Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
Some outlaws of the Reconstruction Era are still well known to those who read about the old west. Robbers like Jesse James and gunfighters like John Wesley Hardin and Bill Longley made names for themselves that live in infamy to the present day. Others who were famous and feared in their day have faded into obscurity.
Among these are Matthias “Matt” Woodlief, an up and coming young man who, snared by wine and wild women, turned to gambling and fighting. He was one of the most feared men in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana, yet today is unknown outside the most ardent students of gunfighter culture.
Woodlief was a gentlemanly killer if such a creature exists. He always gave his opponent a fair chance. When not drunk, his manners and behavior rivaled the best society had to offer.
In his day, newspaper editors, lawmen, judges, and citizens considered Woodlief as dangerous with a gun as any man during the post-Civil War years.
Woodlief wandered the region, making his living with cards, dice, and shell games. One cynical newspaperman described Woodlief as a “genteel sport who usually acquired standing in a new town by dosing it up with his six-shooter”.
Galveston News explained, “[Woodlief’s] passion for gambling possessed the man and when drinking, he could not be controlled, and scarcely influenced.” In the heat of Civil War battle with the 1st Texas Cavalry, he was said to have been absolutely fearless and to have used his six-shooters with deadly, almost legendary proficiency. His favorite weapon was the Colt Model 1860 .44 caliber revolver.
Woodlief was born in Washington County, Texas, in 1843, the son of Thomas C. and Amaryllis Roddy Woodlief, both from highly respected families. Thomas Woodlief was a well-to-do physician in Bryan, Texas, and provided his son with the best available education. As a young man, Matt was described as having a “fine physique and a mind that might have fitted him for engaging the attention of listening senators.” Although intelligent and handsome with an exemplary upbringing, Woodlief’s life took a bad turn when he, according to one newspaper, “gave heed to the voices of sirens, and from one step to another, was finally wrecked on the sea of wine and women.” His addiction to alcohol caused him to become a professional gambler, leading him into various brawls, shootings, and other personal difficulties.
At the close of the Civil War, Woodlief returned to Texas, settling in San Antonio, where he had a host of friends. Even though he was arrested twice in 1866 for “exhibiting monte,” and paid a $25 fine, he still maintained his good standing. Despite his growing fame as a gambler, the San Antonio Herald declared Woodlief “enjoyed the esteem of many of our best citizens, being a gentleman in his deportment, honest in his dealing, and law abiding in his behavior.”
Woodlief moved on from San Antonio, roaming from town to town, making his living playing cards. Little is recorded about this time, other than “several graves were filled by his pistol.”
Early in the 1870s, Woodlief took up residency in Austin. There, he and an acquaintance, Bill Wilson, opened the Woodlief & Wilson Saloon on Congress Street. The death of his father in 1873 seemed to have a profoundly negative influence on Woodlief. In the fall of 1874, he again grew restless and left Austin to return to the gambling circuit.
On September 30, 1874, Woodlief was in Columbus, Texas, a little town on the banks of the Colorado River. That morning he was gambling with another sporting character, a fellow named Amos “Little” English. There was a heated dispute over $20. English drew his pistol, leveled it at Woodlief and demanded payment. Woodlief, who was unarmed at the time, handed over the money, but promised English he would surely see him another time.
A few hours later, the two gamblers crossed paths on Milam Street. Woodlief asked English if he was armed. He answered he was not, but assured Woodlief he would gladly go retrieve his revolver. During the interim, Woodlief returned to his hotel room to fetch his own Colt .44 pistol. Apparently no citizen or peace officer tried to stop the impending duel.
At 3:00 p.m., Woodlief and English met in downtown Columbus. The witnesses all agreed English shot first but missed. Woodlief, the professional gunman, did not. One of his bullets struck English in the chest, puncturing a lung, and a second projectile entered the gambler’s side. English died about 8:00 p.m. that night.
Many of the good citizens of Columbus were incensed Woodlief and English, both strangers to the community, had used the main street of their peaceful town to settle their differences. The Colorado Citizen reported, however, the fight had been fair with “no advantage taken on either side, and both [parties] acting perfectly honorable.” Woodlief was jailed but subsequently released on a $2,500 bond. He was later tried for murder in district court and acquitted.
By March 1875, Woodlief had returned to San Antonio. Many welcomed him home like a conquering hero. Even the San Antonio Daily Express wrote, “Matt Woodlief, Esq., an old friend whom we have known for twenty years. He is one of the good fellows of this poor world.”
Woodlief’s reckless conduct soon spoiled his homecoming. His alcohol-fuel behavior impelled the San Antonio Herald to say, “Woodlief has recently returned to our city after a prolonged absence…having acquired intemperate habits.” The newspaper added Woodlief acted more like a “raving maniac than a rational human being,” and remarked it was “miraculous” he had not killed someone.
