Graham Barnett: A Dangerous Man ed. by James L. Coffey, Russell M. Drake, and John T. Barnett
"The evil that men do lives after them," declared Shakespeare's Marc Antony. "The good is oft interred in their bones." So let it be with Caesar, and, maybe, with Graham Barnett (1890–1931) in this biography of a Texas bootlegger/cowboy/gunslinger/lawman by James Coffey, Russell Drake, and John Barnett, grandson of the subject. Graham Barnett lived among the people who settled the West Texas landscape of grazing lands, canyons, rivers, and brasada country; what to make of him is Dangerous Man's recurrent theme.
Barnett's story is not a straightforward tale of gunfights and desperados. Understanding him begins with placing him in the context of frontier Texas's difficult transition from the Old West into the twentieth century. A "frontier mentality" ruled: "what a man's role was, how it was influenced by his race, and an expectation of how other people ought to behave" (4). The hacienda ranch system sustained old class and social roles restricting upward mobility for the ordinary cash-strapped cowboy. Law enforcement maintained the status quo, arresting bad guys without disturbing (mostly) law-abiding Texans (even if they occasionally committed a minor infraction). Small-town Texas law was political and discretionary, giving sheriffs substantial powers of enforcement.
Barnett gained notoriety with two distinct incidents: the 1913 Babb shooting in Langtry and the 1925 Watson shooting at Big Lake. In both cases, Barnett was assaulted: in the former, with a knife; in the latter, with a brickbat. Frontier self-defense was justified when an individual was threatened and the assailant was capable of making good on the threat. Frontier code demanded that a man deal personally with difficulties, so he had to be armed. Barnett went to trial in both cases and won acquittal each time. The 1913 incident, however, seemed to change Barnett and set him on a career as a gunfighter. He became a bodyguard, a deputy sheriff, and, for a short time, a Texas Ranger. But he also dabbled in bootlegging, sometimes while serving in private capacity as a "special officer," a factor in the sensational 1925 trial that bolstered his trigger-happy image.
Dangerous Man narrates the era and colorful life of a man whose skill [End Page 346] with a handgun brought him work as a "problem solver" for those who lacked the skill or resolve to get their hands dirty. He was an accomplished shootist, but marksmanship did not always mean the shooter was a killer, and the authors leave room for sympathetic skepticism. "[S]tories claimed that he killed untold men and buried them in hidden graves or dropped them in the Rio Grande Some of that happened, most of it didn't" (292).
His active period (1912–1931) preceded and slightly overlapped a violent criminal era in the Midwest and eastern United States that included Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd. Barnett was a man of action, not a scholar inclined to leave his own written record. Dangerous Man draws on extensive interviews, legal documents, and newspaper stories along with over thirty books and an inventory of unpublished manuscripts, letters, articles, and public records.
Graham's wife, Annie, feared writers would make him look like an outlaw. But, Coffey insists, "What she didn't understand was that Texans love outlaws, or the image of them . They loved the concept of the modern gunfighter, brawler, and gambler, but most would agree the real man was hard to get along with" (293–294). He followed the Old West code, taking care of his family, and in so doing, developed some bad habits and behavior. By the end, he had become the embodiment of Kris Kristofferson's pilgrim, "a walkin' contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home."