Texas lawmen end the Whitley/Cornett crime spree

September 25, 1888

On this day a group of Texas Rangers and U. S. Marshals put bad guy, William Henry “Bill” Whitley, permanently out of business and partner  Braxtan “Brack” Cornett (right)  on the run.  It effectively ended the pair’s criminal enterprise.

 While not as notorious as some other outlaws of their day,  the gang members made off with a lot of other people’s money and weren’t shy about shooting them for it. 

Whitley, (right) just 24 when he met his maker, was the second of his family to die at the hands of lawmen.  His older brother was shot by a sheriff in 1884 and reportedly inspired his criminal career. 

 Born in Itawamba County, Mississippi, his short but violent crime spree with co-conspirator Cornett reportedly began in 1887.  Part of a long list of post war Missouri desperados who found their way to Texas.  They were contemporaries of Jesse James (right) and brother, Frank, the three Younger brothers, Bob Ford and the “outlaw queen” Belle Starr.

The alliance was best known for waylaying trains.   Stealing the U.S. mail and stripping terrified passengers of their valuables, some of the heists netted the gang less than $1,000.   One robbery alone, however, cost the railroad $14,000, about $320,000 today.

It was enough to get the attention of Wells Fargo.  The company offered a $1,000 reward for the capture and successful prosecution of the gang’s leaders.   The State of Texas upped the ante by $500, with posters frankly advertising “dead or alive, prefer dead.”  

By February of 1888, the gang had expanded their repertoire, holding up the bank in Cisco, Texas, to the tune of $25,000, more than a half million today.  In a less than a cinematic exit, the bandits used a getaway wagon, firing into the air just for drama.  

 Cisco marshal, J. T. Thomas and a number contemporary sources claimed the outlaws rode northwest about five miles.  They stopped long enough to either split up the money or hide the loot for future dispersal.  The tantalizing  rumor of buried cash was enough to spur treasure hunters to search the area around Lake Cisco for years.

Just days later, the brazen bandits pulled off another five-figure hold-up, snatching $20,000 off a train near McNeill, Texas.  But a second train heist planned for September 22 near Harwood, Texas, was a bridge too far.  In a feat of criminal intelligence, U.S. Marshal John Rankin discovered the plot.  Members of the Marshal’s Service and Texas Rangers were on board the train when the bandits struck.  

Foiled but not captured, the Whitley/Cornett operation, was nothing if not determined.  They tried again three days later, hitting a train near Floresville in south central Wilson County. 

Dogged by a number of determined lawmen, they were finally cornered in nearby Frio, Texas.  Marshal Rankin is believed to have killed Whitley.  One other gang member was captured, but Brack Cornett managed to escape.  Eventually crossing the border into Arizona, Texas Ranger Alfred Allee was hot on his trail.  Allee apparently tracked Cornett as he made a round trip, back to Frio, killing Cornett on February 12.,1889.    

The Whitley killing just added to a string of violent encounters for Allee.  He had been charged with murder and acquitted three times, first for gunning down a suspect under questionable circumstances, then shooting a fellow deputy in a quick-draw dispute and finally killing an African American train porter for accidentally pushing him while boarding a train.  

Despite the fact that Whitley had reportedly killed eight men in his brief career, his marker the Mahomet, Texas, cemetery (right) is inscribed with the heartwarming testimonial, “He was a kind and affectionate husband, a fond father, and a friend to all.”

Cornett didn’t receive any such affectionate tributes. He was buried at age 48 in an unmarked grave in Frio.

Ironically, both Rankin and Allee died violently at the hands of fellow lawmen.  Rankin was assassinated at age 44 by Austin policeman Jim Grizzard in 1897 over an election dispute.  Allee was stabbed to death in a barroom brawl with Texas Ranger A.J. Bartholomew in Laredo, Texas, in  in 1892.  He was 41.

Allee’s grandson, Alfred Young Allee, (left) redeemed the family’s good name, serving with honor as a Texas Ranger for 37 years.  His gun was chosen to be featured in a 2012 episode of television’s “America’s Lost Treasures” and   was included in a special National Geographic Exhibit in Washington, D.C.

But Whitley and Cornett were only a prelude to Cisco’s most notorious hold-up men.  Known as the Santa Claus robbery, on December 23, 1927 Saint Nick and three accomplices made themselves a Christmas gift the bank’s cash.

 The bandit’s getaway car ran out of gas and the loot was eventually returned, but the aftermath was anything but jolly.  Six citizens were injured, two lawmen and one of the gunmen died, another was executed and Santa himself, ex-con Marshall Ratliff, (above) was lynched by the angry people of Eastland County.

The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, 100 Texas Ranger Trail, Waco, Texas, tells the story of the state’s most historic lawmen and honors the best who have served from 1823 to 2004.  A second honor roll commemorates those who died in the line of duty.  The Homer Carrison Gallery, dedicated in 1968, houses more tha 14,000 artifacts dating  from the founding of the service and includes artwork, firearms, badges and credentials. 

Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and military with ID, $4 for children 6 to 12 and children under 6 free.  The museum is open from 9 to 5 daily, the last guest admitted at 4:30.  Gift shop hours are 9 to 4:30.  Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.  For more information go to texasrangers.org, e-mail info@texasranger.org between 9 and 5, call (254) 750-8631 or write Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, 100 Texas Ranger Trail, Waco, TX 76706