Late on Sunday, May 9, Woodlief had an altercation with a woman on the town’s Military Plaza. As the police approached, they found themselves facing Woodlief’s cocked .44. Someone persuaded the fuming gunman to hand over his weapon and submit to arrest. Taken before the night court, Woodlief became enraged at the judge, knocked over a kerosene lamp, and almost burned the building down. Woodlief was hurried to the lockup for the night.
Released on a $1,000 peace bond early the next morning, Woodlief continued to cause trouble. At 5:00 p.m., he was searched and again disarmed by the police. But because he was still under bond, he wasn’t jailed. Feeling naked without his Colt, Woodlief went to Matterman’s Hardware Store and purchased a new revolver and Winchester rifle. Armed once again, he started down the middle of Commerce Street muttering threats against the police. He fired off a random shot that brought police officers running.
Several of Woodlief’s friends interceded, probably preventing a bloody shootout. He handed over his revolver to the police and his Winchester to his companions. Disarmed, Woodlief was again taken before the judge. After hearing the evidence, the magistrate demanded he post a second $1,000 bond, this one binding him over for the grand jury on assault charges. When his new bond was signed, Woodlief was escorted back to his room, where he remained for the rest of the night.
On the morning of May 11, Woodlief had breakfast, drank some more whiskey, and continued to make trouble. He promptly got into a fistfight with a man named Lowe. Woodlief, who was still disarmed, found himself overcome by Lowe’s bare knuckles. A few minutes later, he was observed staggering down Commerce Street, his face battered and bloody. Woodlief’s friends took him into a nearby restaurant, washed his face, and treated his cuts and bruises. When Woodlief was later tried on the assault charge, the court found him not guilty on the grounds he suffered from “mental aberration.”
San Antonio tired of the turmoil and Woodlief, now 32, left the city. He moved to Houston where he apparently tried to turn his life around. In the spring of 1877, he had an altercation with Houston’s city marshal, Alexander Erichson. The lawman arrested him, took him to the station house and charged him with disorderly conduct. Woodlief took the officer’s actions as an insult and swore vengeance. As soon as he paid his fine, Woodlief went to a downtown hardware store and bought himself what was described as a “first-class, large-caliber revolver.” Woodlief then sent word to Erichson to fight or quit the streets. It was a challenge the marshal could not ignore.
Woodlief and Erichson met at the corner of Main and Preston streets on May 15, 1877. Initially, the lawman tried to walk away, but pride and duty wouldn’t let him. When he turned to fight, Woodlief drew his revolver and fired, the bullet breaking the city marshal’s thigh bone, causing him to fall to the sidewalk. Erichson quickly fired four shots, one of which hit Woodlief’s hip and shattered his pelvic bone. More shots would have been exchanged if bystanders hadn’t stepped in and stopped the prostrated combatants. Doctors believed Woodlief’s wound would prove fatal, but he pulled through. According to a newspaper account, he never walked again without “the use of a cane to aid his locomotion”
Woodlief was charged with attempted murder, but he was soon released from legal custody on a $1,000 bond. Records show the lame gunman had a fight with Dr. T.A. Tyron in a Houston saloon in February 1878. During the action, Woodlief’s revolver discharged, but nobody was injured. Rather than go back to jail, Woodlief fled the state. Three months later, the authorities spotted him at the Fort Smith, Arkansas train station. He was arrested without incident and returned to Houston, where he was released on a new bond. But by January 1879, Woodlief still hadn’t been brought to trial for shooting Marshal Erichson.
Woodlief left Texas and by early 1880 had found his way to Lake Charles in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. In 1880, Calcasieu encompassed approximately 3,600 square miles, an area more than twice the size of Rhode Island but with less than three inhabitants per square mile. Cattle and horses ranged across its southern prairies, while longleaf pines covered the rest. Lake Charles, a small town of 1,500 souls, served as the parish seat of government.
Before the railroad came to Calcasieu, southwestern Louisiana displayed many of the features associated with more widely known post-Civil War rowdy towns such as Dodge City, Abilene, and Tombstone. Saloons saturated the town, catering to a rowdy clientele. Barrooms served up brawls with their beer. The section of town was called Battle Row because of the many fights which took place within and around its many saloons with lined up wall to wall. Just the kind of town Matt Woodlief enjoyed.
On the evening of February 11, a drinking man named Joseph Mathis was shot and slightly wounded in the foot at Garraway’s saloon. Calcasieu Parish Sheriff David Lyons arrested and jailed a young Texan named Shafer. Woodlief insisted it was he, not Shafer, who had shot Mathis. Whether Woodlief did this because he considered Shafer a friend or actually committed the shooting is unknown. When Sheriff Lyons refused to buy the claim, Woodlief took it as a personal insult. Lyon might as well have called him a liar.
