This evening about 6 o’clock John Pistole, an old man, shot James McTeague, another old man, killing him almost instantly. The weapon used was a double-barreled shotgun and the whole load of buckshot entered the groin of deceased, severing the main artery…Pistole attempted to make his escape, but the sheriff’s posse captured him in the brush. (The Austin Statesman, Nov. 29, 1889)
It’s a Texarkana tragicomedy: conflict between a pair of bent codgers ends with one dead and the spry one hiding in the bushes until the coppers nab him.
And, it’s a murder mystery. Did the senior-citizen shooting take place in Texarkana, Arkansas, or Texarkana, Texas? (For the sake of knowing which state’s stereotype to fashion into a joke, it was Texas).
Were both “old men” armed? Who started the fight? And what was it about?
The aptly named shooter was 65 years old; today, we might describe John Pistole as “newly retired.” His victim almost certainly was unarmed, since there were no reports of his defending himself. His name, by the way, was George (not James) McTeague. Age unknown.
One newspaper account also gets McTeague’s surname wrong, referring to him as Montague. The writer likely had Romeo and Juliet in mind, given that it was a pair of young lovers — McTeague’s daughter and Pistole’s son — who sparked their fathers’ feud.
The real instigator of the deadly duel, however, was the girl’s mother. Her actions led to her old man’s loss of life and the other old man’s loss of freedom.
On his wedding day, Ewing Pistole set out for Clarksville, Texas, about 60 miles northwest of the Arkansas border. He came to collect his bride-to-be from St. Joseph’s, a Catholic complex that included a church, a convent for the Sisters of Ursuline, and the boarding school where Annie McTeague surely had been stowed to forestall the very elopement that transpired that Friday, October 18, 1889.
The pair exchanged vows at the Red River County Courthouse, a Renaissance Revival structure erected five years earlier in the center of Clarksville, one of the oldest towns in Texas. Shortly after the elopement, Annie’s mother descended upon the county clerk there, launching into an interrogation that resulted in an arrest warrant for her new son-in-law.
The charge was perjury. Mrs. McTeague claimed that Ewing lied about her daughter’s age in order to secure a marriage license. Annie, she insisted, was only 13 years old.
Ewing was jailed October 24 in advance of a preliminary hearing. His bride was said to have cried that she would “accompany him to the penitentiary should he go hence.”
Ewing’s incarceration hardly ended the quarrel. Bad blood continued to exist between the two families due to the McTeagues’ “violent” opposition to the marriage, reported The Dallas Morning News in early November. A subsequent story presents the girl’s mother as being particularly and “bitterly” opposed to the match.
The feud was resolved November 29 when Ewing’s father unloaded his shotgun into McTeague’s groin; the “slayer” was apprehended almost immediately and sent to jail. On March 20, 1890, John Pistole was found guilty of murder in the second degree in the Bowie County district court and sentenced to seven years in the penitentiary.
The Austin Weekly Statesman concluded its coverage of the trial with the following assessment of the convicted man: “He is supposed to be demented.”
John Pistole was sent to Rusk Penitentiary. Built by convict labor and opened in 1883, Rusk sat 90 miles north of the State Penitentiary of Texas in Huntsville. The second facility was designed to house the state’s white prison population, based on the belief that white men could not endure the “plantation-style” labor African-Americans performed at Huntsville. Rusk’s inmates manufactured pig iron, an ambitious undertaking that collapsed with the iron market in 1907. By 1917, Rusk was operating as a mental hospital.*
Pistole arrived in early April 1890. A conduct report shows he was put to work in the prison garden; he proved to be a trouble-free inmate quickly awarded trusty status. “He has made a good, faithful and obedient old prisoner,” the assistant superintendent of penitentiaries wrote. “His record is spotless, and he has never been punished or reproved in any manner.”
On June 11, 1895, Pistole was released six years and three months into his seven-year sentence. The early release prompted an explanation published in the Austin American Statesman: Pistole’s conviction had taken judges, jurors and citizens alike by surprise, and “petitions for his pardon were sent in the same year he was convicted,” wrote a member of the pardon board.
W. C. Denson further cited “strong extenuating circumstances” and the fact that Pistole was old and poor and “could not avail himself of the privilege of appeal.” John Pistole was 70 years old when he left Rusk Penitentiary.
And what became of Ewing and Annie, the lovers whose elopement derailed their parents’ lives?
In 1892, Annie gave birth to a daughter, Jessie May; son Reuben Napoleon came along in 1895. By 1900, Ewing identified himself in the census as a widower. He was then working as a house painter, raising his motherless children in Abilene, Texas.
Ewing remarried about 1902, making Alice Tatum the stepmother of his young children. In 1908, the couple added a daughter, Bessie Marie, to their family. In 1910, Ewing’s 18-year-old first-born, Jessie May, died of typhoid fever while working as a telephone operator in Coleman, Texas.
Ewing and Alice divorced sometime before 1915, the year Alice exchanged vows with the second of her five husbands. Ewing did not marry again. He and son Reuben, the surviving child of his marriage to Annie McTeague, remained close. In fact, Reuben named his father as a dependent on his World War I draft registration.
In 1917, father and son were working as painters in San Angelo, Texas. Pvt. Reuben Pistole sailed for Brest, France, in 1919; Ewing remained on a farm in Coleman. On returning from the war, Reuben married Gladys Vest, and the couple soon moved to Waco, Texas. Reuben found work as a painter and paper hanger, and by 1930, Ewing had joined his son and daughter-in-law there.
Four years later, divorced from Gladys, Reuben was struck by a taxicab on an Austin, Texas street; he died from a cerebral hemorrhage. His half-sister, Bessie, traveled more than 200 miles to identify his body; she also ordered a government headstone to reflect his service during World War I. Like Reuben, she had served in the military, as a private in the Women’s Army Corp during World War II.
It’s not clear what happened to Ewing after the loss of his son. He died in April 1937 of heart disease, and it was again Bessie who saw to the arrangements. As the informant, she provided the data on his death certificate: he was born in 1863 and died at age 73. His tombstone contradicts that birth date, making him 82 years old at death.
That means our Romeo was either 26 or 35 when he eloped with his 13-year-old Juliet.
Ewing Pistole’s ardent pursuit of Annie McTeague sent his father to prison and his father-in-law to the grave; their wives were left to grieve. Ewing lost his child-bride at 25; their daughter was dead by 18, their son struck down by a taxi at 37.
In terms of loss, the star-crossed lovers of Verona have nothing on their Texarkana counterparts.
[Source: Fear, Force and Leather: The Texas Prison System’s First Hundred Years (1838–1948) from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission website]
Note: It’s my belief that John Pistole and his family were related to Harvey Pistole and his family, featured in my ancestory A Tonic for the Pistoles.