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Royal Arch Mason Magazine” Vol. 21, No. 3 Fall 2003
Starts on page 75
THE OUTSIDE HUNTER
JOHN W. POE
By Joseph E. Bennett, 33°
The capricious hand of fate focused upon a minor incident in the life
of John William Poe to mark his place in history. He was one of the lawmen
present at the fatal shooting of western folklore's most celebrated outlaw,
William H. Bonney, universally known as "Billy
the Kid." Intense publicity surrounding the exploits of the infamous young
outlaw exposed anyone involved with him to the merciless glare of public
scrutiny. Most accounts of Bonney's egregious life
were inaccurate and grossly exaggerated, but they became "history,"
nevertheless. Endless and lurid newspaper stories, along with those of
pulp-fiction magazines, created a legendary folk hero out of a rugged, amoral
thief, and killer.
Poe's role in the death of Billy
the Kid was a passive one, and he was always reluctant to discuss details of
the event. In reality, his role in Bonney's death was
only a minor incident in Poe's early life on the frontier. In the years between
1879 and 1887, he earned a lofty reputation as a premier lawman. A broader
retrospective of his adult life identifies John Poe as a legendary citizen of the
Territory of New Mexico, and one of the great
Freemasons of the southwest. Truly, he was a pioneer of giant stature in that
wild young country.
John William Poe was born
October 17, 1850, on a Mason County tobacco farm near Maysville, Kentucky.
He was one of eleven children born to Nathan and Louisa Poe, three of whom were
sons. He was a tall, strapping youngster with admirable personal attributes;
evident in his earliest years. Serious minded and sober, he was determined to
live on the western frontier. He saved diligently for the day he would have
enough money to finance his journey. Before he reached his late teens, Poe was
an outstanding marksman with both rifle and pistol. A self-taught violinist, he
added to his travel stash by playing for local dances.
By July 1, 1870, Poe had begun
his journey, and was employed as a farm hand near Kansas City, Missouri.
He had left home against the advice of his father and grandfather, both of whom
urged him to attend college and forget the western frontier. When his funds
were exhausted, Poe had to work his way westward. The spring of 1871 found him
in Kansas, employed near Topeka as a section hand on the Santa Fe
Railroad. During this period Poe met Dan Hudson, a young man who became a close
friend. Hudson related thrilling stories of
immense buffalo herds wandering the Texas
plains, and how one might become rich by selling their hides. Working his way ever westward, Poe was in
the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) by the fall of
1871, cutting timber and railroad ties for the Santa Fe. He had saved $300 by the spring of
1872, and was ready to make the 250-mile journey to Fort
Griffin; hub of buffalo hunting
activity in the Texas
By the time Poe purchased a horse and saddle for the trip, a mere $80 remained
to reach Texas
and buy hunting equipment. Fort Griffin was a military post on the extreme outer
limits of the western frontier in Texas, some
50 mile west of Fort Worth.
It was an unsavory place, teeming with soldiers, buffalo hunters, brothels, saloons,
and outfitting shops for the hunting trade. It was accurately termed the "Sodom of the plains" by the respectable element in Texas. The post,
situated just west of the Clear Fork of the Brazos
River in Shackleford County, had been established in 1867 to
protect settlers on the frontier. John Poe soon learned he needed a substantial
amount of money to equip himself for buffalo hunting.
While Dan Hudson remained in Fort
Griffin, enjoying the
pleasures of the flesh, Poe turned his attention to earning money. He had no
interest in whiskey or women, and refused to be deterred from his primary goal.
He worked as a ranch hand and wolf hunter for several months, earning some $500
in the process, primarily from selling wolf skins to collect the bounty. Poe was
a fabulous marksman, a prime requisite for a buffalo hunter. However, his most
profitable venture in 1873 was to fulfill a contract he landed with the
military commander at Fort
Griffin, to provide fire
wood for one dollar per cord. Those activities took Poe far into Indian
country, where he was always at risk from Comanche incursions.
