A true-crime story centering on a South Texas lawman who became a law unto himself.
Local county sheriffs don’t often make the national news unless they’ve been pardoned by the nation’s chief executive for crimes committed in office. An exception was Bee County, Texas, roughly midway between Corpus Christi and San Antonio, where in the late 1940s and early ’50s a latter-day Wyatt Earp named Vail Ennis ruled with a gun and attracted plenty of press. In a story whose mood matches John Sayles’ melancholic film Lone Star, native son McCollom (The Continental Affair: The Rise and Fall of the Continental Illinois Bank, 1987), after a career as an international banker, comes back to home ground to recount Ennis’ career. The author opens on a note that might well have been a closing, when, in November 1947, Ennis shot two grifters dead—after one of them shot him five times. “He turned around to me and said Houston you better get me to a doctor quick,” said an eyewitness. “I’m dyin’." Improbably, Ennis did not die, but the lead in his system didn’t improve his mood. McCollom contrasts Ennis’ old-fashioned law-keeping, as mean as Roy Bean’s but without the eccentricity, with the needs of a modernizing Texas, which brought his rule to an end following an electoral uprising by a mostly Hispanic population that had not turned out before, even after suffering the sheriff’s racist attentions. Ennis, who had taken care to put notches on his gun for each kill and who engaged in plenty of intimidation to keep those voters away from the polls, said that if the county didn’t want him, he didn’t want it, adding that “the results of the election convinces [sic] me that people are more interested in politics than in law enforcement.”
Of interest to students of Texas history as well as aspiring law enforcement officers, who should read it as an example of how not to conduct themselves.