Shoot First

Gunshot

My family’s feud 80 years ago left 3 men dead

© 2014  Sonny Bohanan

I found out a few years ago that my family was involved in a deadly feud in Clovis, New Mexico, during the 1920s and ’30s. David, a friend who edits the Clovis newspaper, was writing a story about the feud for the city’s centennial history book, and he asked me whether I was related to the Bohannans[1] involved. I had no idea, so he sent me what he’d written, and I asked my father and grandmother what they knew. I traced my relation to the Clovis branch of the family with the help of a genealogy website, which linked to a 1930 Associated Press story published in the New York Times.

I hadn’t thought much about what I would discover when I started researching it, and I was unhappy to learn the truth: We lost.

George Curtis Bohannan

George Curtis Bohannan

I use the term “we” loosely. I had not been born yet and wouldn’t be for another thirty years. If my friend hadn’t asked me about it, I would not have known that my great-grandfather’s uncle and cousin – George Curtis Bohannan and his youngest son, Carl – were killed in a feud with their neighbor.

The neighbor, Vernon Tate, had the winning strategy: Shoot first, and let the jury sort it out. I suppose that’s why it is known in Clovis as the Tate-Bohannan feud, and not the other way around. I can call it the Bohannan-Tate feud if I want, but it still winds up the same: My family was outgunned twice by the horse trader and county auctioneer Vernon Tate. As I researched the details, I was struck by the senselessness of the killings and by the realization that my paternal grandfather, Lester Clarence Bohanan, who was 18 at the time, had come within a hair’s breadth of being drawn into the violence.

The squabble, as my grandmother Jewel Bohanan called it, had started, unsurprisingly, with a raft of schoolboy nonsense. It ended more than a decade later with three men dead – George and Carl Bohannan, and Vernon Tate. It also left behind two widows and 19 kids with no fathers.

Vernon Tate

Vernon Tate

Tate killed George Bohannan and 19-year-old Carl on January 18, 1930. Two days earlier, Tate had shot and wounded Louis, another of Bohannan’s seven sons. The surviving Bohannan boys learned one lesson: Bring a gun to a gunfight. Four years later they shot first and killed Tate, at Citizens Bank in downtown Clovis, the same spot where he had killed their father and brother.

The Bohannan-Tate slayings are the most notorious in the city’s history, according to Clovis, New Mexico: The First 100 Years, published in 2007 by the Clovis News Journal. The 1930 double homicide caused a near-riot on the crowded Main Street, the New York Times reported January 20, 1930, two days after the shootings.

Lester Clarence Bohanan and Jewel Bohanan

Lester Clarence Bohanan and Jewel Bohanan

When word of his uncle and cousin’s deaths reached my great-grandfather Pleas (pronounced “Plez”) Bohanan and my grandfather Clarence, his eldest son, they loaded their guns into the pickup and headed for Clovis. Pleas, a quiet fellow who enjoyed a pull from his flask, had moved out West from Tennessee with his wife, Ada Catherine (Lee) Bohanan, and their children around 1916. At the time of the slayings, they lived on a farm outside Goodwell, Okla., roughly two hundred miles from Clovis.

What happened next, before Pleas and his son Clarence arrived, is the only good part of this story, to my mind. After Vernon Tate was arrested, police secretly moved him to a jail in a neighboring county, eliminating, at least temporarily, the opportunity for revenge.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

 #  #  #

The Bohannans and Tates lived in the Ranchvale farming community northwest of Clovis, and their kids – nine Bohannans and eleven Tates – had attended school and social events together for years.

The hostilities started in December 1922 with at least two fights between teenagers Carsey Bohannan and Norvell Tate. Some said the disagreement was over a five-dollar bet at a high school basketball game. In one of the fights, Carsey Bohannan hit Norvell Tate in the head with a hammer, and Carsey was arrested, convicted and served a six-month suspended sentence. The Times story doesn’t mention the severity of Norvell’s injury, but Carsey’s suspended sentence indicates it was probably minor.

This is a logical place for the hostilities to have ended. But that’s not how things go when anger hardens into hatred, and revenge unleashes chaos.

There are no news accounts of the feud between 1922 and 1930. The AP story in the Times says, “Smouldering friction between the two families continued for many years with no serious trouble until last Thursday, when Tate fired three shots at Louis Bohannan at Grier, N.M.”