By the fall of 1873, Poe had
enough money to equip himself for hunting buffalo. With his newest friend, John
Jacobs, as a partner, they purchased a wagon, camp equipment, powder, shooting
supplies, and hired a skilled skinner, in the person of Joe McCombs. One of the
most essential tools of the trade was the legendary .50 caliber "big
bore" Sharps rifle. The hunting party of three departed Fort Griffin
in mid September to spend the winter far out on the Staked Plains of the Texas
Panhandle, in the heart of Comanche country. Only the heartiest souls ventured
so far from civilization. They were known as "outside hunters", and
John Poe proved to be one of the greatest. By the spring of 1879, Poe and
Jacobs had hauled 20,000 buffalo hides to Fort Griffin
to sell for as much as $3.00 each. It was hazardous, hard work, but the
dividends were obvious.
Buffalo hunting was regarded differently by
white men and Comanche. Texans considered the beast as making the range unfit
for grazing cattle, thus impeding ranching activity in the Panhandle. The
Indians regarded the buffalo as a sacred animal, providing food and many
essentials of life from its hide, carcass, and skeleton. They bitterly opposed
the. hunters, and killed many of them in the process. However, the Comanche
feared the great Sharps buffalo gun for its long range and the skill of its
owner. One young chief offered his opinion of the Sharps by commenting,
"Him shoot today, kill tomorrow."
John Poe became a Freemason at Fort Griffin
in the winter of 1878-79. He petitioned Fort Griffin Lodge No. 486, U.D., on
September 25, 1878, and received his EA Degree on November 9th, the same year.
The FC Degree was conferred on January 4, 1879, and he was raised on February
1st, the next month. That marked the beginning of an exemplary Masonic career,
which will be detailed in more length in subsequent pages.
By the spring of 1879, Poe
realized that buffalo hunting was on the wane and they would soon be gone. The
herds were thinning rapidly, and it was time to seek another line of work. Poe
accepted the position of town marshal at Fort Griffin,
and soon afterward added the title of Deputy U.S. Marshal to his credentials.
The ex-hunter made an outstanding lawman in the turbulent border town. He
established order with a minimum of gun play. Always cool headed, Poe avoided
using his gun in almost every instant. He was physically equipped to handle
most lawbreakers without shooting them, proving his theory both humane and
successful. He enjoyed law enforcement work, and decided to invest his earnings
from buffalo hunting as a silent partner in a sheep venture. Unfortunately, Poe
and his partner, John Jacobs, lost their entire investment in a herd of 1,400
sheep which perished during the severe winter of 1879-1880.
In the fall of 1879, Poe accepted the post as city marshal at Fort Elliott,
near the town of Mobeetie
in Wheeler County. He also filled the role of
deputy. sheriff for the county. His most impressive accomplishment was breaking
up a local cattle-rustling operation headed by one John Larn,
an ex-sheriff of the county. After taking Larn into
custody, a band of vigilantes overpowered Poe and another deputy, and shot Larn to death while the lawmen watched helplessly.
Nevertheless, Poe was persuaded to run for sheriff of Wheeler County
in the next election. He lost the election when many of his supporters failed
to cast a ballot. They considered Poe a "shoo-in," and decided it
unnecessary to make the effort to vote. Their apathy cost Poe the election. He
quickly accepted another job offer, and left Wheeler County.
Poe was enlisted by the Canadian River Cattlemen's Association as a
stock detective, with the primary assignment to break up rustling activity
rampant in the northern Panhandle. A large part of the rustling was conducted
by gangs headed by Billy the Kid, and another led by Pat Coghlin,
"The King of the Tularosa." Both gangs operated out of White Oaks in Lincoln County, New
Mexico Territory, across the border from the Texas
Panhandle. Poe first turned his attention to Pat Coghlin
at White Oaks. He carried a letter from the Canadian River Association, signed
by Charles Goodnight, the president. It requested all assistance possible be
rendered John Poe by Sheriff Pat Garrett of Lincoln County.
