Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Mystery That's William "Billy" Brooks


Was William Brooks known as "Buffalo Bill" in his late teens? Was he a town marshal of Newton, Kansas? Was he the gunslinger that some say he was? Was he framed for a crime when he was lynched?

Some of the mystery surrounding William Brooks starts at his birth around 1832 somewhere in Ohio. From everything that I've looked at, 1832 is the year that is claimed as the year he was born. As for where? Well, all I can find is somewhere in Ohio. While there may be genealogists who know more than that, I can't seem to find that out. 

As for what he did during his life, that seems to be a mystery as well. Frankly, from what I've read, no one really knows what he did for most of his life. It is believed that by the late 1840s and early 1850s, in his late teens and early 20s, that he was a buffalo hunter supposedly known as "Buffalo Bill." 

As for the moniker Buffalo Bill, it seems that more men than simply famed showman Buffalo Bill Cody made a claim to that handle. Of course, just as there is no supporting evidence for his being called Buffalo Bill, there isn't any evidence to support the claims that he supposedly killed several men during the late 1860s and early 1870s. And no, I can't find if he ever served for the Union or Confederacy during the Civil War. 

While this all sounds like a mystery, there are a few things that we know about this man. For example, according to the Newton, Kansas, Police Department:

In February 1872, Newton was incorporated as a Third Class city. William Brooks, a stage coach driver, was appointed the first City Marshal of Newton. He resigned in June 1872 after being shot.

Newton's early days were filled with violence and bloodshed. Newton was described as "the toughest, loudest and most dangerous spot in the West."

Newton Police Chiefs/City Marshals

This list was obtained from various sources and is believed to be complete. Service overlap is due to the various sources providing different names or dates. These sources also provided differing numbers of Chiefs/Marshals, so all persons found designated as such are included in this list. Sources used were clippings from the Newton Kansan and information compiled about the City of Newton located in the Newton Police history books and archives.

Officers listed with an * in 1871 were appointed as the "Night Policeman" prior to the City of Newton being incorporated. William S. Brooks was the first official City Marshal.

1871-1871 Arthur Delaney aka Mike McCluskie*
1871-1871 Tom Carson*
1871-1871 Carlos King*
1872-1872 William S. Brooks

So yes, with the help of the Newton Police Department, we know that William S. Brooks was the first official City Marshal of the City of Newton at around 30 years of age. With their help, we can also confirm that he was already a stage driver when he was hired for the position of City Marshal. This coincides with his being briefly hired as a stage driver for the Southwestern Stage Company before becoming the City Marshal of Newton in 1872. 

As for Brooks appearing in newspapers of the time, the gunfight that cut short his career as a lawman  was reported by the Wichita City Eagle on June 14, 1872:

Bill Brooks, marshal of Newton, formerly a stage driver between that point and Wichita, was shot three times, on Sunday night last, in an attempt to arrest a couple of Texas men. As near as we can get at the facts, the Texas men were on a spree, and, as a consequence, making it hot for pedestrians. Brooks had run them out of the town, when they turned and fired three shots into him, with what effect may be judged, from the fact that he continued his pursuit for ten miles before he returned to have his wounds dressed, shot passed through his right breast, and the other two were in his limbs. We learn from a driver here that he will recover. Bill has sand enough to best the hour-glass that tries to run him out.

On June 15, 1872, The Kansas Daily Commonwealth of Topeka, Kansas, reported: 

"A party of Texans, fresh from the trail, had corralled the proprietor of a dance-house with their six-shooters, and were carrying things on a high hand, when Marshall Brooks, being sent for, endeavored to preserve the peace. While thus employed, one of the party by the name of Joe Miller, fired at him, the ball striking the collar bone, but inflicting merely a trifling wound...."

Then on March 20, 1873, The Wichita City Eagle reported:

Billy Brooks, the whilom Wichita stage driver, is not dead, as was reported, but is on duty in Dodge City.

Did The Wichita City Eagle mean that Brooks was employed as a stage driver in Dodge City? Did that newspaper intend to say that he was working as a police officer in Dodge City or something else? 

Though some of his biographies say that William Brooks was involved in more than a dozen gunfights, the newspapers at the time only mention the items that I've listed. While that's true, several of his biographies indicate that "Billy" Brooks took a position in Dodge City as its City Marshal in 1873. We know that's not true since P.L. Beatty, the first Mayor of Dodge City, appointed Lawrence Deger to be the first City Marshal of Dodge City in December 1875.

