by Mike Cochran
Authors note and apology: I wrote this article when I was a freshman at NTSU, too many years ago. It has been lost for at least 25 years and only in the past few months has it surfaced from deep in my files. I have not edited it nor updated it and though I am still responsible for any errors that might be contained herein, I ask your tolerance in that I was just a beardless lad when I wrote it.
On August 6, 1925, R. L. Parsons, a deputy sheriff of Denton County, was shot to death on Hickory Street, two blocks east of the courthouse. W.A. Martin was charged with this crime and was arrested in his home after a gun battle with the Sheriff’s posse. This was not an isolated case of murder.
Denton County in the twenties was not the tame place we know it to be today. With Bonnie and Clyde yet a decade away and the wild west not a generation past, lawlessness was not at all an uncommon phenomena. Many of the customs of the western American frontier, experiencing cultural lag, were still in evidence here.
During this period a group of Denton toughs, under the leadership of Nathan A. and Yancey Story evolved from small-time thieves into a well-organized gang of burglars and bank robbers. Headquartered on the Story ranch, 7 miles south of Argyle, they rifled Denton County for booty. Key members of the gang were men like Shelby Stiff, Ben Collier and W.A. Martin.
In 1923 and 1924, with W.M. Swinney as sheriff, the gang had pretty much a free reign on the county involving relatively small crimes, car thefts and burglary. Herman Stifflett, a minor member of the gang, was even Deputy under Sheriff Swinney, and W. A. Martin acted as his campaign director in a bid for re-election. It seemed as if Swinney and the Storeys might have had an agreement, though it is certainly feasible that Swinney, like everyone else in town, was just plain intimidated into inactivity.
Swinney lost the election of 1924 and on January 1, 1925, W. S. (Bill) Fry took over as sheriff of Denton County. Fry had worked on and off for the city and county Denton since 1870 when at 19 he was appointed City Manager of Denton. This was the second time for Fill Fry to serve as Sheriff and he was 74 years old when he took office for the second time.
With Fry in office, the security that the Storys and Martin had enjoyed during Swinney’s tenure was severely threatened. Shortly after Fry took over he brought one Bill Johnson to Denton as a deputy. Martin believed that Johnson, was in fact William S. Poe and was in Denton to Kill him.
Martin also claimed that Johnson, after refusing to kill him, had told him, “Bill Fry will bring a man named Parsons here from Grayson County and he will kill you”.
In February of 1925 Yancey Story came upon Sheriff Fry sitting on the east steps of the Denton County Courthouse. It is reported that he circled the square twice slowly and then fired two pistol shots at the Sheriff, who turned and fired back knocking out the windows of a shop on the east side of the square. Chips remain where Story’s bullets hit the soft sandstone column base. A rumor going around at the time was every member of Story gang had drawn the name from a hat of the law enforcement officer he would kill. Story reportedly drew Fry’s name.
On March 11, 1925, Yancey Story, Shelby Stiff, Herman Stifflett and W. A. Martin abducted Pack Hampton, night watchman of the Sanger National Bank. They tied him up and then dropped him off near Clear Creek just south of Sanger. They then returned to the bank and tried unsuccessfully to burn through the safe with their torch.
On March 19, 1925, Story, Martin and Cal Wilkirson broke into the First State Bank of Holland, Texas, in Bell County. They netted about $40 in pennies from that job. Martin and Story were suspected of having pulled the Holland bank Job and Sheriff Bingham of Bell County had made a trip to Denton to consult with Sheriff Fry, but they decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to indict them on. By this time, Tom Hickman, Captain of the Texas Rangers, was also secretly investigating the goings on in Denton and was in communication with Bill Fry.
Wiburn A. Martin was a family man. Together with his wife and two children he lived in the 1000 block of Oakland Street in Denton. Born in Lee County in 1884, he was a farmer until 1918 when he moved to Denton and entered the tire and tube business. Bad health, he said, forced him from the tire business and he took up raising bird dogs. It is not known when exactly he joined the Storys’ and started stealing, but neighbors say it had been going on for quite some time in 1925. He was described as a “good neighbor he’d rob and steal, but he’d be good to you.
In May of 1925, R. B. Parsons came to Denton and was sworn in as a deputy by Sheriff Fry. He had known Fry for 30 years and had a reputation for being a “Cool, fearless officer ……” His reputation as a daring officer was established while serving on the police force of Sherman, Texas in the early 1890′s, when he led a raid on the Frisco Saloon. During the battle that ensued, two notorious men were killed and after the event, the wave of crime, gambling and bootlegging in that town abated, it was said.” No one had ever heard him cuss or take a drink of liquor.”Ole man Parsons was pretty good fellow and he was a good officer” So Sheriff Fry had a problem and R. F. Parsons was the solution.