A subsequent meeting between the two lawmen resulted in a pledge to
cooperate in ending the rustling problems for both parties. Poe first initiated
a methodical investigation of Coghlin's rustling
enterprise, and was successful in having him indicted by a grand jury at Lincoln County in December, 1880. That
effectively halted the lawless career of "The King of the Tularosa,"
and Poe was commended for ending rustling activity in the Canadian River
country of Texas.
A little later, in April, 1881, Sheriff Pat Garrett came to White Oaks, New Mexico, to request assistance from John Poe in
investigating several members of Billy the Kid's gang, reported to have fled to
the Arizona Territory. Garrett was occupied by the
trial of William H. Bonney (a.k.a. Billy the Kid and
William Antrim), who had just been captured. The trip to Arizona consumed two weeks.
When Poe returned, he learned that Billy the Kid had escaped from
custody during a bloody shootout on April 28, 1881. Sentenced to hang for
murdering Sheriff William Brady during the recent Lincoln County Cattle War, Bonney had escaped the gallows by killing two deputies
guarding him at the courthouse in the town of Lincoln. He successfully eluded Sheriff
Garrett for several months, and was widely believed to have escaped to Mexico. Garrett
was convinced he had.
An informer sought out John Poe at White Oaks, early in July, 1881. He
claimed Billy the Kid was hiding in Fort
Sumner, north of Roswell, Mexico,
and was being sheltered by Mexican friends in the town. Poe trusted the
informer and insisted the information was valid. Garrett did not. He finally
agreed to travel to Fort
Sumner with John Poe to
make an investigation. Poe made inquiries around Fort Sumner
while Garrett and Deputy Thomas L. "Kip" McKinney remained out of
sight. Still unconvinced, as the evening waned, Sheriff Garrett agreed to talk
with a respected resident of Fort
"Pete" Maxwell, who lived in the old officers' quarters at the fort.
Poe and Kip McKinney were posted outside the gate of Maxwell's residence. A
silent barefoot figure walked unrecognized past the deputies in the darkness,
startled at meeting Poe and McKinney.
He continued into Maxwell's house, and entered his bedroom to inquire about the
men outside. When he spoke, a shot rang out in the dark room, and the intruder
fell to the floor with a bullet in his heart.
The nocturnal visitor was William H. Bonney,
Billy the Kid. An unfired revolver was clutched in his right hand. Sheriff Pat
Garrett, sitting on the side of Maxwell's bed when Bonney
entered the room, had fired the fatal shot which ended the career of the
infamous Billy the Kid. It was just before midnight on July 14,1881. Although
John Poe had never seen Bonney before, he gained
everlasting fame as one of the lawmen who had been on the scene when the outlaw
John Poe never returned to Texas after the death of
Billy the Kid. He remained in Lincoln
County, New Mexico,
working as their new sheriff, following the resignation of Pat Garrett. Lincoln County
in 1882 encompassed an area larger than the states of Connecticut
combined. Constant travel was required to cover the sheriff's area of
responsibility. Poe was frequently in the town of Roswell, where he met Sophie Alberding in May, 1882. The young California
native was visiting Captain J. C. Lea, a relative living in Roswell. The captain was a prominent business
figure and community leader in the town, and well acquainted with John Poe. Lea
was also a closefriend of ex-Sheriff Pat Garrett.
Captain Lea and Garrett acted as matchmakers to encourage a romance
between Poe, a 32-year-old confirmed bachelor, and the winsome Sophie Alberding, a maiden of nineteen. Their efforts were successful,
and Sophie became Mrs. John W. Poe on Saturday, May 5, 1883. The bridegroom had
been elected Sheriff of Lincoln County, assuming the office in January, 1882.
He was provided an apartment by the county, in the courthouse at Lincoln. Their bedroom
was the place where Billy the Kid was held prisoner in April, 1881, when he
shot his way out of captivity.
