Five Points Justice
by Gary Clifton
At just past seven a.m. in late June 1882, Uvalde City Marshall Bill “Bear” Smith was sweating over the forge in his downtown blacksmith shop. He paused to wipe his brow, his derby hat riding herd on enough red hair to make a throw rug.
Bear smiled as he saw Texas Ranger Henry Paul Brannigan, his lovely and brilliant wife Elizabeth, and their son, Tad, rein their one-horse carriage into the livery stable across the street. Brannigan’s big bay, Buck, and Tad’s palomino pony were saddled and tethered to the rear of the rig. They’d ridden in from the Brannigan Ranch, north of Uvalde.
Things in general were routine on the hot, dusty day. The Brannigans, longtime owners of the First Bank of Uvalde, had sold the operation to Fred Thompson, the bank’s teller. A rich aunt in Dallas had died, leaving Fred a sizeable fortune. Brannigan was now free to pursue his Ranger duties full-time and operate his ranch more effectively.
Elizabeth’s political career had flourished. She was in her second term as Chairperson of the Uvalde County Commissioners’ Court, with thoughts of running for Texas governor. Bear’s wife, Mary, had expressed interest in running for mayor of Uvalde. Prospects for the future seemed bright.
Bear took a break and walked across to the livery stable. “Henry Paul, Liz,” Bear greeted boyishly. “Who’s this hoss in the rear here?” He reached out and playfully tousled Tad’s tow hair.
Uvalde Deputy Sheriff King Fisher, dressed in his normal outfit of broad sombrero, shirt with silver buttons, and a pair of silver Colt pistols, came striding across the dusty street. “Morning folks,” he greeted.
Elizabeth said, “Bear, Mr. Fisher. Can you believe Tad turns eleven later this year? He’s in the sixth grade and taller than me. Gonna be bigger than his dad!”
“Yep, he’s growing like a spring weed.” Bear pushed back his derby. “Man, I can feel the heat nibbling in that south wind, folks. It’s gonna be too hot to breathe before noon today.”
Brannigan helped Elizabeth down from the buggy and began unharnessing the horse. “Moving my office over to the courthouse, now the bank’s sold.”
Elizabeth said, “Well we still have the bank in San Antonio and a minor interest in my sister and brother-in-law’s bank in New York City to fret about.”
Brannigan grinned and said, “Liz, I already told you you’re not only the prettiest lady in the county, you’re the smartest. I expect you to continue fretting as one of six County Commissioners, makin’ life hell for county employees and collecting every last dime of taxes due.”
Bear had not noticed Charlie, their huge mongrel companion of many years, asleep in the back of the buggy. Charlie struggled to his feet and stood tentatively at the rear of the rig.
Bear lifted him to the ground. Charlie, for many years rough-and-tumble, was barely able to walk, white showing around his black nose and face. Bear caught Brannigan’s eye. Neither said anything, refusing to acknowledge the inevitable.
Then the placid day rounded a major curve. Wilbur Sundae, the local telegraph operator, shuffled down Main Street out of breath, waving a yellow telegram which would bring on another challenge into Brannigan’s already turbulent life.
“Mrs. Brannigan, this jes’ come in. Your sister up in New York City is in trouble. Her husband’s been bad hurt by thugs, and the law won’t help her. She’s sayin’ right here she needs Ranger Brannigan to come on up to New York City right away.”
Fisher tipped back his silver-trimmed sombrero. “New York City is a far piece, Brannigan, notwithstanding we ain’t got no jurisdiction.” Brannigan didn’t like Fisher, and the comment did not go down well. Soft-spoken as usual, he made no retort.
Brannigan, Bear, Tad, and Fisher followed Liz to the telegraph office. She spent the next hour exchanging telegrams with her sister in far-off New York.
Brannigan had never met Elizabeth’s sister, Sarah, but knew much about her. After she and Elizabeth had attended an exclusive ladies’ preparatory academy in Philadelphia, Liz had returned to San Antonio to work in her father’s bank. Sarah had married a young man from up east. With the aid of a loan from the girls’ father, they had established a very successful bank in New York City.
Operating as The Equity Commerce Bank, Sarah and her husband had chosen a location on lower Broadway, near the northern edge of the rapidly expanding New York Stock Exchange.
Elizabeth then told a serious story. Sarah and her husband, James Whitehall, had operated their bank for several years without incident. The proximity to Wall Street was a boon to business. A huge slum known as “Five Points” had developed just to the north of the Equity Commerce Bank. Trouble was not far behind.
First, thugs from an Irish gang had shown up, demanding “protection money.” When James and Sarah had refused, thugs began appearing regularly around the bank’s entrance threatening and actually pushing customers around. The Whitehall’s had requested help from the police, who turned out to be complicit with the Irish gangs.
Now, the day before, three uniformed cops had entered James Whitehall’s office and beaten him severely, requiring hospitalization.
Elizabeth studied her husband’s face. “What do you think, Henry Paul? Can we help?”
