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Texas | Columns | Lone Star Diary

Longhorn Branded
"Murder 1889"

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery

Over the years, small-town newspapers have found it necessary to supplement the local news with other sources of material to help fill up their pages. In the old days, when there wasn’t a lot of newsworthy events taking place, the local paper would fill space with features or magazine-type material.

Way back in 1924, The Moulton Eagle was presenting a column called “Tales of the Old Frontier” which was written by a fellow named Scott Watson. This story was later published in the October 1930 issue of Frontier Times Magazine. It is probable that the paper subscribed to an outside source and received this article on a weekly basis. I found Watson’s stories to be entertaining but in some cases not exactly “historically accurate.” However, the following story about a murder, in 1889, is quite fascinating and is the subject of this week’s Lone Star Diary.


The Moulton Eagle – April 11, 1924
To the cowboys who rode the range in West Texas during the [1890s] there was one longhorn steer that was always an object of dread. He was a big, white fellow with “Murder 1889” branded in huge letters on his left side. His appearance among their herds brought a chill of terror to the superstitious, for this steer was said to have been responsible for the killing of at least nine men and it was believed that his coming to a ranch invariably meant another tragedy.

The steer’s sinister history began in Jan. 1889, during a round-up on the Leon Cipa ranch in Brewster County, in a dispute between H.H. Powe and Fino Gilliland over the ownership of this steer, then a yearling, Gilliland shot Powe and fled. Thereupon Powe’s cowboys imprinted the gruesome brand upon the steer’s hide and turned him loose on the range.

A short time later Jeff Webb, Gilliland’s nephew, was killed under mysterious circumstances near the town of Alpine and Gilliland believed that Sam Taylor, a noted desperado, was responsible for the death. One night Taylor was playing poker in a saloon in Alpine when some one fired a load of buckshot through the window, killing him instantly and mortally wounding an easterner who was sitting in the game.

It was in this game that the cowboys’ “dead man’s hand” – aces and eights – originated, for Taylor had just won a pot with those cards and he fell dead across the table with them clutched in his hand. But the strangest part of the affair occurred soon afterwards. A big white steer with “Murder 1889” branded on his side was seen near the saloon looking meditatively through the window where the fatal shot had been fired.

About six months after Gilliland killed Powe, he himself was shot down by two Texas Rangers when he resisted arrest. While the officers were looking over the scene of the battle a steer walked out of a patch of scrub oak to where Gilliland lay and stood sniffing at his body. As it turned to leave the Rangers saw the brand “Murder 1889” on its side. By some mysterious coincidence the steer had drifted to this spot, 75 miles from the scene of its branding, and was here at the exact time when Gilliland was killed.

After this incident the big longhorn was seen at many places where crimes had been committed and [uninformed] Mexicans of the country spread the story that it possessed the spirit of the dead Gilliland.


© Murray Montgomery
Lone Star Diary June 2 , 2008 Column. Modified December 4, 2015

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