Sophie gave birth to their only child on February 4, 1884. Their infant
son survived only a few hours. She had gone to Roswell during the latter stage of her
pregnancy, to be with relatives. Sophie nearly died during the difficult
delivery, and was never able to bear children after that ordeal. Poe carried
her home to Lincoln
in a spring wagon, equipped as an improvised ambulance, the first week in March.
A year later Poe purchased a ranch 15 miles southwest of Fort Stanton,
a property he christened the "VV". The dwelling was a comfortable
three room cabin, in which Sophie and John made their home until 1885. He sold
the VV Ranch in 1885 to a Scottish buyer named Cree, partially because of the
isolation and loneliness Sophie was obliged to endure during Poe's enforced
Soon after selling the VV Ranch, Poe resigned as Sheriff of Lincoln County.
He decided to end his career as a lawman, and turn his attention to agrarian
pursuits full time. By the end of 1886, he had formulated plans with his
friend, Smith Lea, to travel to South America and explore the feasibility of
buying land in Argentina,
and to study their irrigation projects. They departed in January, 1887, and
spent several months in Argentina,
before returning to Lincoln
County. Rather than
relocate to Argentina, Poe
decided to live near Roswell.
He purchased a tract southeast of the town, and made preparations for launching
a system of raising stock "under fence." He planned to raise alfalfa
to feed his cattle, a herd of 350 purebred beef stock. He also purchased 150
head of blooded brood mares to breed mules. Poe employed modern irrigation
methods in his agricultural projects. It was an exceedingly well planned
venture, and immediately profitable.
At this juncture, it is chronologically correct to include the balance
of John Poe's distinguished Masonic record. He affiliated by demit with Roswell
Lodge No. 18 on April 3, 1889, as a charter member. He became active
immediately in the officer line, and presided as Worshipful Master in
1891-1892. Poe's York Rite memberships began soon after those in Roswell Lodge.
He was the first Mason in Roswell
to receive both the Royal Arch and Knight Templar Degrees there. He ultimately
presided as High Priest of Columbia Chapter NO.7 in 1896, and as Eminent
Commander of Rio Hondo Commandery NO.6 in 1898-99.
Poe served as Grand Master of Masons in New
Mexico in 1897-1898, as Grand High Priest in
1898-1899, and as Grand Commander of Knights Templar in 1910-1911. Poe was
coroneted a 33° at Topeka, Kansas on December 23, 1907, later affiliating with
the Valley of Santa Fe, AASR, on December 21, 1909.
After nine years of hard work at his Roswell stock ranch, Poe sold his entire
venture in 1893, and decided to invest his wealth in a banking enterprise. He
purchased controlling stock in the Bank of Roswell, and became president that
year. He held that post until he sold his stock in 1899.
In October, 1895, Poe built Sophie a handsome new home in the center of
many years it was identified as "the most beautiful home in RoswelL"
Poe was recognized as a powerful and distinguished business man and citizen by
1895. Governor Miguel A. Otero appointed him to the Territorial
Board of Equalization in 1889, a board created to distribute taxation
equitably throughout the Territory
of New Mexico. Poe's
reputation for impeccable honesty and high ethics earned that preferment.
John Poe re-entered the financial field in 1900 by forming another
bank. It was the Citizens' Bank of Roswell. In 1921, his new bank absorbed the
American National Bank in the city. He christened the new combined venture,
"The Citizens' National Bank:' In his final banking enterprise, Poe served
as president until his death.
By the time New Mexico
was granted statehood on January 6, 1912, John Poe was universally recognzied as one of its most distinguished elder
statesmen. Continuously singled out for high public office, he served as
President of the State Tax Commission in New
Mexico from 1915-1917. With the advent of World War
I, Poe was selected to be Fuel Administrator for New Mexico. All the positions mentioned were
served with distinction and success. He was as enthusiastic and dedicated to
his duties in the role of a sinecur, as he was in a
profitable private venture.