Woodlief no long seemed to care if he lived or died. His wounds provided constant pain and he spent much of his days drunk. He told a friend in Lake Charles he “rather be a corpse, than be in the fix [he was] in,” but he also boasted he was still the “best man in town with a six-shooter at six paces.”
Dave Lyons had spent most of his adult life as a cattleman on the west bank of Bayou Choupique, fifteen miles west of Lake Charles. Elected sheriff in 1875, he knew Woodlief was big trouble and took precautions accordingly. Late that night after Shafer’s arrest, Lyons heard someone prowling outside his home. A black servant holding a lantern at a window shouted a warning, mistaking the dark faces of some of the group as masks. Lyons assumed it was Woodlief and others coming for the jail keys. When the unknown persons failed to answer repeated demands to identify themselves, the sheriff fired out the window, striking his friend Captain Hawkins, causing a serious but survivable wound.
Early the next morning, February 12, Woodlief asked acquaintance Richard Palmer to help him get the prisoner out of jail. Palmer refused. Woodlief insisted Palmer give him a pistol, saying he would show him “the prettiest standoff he ever saw.” Again Palmer refused, saying he had no pistol.
About an hour later, Palmer was talking with Sheriff Lyons, apparently telling him of Woodlief’s requests, when the gunfighter walked up. Woodlief asked the sheriff for Shafer’s money, saying he wished to employ an attorney. Woodlief also wanted Shafer’s horse. Lyon said whenever he was ordered by the court to turn the property over to anyone he would do so. The sheriff turned his back on Woodlief and walked away. “That’s all right,” Woodlief retorted,”I guess you’re not afraid of anybody.” He then remarked to Palmer, “I’d as soon shoot him [Lyons] as a yellow dog.”
Woodlief then went into John Carson’s Saloon and demanded the loan of a revolver. Carson refused. Carson’s testimony was recorded later at a hearing:
“Woodlief came to me about ten o’clock this morning and said, ‘Carson, I want your gun.’ Asked him what for. He replied that a damn son of a bitch had insulted him, and he [Woodlief] was going to kill him. Refused to let him have the gun. He said ‘By God I’m going to have it.’ I said he couldn’t have mine and that if he would take my advice he would stop this foolishness, go to bed and get sober, and then, if anybody had insulted him, to slap his face. He said, ‘By God, you won’t give it to me?’ I said, ‘No sir.’ He said ‘I’ll see you later. I can get one.’ And he went off. Saw him enter King’s saloon, and come out with a pistol in his hand. He put it in his pocket, came into my saloon, and called for a cocktail. He pulled out the pistol, slammed it on the counter, and said,’By God, Carson, I’m fixed now, and I’m going to make somebody bite the dust. ‘Asked me to drink with him and I did so. A little later he put the pistol in his pocket and walked off. I motioned to Mr. Nix to come to me, and told him Woodlief was armed and was going to kill somebody, and to mount his horse and go and tell Dave Lyons [sheriff] to prepare himself, for somebody would get killed, sure.”
After getting Nix’s report, Sheriff Lyons, along with Deputies Tom Smart, Dick Coward and Jeff Lyons, waited at the jail yard. Soon Woodlief came to them. As he approached the heavily armed lawmen without the least sign of fear, the sheriff ordered him to halt. Woodlief stopped and planted his feet, changing his cane from his right hand to his left. Then the gunman threw back his coat and drew his revolver. The sheriff and two of his deputies opened fire on Woodlief with their Winchesters. The third deputy discharged his shotgun.
When Woodlief was struck by the fusillade, his revolver exploded in his hand. Even as he staggered back and fell dying, he continued trying to fire his disabled weapon at the officers. Dr. J.C. Munday later reported Woodlief had been hit three times in the chest by large caliber bullets, and in the neck by about fifteen buckshot pellets. The coroner’s inquest determined the killing of Woodlief was justifiable self-defense.
The Lake Charles Echo commented, “The death of Woodlief will arise but little regret in this community where it will rather be considered a riddance than a misfortune, and that a spunky Louisiana sheriff accomplished what timid juries had heretofore failed to do.”
In Texas, the Beaumont Lumberman remembered the gunfighter more positively: “We knew Woodlief as long ago as 1863. At that time he was an honest, sober, free-hearted young man…He was brave ‘nobody can deny that’ and never took advantage of a foreman, but met him openly. Many severe criticisms have been made by editors since his death that never would have been made had he lived.” The Lumberman concluded,” As a man [Woodlief] was charitable, and a friend to those in distress; no one ever asked charity at his hands and went away empty. As a friend, he was willing to lay down his life for you. Now that he is dead and gone, let him rest. He had his faults, but who of us [doesn’t].”
Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Greetings From Ruston: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana and Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out his Louisiana history blog at http://diggingthepast.blogspot.com