By Craig Davis
(This is the third of a series about an incident in Kurtz in the northwestern part of Jackson County)
The Deadly Kurtz Saloon Brawl of 1892 spilled out of Pete Wheeler’s saloon onto Cleveland Street right between Wheeler’s saloon on the west and Callahan’s saloon on the east.
Sixty-four-year-old saloon-keeper Tom Callahan squared off against big railroad laborer Elijah Presnell, who was 10 years his junior, after an exchange of threats over an unpaid bar tab. Presnell had already tried to throw three bricks at the older man, but Callahan’s 16-year-old grandson, Pete, had thwarted the railroad man’s efforts each time.
Presnell and three of his railroad buddies were armed and circling Tom Callahan, trying to prevent him from escaping to the safety of his own saloon. George Bean had already broken Callahan’s arm in a fight once before and was holding a wooden club poised to strike him in the head. Johnnie Lair also had a club and “Bill Lundy had a revolver in his hands,” Bean admitted.
Tom Callahan’s only allies in the street were his teenage grandson, Pete, who was brandishing a knife; and Kate, Tom’s wife, who was pushing, pulling, and urging him to get back to his own saloon.
Tom Womack, co-owner of Wheeler’s saloon, had already taken a weapon away from Presnell inside his saloon a few minutes earlier, and was now trying to get Presnell “to keep quiet,” Womack claimed.
The four adversaries “got betwixt me and the street,” Tom Callahan said. “I was trying to keep him (Presnell) way from getting any more bricks” from a pile. And that was when “I drawed the revolver” and yelled, “I have been knocked over the head enough… If you don’t stop, I will shoot hell out of you,” and he leveled his British Bull Dog pistol at them.
Frank Browning had entered Cleveland Street from Callahan’s saloon, and Frank Wheeler, another of Presnell’s railroad buddies, from Womack’s saloon. Neither had taken sides yet. Alcohol was coursing through most of the adults’ veins, influencing decisions and raising tensions. Some had been drinking for hours although Frank Wheeler claimed that he hadn’t been drinking at all, and Bean maintained he’d only had two beers. “I was not scared at all,” Frank Wheeler said.
Henry Conrod, the laborer from Salem, watched from the safety of Callahan’s saloon door. Some men were yelling, “Put it to him… Shoot hell out of him,” Tom Callahan recalled. He ended up standing between Presnell and the Widow Martin’s boarding house, where the railroad man lived.
When Presnell saw Callahan’s revolver, he ran “past me toward the south and kind a blundered in a hole,” Callahan said. The saloon owner fired a warning shot and then fired a second in Presnell’s direction.
After the first shot, 34-year-old Jim Bagwell, Tom Callahan’s nephew, ran out of Callahan’s saloon into the street and saw the brawl underway. “I saw a right smart disturbance,” Bagwell said. “They were fighting… Uncle Tom” and maybe six or eight more. “As I got there… some man fell at my feet.”
When Sarah Martin, proprietor of the boarding house where Presnell resided, heard the shots, she went to the dining room door just in time to see a man stumbled to a tree about 50 feet away and then fall to the ground.
Finally, around 10:07, Kate and Bagwell managed to get Tom back into the saloon, just as Henry Conrod was leaving.
Martin ran to check on her sons before going out into the street. But she didn’t get close enough to determine who the man was. All the men had already filed back into the saloons, but no one, except for Mrs. Martin, made any effort to check on Presnell.
When Conrod rounded the corner of the drugstore on his way to his room that he rented at the back, Martin asked him to help her carry the man back to her house. Conrod refused. So, she hurried to Isole Wilkerson’s house, right behind hers on Harrison Street. Wilkerson, his son, and his son-in-law followed Martin to the tree where the man lay. Wilkerson knew it was Presnell immediately because he’d worked with him on the work train for 11 days.
Because the big man was so heavy, the men went to Womack’s saloon to get help carrying him. Wilkerson recalled that “inside of the saloon… We got George Bean, John Lair, and William Lundy… They was just laughing and talking and cutting up…”
The men returned to the tree and carried Presnell to Martin’s boarding house and laid him on the bed. “They pulled off his boots and something fell out,” said Martin. “And the next morning, I found a bullet.”
Presnell lived another fifteen minutes, and then he died around 10:30 pm.
According to Charles Hutchinson, Tom Callahan’s bartender and bookkeeper, Presnell owed Callahan “seven dollars and forty cents.”
But this chapter of Kurtz’s most deadly saloon brawl was not quite over. Over the next few months and into the Callahan murder trial of the Elijah Presnall, some citizens of this backwater community of Jackson County would fabricate stories, tamper with witnesses, and betray trusts in order to settle old scores or free loved ones.
Craig Davis, who was born in Seymour and graduated from Brownstown Central High School, currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and works for a U.S. government contractor on school-based violence prevention. He is the author of “The Middle East for Dummies” and is conducting research for a genealogy and social history book in Kurtz and Freetown. Send comments to [email protected].