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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

CRANFILL


by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The simplest way to put prohibition into perspective is to say that for more than a half century in Texas and the rest of the nation it was the pro-choice/right-to-life controversy of its time.

In other words, both sides of the issue passionately believed they were in the right. Often, they were willing to fight for their belief, sometimes to the death.

For about the last quarter of the 19th century, and the first two decades of the 20th century, being a "wet" or a "dry" defined a Texan politically much more accurately than being Democrat or Republican.

Back when a newspaper could be founded with a George Washington press and a shirttail full of type, as the saying went, some sheets were started specifically to advocate one side or the other of the booze issue.

That's what J.B. Cranfill was up to in 1882 when he started a newspaper in Gatesville, the Advance. At first, he did not let moral conviction get in the way of good business - he happily accepted advertising from the saloons. But after a fire started in a saloon nearly burned down the town, he wrote an editorial connecting the fire (actually, there had been two) to the saloon business.

When a saloon proprietor came to the newspaper office to withdraw his advertising in protest, Cranfill happily obliged him. He also wrote another editorial declaring that he would not publish any other "wet" advertising either.

"My paper fought the saloons and the mobs," he later wrote, "and they two were one." At the time, he recalled, Gatesville had a population of 1,000. Ten saloons flourished in the little county seat town.

"One of them," Cranfill went on, "was kept by the worst man in that part of Texas. I fought saloons in my paper all the time, and he hated me very cordially. I dreaded to meet him, lest a duel would be precipitated about some issue."

Fortunately for Cranfill, who left Gatesville in 1886 and went on to become one of the state's best-known religious journalists as the editor of the Baptist Standard, that meeting never came.

"One day he was killed," Cranfill wrote, "and the news of the tragedy was quickly circulated about town. I ran down to the hotel, where the saloon-keeper lay dead."

A killing was quite a sensation for such a small town. By the time Cranfill got to the scene, a dozen or so others already crowded the hotel's lobby.

Among those on hand was a man Cranfill recognized as the town's Methodist minister. They were good friends.

The preacher had already been in to view the lately-departed. He waited while Cranfill went in to take a look.

"Death always solemnizes me, no matter who has passed," Cranfill recalled. "So when I saw this man, lying on his back with his gun in his hand, and his face pale with that pallor that always attends dissolution [a polite 19th century term for chronic alcoholism], I could not repress a feeling of sadness."

Cranfill walked out, hoping for some words of comfort from the Methodist clergyman. Perhaps "it was God's will." At minimum, the young prohibitionist publisher who had been threatened by the man now lying dead expected the preacher to say something like, "Great pity, wasn't it?"

Instead, the Methodist peered at Cranfill from beneath his black Stetson and said: "Fine shot, wasn't it?"

Mike Cox - July 2003 column
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