May 22, 2014
By Joel R Kolander
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Lots of people and places of the Old West get spun into tales of “Pecos Bill” size proportions. One minute someone is a trying to make a living as a Marshal, the next they’re riding tornadoes across the Texas plains. Timothy Isaiah Courtright’s (a.k.a. “Longhair Jim”) tales since his death may not have gotten quite that large, but it might be safe to say that he was more feared after death than during his life. Rock Island Auction Company had some mementos attributed to the late Western gunfighter in our July 2014 Regional Firearms Auction and after reading about the man’s history we thought you might like to know it as well.
Paramount's “1883” Yellowstone prequel series depicts Fort Worth, Texas, as a lawless city terrorized by outlaws and ruffians. Enter Billy Bob Thornton, who makes an instant impression as the infamous Jim Courtright, a cold-blooded enforcer with no qualms about drawing his Colt .45 on an unsuspecting criminal, armed or unarmed.
"There’s only one killer in Fort Worth, and that’s me," - Billy Bob Thornton as Sheriff Jim Courtright in "1883"
The real Tim Courtright was born in 1845 in Sangamon County, Illinois though even the earliest of these details are disputed, with birth dates ranging from 1845-1848 and some sources stating his birth took place in neighboring Iowa. Though everyone seems to agree he was born in the spring.
Courtright’s early life is even less documented than the rest of his life, though it is known that he was raised in Iowa, had four older sisters, a younger brother, and there is evidence that he enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. He served under Gen. John “Blackjack” A. Logan, also from Illinois, who would eventually serve as an Illinois state senator, a U.S. congressman, and a U.S. senator. Both men served together, but their futures could not have been more different. Logan in addition to his political service, also ran unsuccessfully as the Vice President with James Blaine (losing to Grover Cleveland in 1884), is widely considered one of the most influential people in establishing Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day) as an official U.S. holiday, and is only one of three people mentioned in the Illinois state song. Courtright on the other hand… well, we’ll get to that.
Knowing that Logan began his career with the Union army as a Colonel of the 31st Illinois Volunteers, which he also organized, one might think that is where the two men’s paths crossed, but instead they both served together in the Seventh Iowa Infantry In his Civil War service is where Timothy Courtright became “Jim,” a mistake for Tim. It is said that Courtright earned Logan’s favor by taking a bullet for the future statesman. However, after the Civil War there is no documented contact between the two men even though several legends say otherwise. Logan resumed his political career after switching to the Republican party and Jim resumed looking for something to do.
Jim started his search in Fort Worth, where his long hair, twin revolvers, and reputation as a fast gun provided him many opportunities. He tried farming in 1873, but after two years he couldn’t make it work so he moved into town and found work as a Ft. Worth city jailer. Ol’ Jim must’ve been good at it since by 1875 he was hired as a Deputy City Marshal and the very next year he was elected as the City Marshal of Fort Worth. In his personal life Jim had done pretty well for himself too. Some sources state he had gotten married in 1870 to a Sarah Elizabeth “Betty” Weeks and had 2 to “at least three” children, though most stories rarely account for his family. Wife, kids, respectable job, Jim was living the good life, even if his job required him to take care of an area within Fort Worth called Hell’s Half Acre.
Serving as the town’s red-light district, Hell’s Half Acre had more than earned its name with the usual assortment of dangerous vices that plagued burgeoning towns in the Old West: murder, gambling, muggings, stabbings, prostitution, fights, over served citizens, and about any crime you could think to commit. Fort Worth was given a mixed blessing from its position on the Chisholm Trail, the superhighway of its time for cattle drives as well as one of the westernmost train stops for cattle shipments. This meant that Ft. Worth needed stockyards, ranches, railways, and train stations. The little town that almost went under during the Reconstruction was booming. Unfortunately, its position on the Chisholm trail also made it one of the last pieces of humanity cowboys would see until they arrived in Dodge City, and one of the first they would see on the way back. It resulted in no shortage of cowboys looking to dump their loot into any number of Fort Worth’s ample saloons, bordellos, bars, dance halls, and gambling dens. As the city enjoyed its rapid growth, so did Hell’s Half Acre.
Normally in an Old West story this is where you’d hear all about our hero’s exploits and how he cleaned up this den of vipers with a mix of grit, fairness, swift justice, and some hot, flying lead. Courtright had other plans. He decided to play their game.
Some say he had to kill a few troublemakers to get the respect of Fort Worth’s criminal element while others say that Jim never was in but one gunfight in his entire life and instead used his badge to apply pressure where he needed it. However he went about his business, it’s difficult to find a source that doesn’t mention Jim running some sort of protection racket possibly that may or may not have involved the town mayor. If Jim took part in shootings in his life, this is certainly where they would happen. You don’t get to extort the vile underbelly of a notorious town without someone trying to kill you.
If Courtright killed anyone, it could have been in the name of the law against known criminals in self defense or it could have been the ultimate shakedown tactic used against someone who wouldn’t ante up the protection money. A badge and a bloodlust would have proved an intimidating combination for even the staunchest of holdouts. Courtright must have been up to the task because his life’s story doesn’t end there. His career is another matter.
