The murder of the first elected sheriff in Culberson County

John H. Feeley and his wife Ida.

Editor’s note:  Lieutenant Gary Moseley, of the Cleburne Police Department, is the grandson of Ida Durrill Feeley, Sheriff Feeley’s youngest daughter.

By Gary Moseley

John Henry Feeley, was born August 1871 Bates County, Missouri.  He married Ida Trammell and moved to the Plateau area in Culberson County around the turn of the century, where he ran a general store. When the county was formed he was elected the first sheriff of Culberson County, then re-elected to a second term.  John Feeley and Ida raised the following children, Onis Feely born c. 1896, Eula Feely c. 1899, Clyde Feeley, Rena Feeley, Dorothy Feeley, Ida Durrill Feeley c. 11-09-1911 in Van Horn.

In 1914, as the building of the Culberson County courthouse continued and neared completion, the superintendent of the building project, W.T. Malone, was fired by the County Commissioners and County Judge due to some incompetence on his part.  Malone by all accounts pretty much became a drunk and rabble-rouser after being fired.  It is said that when he got drunk he became forgetful and that during these times he claimed that the County still owed him money.  On February the 9, 1914 the Culberson County commissioner’s court was in session in the upstairs of the Cox Building, presided by County Judge Joe Canon.  All officials, including Sheriff Feeley, were in attendance.  From the court records of the proceedings of that day it appears that Judge Canon didn’t think too highly of Sheriff Feeley, Canon saying some disparaging things about Feeley and treating him as an inferior.  While the commissioners court was going on, downstairs in the saloon sat W.T. Malone, recently unemployed and drowning his sorrows in booze.  Malone finally took a notion to go upstairs and demand his money from the county judge and commissioners. He stormed into the meeting and demanded his money, at which time there was a yelling match between him and Judge Canon.  Malone left the room and left Judge Canon fuming mad. Judge Canon found Malone guilty of contempt and ordered Sheriff Feeley to find Malone and fine him $25 for the disruption.  Sheriff Feeley left the proceedings and went about finding the drunken Malone. Sheriff Feeley found Malone, probably downstairs in the saloon.  Whether or not he got the $25 fine from Malone or not is not known, but Feely did return to the court with $25.  Meanwhile, Malone sat at the bar brewing over his perceived ill treatment and vowing vengeance on Judge Canon.  Also sitting at the bar was O.J. Hammett, who had run against Feeley for sheriff in the second election and was a well-known rancher in the area.  For whatever reasons, Hammett sympathized with Malone and said to him, “Let’s get rid of Joe Canon.”  Malone, proud to have found an ally, quickly agreed.  O.J. Hammett grabbed his shotgun and waited outside of the Cox Building across the street near the train depot.  He took a position behind a telegraph pole and waited for Judge Joe Canon to come out of the upstairs of the Cox Building, where the temporary courthouse is.  Hammett knows that the only way downstairs is by the stairs on the outside of the north end of the building.  The sun was soon about to set for the evening when Judge Canon gets wind that Hammett is waiting for him outside with a shotgun.  Canon takes his rifle, steps outside and starts down the stairs. Hammett is probably roughly fifty yards away, too far away for his shotgun to do much damage to Canon.  After Canon makes it down the stairs, Hammett fires his shotgun at him.  Canon takes a position behind another telegraph pole near the Cox Building and the two trade shots across the street at each other. At some point, Hammett is hit with a rifle round with the bullet hitting his testicle and then entering his leg, breaking the femur.  He falls to the ground and they continue to shoot at one another.  Sheriff Feeley arrives on the scene and sees Hammett lying on the ground with blood covering his groin.  Feeley runs towards Hammett to see about him and stop the shooting when a bullet from Judge Canon’s rifle enters his back and hits his heart, he dies instantly on the ground where he falls.  Judge Joe Canon then gets into an automobile and leaves Van Horn immediately following the shooting of Feeley, heading for El Paso where his wife, Daugherty’s daughter, is sick in bed in the last trimester of pregnancy.  Whether the shooting of Feeley in the back was an accident or a seemingly good opportunity seen by Judge Canon to get rid of the “outsider” sheriff is hard to tell.  Canon had been a sheriff deputy in the past and, like most men of that era and locale, was a very accurate shot by necessity. One would be hard pressed to think that he had made a mistake when he fired at Feeley’s back.  There was a school function that night and Sheriff Feeley’s older children were in attendance.  They were told that their mother wanted them and, as they were on their way home they passed by the downtown area and saw the crowd that had gathered after the shooting.  They didn’t yet know that their father had been killed.  The Freemasons in Van Horn, of which Feeley was a member, paid for a plot at the Van Horn cemetery for John H. Feeley and he was buried in an unmarked grave.  Why a headstone was not purchased is not known, but speculation is that the Masons were worried about who they would anger by putting one up.  Daugherty, Canon, Hammett and others were all members of the Masonic Lodge. The townsfolk apparently felt that it was more than an accidental shot that killed Feeley, a grand jury was gathered and Judge Joe Canon was indicted for the murder of Sheriff John H. Feeley, as well as for assault with a deadly weapon in the shooting of Hammett.  The grand jury in Van Horn also handed down indictments for assault with a deadly weapon against Hammett, who survived the shooting with a painful wound.  During the grand jury proceedings, according to newspaper reports of the time, many hard feelings from the day of the shooting were stirred up, but fortunately, no trouble was started.  Realizing that the issue was close to many of the folks in Culberson County, a change of venue had the trial for Canon and Hammett moved to El Paso.  After deliberating for only one hour, the jury acquitted Joe Canon of all charges against him.  Hammett’s trial was held the next day and he was fined $50 for discharge of a firearm in the city.  In the aftermath of the shootout, killing and trial, life went on in Van Horn.  Sheriff Feeley’s wife, Ida, soon gathered up her children and moved to Big Springs, Texas where they stayed for a while before heading further east to Millsap.  The Feely children were soon attending the Masonic School in Fort Worth.  Judge Canon remained in the area and was soon involved in yet another controversy.  He was a part of a posse put together by the second sheriff of Culberson County, Morine, and this Sheriff had been hand chosen by Daugherty.  Mexican bandits were reported in the area and this posse with Sheriff Morine and Canon soon took off after them.  The Mexicans were found by the posse and killed.  Canon and Morine stated that they had killed them in a gunfight, although none of the posse was injured and each of the five Mexicans had been shot in the head at point blank range.  No criminal charges were ever filed.  Judge Canon left the area and went into New Mexico where he set up selling land and cattle.  He later moved to San Antonio and died there in the 1940’s.  It is also not known what happened to O.J. Hammett, or the cause of the whole situation, or the unemployed drunk, W.T. Malone.

Feeley cemetary historical marker


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