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True crime stories: U.S. Marshal “Hal” Gosling

Passenger train crossing bridge, circa 1880. (Sophienburg Archives 1177-2B)

Passenger train crossing bridge, circa 1880. (Sophienburg Archives 1177-2B)

Keva Hoffmann Boardman –

At the Sophienburg Museum & Archives, we strive to stick with the facts and tell the truth about New Braunfels history. I realize that our sources can sometimes be biased and flawed, but they are based on firsthand knowledge. I am saddened by the “stories” I hear around town that are absolutely made up. History doesn’t have to be exaggerated or embroidered. Truth is often stranger than fiction.

I’ve come across several crime stories and I tell you they are as fascinating as anything people make up today. Take the tragic death of U.S. Marshal Harrington Lee “Hal” Gosling. The date is Feb. 21, 1885. The place is the IGN express train from Austin to San Antonio. The main characters are Marshal Gosling, Deputy Marshals John Manning and Fred Loring, felons James Pitts and Charlie Yeager, and the relatives of the felons (Melissa Pitts, Elizabeth Drown, Annie Scott, and Rosa Yeager).

Pitts and Yeager were part of the Helotes Gang (a.k.a. the Robber’s Cave Gang) who terrorized South Texas and were described by reporters as “thieving, murderous thugs … young in years but old in crime.” Pitts was a 30-something career criminal, “an old road agent, train robber, murderer and a man of undoubted nerve.” His buddy Charlie Yeager was 23, and a willing and dedicated disciple of Pitts. These two were caught after the robbery of the Smithwick Post Office, 50 miles north of Austin. Tried and convicted of robbery, they were sentenced to life terms.

Enter Marshal Hal Gosling.

Gosling, a native of Tennessee, had graduated from Annapolis with a law degree. He had been a practicing attorney and a journalist before being appointed in 1882, as U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Texas. He was a husband and father, a well-liked and respected gentleman, “a big bluff, kindly, rollicking daredevil, afraid of nothing” kind of man. He was given the task of escorting Pitts and Yeager from Austin to San Antonio from whence they would be sent to the federal pen at Chester, Illinois.

The plot line begins in Austin.

During the trial, Pitts and Yeager had been allowed to sit and whisper with Pitts’ wife, Melissa, and Yeager’s sister Rosa. This was noticed and passed on to Gosling by Deputy Gordon Walker and defense attorney “Mac” Anderson. Marshal Gosling paid little attention.

Deputy Marshal John Manning had noticed several members of the Helotes Gang in the courtroom, including Carroll Brannon. Upon hearing that Gosling had made the transfer itinerary known, he, too, expressed concerns which were also waved away by Gosling. The prisoners were shackled together, Pitts’ right wrist and Yeager’s left for the trip. Gosling treated everyone to lunch; he was ever the gentleman.

They were uncuffed to eat, but before boarding the late train out of Austin, they were reshackled, this time Pitt’s left and Yeager’s right because they complained of sore wrists. The lawmen and prisoners were given the smoking car. The two women confronted Gosling at the depot, tearfully begging him to let them ride with their men. Common sense was trumped by compassion and Gosling allowed them, Pitts’ grandmother (Elizabeth Drown), Melissa’s sister (Annie Scott) and Carroll Brannon to board. Gosling placed Pitts and Yeager in facing window seats with their manacled hands extended between them. Melissa took the seat next to her husband and Rosa sat next to her brother. Grandmother Drown and Annie Scott sat behind Pitts and Melissa, and Carroll Brannon and several others sat beyond them. Gosling and Manning took the aisle seats across from Pitts and Yeager where they could view all persons in the car. With them sat Deputy Marshal Fred Loring and Gosling’s friend Will Lambert, who happened to be aboard the train.