When your job requires you to maintain a popular vote, then extorting money from your constituents is not exactly the best way to hold your office. It was inevitable that Courtright was not re-elected as City Marshal in 1879, losing to S.M. Farmer, even though he had (allegedly) cut Fort Worth’s murder rate significantly. This sounds like an impressive accomplishment as well, until one realizes that the rampant and often violent crime in Fort Worth resumed after he left office. Courtright wasn’t in the business of cleaning up the town, after all, he was part of the problem. His job was to stem the flow of blood on the streets so that the population and the ever present string of cowboys wouldn’t be afraid to spend their money. Fort Worth having already lost Deputy Marshal Columbus Fitzgerald to a gunshot while trying to break up a street fight in 1877, showed no signs of slowing its bloody ways. After Jim lost his office Deputy Marshal George White was gunned down by a suspected horse thief in 1879 and Deputy W.T. Wise was killed in Oxford, Mississippi in pursuit of several murder suspects on the lam.
Jim’s known whereabouts for the next several years are clouded at best. His current career cut short, some sources say found employment as a U.S. Deputy Marshal, other sources state he hung about Ft. Worth unwilling to give up his protection racket and opened a detective agency as a front for the operation. There are also those that state was invited to New Mexico, possibly to be a hired gun or foreman on the ranch of his old buddy Gen. John Logan. More extreme stories paint him as a no-nonsense lawman who cleaned up the mining town of Lake Valley, NM with the barrel of his gun, pressuring key players until they were forced to act and then shooting them down when the did. None or all of those could be true, but we do know that Courtright ended up in New Mexico at some point because he ended up with that area’s law enforcement on his tail for murder.
Was this murder rap just Jim being too zealous in his duties of running off rustlers? Was he resorting to his old protection racket tricks that had worked so well in Ft. Worth? Was he framed? What ever the circumstances were, without the badge people were much less understanding and so Jim high tailed it back to Ft. Worth to try and resume some semblance of this old life by starting the T.I. Courtright Commercial Detective Agency. It didn’t take long for the New Mexico law to catch up with Jim at his old stomping grounds, and with the help of some some Texas Rangers, they took him into custody.
Going back to Ft. Worth may have been a good decision for Jim; after he was arrested he was able to escape with the help of some old acquaintances (another great story in itself). Now on the flip side of the law, Jim ran (sources site his destinations as varying as Canada and South America), but eventually turned himself in and was extradited to New Mexico once tempers had cooled and witnesses could not be retrieved. All charges were dropped and Jim eventually returned to Ft. Worth to resume the detective front of his protection racket. Clearly, it was a reliable, though not particularly profitable, line of work for him to resort to it on three separate occasions. It may have provided some income to the wolf in lawman’s clothing, but it would eventually be his downfall.
Enter Luke Short: a man who had tried to make a living as a gambler, but who had also made forays as a whiskey seller, Army Scout, cowboy, and saloon owner. Despite the professional indecision in his early life, Short happened through Dodge City in the very late 1870s and became associated with many of that town’s famous personalities such as Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Not spending long there, he soon moved to Tombstone, a boomtown that could offer him a healthy supply of saloons, gambling halls, and newly wealthy inhabitants on which to ply his gambling trade. His reputation of being a good gambler and excellent with a gun caused Wyatt Earp to telegraph him in June 1880 to offer him a job as a faro dealer in Leadville, Colorado. As the picture shows, he also had a reputation as being somewhat of a dandy. Short could often be found donning a silk top hat, long top coat, cane, and a fine mustache. Allegedly, he wasn’t just lucky in his gambling, but also with the ladies.
One of Short’s more well-known gun fights took place in Tombstone on Feb 28, 1881 (some sources say Feb 25) with another well-known gambler/gunfighter Charlie Storms. A few words were being exchanged by the two men, but Bat Masterson, a mutual friend to both parties, quickly cooled their tempers and sent them on their ways… or so he thought.
It wasn’t long before Storms returned to seek out Short. Sure enough, as soon as Short exited the Oriental Hotel, Storms grabbed Short as he was walking along the sidewalk, snatched him into the street, and pulled a cut-off Colt .45 revolver on him. However, Short was quicker and shot Storms twice before he hit the ground at a range close enough to set the unlucky assailant’s shirt on fire. Short was arrested, but it was quickly dismissed as a case of self-defense. Either way, Short decided to move to Dodge City after that and in 1883 he bought an interest in the famous Long Branch Saloon, but later that year sold it after the mayor and his associates made the environment unfavorable for “undesirables.” He moved to Ft. Worth and it wouldn’t take long for him to meet Jim Courtright.
