumed the additional duties of acting Marshal for "The Flat" the previous month of July 1878 when Bill Gilson had been removed from office by the Texas Rangers for his involvement with the vigilantes who executed the former Sheriff, John Larn.

D. G. Simpson was not even elected as the Shackelford County Sheriff until November of 1880 when he defeated the incumbent, Sheriff John C. Jacobs. Deputy Sheriff William "Bill" R. Cruger was appointed as the "acting" Sheriff when Sheriff John Larn resigned in March, 1877. Crugar remained in the position until the inauguration of Sheriff, Jacobs who was elected as the Shackelford County Sheriff in November, 1878.  Crugar was the Sheriff during the time of the convention. Crugar's only deputy at that time was Thomas Hall. So in August 1878 when the Cattle Raisers Association convention took place in "The Flat" , John Poe was the marshall,  Thomas Hall was the deputy and Bill Crugar was the sheriff. (Not Barker, Herron and Simpson.)

It should be noted here that numerous newspaper articles frequently used the words constable, marshal and deputy interchangeably. Often times they referred to constables as deputies or marshals although they were neither deputies nor marshals.

Henry Herron was not a Deputy Sheriff in 1877 or 1878.  Instead, He was a 22 year old clerk employed in his father's hotel in the city of Albany which is some distance from Fort Griffin and "The Flat". Herron's first exposure to law enforcement was when he ran unopposed in the November 1880 election and was elected to Precinct #1 Constable in Albany.  Henry Herron did not become a Deputy Sheriff until after he resigned as Constable in February 1881 and later accepted a position with Sheriff Simpson as his Deputy. Neither the district court nor the justice court records of 1877 and 1878 indicate any such arrest of Zeno Hemphill. None of these court records indicate any activity of Henry Herron or Dave Barker in the capacity of law enforcement officers. The local news paper that covered the cattle raisers event makes no mention of the incident. Therefore, it can be reasonably concluded that this incident never occurred. The story in Mr. Rye's book and the tale as told to J. R. Webb by Henry Herron are complete fabrications.

Who Was Zeno Hemphill?

Zeno Lafayette Hemphill was a son of Marcus Lafayette Hemphill and Mary Rodgers. He had three sisters, Cordelia, Ann and Dora and two younger brothers, Marcus Deshay Hemphill and Rodger Hemphill. They were from "Hemphill's Prairie", Bastrop County, Texas. Their father was a farmer. Marcus and Mary remained in Bastrop County until their deaths. Both were buried in “Hemphill’s Bend", Bastrop County, Texas. Zeno arrived in Fort Griffin Texas some time before the summer of 1880. He first appears on the 1880 Shackelford County census as a 28 year old single man whose occupation was listed as a cattle raiser. 

The first recorded activity of Zeno Hemphill appears in Fort Griffin on June 12, 1880 in the Fort Griffin Echo where it was reported that Zeno Hemphill was tried by a Jury for Assault and was found Not Guilty. On July 20, 1880  the same paper reported that Zeno Hemphill and his neighbor, Jack Grice were charged with using vulgar and obscene language and were acquitted by a jury trial.

On July 31, 1880 the Fort Griffin Echo reported that Zeno Hemphill was convicted in the Justice court for assault and battery and fined $5.00 plus court costs.

According to the Shackelford County Court Minutes, State of Texas vs. Zeno Hemphill case No. 100, dated April 19 and April 20, 1881, Zeno Hemphill was charged with Aggravated assault.  Zeno stood trial and was acquitted by a jury of his peers. The witness who filed charges against him was Ellen Anderson who defaulted and was fined $10.00 for contempt of court. 

This was the extent of any reported misbehavior on the part of Zeno Hemphill as a resident of The Flat. His only conviction was for a minor assault which took place two years after the Cattle Raisers Association convention was held in August 1878 in the Flat at Fort Griffin.

Zeno Hemphill moved from "The Flat" to Abilene, Taylor County, Texas some time after 1881 and before 1884 where he became the proprietor of the Cattle Exchange Saloon located on the corner of South First Street and Pine Street. It appears that Zeno moved to Abilene in order to be near his brother Marcus and his new bride Caroline.