The train pulled out at 4:30 p.m. and travelled an uneventful 1 ½ hours south. Marshal Gosling stepped out onto the platform to check the surroundings at each stop. The young ladies spent the time hanging on their men and whispering behind a newspaper, but close to New Braunfels, the two ladies rose and went into the adjoining car carrying a small black valise. They returned a few minutes later, without the bag. The train was now 4 miles north of New Braunfels near Goodwin.

The marshals watched as the women began to sob and hug the necks of their men. Deputy Marshal Manning was the first to see Pitts raise his free hand from Melissa’s skirts grasping a pistol. Loring saw a shadow, Lambert heard a noise, Pitts snarled, “Hands up, gentlemen!” and Gosling said, “Well, I didn’t believe they’d try it,” as he stood up reaching for his gun. Two shots left him lying on top of Lambert and Manning.

Loring simultaneously left his seat and fired towards the prisoners. Manning extricated himself from Gosling’s body and also fired. Lambert reported afterward that “the reports were incessant, and the smoke soon filled the sight so that it was impossible to distinguish features or forms .… I never heard bullets whistle or hit like they did in that car the night poor Hal Gosling was killed ….”

Manning shot Yeager in the neck before his gun jammed, forcing Manning to take a pencil from his vest and punch out the spent casings. Loring emptied and reloaded and emptied his gun again just as the prisoners charged him, getting his face scorched by a passing bullet. The train conductor barreled into the car with a handgun and shot grandmother Drown as she swung a pistol his direction. Rosa Yeager took a stray bullet.

The two shackled felons jumped from the moving train, tumbled into the grass and found their feet. From the first class coach, Colonel Mayfield of Kansas fired a shot at the running fugitives. They didn’t get far; Pitts had from three to seven slugs in him. Yeager picked up a sharp-edged rock and shattered Pitts’ wrist to free himself from his partner.

Back on the train, Loring and Lambert took stock of the situation. Gosling lay dead with a bullet behind his left ear and in his back. Elizabeth Drown was dying from a stomach wound. Rosa Yeager lay unconscious with a bullet in her thigh. The conductor’s forehead was grazed. Deputy Manning was bleeding badly from wounds in his neck and shoulder. Lambert estimated that at least 50 shots had been fired.

Marshal Loring, the only one not injured, took command. The train was stopped, a quick unfruitful search was made ,and then it then continued on to New Braunfels. The injured were taken care of and the living members of the Helotes bunch turned over to the sheriff. Lambert and Loring took Gosling’s body on to San Antonio arriving at 11 p.m.

Three posses were formed to find the escapees. One was led by Loring and another by Gosling’s friend Texas Ranger Capt. Josephus Shely. It was Capt. Shely who found Yeager the next morning. With bullet holes in his neck and shoulder, he led the posse to Pitts’ body, his severed hand lying next to him. The posse decided to jail Yeager in New Braunfels, for feelings were running high in San Antonio — talk of lynching had made its way to New Braunfels by the end of the day, and the sheriff posted 16 deputies to guard the prisoners. A preliminary hearing was held in New Braunfels on February 27, six days after the train escape. Charged with the murder of Marshal Gosling were: Charles Yeager, Celestine Yeager, Rosa Yeager, Emile Kraut, Carl Kraut, William Harleman, Carroll Brannon, T.J. Scott, Annie Scott, and Melissa Pitts. The wheels of justice had moved quickly.

Elizabeth Drown died the night of the escape. She and her grandson, James Pitts, were buried side by side in Comal Cemetery. Their gravesites are unknown; truth be told.

Sources: “Marshal Gosling’s Final Train Ride”, J.R. Sanders, 06/13/2017 Wild West Magazine; LaGrange Journal, Feb 26, 1885 and Mar 5, 1885; San Marcos Free Press, Feb 26, 1885; Denison Sunday Gazeteer, Mar 1, 1885; San Antonio Light, Feb 22, 1885; Clarksville Standard, Feb 27, 1885; Comal Cemetery Records — August 13, 1873-December 30, 1900, Sophienburg Museum & Archives.