Short likely caught Courtright’s eye quicker than most after moving into town and buying an immediate interest in the White Elephant Saloon, probably using the sale money from his interest in the Long Branch Saloon. Almost certainly, Courtright took it upon himself to offer his “protection” to the new wealthy denizen. Jim not knowing about Short’s reputation seems unlikely given the way word would travel about gunfighters, especially wealthy ones who have a stake in well-known businesses, but at the very least he certainly underestimated Short’s abilities. Short however made no such mistake and declined Jim’s protection in ways that various sources retell in various tones of hostility: sometimes it is recounted as a casual conversation to less cordial versions including Short telling Courtright to “Go to hell!” Regardless the tone of the conversation, Courtright wasn’t pleased. In fact, one person standing up to his protection racket could cause others to do the same, ending his livelihood and maybe even his life. Courtright was in a bit of a corner and he knew he had to make an example of this newcomer before word got out to the rest of Fort Worth.
February 8, 1887. These two men have come to an impasse. Each one has killed at least one man and likely several more. They are both confident in their ability with a six shooter and both have their livelihoods on the line. That night Courtright has allegedly been drinking, but stops by the White Elephant Saloon to send word for Short to come out for a talk. Dressed, as always, in fine clothes Short came out and the two began to walk down the sidewalk talking.
About a block away the pair stopped in front of brothel owner Ella Blackwell’s shooting gallery to talk quietly. Courtright eventually expressed concern that Short was armed. The two men were facing each other and Short assured Courtright he had no gun, which was a lie, but then made a movement to prove it. Some say his thumbs were in his fancy vest and he dropped his hands to open his coat, others maintain Short went to open his vest as he was walking toward ol’ Jim. Whatever the action, Jim loudly yelled, “Don’t you pull a gun on me!” and quickly drew one of his own. Unfortunately for Jim, he barrel allegedly caught on his watch chain for a split second, allowing Short to draw in time to fire one of the luckiest shots one could imagine – one that removed the thumb of his opponent.
In the days of single action revolvers, this was a fatal twist of fortune for Courtight. Shot once, Jim allegedly tried the “border shift” of switching the gun to his other hand, but such an action was futile when faced with such an equally talented opponent (It also seems an unlikely action since Jim is alleged to have carried two guns. Why not just draw the second? Or both at once?). Short fired three to four more shots, leaving the lawman-turned-tormentor dead where he fell. It would become one of the very few face-to-face “showdowns” that Hollywood depicts so frequently and would leave Luke Short known as “The King of the Fort Worth Gamblers,” though with little time to enjoy his new found infamy. His hard life as a gambler, drinker, and saloon investor would cause him to die of ‘dropsy’ (Edema) on September 8, 1893.
Courtright would be more remembered for his effectiveness against crime than his extortion and his funeral procession would stretch for 6 blocks with hundreds of mourners. Short did not suffer for killing such a popular man and again had the charges against him dismissed as self-defense. It seems like very little consequences would be had by anyone except for Jim. However the very next week a prostitute known only as “Sally” would be found murdered and nailed to an outhouse door in Hell’s Half Acre. This event combined with Courtright’s death would result in another crime reform campaign from the Fort Worth mayor’s office in cooperation with the county attorney. This campaign would be more effective than most by utilizing the first prohibition in Texas, but ultimately it would take a the martial law of a nearby WWI military camp (Camp Bowie) before the Acre would be cleansed from Fort Worth.
The item attributed to Timothy Isaiah Courtright, auctioned in 2014 by Rock Island Auction Company, is what upon first glance appears to be a gamblers kit, until one realizes there are none of the cards, dice, or chips that typically comprise such sets. After looking at the contents of this small chest, one would be more inclined to call it a “fightin’ kit.”
The box in and of itself is impressive. Hardwood bears brass hardware and two plaques, one on top of the lid and the other on the front. The top plaque reads “T.I. Courtright / Ft. Worth Texas” and the frontmost plaque reads “T.I.C. Commercial Agency” – the name from one of Jim’s “detective agencies.” Pulling open the top lid of bottom drawer with open them both simultaneously and reveal the contents of a man living life on the edge in the Old West.
Contained within are all manner of instruments bearing the monogram of the late marshal. First up, an engraved First Generation Colt Single Action Army revolver with antique ivory grips and the inscription of his full name, “Timothy I. Courtright” on the backstrap.
The next piece in the kit is a knife from M. Price (San Francisco) that measures 10 3/8″ long and has T.I.C. carved into the handle.
And of course, what desktop valet would be complete without its hip flask? This particular hip flask is glass with its top half protected by a leather sheath with a viewing window and its bottom half protected by a metal cup engraved “T.I.C.” Removing the metal cup to use it exposes the glass flask, a far cry from any flasks manufactured today. The bottom drawer housed up to 38 individual cartridges plus one box of ammunition, as shown in the first picture.
We would be remiss if we did not mention that Rock Island Auction Company has received no documented provenance for this piece other than the inscription and engraved initials on the pieces themselves.
This inscribed set was one of the numerous items appearing in Rock Island Auction Company’s July 2014 Regional Firearms Auction. To find out more about our upcoming auctions, you should click right here as well as stay tuned to our social media channels which are sure to post more pictures, stories, and updates every day!
DeArment, Robert K. Jim Courtright of Fort Worth: His Life and Legend. Fort Worth: TCU, 2004. Print.
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