A man of substantial wealth after the turn of the century, Poe and
Sophie allotted time for travel and relaxation. A high point for both of them was a leisurely
trip around the world in 1913. The old buffalo hunter from Fort Griffin
was dedicated to giving his beloved Sophie an ample serving of "Ia vida loca,"
the good life. She was the light of Poe's life, and he was dedicated to
providing her with golden memories. In that goal, he succeeded admirably.
Poe was active and healthy until the last few months of his life. He
lived as always, a quiet, unassuming man, who placed honor and ethics above all
personal attributes. Throughout his life, he practiced kindness to his fellow
man, and abhored the use of force in any circumstance
unless there was no other remedy.
One of the countless legends about John Poe's deadly skill with the sixshooter began with a prisoner he was transporting from Fort Union, New Mexico to
the 200 mile journey, a passenger in the buckboard asked Poe if he could shoot
a hawk flying overhead. Instantly, the sheriff snapped off a shot and the bird
tumbled to the ground. Later, in prison, the man was asked why he didn't
attempt an escape during the long lonely ride. He replied, ". . . I seen
him shoot one hawk on the wing." More than a deadly shot, Poe was endowed
with nerves of steel and great personal bravery. A number of times during his
long career in law enforcement, Poe stared down a man with a gun, disarming the
culprit without drawing his own weapon. Those incidents were recalled by
spectators, never by John Poe.
In the final months of his
life, Poe traveled to Battle Creek,
Michigan where he entered a
sanitarium for treatment. After a rather brief stay as a patient, he expired
suddenly on July 17, 1923 from congestive heart failure. Sophie Poe had been
summoned to Michigan
as his condition worsened, but was still en route when her husband died, in his
The city of Roswell and all of New Mexico were shocked
by the news of Poe's sudden passing. Typical of the outcry of sympathy and
mourning for their distinguished citizen were the comments in the Roswell
Evening News on Wednesday, July 18, 1923. The newspaper devoted an entire front
page to a recitation of Poe's accomplishments, from his earliest years. They
told of his public offices and of the great achievements in many fields of
endeavor. His litany of Masonic honors was recited in its entirety. The
publication summed up the sentiments of the New Mexico
population when they ended their documentary by christening John William Poe as
"A friend of Man."
A long line of Freemasons have achieved high honors for service to God,
country, and their Fraternity. The benchmark for a good man and true was
established in ages past by departed brethren whose names are inscribed on the
honor roll of our ancient Craft. None has bequeathed a greater legacy to his
brethren, nor more handsomely fulfilled the qualifications we diligently seek,
than John William Poe. When the Grand lodge of New Mexico conducted the funerary obsequies
over his mortal remains, they echoed the sentiments of every Mason born before
and after that somber July day.
REFERENCE AND MATERIAL SOURCE
GEORGE W. POE: Frontier Fighter, biography, pub: the University of New
ROBERT W. FRAZER: Forts of the West, pub: University of Oklahoma
PATRICK F. GARRETT: The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, pub:
Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1954.
J. MARVIN HUNTER: The Album of Gunfighters, pub: Hunter and Rose Pub
ROBERT F. KADLEC: They Knew Billy the Kid, pub: Ancient City Press,
Fe, New Mexico, 1987.
GRADY E. McKNIGHT and JAMES H. POWELL: Jesse
Evans: Lincoln County
pub: Creative Publishing Company, College
Station, Texas, 1983.
LEON C. METZ: Pat Garrett, pub: University of Oklahoma Press,
Selman: pub: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.
JOHN W. POE: The Death of Billy the Kid, pub: Riverside Press, Cambridge,
SOPHIE A. POE: Buckboard Days, pub: Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho,
ROBERT M. UTLEY: High Noon In Lincoln, pub: University of New Mexico
Press, Albuquerque, New
Archives of the Grand lodge A.F.&A.M. of New Mexico.
Archives of the Valley of Santa Fe, New
Archives of Fort Griffin lodge No. 489, Throckmorton, Texas.
Archives of the Grand lodge of Texas,
Excerpts from the Roswell
Evening News, July 18, 1923.