“Liz, I’m not sure where New York is, but Bear Smith is from there. I feel it’s our business, not his. But rest assured, I’ll do what I have to do.”
The arrangement had been that Elizabeth and Sarah’s father had willed his bank holding in Texas to the Brannigan’s and had funded the bank in New York separately. However, he had written the contracts so that the Brannigans owned one percent of the New York operation and the Whitehalls were one-percent owners of the Texas banks. Technically, an attack on the New York Bank was a hostile action against Brannigan himself, an unwise move for someone who didn’t know Henry Paul Branigan.
* * *
“A sure way to get yourself killed, Henry Paul,” Bear said soberly. “I can go, if need be. Take my advice and stay home.”
Advice, often given, seldom heeded, was wasted. Brannigan, armed only with Elizabeth’s little pocket Colt stuffed in his boot, purchased a ticket on the noon train to San Antonio to make connections for New York. The local train agent estimated the trip would take six days, “If you’re lucky.”
Bear Smith, who, along with Elizabeth and Tad bid Brannigan farewell at the station, studied Brannigan’s western boots and fringe-decorated jacket.
“Henry Paul, first thing you’re gonna need to do is buy new clothes. They’re gonna think you run a wild west show. And remember: only some cops are crooked, and not every Irishman is a criminal.”
And so, Henry Paul Brannigan, whose only trips out of Texas since the Civil War had been into nearby Mexico, was off for the far-away land of New York City. The further he rode on a box-hard seat in the next six days, the more Bear’s thought appealed to him. “Howdy, I’m Buffalo Bob Butler, western show operator!” seemed a satisfactory greeting.
Late on the fifth day, his train had an hour’s layover in Baltimore. Studying himself in a men’s lavatory mirror, he opted to step off and buy a rough cut, denim work shirt and a derby hat. Knowing he might need a different look, he carefully packed the new garments in the bag Elizabeth had packed for him and boarded the train for the final hitch into the big city.
And big it was, with more people on the streets than ten San Antonios: brown people, white people, people dressed in finery, and some in tatters, all who seemed to be shouting for reasons he couldn’t fathom.
Still in his Uvalde western garb, he took a horse-drawn cab to police headquarters. He drew his Texas Ranger badge from a pocket. Five-point silver star Ranger badges, by long tradition, were stamped out of a Mexican five-peso coin. Pinning the badge to his shirt, he would at first attempt to communicate with the New York Chief of Police as lawman to lawman.
“Well,” said the chief, a squat, balding man with an accent very similar to Bear Smith’s, as he inspected Brannigan’s Ranger badge. “Don’t show your Texas five-point star in our Five Points, Tex. Might get you hurt.” He eyed Brannigan’s huge frame, dwarfing the small chair he occupied across from his desk. “They certainly grow ’em big down in Texas.”
Brannigan explained that his brother-in-law had been assaulted, reportedly by New York police officers, and was confined to Our Ladies of Mercy Hospital.
The chief at first denied that his minions would do such a thing and told Brannigan to go home. But as Brannigan strode out, the chief said, “Look, Tex, in New York, we have many honest coppers. But, unfortunately, a few ‘bad apples’ flourish and use the law against the citizens. Help me find witnesses against such men, and I’ll see they get what’s coming to them.”
Brannigan left, optimistic, but not confident the chief was sincere. He’d need to conduct an independent investigation.
Brannigan stuffed his badge back in his pocket and caught a cab to Our Ladies of Mercy Hospital. Brannigan recognized Sarah from photographs that her sister, Elizabeth, kept on their bedroom dresser back in Uvalde. A mirror image of Elizabeth, Sarah sat at her husband’s bedside, reading from a bible.
James Whitehall was conscious, but still badly injured with both arms broken and severe bruises about his head. Sarah confirmed, with James frequently interjecting, that when he refused to pay “protection” to Irish thugs, three police officers, Murphy, Flynn, and O’Brien had shown up and administered a severe beating.
A frail and understandably dispirited man, Whitehall said, “Henry Paul, I feel we have no choice but to sell the bank to Paddy McGurk, the head of the Irish mob in Five Points, as he has demanded.”
Brannigan stood angrily. “James, don’t sell anything to anybody.”
Brannigan donned his work shirt and derby and spent several days hanging around the Five Points area. He figured that news of someone asking about Paddy McGurk would travel fast, so he wasn’t too surprised when the man himself singled him out in the notorious dive known as the Green Rooster Tavern, McGurk’s headquarters in Five Points. Brannigan, a non-drinker, was nursing a glass of milk.
“Howdy, Mr. McGurk, I’m Buffalo Bob Butler, Texas wild west show promoter,” Brannigan opened with his practiced line.
“What kind of Texas cowboy drinks milk?” the kingpin asked sarcastically. He spoke in an accent unfamiliar to Brannigan.
“This one, partner.” Brannigan eyed the bad man closely. “And lots of it.”
