These days, readers provide the lion’s share of material for Austin Found. Or at least they get the ball rolling.
Last month, we serialized the report of a 1911 double murder on West Monroe Street as reported in Ken Roberts‘ new book, “The Cedar Choppers: Life on the Edge of Nothing.” John Teague, son of a Hill Country clan, killed John Gest, owner of the Little South Austin Saloon, attempted to kill his bartender, Max Himmelreich, before heading west to the Balcones Escarpment. Around South First Street, he encountered Deputy Sheriff George Duncan (sometimes referred to as Lemuel). They wrestled and Teague killed Duncan as well. He received a 99-year sentence, yet less than 10 years later, Teague was released from prison.
Anna Galloway, who had worked with me on a story about the old rural community of Duval, which is now subsumed into North Austin off Duval Road, called to say: “That murdered deputy sheriff was my grandfather.”
“Of course you’ve heard the story that when Gov. Pa Ferguson was impeached, he asked for the names of 99 felons with 99-year sentences and pardoned them all,” Galloway relates about the extraordinarily corrupt politician. “John Teague was one of the 99.”
In fact, Teague was only on trial for the murder of Gest, since Himmelreich was a living witness. The authorities figured they had him.
Some 40 years later, Galloway says, one of Duncan’s five orphaned girls, Alta May Duncan, was working at Brackenridge when Teague was hospitalized. As a nurse, she was required to attend to the man who had murdered her father. She refused and was backed up by an upper supervisor who had the good sense to realize that Brack would be held liable if something fishy happened to Teague under her care.
Online records indicate that Teague died in May 1972.
“The irony is that my great-grandmother made a decision soon after the funeral to move the widowed mother and her five girls to Hays County,” Galloway says. “They bought acreage with a lot of cedar trees. They built a charcoal kiln, chopped cedar and burned it in the kiln. Then they sacked charcoal which was brought into Austin and sold.”
Tales of historical murder and mayhem mean a lot more when they happened on your street.
Ken Roberts’ excellent “The Cedar Choppers: Life on the Edge of Nothing” (Texas A&M University Press) thoroughly chronicles the clans who until recently lived mostly isolated lives in the Hill Country west and north of Austin. The book is packed with surprises.
For various reasons that Roberts carefully lays out, these mostly Scots-Irish clans were prone to violence. One incident concerning the Teague family near the turn of the past century, however, made me sit bolt upright. I had to share the tale right away. It concerns the trial of John Teague for the murder of John Gest and a deputy sheriff.
“John Gest and his bartender Max Himmelreich ran a saloon in 1911 at the southwest corner of South Congress and Monroe Street,” Roberts writes. “Bars like this were abundant in what is now downtown Austin: the 1910 city directory lists two beer gardens and for 40 saloons for a town of less than 30,000 people.”
Hey, wait a minute. That’s the current site of the South Congress Cafe. Today, the building is mostly exposed brick, but remnants of stonework can be detected on the north wall. Indeed, a stone structure, set back from the street, marks that very spot on the 1921 Sanborn insurance map of the neighborhood.
One of John Teague’s sisters, Mamie, had married Gest, who was of German origin. But she disappeared. Another sister, Myrtle, 16, served as his informal housekeeper. In 1911, John Teague’s wife, Mattie, witnessed Gest abusing Myrtle, so he decided to investigate.
After confronting her, Teague got very drunk. Late at night, he showed up at Gest’s Monroe Street bar with his .44 Winchester rifle in tow.
“Gest cut his eye up at me that way (grimacing) and threw his hand down this way and I ups with my gun and shot him,” Teague later testified. “Before he fell, I shot him again, and after he fell, I shot him again.” Teague was heard to say, “God damn you — I’ll show you how to insult my sister.”
Bartender Himmelreich saw the whole thing from behind the bar, Roberts’ story continues. “I believe I’ll just kill you, too,” Teague said, but his shot narrowly missed and shattered the mirror behind the bar. Himmelreich ducked out back as Teague continued to fire.
Then Teague headed west on West Monroe Street toward East Bouldin Creek, presumably on his way to the Balcones Escarpment and the rugged mountains further west.
“But the shooting had been heard all over South Austin,” Roberts writes. “And a deputy sheriff named George Duncan pulled on his clothes, grabbed his pistol, and ran out of his house — right into John Teague. He wrestled with Teague, who shot him several times, leaving him writhing in the middle of the road.”
The killer’s next stop was the house of John Freitag, brother-in-law of John Almar Roberts, where he demanded cartridges and water. He told a woman there: “My name is John Teague. I have killed John Gest, his bartender and another man. He is laying down there in the road.”
He was easily apprehended the next day after having fallen off a 10-foot cliff.
The murder trial was a circus. The state called for the death penalty; the defense pleaded that insanity ran in the family and also hid behind an “unwritten law,” meaning “homicide is justifiable when committed by the husband upon one taken in the act of adultery with the wife.” As Roberts points out, this defense remained on the books in Texas until 1974.
In other words, Teague claimed to be defending Mamie’s and Myrtle’s honor. As for the congenital insanity, Teague’s mother testified, according to the Austin Statesman before the full house: “The astonished courtroom attendants and hangers-on were afforded the novel spectacle of a woman, promulgating it for the consideration of all, that her husband was partially insane, that her eldest son, a second son, and at least one daughter were afflicted with the mental defect, and that another daughter was an idiot.”
As Roberts research shows, John Teague’s previous record indicates he had been in at least one gunfight over a woman’s honor before, including one with his brother Tom. That one didn’t sound like an act of insanity.
“The jury in the 1911 case voted eight to four for the death penalty, and later three of the four jurors agreed to go with the majority,” Roberts relates. “But one man whose brother had been spared from death by an insanity plea held out, and John Teague was sentenced to prison for life for killing Gest, and again for killing the deputy. He was pardoned 10 years later in 1921.”
John’s sister and Gest’s widow, Mamie, married bartender Himmelreich. He died in 1937. Mamie died in 1984. She was 104 years old.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post reported the wrong population for Austin in 1911.