Keep in mind that before towns had organized law enforcement, the citizens provided security for the towns. As violence got worse, merchants started hiring citizens to give extra attention to their businesses. By late 1872, local merchants in Dodge City needed to hire their own watchman. So yes, they hired Brook as a "private lawman." It's said he patroled Dodge City with authority given to him by the merchants.

During that time, Brooks was supposedly referred to as "Bully" Brooks instead of Billy Brooks. The story goes that he attempted to intimidate criminals from acting out by wearing a set of Navy Colts and a Bowie knife. 

It was at that time, in 1872, that a young buffalo hunter by the name of H.H. Raymond is said to have remarked how when he entered a saloon in November of 1872, he saw Brooks. He said, "The man with his back to me as I entered wore a blouse, and protruding from it were the barrels of two large revolvers. I learned later this was Bill Brooks. Quite an unusual sight for a tenderfoot." 

Brooks only held the position of "private lawman" until the merchants found that he wasn't up to controlling the theft and violence. Then on March 4, 1874, H.H. Raymond wrote in his diary that Brooks got into a gunfight with a buffalo hunter by the name of Kirk Jordan. It was over the fact that Brooks was believed to have killed Jordan's friend. Jordan attempted to kill Brooks in an ambush that resulted in a shootout. While neither man was hit, the gunfight ended when Brooks ran away and hid under a bed in a livery stable. Right after that, even though the air was cleared with Jordan, Brooks left Dodge City. 

After leaving Dodge City in early 1874, Brooks again became a stage driver for the Southwestern Stage Company. It's said that Brooks would not only drive. He was known to switch off and ride shotgun on the routes of other drivers. Unlike being a stage driver, shotgun riders were strictly guards who rode alongside a stagecoach driver. Riding shotgun meant being armed with a side-by-side shotgun, called a "coach gun." Because of the spread of a 12 gauge shotgun, a shotgun guard didn't have to be as good a shot as he would with a rifle. 

It's said that the Southwestern Stage Company would later have competition from a few stage lines, including the Adams Express Company and the Wells Fargo Express Company. It wasn't unusual for employees to go from one stage line to the next. And no, it wasn't out of the question for competing stage companies to try to hire, or steal, good drivers and guards, or even buy out livestock and coaches when a company went under.  

By late 1874, the Southwestern Stage Company, its horses and mules branded with the "S.Co," took a financial hit that resulted in their having to lay off some of their employees. The company had lost a mail delivery contract to a competing stage line. Because of the loss of that contract, Brooks lost his job. 

Then in June of that year, it was reported that several horses and mules owned by that competing stage line were stolen. It was soon discovered that the former City Marshal for the City of Newton Billy Brooks and two other men, L.B. Hasbrouck and Charlie Smith, stole the horses and mules. By early July, Brooks and the other two men were arrested near Caldwell, Kansas. It was believed at the time that they were heading to Texas and away from the law. After it was determined that Brooks attempted to hurt the rival stage company of the Southwestern Stage Company, the three were charged with stealing horses and mules. 

On July 29, 1874, while jailed and awaiting trial near Caldwell, Kansas, a lynch mob stormed the jail. Brooks and the other two men were taken to a nearby tree. There they pled their case and cried out for a fair trial. They cried out for mercy. But soon, all three were hanged despite their pleas. As for Billy Brooks, it's said he struggled and fought to get loose even after the rope didn't break his neck. His struggle was all in vain since he was left there to strangle to death.

It was believed that Brooks stole the horses and mules in an effort to get back the mail delivery contract for the Southwestern Stage Company. Of course, before the trial started and they were being held, talk started to swirl, and soon people started asking if the Southwestern Stage Company was behind what took place. One of the questions that no one could answer had to do with the money that Brooks used to pay his two cohorts to help him carry out the crime. 

So if the three decided to simply steal the horses and mules to hurt a rival stage line and not sell them, then where did Brooks get the money to pay two men to help him commit that crime? And really, what did they plan to do with the horses? Of course, as it turned out, no one would ever find the answers to those questions. 

While much of the life of Billy Brooks is a mystery, some say even his life ended in mystery. After all, some still ask if Billy Brooks could have been framed for stealing those horses and mules. And yes, the bigger question is why a lynch mob would hang three horse thieves who were already caught and awaiting trial? If they were killers, then no one would ask. But to hang a horsethief for trying to help an employer get back a mail contract seems pretty extreme -- even for those back in the Old West. 

Tom Correa

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