the old saying goes, it’s hard to keep a good man down. But that sure couldn’t
account for Bill Johnson’s reappearance in McLennan County.
of Texas’ lesser-known outlaws,
Johnson certainly could not be categorized as a good man. He had killed three
men by the time a sheriff’s posse caught up with him in 1859.
to the notion of going to prison – or the gallows – Johnson threw up his gun,
not his hands, when cornered by the county lawman and deputized citizens. When
the shooting stopped, so the story goes, five of the posse members lay dead or
Johnson, too, had several bullet holes in him, but he still lived.
Level 3 trauma centers not yet having been invented, and more than a little annoyed
at having lost so many of their colleagues, the surviving posse members decided
the best medical treatment for Johnson would be the application of a tourniquet
around the wounded desperado’s neck. Not taking time to find a sturdy tree, the
mob tied a rope around his neck and tossed him from a two-story window.
extra-legal adjudication may or may not have brought tranquility along the middle
Brazos, but at least Texas had one less notorious
hard case to contend with. Unlike many a Lone Star felon, Johnson did not achieve
lasting infamy after his passing. Maybe his plain name, lacking alliteration,
rhyme or anything else to make it stand out (think Ringo, Earp or Bass), played
a role in his disappearance from Texas outlaw lore.
But Bill Johnson had
plenty of name recognition in his time. Major General Zenas R. Bliss, a
career Army officer who spent a lot of time in Texas
from 1854 to 1876, devoted four paragraphs to the outlaw in his long memoir, “The
Reminiscences of Major General Zenas R. Bliss.”
When Bliss graduated from
West Point, the Army assigned him to Fort Duncan, at Eagle
“There was quite a character about Eagle
Pass at that time by the name of Bill Johnson,” Bliss later wrote. “[He] had
killed several men including the first sergeant of one of our companies…”
had stabbed the soldier in the back following “a difficulty over a game of billiards,”
the general recalled.
A detachment of mounted infantrymen chased Johnson
all the way to San Antonio, but
the fleeing killer rode into town first, got a fresh horse, and succeeded in escaping.
When the heat from that caper died down, Johnson returned to the Alamo
City. On his way to a boozy fandango, the outlaw slipped in a puddle of slop thrown
from the window of the bar where the dancing was going on. Annoyed, he drew his
pistol and shot the next fellow who came along, someone not at all involved in
the slop-throwing. The bullet grazed the by-passer’s head, but did not prove fatal.
“He was one of the worst men that I ever knew on the frontier,” Bliss said. “He
had the reputation of being a cowardly assassin who never fought fair….”
recalled that Johnson’s lynching occurred in 1861 or 1862, not 1859. Whenever
it happened, Johnson’ life came to an end in newsy times. With Texas
and the rest of the U.S. unraveling over state rights and slavery issues, the
lynching apparently got little news coverage.
Before long, a decade passed.
The state endured reconstruction and soon it had been 20 years since Johnson’s
lynching. Then another 10 years went by followed by six more.
1895, George Renick and his wife walked along the Brazos, just north of Waco.
In addition to the store they owned, they supplemented their income by catching
beaver and muskrat along the river and selling the furs. They had gone out to
check their traps.
Suddenly Mrs. Renick let out a terrified scream. Running
to see what had happened to his wife, Renick found her starring in horror at a
man’s leg protruding from the sand along the river bank.
Soon, the woman
recovered her composure sufficiently to help her husband dig up the rest of the
body. The corpse appeared “perfect in every limb and feature, except a gash in
the abdomen and the bowels absent, the cavity being full of sand,” the Eagle Pass
Guide reported on Jan. 19, 1895. “The body is a perfect petrifaction, and the
features were natural as life. The hair, eyebrows, and beard were preserved like
The couple took the mummified body – it “rang like metal” and bore
a bullet wound to the jaw, two in the chest, and two in the legs – back to town
and put it on display at their store. Old-timers recognized the body as the remarkably
preserved remains of “murderer and outlaw” Bill Johnson.
doctor, not named in the Eagle
Pass newspaper story, recalled that he had posthumously removed Johnson’s
lower innards prior to his burial. The doctor did not say why he had done that,
but it must have been part of an embalming process. Maybe local authorities did
that on the possibility that his family might claim the body.
in the news account is how Johnson’s body ended up along the Brazos or where McLennan
County authorities had Johnson reburied. Wherever they planted him, he seems to
have stayed put this time.
© Mike Cox
4 , 2008 column
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