Fantastic History #59: Beer City by Dawn Vogel

Author Harry E. Chrisman claims that when it comes to the history of the American West, “If [the information] is easy to obtain, then it is ‘old hat’ and has probably been published a dozen times before.” Nonetheless, the history of the American West is filled with colorful characters and stories that have not been told as often as some others.

As Americans filled in the vast lands between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, they organized into territories as a form of government, preparatory to becoming states. But the forms of government in these territories ranged from ordered to lawless, and often fell somewhere in between. The piece of land that would ultimately become the Oklahoma Panhandle started out as a part of Texas. However, because of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the later Compromise of 1850, the portion of Texas that fell north of the 36°30′ latitude was ceded and became known as the “Public Land Strip.” Since the southern borders of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories were set at the 37th latitude, in 1854, there was a strip of land, approximately 34 miles north-south and 170 miles west-east that was not a part of any territory. “No Man’s Land,” as it was known, was in a prime location with regards to Kansas, which had prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcohol. It was easy to travel across the southern boundary of Kansas and visit a little town called Beer City.

“Town” is a generous description for the settlement. It was mostly tents, with a few actual buildings: “There were eight to ten saloons, a number of gambling houses and several bawdy houses to represent the business Industries of the Strip city.” The Yellow Snake Saloon, run by “Pussy Cat” Nell Jones, was one of those buildings, and likely served as not only a saloon, but also a gambling house and a bawdy house.

Without much in the way of organized law and order, the town had a self-appointed sheriff, Amos (or Lewis) “Brushy” Bush. According to most accounts of the town, he also ran a protection racket, requiring local businesses to pay him money in order for them to make use of his services, whether they were wanted or not. According to Chrisman, “He ruled with sawed off shotgun and six-shooters…. His ‘protection’ came high, but Beer Citizens accepted it—at least for a while.”

Sometime in the late 1880s, a 4th of July celebration in Beer City included a wrestling match and a masked ball. Residents of Beer City placed bets on one or the other of the combatants in the wrestling match, through a man named Fred Oschner. However, Brushy Bush “horned in at the last minute to hold most of the stakes, for 5 percent!” When Pussy Cat Jones found out and registered her displeasure, Brushy Bush pistol whipped her for her temerity.

Pussy Cat Jones then waited a week to enact her revenge. According to Chrisman, “Pussy Cat sat in the upstairs room of her house and saw Brushy Bush passing along the street just below her. Quickly seizing her trustworthy double barrel shotgun loaded with Blue Whistlers, those deadly little steel balls about an eighth of an inch in diameter, she poked the snout of her gun out the window and gave Brushy both barrels in the back of the neck.”

Perhaps if that had been the end of it, the fate of Brushy Bush would have been fairly cut and dried—shot in the back by a woman he had wronged. “But now the other folks of Beer City took up the battle and the crack of rifle and shotgun fire made the street sound like Gettysburg. When one group would run out of ammunition, another would commence firing into Bush’s inert form. When they finally picked his bloody body out of the street and took it out onto the prairie for burial, there was not a whole bone in his body.” Even the newspapers commented on the amount of lead that had been pumped into Brushy Bush. One account gave the numbers as “eight bullets and twenty-three shot,” while another claimed “seventy-four Winchester and pistol shots were fired into Bush’s body.”

Despite how many times Bush had been shot, the authorities did eventually find someone to blame for the murder: John Brennan. “A Paris, Texas, dispatch dated July 3, 1889, says: John Brennan, a white man, had an examination before U. S. Commissioner Kirkpatrick today for the murder of Amos Bush, also white, at Beer City, No Man’s Land, last May, and was committed without bail to await the action of the federal grand jury. Bush was from Dodge City, and was killed by a vigilance committee, one of which was Brennan.”

Clearly, though, it seems impossible for Brennan to have fired all those shots, so why he alone took the blame for the murder of Bush is unclear. At least some speculation on the subject suggests that the townspeople all agreed to fire on Bush to muddy up the evidence of an actual killing shot, assuming they could not all be blamed for Bush’s death.

Another issue with the accounts is that they do not agree—the newspaper article about Brennan’s examination mentions that Bush was murdered in May of 1889, which does not square with Chrisman’s report of it taking place after a 4th of July celebration. Additionally, another newspaper article mentions “Bush was proprietor of a saloon in the city and at the election was defeated for mayor,” and then began rounding up citizens of Beer City for a “bone yard” he planned to create. In this account, “A meeting was held and Bush was ordered to keep quiet or leave town, but he refused to do either,” so the residents banded together to kill him.

Though it is difficult to match up the details of the contemporary newspaper articles and Chrisman’s account, which does not offer any citation, it certainly seems likely that Brushy Bush was not a popular figure in Beer City. Whether he was a lawful man unfairly targeted by unlawful citizens who preferred their town not be policed, a tyrant who picked on the wrong woman, or a belligerent drunk unwilling to accept his loss of the mayoral race, it does seem clear that his murder cannot be pinned on any one individual with any certainty, and thus remains a subject of speculation in the history of the American West.

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Sources include

“Arrested for Murder,” Hugoton Hermes, June 21, 1889, transcribed online at http://oklahombres.org/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/5176036794/m/66510794641

Derrick Ho, “Stories of the Ages: Beer City,” The Oklahoman, accessed January 13, 2017, http://ndepth.newsok.com/beer-city/

Harry E. Chrisman, Lost Tales of the Cimarron (Denver: Sage Books, 1961)

“Oklahoma Panhandle,” Wikipedia.com, accessed February 13, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oklahoma_Panhandle

“Oklahoma Panhandle: Badmen in No Man’s Land,” History.net, June 12, 2006, http://www.historynet.com/oklahoma-panhandle-badmen-in-no-mans-land.htm

Woodsdale Sentinel, August 2, 1889, transcribed online at http://oklahombres.org/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/5176036794/m/66510794641

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Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is published by DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, Codex Writers, and SFWA. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.