H.B. Barnhart Gets the Credit

 

Austin native Henry B. Barnhart, was a successful attorney in 1885.  He was appointed Travis County Attorney in 1886.  An 1887 description of Barnhart’s career included the following passage:

H. B. Barnhart

With uncompromising firmness, he has made successful war upon evil and wrong-doing wherever and whenever found, and by vigilance and courage brought evil-doers and lawbreakers to justice…Not more than sixteen months ago, Austin had a national reputation for midnight murder, with criminals undiscovered and unwhipped by justice.  Crimes, the most nefarious and diabolical, were committed with impunity.  Then every citizen locked and barred his doors and windows, and slept with arms near at hand to defend his wife and children from the deadly ax of the midnight assassin.  Mr. Barnhart has been county attorney for fifteen or sixteen months.  Every citizen now feels secure; the law is enforced; the officers are vigilant, and Austin has become an unhealthy place for criminals, and they avoid its neighborhood. (1)

This is perhaps the only instance I have come across of someone being personally credited for Austin’s return to law and order after the crime spree of 1885.  This dubious honor was bestowed upon him by Lewis E. Daniell, a writer and publisher in Austin who in the late 19th century produced several “Successful Men” biographical compilations; these volumes featured prominent or would-be prominent Texans who had paid for their inclusion in the volumes and received flattering, if not fawning, biographical sketches.  Daniell immodestly described Barnhart as:

Great in all of his achievements, and as good as he is great, with a pure, noble and exalted character, he stands before us to-day as one who commands the affection and perfect confidence of the people; for, unwilling to pause on the first round of the ladder of fame in his profession, he has shaken off all trammels, and now stands a glittering star among the brilliant galaxy of Austin’s talented young lawyers. (2)

Barnhart had a successful law practice for the rest of his life. He died in Austin in 1901.

————

(1) Daniell, L.E.  Personnel of the State Government with Sketches of Distinguished Texans. Austin: Press of the City Printing Company, 1887.
(2) Ibid.

 

 

Robinson Residence. Scene of West Austin Crime Spree. May 1, 1885

Robinson Residence 700 Rio Grande Street Austin, Texas

The Robinson Residence
Courtesy DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, Ag2008.0005.

 

Many people must have been aroused between one and two o’clock by a rapid discharge of fire arms on Rio Grande street, near its intersection with Pecan.  This time it was at the residence of Mr. J. H. Robinson.  Some outhouses occupied by colored women were visited, window panes broken in, and the inmates frightened nearly to death.  Their screams aroused the family.  Mr. James D. Sheeks fired a couple of times at the retreating form of a man, and “Red,” a hackman who lived nearby emptied his pistol at another one.  Neither of his shots took effect.  Mr. Sheeks thinks the man fired back once as he ran off.  (Austin Daily Statesman. 2 May 1885)

On May 1, 1885, old west Austin was beset by an all-night crime spree that included numerous attempted burglaries and assaults — so many that the Austin Daily Statesman commented it would be “monotonous to recount them all.”  The incidents that night were characterized by an almost juvenile or drunken recklessness, with the perpetrators trying to enter servant’s quarters, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, banging on doors and windows, throwing rocks, frightening women and leaving a trail of screams, shouts and gunfire behind them. They quickly dispersed when confronted but would often return to rile everyone up all over again.

In spite of all that, no one was seriously injured that night, and the troublemakers were lucky to escape more than once.  When a man entered the room of an “elderly colored woman” employed at the home of J. M. Brackenridge and threatened her, the feisty woman instead grabbed him, threw him out of the house and continued to wallop the would-be ruffian who only managed to escape her tenacious grasp by extricating himself from his coat and hat.

The home of John H. Robinson, located at 700 Rio Grande Street, as noted above, was one of the locations where the perpetrators were lucky to escape gunfire.  James D. Sheeks, as mentioned above, was a local attorney who boarded at the Robinson home.  A neighborhood hackman (cab driver) called Red is also mentioned along with Sheeks as having fired shots at a fleeing suspect.

The Robinson house still exists, although in a slightly different location and with some notable architectural modifications:  http://beta.austinhistoricalsurvey.org/node/184752

The photograph above by Austin photographer S. B. Hill, shows the Robinson house as it originally looked in the 1880s. In the photograph the house appears to have gabled roofs, a detail that corresponds to the house as it was drawn in 1887 by Augustus Koch for the Austin birds-eye view map.  The railing around the upper floor is also visible in the photo and is clearly present in the illustration.

Robinson House 1887 Illustration

Robinson House 1887 Illustration

The house was moved 50 feet north from its original location in 1909.  It is currently located at 702 Rio Grande Street.