The Deadly Kurtz Saloon Brawl of 1892: From the saloons to Cleveland Street


By Craig Davis

(This is the second of a series about an incident in Kurtz in the northwestern part of Jackson County)

The cast of characters — more than a dozen men, two women and one teenage boy — were all in place, and the stage was set on that fateful Monday night, March 15, 1892.

But the Deadly Kurtz Saloon Brawl would not start until around 9 p.m. when 16-year-old Pete Callahan, Tom Callahan’s grandson, entered Pete Wheeler’s saloon and began to pester Elijah Presnell, the big railroad laborer and Civil War veteran in his mid-50s, to settle his bar tab at Callahan’s saloon.

Pete was a bit of wild boy who didn’t know his own birthday and had a knack for finding trouble. He was a product of this harsh corner of rural Jackson County in the early 1890s, a street boy being raised by his Civil War veteran and saloon-keeping grandfather, who tended to land in his own share of predicaments.

At about 9:05 p.m. on this chilly night, 24-year-old railroad man Bill Lundy from Loogootee stepped out of Wheeler’s saloon onto Cleveland Street in downtown Kurtz and yelled across to Callahan’s bar across the street, “Callahan, come over… your boy (Pete) is in trouble.”

Callahan went to the door of his saloon and saw five or six men in Wheeler’s saloon. Callahan yelled back across the street that the teenager was always getting into trouble. “I says, ‘Let him get in. He can get out.’”

Ten minutes later, Kate Callahan entered her husband’s saloon and joined Tom, Henry Conrod, Jim Bagwell, Frank Browning, Hiram Shipley and Hal Shipley in a few drinks. Twenty minutes later, someone from Wheeler’s saloon yelled over to Callahan again, “You had better come over here and get your boy… He will get the hell knocked out of him.”

At this point, Callahan decided he had better go investigate. But by the time Callahan entered Wheeler’s saloon, his grandson had already gone. Callahan and Presnell immediately began to argue about the boy’s effort to collect the bar tab. A few minutes later, Kate Callahan entered Wheeler’s saloon and found the men at each other’s throats. Tom Callahan told Presnell, “A man who would not pay just dues was no man at all.”

Then the mood shifted. Presnell and Callahan agreed to buy a couple rounds of whiskey. Presnell bought a round for Tom, Kate and himself, and Tom returned the favor. Callahan and Presnell “shook hands and commenced to talking,” reported George Bean. But no sooner had the whiskey disappeared than the quarrel resumed. Presnell “called me a damned old liar,” Callahan recalled, “and I returned it about the same way.”

Presnell told Callahan, “I will treat you like a man.”

Callahan responded, “I will treat you like a woman.”

Presnell fired back, “God damn him. I will kill him.” Kate grabbed her husband by the arm and began pulling him toward the door, but Callahan’s pride was hurt. He complained to his wife, “He talked [bad] about me.”

Around 9:55 p.m., Pete Callahan wandered back down Cleveland Street carrying ice to his grandfather’s saloon but was drawn to the uproar at Wheeler’s saloon. When Pete entered the bar, Presnell had a jack screw in his hand.

“Grandpa asked him what he was going to do,” Pete recalled.

Presnell said, “I will knock your God damned old brains out.”

Kate pulled her husband toward the door, but when Presnell raised the weapon over his head to strike, Callahan “jerked away and slung me back,” Kate remembered.

Tom Womack, Pete Wheeler’s partner in the saloon, yelled, “You must not do that in here,” took the weapon away from Presnell and ordered Callahan to leave.

It was about 10 p.m. when Callahan began backing out of Wheeler’s saloon with Kate at his side. Presnell exited next, followed by the teen.

The commotion was so loud that Callahan’s saloon patrons across the street began taking notice. Laborer Henry Conrod from Salem stood in Callahan’s saloon doorway watching the melee.

Callahan walked south a few steps to avoid running into to a horse rack and noticed a pile of bricks “stacked right against the house (saloon).”

Presnell “had something in his hand and throwed it,” Callahan remembered, but “the boy was there, and just as he (Presnell) went to throw, the boy grabbed him by the coat tail, and he missed me…”

Presnell grabbed another brick, but Pete knocked it away. He picked up a third, but the teen intervened again.

About this time, Presnell’s railroad buddies filed out of Wheeler’s saloon onto Cleveland Street. Johnnie Lair and George Bean from Houston both had clubs, Bill Lundy had a revolver, but Frank Wheeler didn’t have a weapon. Womack exited Pete Wheeler’s saloon while Frank Browning emerged from Callahan’s saloon.

Frank Wheeler remembered, “It was a moon shiny night… I could see around tolerably well.”

Then Presnell and the teenager began arguing. The boy threw a stone at Presnell and slashed at the grown man with a knife. Presnell “slapped me,” Pete said, “and I just kept stepping back.”

Callahan reportedly yelled, “You cannot slap that boy. I will shoot the hell out of you.”

The saloon brawl had now become a full-blown street brawl.

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