Mountain Feuds of Aunt Jenny Johnson and the Brooks Boys
By: Edward Herring
The Source Historical and Adventure (Volume 6, Issue 4)
Willis Brooks, Jr., was born April 3, 1854 in Alabama, the son of Willis Brooks Sr., and Louisa Elisabeth Jane Bates. Willis Sr. was a saddle and boot maker and Jane or "Jenny" Brooks was a beautiful, blue-eyed, half Cherokee woman, twenty years his junior. Willis and Jenny raised their large family in the rugged mountains of southwest Lawrence County and operated a road house for travelers of the historic Byler Road.
During the war of Northern Agression, this area of North Alabama was a hotbed of Confederate discontent. The hill country of Northwest Alabama was full of "Tories," or those opposed to the Secession Convention in Montgomery and who wanted to remain loyal to the Union, or at least to remain neutral.
It was suspected that Willis Brooks had been giving aid to a number of Tories in the area. For this perceived act of treason, sometime in late 1863 or early 1864, a renegade band of Confederate Home Guards tortured and killed Willis and his oldest son, John. This sparked the beginning of a blood feud that would span thirty years and lead all the way to Texas and Oklahoma.
The Brooks boys were just little shavers when their pa and teenage brother were killed. Jenny Brooks was left a widow with a newborn baby and large family to feed. Jenny Brooks gathered her young blood around her and all swore to avenge the deaths of their father and brother. "Aunt Jenny," as she came to be known, would proudly say in later years that she "wasted many a keg of powder teachin’ my boys to shoot!" Eight men were implicated in the deaths of Willis and John Brooks and at least seven of the killers paid for their cruel deed with their lives. Aunt Jenny was said to have accounted for two of the men herself.
As the Brooks boys went about their grim task, they would seek refuge with relatives in Texas, returning whenever one of their fathers’ killers was found. Mack Brooks found work as a cowboy in 1872. His uncle, Thomas J. Bates, owned a large spread in Robertson County, Texas. Mack was joined by younger brother, Willis Jr., a year later. Willis soon married a Limestone County girl named Margaret Elisabeth Sanders and settled down to start a family. Gainum Brooks remained in Lawrence County, Alabama. Gainum married in 1877 and settled down to raise a family of his own. Henry, the youngest of the Brooks brothers, joined Mack and Willis in Texas about the year 1880.
Meanwhile, back in Alabama, another of their fathers’ and brothers killers, Wesley Williams, was found living near Allen’s Factory in neighboring Marion county. Allen’s Factory was a water powered thread mill on Bear Creek. About sunset on September 10, 1882, Willis and Henry, joined by brothers-in-law Neal Sammons and Columbus Windfield "Sam" Baker, waited by the bridge crossing Bear Creek for Williams’ return from hauling a load for the mill. When Williams appeared, his body was riddled by rifle fire. One of the boys finished him off by crushing his skull with a large rock. A large posse was formed but dared not follow the Brooks’ back to the hills and hollows of Lawrence County. Willis returned to Texas while Henry remained with his mother at the old homestead.
By 1884, things were beginning to get pretty hot for Henry and Gainum Brooks. Accompanied by brothers-in-law, William Jackson and Sam Baker, a simmering feud with a neighboring Negro family named Hubbard erupted into a fierce gun battle (over a horse) on April 12, 1884. When the gunsmoke cleared, the "best shot in Lawrence County," Gainum Brooks, lay dead at his mothers feet. The top of Gainum’s head was blown away by the breach-loading shotgun of Henry Hubbard. Also dead was a Negro deputy named Phillips, shot by Sam Baker before he could put a bullet into the back of his brother-in-law, Henry Brooks. Henry Brooks and many more, lay wounded.
The Hubbards loaded all the possessions they could carry and left the mountain for good, moving to the valley north of Moulton. Licking their wounds and with indictments soon to follow, Henry Brooks and the other feudists boarded a west-bound train at Cherokee to join his brother Willis in Texas.
Willis and Henry Brooks were like brothers to Sam Baker, who had married their sister Frances in 1879. Always there to back each other up, the formidable trio soon earned reputations as gunfighters. These were the glory years of the Old West. Days of dime-store novels and gunfighters, cattle drives, and range wars. From Waco to Dallas and Fort Worth. From Tombstone to Abilene, their well worn trails saw the tread of their boots. It was in Decatur, Texas that the Brooks’ and Sam Baker befriended a young waif named Richard West cleaning up saloons and even taught the lad how to shoot. The boy would later gain fame as "Little Dick" West after "jinin" up with the Bill Doolin Gang of bank and train robbers.
By 1890 Willis Brooks and Sam Baker had sizable families. Willis Brooks owned a ranch in Erath County, Texas. Trouble had a penchant for following the Brooks and soon the grass on the other side of the Red River began to look a lot greener. The sudden death of a Texas lawman may have played a small part in their departure. Our boys loaded their wagons and drove their cattle across the river to the Indian Nations of Oklahoma. Willis eventually settled in the Dogtown area west of Eufaula while Baker set down at Bond Switch.
Dogtown settlement was a haven for cattle rustlers and men on the run. The Brooks and Bakers were acquainted with many well known outlaws of the day, including the Starrs, Jennings, Doolin, Hughes, and Dalton gangs. Sam Baker was once arrested for being a member of the Hughes Gang when they robbed a Texas train in 1894 but was later acquitted. Sam later accompanied the Al Jennings Gang in the robbery of a southbound Santa Fe passenger train in the Indian Territory in 1897. Al Jennings accused Baker of being the killer of the trainman who returned the outlaws gunfire. Baker later quit the gang before ruining his reputation.