Time and events were closing in on Martin and the Story gang. Deputy Parsons had come to clean up the town, but instead of slacking off, they robbed more banks and though increasingly bold, Martin got more nervous. Speaking of this period, Martin said, “W.M. Swinney told me that Fry had brought Parsons there to kill me and if I didn’t look out,, Parsons would shoot me out of my automobile some night. Pete Simmons, peace officer employed by the City of Denton,, and Tom Price, a night watchman also told me that Parsons had been brought here to kill me.”
On June 9, 1925, Martin and Story robbed the First State Bank of Krum in a daylight holdup. Daylight robberies being more successful than their previous nocturnal forays, they decided to return to the First State Bank of Holland. This time they fared better with an $1,885 haul.
After the Krum robbery it is reported that Martin went to the Rayzor Ice Company and talked with Sam B. Rayzor. Rayzor stated “I was on the platform to put ice in Martin’s car. He had the gun pointed at me. He said he had been fishing in Oklahoma and he had heard the officers say he had robbed the Bank at Krum. ‘If you see any of those damned officers, tell them to come and get me.’ He showed me another gun and said he knew how to use them.”
Mrs. W.V. Taliaferro, Martin’s neighbor at the time noted a change in Martin’s behavior. “They didn’t have any window shades upstairs”, she said, “and they’d come in at all hours of the night, nude, a bunch of men. They’d drive around the back. They had a cellar in the back yard and they’d go down in that cellar and we’d see ‘em go up the steps. We had to keep our window shades drawn night and day.” So my husband went to see a man by the name of Matt Davenport at the First State Bank, and he was supposed to be a friend of Martins’. So my husband told Mr. Davenport that he was going to have to do something about all that undressing. The kids saw it and I saw it. So the next day or two after he’d been to the bank, Martin met him on the street, up by the bank, and he took him by the collar, with his hand on his gun and he cussed him and he told him to tend to his business or he’d blow his head off.”
Mr. Taliaferro went on, “I let him get through and I came and got my shotgun. I went by the store first and got some buck shot, some heavy lead buckshot, the heaviest load I could find. If it hadn’t been for my wife I’d a killed him then.”
“There was a little window in the garage where by husband was waiting with the shotgun for Martin to come home”, Mrs. Taliaferro continued. “Now I went out there and said ‘now you can’t afford to do that, just give me that gun’, I said, ‘you can just stay in the house’. He said ‘ well, he’ll kill me if I get on the street’, and I said ‘no, you give me that gun and I’ll come in here and I’ll call ‘Mr. Martin and I’ll talk to him!’
I was scared. I come in here and called him and told him I wanted to talk to him. So he come to the edge of his front porch and I came to the edge of mine. I started talking to him, saying to remember that he had a wife and two little children and that Vernon had a wife and two children and neither one of them wanted to do anything desparate. I said “I think a lot of Mrs. Martin and I want to assure you that Vernon will tend to his business”. Then he said, “Come on over, Mrs. Taliaferro, I’ll treat you nice’ and I said, ‘Well, no, I won’t this time, but I just want to tell you that Vernon won’t bother you. But you know we don’t like to look at things like that.’ ‘Well, you just tell him that if he’ll tend to his business, I’ll tend to mine”‘
On August 3, 1925, W. A. Martin and R. B. Parsons reportedly talked in a store on the square. It was obvious why Parsons was in town, with his reputation and the Denton situation as it was. And Martin was scared of this man.
Martin’s verson of the conversation is as follows; “I said, ‘Parsons, I understand that you have been telling around town that you are going to kill me. I want to talk to you about it. Parsons said ‘Well, what about it?’ I said, ‘Parsons, I have a wife and two babies, I can’t afford to have any trouble.’ Parsons said ‘ G__ D_____ your wife and babies!’”
At 2:45PM, on the afternoon of August 6. 1925, Deputy Parsons was meeting with Joe Woodrum in the Denton County Courthouse. When this meeting was over, Parsons left by the east door of the courthouse and was seen walking down East Hickory Street. Lee Poole stated that Parsons came into his store on East Hickory a few minutes before the hour of three. They talked for a few minutes and Parsons, after finding out where Hess Tyler could be found, left by back door of Poole’s store.
Around 3:00FM of the same afternoon, 13 year old Myron Taliaferro saw W.A. Martin step from a car on the north east corner of the squire. Martin had a gun in his hand. Myron saw Martin walk to a store on the square watching the courthouse all the way. Aware of Martin’s threat on his uncle’s life, Myron went to the Taliaferro Store to warn W.V. Taliaferro. Mr. Taliaferro again picked up his shotgun and waited on the mezzanine of the store for Martin to come in. Martin never came.
Martin claimed that while on the square he met Jess Sewell and asked him for a ride to look for a friend. The time is 3:00PM, August 6. 1925. W.A. Martin is heading east an Hickory Street in Jess Sewell’s car.
