Today in Texas History – February 8

From the Annals of the Old West –  In 1887, “Longhair Jim” Courtright was killed in a gunfight with Luke Short.  This particular violent episode actually matched the largely inaccurate movie legends which typically involve a face-to-face showdown at high noon in the middle of the street.  Most such shootouts were more of the ambush or hide behind the water trough while taking potshots variety.  However, this famous gunfight lived up to the classic Hollywood image.

Courtright had been at various times a jailer, Fort Worth City Marshal, deputy sheriff, deputy U.S. Marshal, hired killer, private detective and racketeer.  What was not disputed was Courtright’s ability with a gun and willingness to use it with deadly results.  After losing a race for another term as City Marshal he decamped to New Mexico where he participated in the killing of two men in a range war.  He escaped back to Texas where he had friends and resisted extradition ending up back in Fort Worth.

Luke Short was a gunfighter, gambler and bar owner who came to Fort Worth from Dodge City where he had dabbled in gambling, and befriended such legends as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp who were also friends of Courtright. In Fort Worth, he managed the White Elephant, a saloon and gambling house in the area around the Fort Worth Stockyards known as Hell’s Half Acre.  HHA contained numerous bars and whorehouses and was largely left alone by law enforcement.

Most historians believe the gunfight arose from Courtright’s protection racket.  When Short refused to pay for protection for his saloon, Courtright apparently felt the need to make him an example.  Short also had a reputation as a gunfighter mostly due to an 1881 gunfight with gunslinger Charlie Storms at the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone.  At 8:00 in the evening, Courtright called Short out of the White Elephant.   Short came out and confronted Courtright in front of a bar and brothel appropriately called the Shooting Gallery.   Few words were exchanged until the men faced off.  Courtright, who was probably drunk, said something about Short having a gun. Short claimed he was unarmed – a flat lie.  Probably for the benefit of future witnesses,  Courtright loudly exclaimed, “Don’t you pull a gun on me,” while drawing his own pistol.   Courtright’s gun hung for a second on his watch chain allowing Short to draw.  Short’s first shot blew off the thumb on Courtright’s shooting hand. As he attempted to shift the pistol to his other hand, Short fired four more shots in quick succession killing the notorious Courtright.

Two weeks later a prostitute named Sally was murdered and combined with the earlier gunfight, efforts to clean up the area gained irresistible momentum.  HHA would remain a rather wild spot for many more years but its days of abject lawlessness were coming to an end.

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