This Week in Texas History: Marlow brothers never knew when to quit

By Bartee Haile

Four brothers busted out of the Graham jail on Jan. 14, 1889 and foolishly hightailed it for home. Recaptured the next morning over breakfast, they were back behind bars by noon.

The Marlows were a tight-knit clan of footloose frontiersmen. Boone, Epp, Alf, Charley and George took after their father, a Tennessee nomad who refused to settle down. After his death, the brothers carried on the family tradition.

Photo courtesy of the Marlow Chamber of Commerce, Marlow, OK Marlow brothers L-R George, Boone, Alfred, Lewellyn, and Charles photographed in the mid 1880’s at Fort Sill, Indian Territory. The Marlow brothers hideout was possibly located when a mower uncovered a hole in Redbud Park.

Except for minor scrapes that were part of the struggle to survive in the 1880s, the Marlows managed to stay out of serious trouble. That’s not to say they were choir boys nor that the hungry brood did not help themselves on occasion to a stray calf. But a healthy appetite hardly made them outlaws, at least not by the standards of those tough times.

While the family resided in the Red River county of Wilbarger, Boone paid a visit to a married sister living close by. Confronted by a wild-eyed stranger who greeted him with gunfire, Boone reached for his Winchester. The man was either drunk or deranged, a fine distinction that mattered little under the circumstances, so he took aim, squeezed the trigger and dropped the maniac in his tracks.

Since the victim could have been a pillar of the community just as easily as a saddle tramp, the Marlows thought twice about reporting the incident to the local law. It was safer to leave, and the family spent the next six years in Colorado.

Ed Johnson, Deputy U.S. Marshal at Graham, received a telegram in the fall of 1888 from the sheriff of Trinidad, Colorado telling him to be on the lookout for five horse-stealing brothers named Marlow. A few days later, a second wire apologized for the false alarm and blamed the foul-up on a case of mistaken identity. But Johnson, whose chief concern was making a name for himself, arrested the suspects anyway.

The Marlows spent three miserable months in the Young County jail at Graham harassed and mistreated by Deputy Sheriff Tom Collier. The boys’ wives finally raised the money for their bail, and on Dec. 15, 1888 the clan gathered for a tearful reunion.

The Marlows were at the dinner table, when Sheriff M.D. Wallace and the hated Collier showed up with a warrant for Boone’s arrest. The half-forgotten murder had come back to haunt him.

But Boone was not about to fall again into the clutches of the sadistic deputy. Guns were drawn and bullets filled the air. Sheriff Wallace collapsed mortally wounded, and Collier threw up his hands. Charley stopped Boone from finishing off the deputy and ordered another brother to fetch the doctor.

Finding not a trace of Boone Marlow, an angry posse rounded up his innocent siblings. After the sheriff died on Christmas Eve, the four were charged as accessories to murder and bound over for trial.

The Jan. 14 jailbreak gave a group of 40 concerned citizens the perfect pretext for a mass lynching, but the Marlows refused to go meekly to their doom. Though shackled in pairs and completely unarmed, they put up such a fight that the frightened mob withdrew empty-handed.

Deputy Marshal Johnson, whose blind ambition triggered the tragedy, received instructions the following day to remove the Marlows from Young County. Accompanied by several guards, Johnson put the brothers and two other prisoners in an open wagon and started the 60-mile trek to Weatherford.

The trip was cut short on the outskirts of Graham. Snipers concealed in thick underbrush alongside the road opened up on prisoners and lawmen alike. When Johnson and a guard were the first to fall, the Marlows jumped from the wagon and grabbed their weapons. 

Expecting a turkey shoot, the bushwhackers were surprised by the deadly return fire and quickly scattered. The victors’ cries of “Cowards!” goaded one vigilante into single combat. He traded pot shots with George Marlow until a slug struck him squarely in the forehead.

Epp and Alf perished in the battle, and George and Charley were temporarily detained in Dallas after surrendering to an impartial posse. Before their release, however, three bounty hunters rode into Graham with the body of brother Boone.

Human nature dictated the ultimate outcome in court. Since ordinary folks normally lack the stomach to send neighbors up the river, the few vigilantes brought to trial got off with fines and light sentences. On the other side of the ledger, lack of evidence and a degree of grudging respect prevented the prosecution of the surviving Marlows.

George Marlow lived to a ripe old age and witnessed the many wonders of the 20th Century before his death in 1945. His brothers also would have marveled at electric lights, horseless carriages and airplanes, but more than a century ago being in the wrong place at the wrong time was often a capital crime.

“Murder Most Texan” is a must read for fans of true crime and Texas history. Order your copy for $24.00 by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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