“Twenty percent. Of the gross,” was McGurk’s relay to Brannigan’s phantom wild west show promotion. “Any objection or failure to pay and you get you some broken bones, and any animals in your entourage get maimed to uselessness. And you can drink all the milk in Five Points.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Branigan said in his soft Texas drawl. Actually, he saw it was theft, which deserved a harsh reaction, but held his tongue.
The next evening, in the Green Rooster, McGurk introduced Brannigan to his chief dog-robber, assistant, and enforcer, Liam Cahill. He also met New York Police officers: Murphy, Flynn, and O’Brien, the same men James Whitehall claimed had hospitalized him. All were burly, bearded men in their early thirties with yellow teeth and a reek of dead rat. During the evening, all four New Yorkers bragged about their brutal thuggery.
“Where is your livestock?” asked policeman Murphy as he swilled a quart of beer.
“Crammed on trains, along with my actors and cowboys, at the Trenton railyard in New Jersey. I need to arrange a show and put them to work.”
Brannigan saw trouble forming when the three coppers exchanged inquisitive glances.
The next evening, Brannigan met with McGurk, his helper Cahill, and policemen Murphy, Flynn, and O’Brien in a small rear room at the Green Rooster.
Cahill locked the door and snarled at Brannigan, “Our copper friends checked. Neither you, nor anyone else have any wild west show parked anywhere near Trenton. We think you are a Pinkerton and you, Texas man, are about to get yours.” Cahill drew a dagger from beneath his shirt. Two of the policemen advanced with clubs.
And in the close confines of a dirty little room, all five men set about administering a New York beating to this Texas interloper. Another meddling troublemaker would learn Five Points justice. Those outside the room reported that crashing and screaming continued for nearly ten minutes before the rear door opened into an alley and one participant strolled away.
* * *
The following morning, Brannigan, in his fringed coat and Stetson, sat beneath the “Departures” sign at bustling Grand Central Station, browsing the local newspaper. The headline blared: “Two dead, three critical, following a back-room brawl at the notorious Five Points Green Rooster Tavern. Single suspect at large.”
Brannigan looked up from his paper when the pudgy chief of police approached. Two husky uniformed patrolmen stood quietly nearby. “Keep your seat, Tex,” the chief said. “What time does your train leave?”
“Ten minutes,” Brannigan replied, shifting for closer access to Elizabeth’s pistol in his boot.
“Aren’t you going to bid farewell to your kinfolk, the Whitehills?”
“It’s Whitehall, sir, and I stopped by the hospital at daybreak this morning.”
The chief peered closely at the bandage on Brannigan’s forehead. “Cut yourself, did you?”
“Hit my head on the hotel shaving mirror.” He neglected to include that the bandage contained five stitches, following surgery surreptitiously performed by a veterinarian late the night before.
“Tex, you killed two of the sorriest men in Five Points and one more is not expected to live till noon. The other two, both crooked cops, will never fully recover. None will be missed. What weapon did you use?”
Brannigan stood, towering over the chief, and causing the two nearby patrolmen to stir. “I was in church last evening, Chief. The chapel of Our Ladies of Mercy Hospital, praying for my brother-in-law.”
“We could disprove that and jail you, Tex.”
“At which time, sir,” Brannigan said softly, “I feel strongly you will need to secure the services of eight or ten more constables and several ambulances.”
“We do not respond well to threats, sir.”
Brannigan smiled. “That’s a promise, Chief, not a threat. Your crooked policemen and Irish thugs wronged my kin and received a type of five points justice that they intended to give. Now, sir, I have a train to catch. Blow that whistle I see around your neck and bring forth whatever manpower you can spare. I’m afraid they won’t be fit for duty tomorrow.”
The chief stepped back slightly. “Tex, I said we could arrest you, not that we intended to.”
Out on the tracks, a train whistle screeched.
The chief said, “McGurk might have been the biggest criminal in Five Points, but there are others anxious to take his place. You haven’t solved our crime problem.”
Brannigan said, “They tangle with my family, Chief, I’ll be back.”
“God, Tex, we just want you out of town. But if you come back, I’ll hold a copper’s badge for you.”
“Don’t need it, sir. I have one that works perfectly well. You folks are wise beyond what I would have ever thought, considering the lack of civilization in your city. My train awaits, Chief, unless you have further business.”
“The City of New York owes you a debt of gratitude, sir.” The chief smiled. “Have a safe trip.” He turned, joined his two uniformed patrolmen, and walked briskly toward the front door.
Late that afternoon, during the Baltimore layover, Brannigan telegraphed Uvalde: Attacker of Whitehall no longer a factor. Stop. Assailants have found the Lord in one way or another. Stop. Full co-operation now expected from local law. Stop. Arrive Uvalde six days. Stop. Wire any messages attention Brannigan, Western Union, St. Louis Station. Stop.
Retaking his railcar seat, he dug his Ranger badge out and studied it. “Five points of Texas silver seemed to fare pretty well in administering justice in Five Points, New York City territory,” he said softly.
He pinned the badge back on his shirt, and Buffalo Bob Butler resumed his uncomfortable train ride back to civilized country.
Copyright © 2018 by Gary Clifton