In the Oklahoma Territory, Negro Deputy Marshall Grant Johnson was a well known and respected lawman. On December 5, 1900, Johnson arrested Willis Brooks’ twenty-one year old son, Clifton, on suspicion of various crimes ranging from burglary to murder. Johnson methodically set out with his prisoner for the holdover at Eufaula.
When Willis learned of the arrest, he telegraphed Sam Baker. The pair, accompanied by some of their sons, raced ahead of the unsuspecting deputy. Brooks and Baker reached Eufaula about sundown and patiently awaited the arrival of Johnson and his prisoner. That night Johnson deposited his prisoner in the hoosegow and retired for a well deserved meal and sleep. He left Cliff Brooks in the custody of a lone guard. With Johnson safely out of the way, Brooks and Bakers quietly entered the jail. As the frightened guard scurried away, they broke down the door and freed their jail bird. They then coolly strolled to their horses, parked at the livery stable near the Catholic church and quietly rode out of town.
The normally stoic Deputy Johnson was highly irritated, to say the least. The Eufaula Indian Journal ran an article bemoaning the loss of their distinguished guest, citing "…the loss to our prestige and the light put upon our hospitality." They even bet a box of cigars that "the affair will terminate in the penitentiary or at the end of a rope for somebody."
Such would not be the case. The Brooks’ had been feuding with an outlaw gang headed by Jim McFarland for a number of years. Willis Brooks held the McFarlands responsible for the murder of his son, Thomas, in 1896 but could prove nothing. The feud came to a head on September 22, 1902.
Willis rode into town with sons Clifton and John to pick up their mail when they encountered George Riddle. Due to Willis Brooks’ efforts to run him out of the area, old man Riddle had thrown his lot with the McFarland faction.
Expecting the Brooks to ride into town that day, Jim and Joe McFarland, along with George Riddle’s son, Alonzo, stationed themselves out of sight across the street from the post office. They sent Riddle about town running their errands with thoughts of provoking the Brooks’. Their plan worked to perfection. Riddle had entered the post office just minutes before the Brooks’ hitched their horses. When John Brooks entered the office, he began to threaten and abuse the unarmed Riddle who, fearing for his life, began running toward Deputy U.S. Marshall Morton Rutherford standing across the street. Willis had drawn his gun when Rutherford commanded him not to shoot. But Willis’ hatred for the old man was too great. He shot Riddle in the head, tearing away part of his skull. He then proceeded to pump two more bullets into the prostrate body. This started a veritable hale of lead from both factions that lasted for over a minute.
When the smoke cleared, George Riddle lay mortally wounded and Willis and Clifton lay dead. John Brooks was shot "through and through" by a steel-jacketed bullet and lay critically wounded. Marshal Rutherford promptly arrested Jim and Joe McFarland and Lon Riddle. All three were later acquitted. John Brooks would later recover fully and live until the 1950’s.
Henry Brooks and Willis’ son Earl had stayed at the ranch that morning to round up some stock that had been scattered by a thunderstorm the night before. Sam Baker was still at home recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound received from Deputy U.S. Marshal, Frank Jones. Had they been present, the outcome may have been quite different.
Jim McFarland would not escape retribution. On October 13, about three weeks after the gunfight at Spokogee, Jim and his wife, Sarah, drove a wagon into Weleetka to do some shopping. Before reaching home, McFarland was shot in the back, from ambush, with a steel-jacketed bullet. He managed to jump from the wagon and fire one shot in the direction of his assailant before falling over dead.
Several rumors circulated as to who killed Jim McFarland. Some pointed an accusing finger at Sarah’s brother. Others, believed McFarland was killed by Turner Scott, a member of Jim’s own gang. Most thought that one of the Brooks’, perhaps Henry, had fired the fatal shot. In any event, no one tried very hard to find Jim McFarland’s killer. Most believed he had gotten what he deserved.
Willis’ brother-in-law, Sam Baker, would also meet a violent death, shot in the back by the son of a Checotah merchant in 1911. After Sam’s death, Henry returned to Alabama to care for his aging mother, Aunt Jenny Brooks. Henry took a young bride and started a family. He also resumed the age old mountain tradition of "makin’ licker."
In January of 1920, an uninvited posse of officers from neighboring Winston County led by Sheriff John Robinson surrounded Henry at his still. Henry’s horse was trained to nicker at the approach of strangers. When the horse alerted Henry to the impending danger, he went for his trusty Winchester. Six empty shells attested to his determination but the posse, said to number twenty, cut both him and his horse down. Though shot at least twelve times, Henry managed to live on for fifteen minutes.
Henry’s wife Jesse loaded his body into a wagon and carried it to the county seat of Moulton to enlist the help of the civil authorities there in punishing his killers but found no sympathy. Jesse filed a civil suit against Sheriff Robinson. The good sheriff was levied a small fine for shooting Henry’s horse.
Henry was the last remaining son of Aunt Jenny Brooks. The ancient lady of the mountains followed her sons to the grave on March 29, 1924, at the age of ninety-eight, proud of the fact that all her boys, "died like men, with their boots on."