The Clovis centennial history book put it this way: “Vernon Tate had made his dislike for the Bohannans known since the fights between Norvell and Carsey. Most believe that festering anger led to the violence at Grier . . . .”

Gunfire erupted outside a grocery store in Grier, a village west of Clovis, on January 16, 1930. After a car chase, Vernon Tate and three of George Bohannan’s sons had stopped to settle their differences, but instead they complicated them, and Louis Bohannan left with one hand lighter than the other.

The storekeeper had rushed outside with a pistol to try to break up the fight; Tate snatched it from him and fired three shots at the brothers as they ran to their car.

“One of the bullets clipped two fingers from (Louis) Bohannan’s right hand,” the Times says — a clinical description of a bloody mess that led to still bloodier ones.

Tate was arrested on a charge of assault with intent to kill and was released after posting $2,000 bond. Two days later, a Saturday, he was in downtown Clovis, and George Bohannan was there, too, with five of his sons. Main Street was crowded with families going about their weekly shopping, banking, and socializing. When Bohannan saw Tate in front of Citizens Bank, he grabbed him in a bear hug from behind and shouted, “Here’s the son of a bitch we’ve been looking for!”

These men obviously had little patience for the judicial system. Carsey Bohannan had been convicted and punished back in 1922, but not in a way that satisfied Vernon Tate, whose anger exploded eight years later in Grier. I don’t know who started the fight outside the grocery store in 1930, but George Bohannan didn’t wait for the wheels of justice to complete their slow turn. He would exact Tate’s punishment himself.

I’m guessing that Tate and Bohannan were a hard-headed couple of mules. They had made their stand in one of America’s last frontiers, the Llano Estacado, an inhospitable tabletop mesa larger than the state of Indiana with an elevation that reaches as high as 5,000 feet above sea level. The Caprock, as it’s called, was protected against the white scourge for longer than most of the country – until the eighteen-seventies – by Comanches, Kiowas, Mexicans, and its own harsh climate. Those who live there extract a hard living from the windblown, semiarid grassland, from their livestock, and from each other.

Bohannan and Tate weren’t far removed from a time in the New Mexico Territory when it was hard to tell the difference between the lawmen and the bandits because they sometimes switched places. William Henry McCarty Jr., who came to be known as Billy the Kid, was eight years older than George Bohannan. McCarty killed from four to nine men, including three lawmen, before Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked him to Fort Sumner, west of Clovis, and shot him down in 1881.

Forty-nine years later, Bohannan and Tate were wrestling a few miles to the east, on Clovis’ Main Street in front of the bank. Tate had brought his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver when he went downtown that chilly Saturday in 1930. As Bohannan held him in a bear hug and called to his sons for help, Tate reached into his coat pocket, pulled the .38 and fired a shot into Bohannan’s stomach. Tate turned and shot him two more times “near the heart, killing him instantly,” according to the Clovis centennial book, which continues:

Vernon Tate retreated immediately into the bank, where bank officials locked the door just as three of Bohannan’s sons appeared. But the bank’s back door was not secured, and two of the Bohannan brothers, also armed, came in through it. Vernon Tate saw them and again fired his revolver. The bullet struck Carl Bohannan and sent Bee Bohannan scurrying back outside as police arrived.

Carl Bohannan soon died of his injuries. Vernon Tate was arrested, jailed and charged with murder in connection with George Bohannan’s death, but not charged with Carl Bohannan’s killing.

Tate hired attorney Carl Hatch, who later became a U.S. Senator. Hatch argued that Tate had acted in self-defense; the jury agreed and acquitted him in June 1930.

This, as you can imagine, did not sit well with the Bohannans. Tension between the families continued for the next four years until, on a February afternoon in 1934, gunfire rang out again outside Citizens Bank, and Vernon Tate was dead. Bee, Carsey and Louis Bohannan were arrested.

During their trial in July 1934, Carsey and Louis testified that Tate reached for his gun, so they shot him in self-defense. Bee Bohannan said he would have fired his weapon but hadn’t needed to. Their lawyer E.M. Grantham told the jury that the Bohannans had every right to protect themselves against Tate, who had shown his willingness to shoot first.

“It is not necessary under the law for a man to wait ’til he’s shot at before he goes after his gun,” Grantham said. The jury acquitted all three of George Bohannan’s sons.

