By Craig Davis
(This is the third in a series about an incident at Kurtz in the northwestern part of Jackson County)
The Kurtz Saloon Deadly Brawl of 1892 spilled out from Pete Wheeler’s Saloon on Cleveland Street, just between Wheeler’s Saloon to the west and Callahan’s Saloon to the east.
Tom Callahan, a 64-year-old saloon boss, clashed with tall railroad worker Elijah Presnell, 10 years his junior, after an exchange of threats over an unpaid bar bill. Presnell had tried to throw three bricks at the older man before, but Callahan’s 16-year-old grandson Pete had each time thwarted the railwayman’s efforts.
Presnell and three of his railroad buddies were armed and surrounded Tom Callahan, trying to prevent him from escaping to the safety of his own saloon. George Bean had broken Callahan’s arm in a fight once before and had a wooden club ready to hit him in the head. Johnnie Lair also had a club and “Bill Lundy had a gun in his hands,” Bean admitted.
Tom Callahan’s only allies on the streets were his teenage grandson, Pete, who wielded a knife; and Kate, Tom’s wife, who was pushing him, pulling him and urging him back to his own living room.
Wheeler’s saloon co-owner Tom Womack had taken a gun from Presnell in his saloon a few minutes earlier and was now trying to get Presnell to “shut up,” Womack claimed.
The four opponents âgot between me and the street,â said Tom Callahan. “I was trying to prevent him (Presnell) from getting more bricks” from a pile. And that’s when “I drew the gun” and I shouted: “I’ve been knocked over enough on my head … If you don’t stop I’m going to shoot you”, and he pointed his head. British Bull Dog pistol on them.
Frank Browning had entered Cleveland Street from Callahan’s saloon, and Frank Wheeler, another railroad buddy from Presnell, from Womack’s saloon. Neither had yet taken sides. Alcohol ran through most of the adult’s veins, influencing decisions and exacerbating tensions. Some had been drinking for hours although Frank Wheeler claimed he hadn’t drunk at all, and Bean claimed he had only had two beers. âI wasn’t scared at all,â Frank Wheeler said.
Henry Conrod, the Salem worker, watched from the security of the door to Callahan’s saloon. Some men were shouting, “Put it on him … shoot him,” recalls Tom Callahan. He ended up standing between Presnell and Widow Martin’s boarding house, where the railwayman lived.
When Presnell saw Callahan’s gun, he “walked past me to the south and sort of got into a hole in a hole,” Callahan said. The owner of the sedan fired a warning shot, then a second in the direction of Presnell.
After the first shot, Jim Bagwell, 34, Tom Callahan’s nephew, ran out of Callahan’s saloon into the street and saw the brawl in progress. âI saw a straight intelligent disruption,â Bagwell said. “They were fightingâ¦ Uncle Tom” and maybe six or eight more. âAs I was getting thereâ¦ a man fell at my feet. “
When Sarah Martin, owner of the boarding house where Presnell was staying, heard the gunshots, she walked to the dining room door just in time to see a man stumble against a tree about 50 feet away, then fall to the ground.
Finally, around 10:07 a.m., Kate and Bagwell managed to get Tom back into the saloon, just as Henry Conrod was leaving.
Martin ran to see his sons before going out into the street. But she didn’t get close enough to determine who the man was. All of the men had already returned to the saloons, but no one except Mrs. Martin made any effort to keep an eye on Presnell.
When Conrod came around the corner of the drugstore on his way to his rented room in the back, Martin asked him to help him get the man back to her house. Bielle refused. So she rushed over to Isole Wilkerson’s, just behind hers on Harrison Street. Wilkerson, his son, and his son-in-law followed Martin to the tree where the man was lying. Wilkerson immediately knew it was Presnell because he had worked with him on the work train for 11 days.
Because the fat man was so heavy, the men went to Womack’s saloon for help carrying him. Wilkerson recalled that âinside the saloonâ¦ We have George Bean, John Lair and William Lundyâ¦ They were laughing, talking and cuttingâ¦â
The men came back to the tree and carried Presnell to Martin’s boarding house and laid him on the bed. âThey took off his boots and something fell,â Martin said. “And the next morning I found a bullet.”
Presnell lived another fifteen minutes, then died around 10:30 p.m.
According to Charles Hutchinson, bartender and accountant for Tom Callahan, Presnell owed Callahan “seven dollars and forty cents.”
But this chapter of Kurtz’s deadliest saloon brawl wasn’t quite over. Over the next several months and during Elijah Presnall’s murder trial in Callahan, some citizens of this isolated Jackson County community fabricated stories, tampered with witnesses, and betrayed trusts in order to settle old scores or free money. loved ones.
Craig Davis, born in Seymour and a graduate of Brownstown Central High School, currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and works for a US government contractor on school violence prevention. He is the author of âThe Middle East for Dummiesâ and conducts research for a genealogy and social history book in Kurtz and Freetown. Send your comments to [email protected]