R.B. Parsons is at a place called Market Square, at that moment stepping off the curb. Martin said he saw Parsons and asked Sewell not to stop because he was afraid of him. He claims misunderstood his remark and stopped anyway about even with the deputy. Witnesses differ in their versions of what happened next. Parsons reportedly yelled “Hey” to Martin. Doc Tyler claims he saw Parsons draw his gun and that Martin then jumped from the car firing all the while. Tom Hall says that Parsons had no gun and that Martin gunned him down without provocation. Doc Tyler’s and Tom Hall’s versions are the two extreme ones, while most of the witnesses report various versions between the two.
Martin emptied one gun into Deputy Parsons and started walking towards him emptying another into Parsons body. One witness saw Parsons head jump a little off the pavement as Martin’s continued to fire a total of nine shots.
With the shooting over, Martin reportedly waved his guns at the crowd of people shouting “He threatened to kill me. There are his guns and here are mine and there he is.” Martin then got back into the Sewell car and went home where Mrs. W.V. Taliaferro saw him at 3:15PM, getting out of the car and going inside. Martin made a phone call to Austin to Texas Ranger, Captain Tom Hickman. He offered to surrender to Hickman explaining, Sheriff Fry was trying to kill him. Hickman said that he couldn’t do anything without the order of the Sheriff Fry or the governor.
The Shootout on Oakland Street
When Fry learned of his deputy’s death, he alerted all the law enforcement officers in the North Texas area that he might need their help. A group from the sheriff’s office in Dallas came up because then had been friends of Parsons. ` A group from Grayson County came down for same reason. A hand full of men from the local National Guard armory came out and Tom Hickman of the Rangers came after all. There were more than 50 of them there that night as they assembled at the courthouse. Fry tried to persuade Martin to surrender, but he wouldn’t give himself up. Machine guns were set up on the lawn of the College of Industrial Arts (now T.W.U.) and the whole neighborhood was evacuated.
Sheriff Fry gave the order, “Go in and kill every G__ D___ one of them”. More than 200 rounds were fired in the salvo on the house. No one was hit by the fire.
The 11 members of the gang then came filing out of the house, their hands held high in the air. Martin was the last to leave the house and he defiantly kept his hands lower than those of his friends. One National Guardsman motioned with his rifle that Martin should raise his hands. Martin slapped at the rifle with his hands and refused to obey the order
There was an old Marshal retired and living in Krum, that had answered Fry’s call for men. He dressed like he had just ridden in off the range, with 10 gallon hat and six shooters at his side. When he saw Martin slap at the rifle, he thought he was trying to escape. Without even drawing his pistol from his holster, he fired from the hip and neatly creased Martin’s right side with the bullet. Without another word Martin raised his hands in the spirit of compliance and was taken off to jail.
The arrest of W. A. Martin marked the end of the era of lawlessness that had gripped Denton County for years. Nathan A. and Yancey Story were soon arrested along 21 members of their gang. The grand jury returned a total of 81 indictments against the members, 26 against Yancey himself. Nathan A. Story was charged with murder and sentenced to 99 years by a Gainesville jury. Martin was indicted for the murder of Parsons, the attempted murder of Deputies Roberts and Akin and the bank robberies at Sanger, Krum, Ponder and Holland, Texas. W. J. Sewell, J.T. Baker, Louise Ross, R. W. Beaty, Leslie Briggs and Herman Stifflett, Jr. were all indicted as accessories in the murder of R. B. Parsons.
It was impossible for W. A. Martin to receive a fair trial in Denton now that the people whom he had intimidated for so long had the upper hand, they would show little sympathy or interest in objectivity. The word was that anyone aiding the defense of Martin would be boycotted by the town. The town wanted blood. On August 27, 1925, Martin was granted a change of venue to Dallas and trial was set for October 5.
The trial lasted a week and Martin had few friends there. County attorney Elbert Hooper of Denton handled the case for the prosecution and Martin was defended by Mauty Hughs
On Sunday morning, October 11, at 8:55AM the Jury returned a verdict of guilty and assessed a prison sentence of 99 years. Martin who sat with his 8 year old son nervously awaiting the verdict, was unmoved when the prison sentence, was read by Judge Pippen.
Sheriff Fry won this last battle against the lawless and made good his vow to clean up Denton. A year later he was paralyzed by a stroke and had to leave office. He lay bed-ridden for four years until his death in 1930.
Martin was released from prison on parole after 20 years and went to live with his wife in either Dallas or California, according to which old-timer you talk to. The story goes that he got drunk one night, mistreated his wife and was killed his son. It doesn’t quite end there. His son was later executed for killing a Federal Marshall.
Mike Cochran is a local statesman – former city councilman, former chair of the Historic Landmark Commission, local historian, and fighter for culture. More of his work on Denton history can be found on The Denton County History Page, a website he maintains.