In the twelve-year span that saw three men killed, another shot in the hand, and one struck in the head with a hammer, only the teenager Carsey Bohannan was judged guilty of a crime.

The feud ended with Vernon Tate’s death. Both families remain in the region today, and no public disagreements have been reported since 1934. Haney Tate, one of Vernon Tate’s sons, shared his memories of the feud in a 2002 High Plains Observer article.

The final trial “was not what we hoped for, but did expect,” Haney Tate, who died in 2005 at age 90, wrote. “It was probably best all things considered. . . . So much for a terrible tragedy that should never have happened.”

#  #  #

Two people in Clovis who knew about the feud revealed it to my dad, Ronal Bohanan, and to me – on separate occasions, decades apart, by asking whether we were related to the Bohannans involved.

David Stevens, the Clovis newspaper editor, asked me in 2007 when he was writing about the feud for the city’s history book. When I asked Dad, he said his father, my Grandpa Clarence, had told him about it in the 1960s. Dad was working temporarily in Clovis at the time, and a motel clerk saw his name on his ID and asked if he was related to the Clovis Bohannans. He started to notice how often people asked him about his name, and something in their manner prompted him to ask his father about it. That’s when he learned of the feud.

Marty and Ron Bohanan, 50th wedding anniversary

My parents, Marty and Ronal Bohanan

Grandpa told Dad that when his father Pleas learned George and Carl had been shot, they loaded their rifles in the truck. Pleas also brought his old .44-40 pistol with an octagon barrel, the one he kept under his pillow at night.

“Your Grandpa (Clarence) was just a big kid, and he was pretty darn worried about what was going to happen when they got down there,” Dad told me. “I think they had full intentions of shooting somebody.”

My grandmother, Jewel (Grice) Bohanan, Clarence’s widow, lived in Amarillo, a two-hour drive from Clovis, from 1940 to 2014, when she died at age 98. About a year before she died, she told me what she knew about the feud. It ended in 1934, a year before she and Grandpa were married, but he later told her about it. If he hadn’t, she might not have understood why she lost a good customer in the 1970s, when she was a hairdresser in Amarillo. The customer, who was from New Mexico, had brought her young son to her weekly appointment, as usual, and she told Grandma they had visited Clovis the previous weekend.

Jewel Bohanan

Jewel Bohanan

I will let Grandma tell the rest of the story.

“She had the little boy with her, and all during the time I was fixing her hair, he was saying, real low, ‘Bohanan will kill you.’ He was just saying it, to no one, ‘Bohanan will kill you. Bohanan will kill you.’

“She was a very nice lady, and I enjoyed her company. She usually stayed and visited for a while, but she never came back after that.”

 


 

[1]The reader may notice the surname spelled two ways in the text: Bohanan for Pleas’s line, and Bohannan for George’s. Pleas Bohanan, who was my great-grandfather, shortened the name by deleting the second ‘n.’ My Grandpa Clarence Bohanan’s younger sister Annice told my Grandma Jewel Bohanan that she remembers her father changing it when she was young, experimenting with the spelling until it pleased him. “He just thought it didn’t need all those ‘n’s in there,” Grandma told me in 2013. I agree with Pleas, even though I’ve come to believe that it is impossible to get rid of the extraneous second ‘n,’ because people insist on putting it back in. There is also a third spelling – Bohannon. The New York Times article quoted above, in fact, switches inexplicably to that spelling of the surname in its final four paragraphs. I didn’t quote directly from those paragraphs, so the ‘Bohannon’ spelling does not appear in the text above. However, the two branches of the family represented in this story descended from Clayborn B. Bohannon (born in 1830), who was my great-great-great grandfather. The family lived in Putnam County, Tennessee, about halfway between Nashville and Knoxville, and both Pleas and George changed the spelling of the surname when they moved out West.

Bibliography

Bohanan, Ronal Lee. Oral interview 2013.

Bohanan, Roxana Jewel (Grice). Oral interview 2013.

Stevens, David. “Trials, Tragedies: Tate-Bohannan violence ‘should never have happened.’ ” Clovis, New Mexico: The First 100 Years, 2007.

The Associated Press. “Father and Son Killed in New Mexico Feud.” New York Times, 20 January 1930.

Wallis, Michael. Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride, 2007.

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