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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

James Brock's
Honesty of Purpose

by Clay Coppedge

A cowboy named Frank Woosley was heading back to ranch headquarters in May of 1877 after a hard day of rounding up cattle in the rough country of Shackleford County, Texas, near the town of Fort Griffin, when "a depressed feeling" came over him. He decided to lie down under the nearest tree to see if the feeling would pass.

Next thing he knew it was a year later and he was in the "wilds of Arkansas." He had a vague recollection of being in Jewett, Texas for a short spell, but other than that - nothing. Frank Woosley stuck to that story for fourteen years, or maybe he made it up on the spot when the man who had allegedly murdered him in Texas called out his name and pointed a Colt revolver at him.

The man with the gun, his wrongly-accused but now potentially actual killer, was a former Shackleford County rancher name James A. Brock. He didn't just happen to run into Woosley; he had been looking for him more or less continuously for all of those fourteen years. Woosley had vanished so suddenly that his family back in Ohio and a majority of the people in Shackleford County thought he'd been murdered. They believed Brock did it. A living, breathing (or even recently deceased) Frank Woosley would be evidence to the contrary. Now, at long last, he had that evidence.

Like Frank and his brother Ed, who also played a key role in the proceedings, Brock was from Ohio; he and the Woosley brothers were cousins. Brock migrated from Madison County, Ohio in 1870, when he was twenty five, and bought a ranch on Foyle Creek. The Woosley brothers joined him a couple of years later. The three kinsmen never really got along.

Brock didn't get along with a lot of people in Shackleford County. Sallie Reynolds Matthews, who grew up on the outer edge of the northwest frontier of Texas and married rancher John Matthews in 1876, wrote of Brock in her memoir, Interwoven: A Pioneer Chronicle "He was a strange sort of person, extremely reticent and not at all friendly, the kind of person who was out of place on the western frontier and because of his peculiar nature, he was shunned by most of the people."

Historian Ty Cashion wrote of Brock in A Texas Frontier: The Clear Fork Country and Fort Griffin, 1845-1887, noting that locals considered his stovepipe hat and clothes "out of place on the frontier."

Soon after his brother disappeared, Ed Woosley claimed that Brock had enlisted his long-time ranch hand, an African-American named "Uncle" Nick Williams, to kill Frank. Ed and a group of vigilantes took Williams into their custody and promised him immunity in exchange for his testimony against Brock. He refused. "You cannot force me to tell a lie," he told the men, and that was the truth. The vigilantes tied a rope around his neck and strung him up to hang - three times - but he never relented. They finally let him go.

Not accustomed to waiting around for trials, and usually having their own way in Shackleford County, the vigilantes decided to lynch Brock anyway. The Texas Rangers, called in to quell a rising tide of vigilantism in the region, were on hand to make sure Brock had his day in court.

At his trial, Brock insisted, as he had from the beginning, that not only did he not kill Woosley, neither had anyone else. Woosley was alive, he claimed, and his disappearance was a circumstantial frame job by the Woosleys to lay hands on Brock's land and money. Frontier journalist Don Hampton Biggers noted that Brock and the Woosleys' "peculiar" business arrangement stipulated that if Brock died from any cause, natural or otherwise, the Woosleys would get all the property.

To eleven of the jurors Brock's story sounded like a wild conspiracy theory cooked up by a desperate man; they voted to hang him. The twelfth juror begged to differ, pointing out that without a body there was no proof that Brock, or anybody else, had killed Frank Woosley. The judge dismissed the charge and released Brock, but people in Fort Griffin and Ohio believed Brock got away with murder. As for the ranchers, they never much liked him anyway.

Some of Brock's fellow stockmen soon accused him of "sequestration," a fancy word for cattle theft. Three such cases dragged on for three years at a time when the cattle business in Shackleford County was booming. But Brock spent most of that time and a good deal of his money battling the accusations. He was found not guilty on all three charges.

Soon after Ed Woosley died of natural causes in 1880, Brock sold his ranch and left town to look for the man who stole his reputation, spending all his money and working at any job he could find to finance the quest. He settled in El Paso in 1884 and began selling real estate, but he never stayed so busy he couldn't leave town at a moment's notice to investigate the latest alleged sighting of Frank Woosley.

Those who said Brock was obsessed - and many people did - were not exaggerating. He flooded the country with pictures of the alleged murder victim, offered $1,000 for information leading to Frank Woosley's discovery, dead or alive, and followed leads, tips and alleged sighting to towns and outposts across the country. None of them panned out.

In June of 1891 a detective named G.B. Wells wrote a telegram to Brock saying he had spotted Woosley in Arkansas. As he had done so many times before, Brock hurried to check out the latest tip only to find that, once again, he had trailed the wrong man. Another dead end.

Brock, Wells and the local sheriff had dinner in Searcy, Arkansas before Brock boarded a train to Memphis. At Augusta, he decided to surrender his six shooter to the railway agent rather than take it to town where carrying a firearm was illegal. He approached the agent and was about to unbuckle his gun belt when he glanced out the window and saw Frank Woosley, live and in person, standing next to the platform. His heart started beating real fast. He held on to his gun.

"Frank Woosley!" he called out.

Woosley surely had another round of "depressed feelings" when he found himself staring down the barrel of his alleged killer's gun. Most accounts also have Wells and the sheriff approaching Woosley from either side as Brock aimed his gun at Woosley.

"Our recognition was mutual," Brock said. "I told him he could either go with me and clear up the murder charge or die instantly." Woosley decided to go see the family.

Back home in Ohio, Woosley stuck to his story of how he suffered a powerful bout of amnesia after he got that "depressed feeling" out on the range so many years ago. He said he worked at a small pottery shop in Benton, Arkansas for several years, then took over the business when the owner died and Frank married the widow. He and his new wife were still running the pottery shop when Brock showed up and took Frank home to get reacquainted with the Woosley family. The Fort Worth Daily Gazette reported that Brock, showered with congratulations from the people of his hometown, was "overcome with emotion and cried like a child."

A story in the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the whole affair started after Frank Woosley's mother cut off his allowance. According to the paper, Woosley was well aware of the search for him. He even subscribed to the New London Enterprise, published in London Ohio, twenty five miles east of his old home, but he never got in touch with his family until Brock took him home at gunpoint. Brock's good name followed him back to El Paso, where he lived the rest of his life and where he died on April 1, 1913, his 68th birthday.

A story in the El Paso Times the next day described him as a "happy but broken man - broken in spirit, in physical endurance and mentality…He never defrauded any man and there was a simple honesty of purpose in his every act that endeared him to those who knew him best…There was not a vicious trait in his character."

And let's give a shout out to Uncle Nick Williams, who risked the noose in the name of honesty, and the lone juror who refused to convict Brock for murder. Their honor and values were all that kept Brock from hanging for a crime no one committed. They too had a simple honesty of purpose.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" July 16, 2019 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

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  • The Seven-Up Gang 3-1-19
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  • Related Topics:

    Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • William Burroughs in Texas 6-28-19
  • Daniel Edwards: Hero or Hoax 6-13-19
  • Mysterious Malakoff Men 5-28-19
  • The Seven-Up Gang 3-1-19
  • The Border Blasting Goat Gland Doctor 2-18-19

    See more »







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