On January 8, 1884 The Collins Brothers and Zeno Hemphill became engaged in a blazing gun battle over gambling laws. Frank Collins was a city councilman who was instrumental in passing new laws in Abilene which adversely affected Zeno's business by outlawing Gambling in his saloon. When Frank Collins entered Zeno's saloon on January 8, 1884, Zeno confronted him. Frank pulled his six-shooter and put it to Zeno's head. Then Frank's younger brother, Marshall Walter Collins attempted to intercede.  When the smoke cleared, both Zeno Hemphill and Walter Collins were dead.  Frank Collins was seriously wounded and taken to receive medical attention, but the doctor couldn’t save him. He lingered two months and died at the age of 32 on March 14, 1884.The following is taken from the Bastrop Advertiser January 1884:


"A special telegram from Abilene, Texas, to the Houston Post, of January 8 1884, says: "A deadly encounter with pistols took place today in the Cattle Exchange Bar room between Zeno Hemphill and the two Collins brothers, Walter and Frank. Hemphill and Walter Collins are both dead and Frank is not expected to live. The dispute grew out of the city ordinance prohibiting gambling in the city. Walter Collins was one of the city aldermen.

Later telegrams state that Frank Collins, as a member of the City Council, had taken an active part in trying to suppress gambling. For this, Hemphill attacked Collins, and after passing several hard words at each other, Hemphill struck Collins in the face with his fist, when Collins' drew a pistol and presented it at Hemphill's head. At this critical time young Walter Collins, a deputy marshal, rushed in between them, knocked his brother's pistol up, pushed the two angry men apart, and commanded them both to desist and to make no disturbance. During the confusion incident to this interruption Hemphill instantly drew his pistol and shot Walter Collins through the breast, just below the heart. Then the deadly combat began between Hemphill and Frank Collins, both parties emptying their revolvers. When the firing eased, all three men were found lying upon the floor, weltering in their blood, Hemphill with five or six bullets holes in his body one through the heart, and two in his head, from which he instantly died. Walter Collins received but one shot, in the heart, and died in half an hour afterward. Frank Collins received four wounds, one in the breast, one in the small of the back, one in the hip and thigh, and one through the hand. Hemphill was shot in seven places, five of which were mortal wounds. He fired six shots at the two Collins' five of which took effect--one in Walter and four in Frank.

Walter Collins fired four shots after he fell, and Frank emptied his revolver making ten shots fired at Hemphill. It will be remembered that Zeno Hemphill killed Rose Breeding, at the Red Light, in Abilene, last year, was tried at the last term of court at that place, the trial resulting in a hung jury. Zeno Hemphill and deputy marshal Walter Collins, were buried Tuesday, a large concourse of persons following each to the cemetery."

Marcus Hemphill buried his brother among the most prominent citizens of the time in the Masonic Cemetery located across from the pauper’s city cemetery and boot hill.  He provided him with a fine marble monument and placed it at his head baring the following inscription "Zeno Hemphill, son of M. L. and Mary Hemphill, Born October 25, 1852, Died January 8, 1884." Zeno always hated the sun shining in his eyes so Marcus purchased an entire 20'x30" family plot and had Zeno buried at an angle so that when the sun rose it would not shine in his eyes. To this day no one else has been buried in this plot. However, modern folk lore has it that the townspeople had him buried crooked because he died as a crooked card cheat. A mature mesquite tree has grown over Zeno's grave now and casts a fine shadow over the entire plot, so Zeno is no longer plagued with the sun shining in his eyes.

Marcus Hemphill was married to Caroline Douglas Miller in Abilene, Taylor County, Texas. They had a son on January 4, 1884 just four days before Zeno's death.  They named their son Zeno Lafayette Hemphill after his uncle.

The younger Zeno Hemphill grew up and married Lottie E. Bryan and they moved to Long Beach California. They were divorced on August 16, 1913.  On April 19, 1919 Zeno married a second time to Eva Conover. Zeno passed away on   April 14, 1966 in Long Beach, California. He was buried in the Sunnyside Memorial Park in Long Beach.

© 2001-2009 All rights reserved

1860 Bastrop County, Texas Census
1870 Shackelford County, Texas census
1880 Shackelford County, Texas Census
The Quirt and the Spur by Edgar Rye
A Texas Frontier by Ty Cashion
The Frontier World of Fort Griffin by Charles Robinson III
The Jacksboro Echo
Fort Griffin Echo
Abilene Reporter News January 8, 1884 "Gunfire on South Front"
Masonic Cemetery Records Abilene, Texas
Justice Court Minutes Shackelford County, Texas
LDS Family History Files
Incites to the past by the Abilene, Texas fifth grade class of Kathy Aldridge & Janna Dowell
The Bastrop Advertiser, January 1884.

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