This Week in Texas History: A column by BARTEE HAILE
Sidney “Pete” Welk and at least two of his business associates were too busy brewing a batch of their banned beverage on the night of Dec. 2, 1922 to notice the trio of deputy sheriffs creeping up on their still in a creek bottom east of Dallas.
The 30 year old bootlegger grew up in the hamlet of Cheisa just south of Rowlett. With a wife and five children all under the age of ten to support, he turned to making and selling whiskey to Texans eager to quench their Prohibition thirst.
As soon as the lawmen had the suspects surrounded, the deputy in charge shouted for them to put up their hands. But instead of calmly surrendering, as was the custom in such raids, pistols were pulled and a furious gun battle ensued.
Only after the bootleggers were disarmed and in handcuffs did the two untouched deputies realized the third was missing. Following a swift search, they found Deputy Tom Wood lying lifeless on the cold ground.
Neither investigators nor the district attorney had any way of knowing who fired the fatal shot or even if Wood had fallen victim to friendly fire. But that did not keep them from charging Welk and two others with complicity in the death of the deputy.
One defendant was cut loose before the trial, but Welk and Clayton Coomer were convicted and slapped with prison terms of 40 and five-to-15 years. Although the prosecutor failed to present any evidence linking the accused to the actual shooting, all that mattered to the jury was the fact the two were present at the scene of the crime.
Dallas County provided Pete Welk with room and board while his case was on appeal. With friends from all walks of life lobbying Gov. Pat Neff for a pardon in addition to his attorney working tirelessly to overturn the verdict, the booze peddler had good reason to remain optimistic.
But the thought of being separated from his children until they were well into middle age ate away at Welk. That must have been why he listened, when another prisoner approached him with a reckless escape plan.
In contrast to Welk, Charles Gaines was a career criminal with nothing to lose. With a death sentence hanging over his head for his part in the January 1921 robbery of the downtown post office, he preferred to perish in a hail of bullets rather than the electric chair. When Gaines arranged for two handguns with plenty of ammunition to be smuggled into the Dallas County jail, the bootlegger said he was in.
The escape attempt was foiled by an oddest couple imaginable: the night jailer, who paid with his life for refusing to hand over the keys, and a black trusty, who instead of letting the desperate men on his elevator, used the lift to ferry armed deputies to the sixth floor, where they shot Gaines to death and wounded Welk.
Four weeks to the day after the botched breakout, Welk had been tried, found guilty of slaying the jailer and put on the waiting list for a high-voltage execution. Three months later, the state appeals court threw out his original murder conviction, a move that would have made the hard-luck bootlegger a free man.
In February 1925, the month after Miriam Ferguson took office as the first female governor in U.S. history, Welk’s supporters began circulating a petition asking “Ma” to commute his death sentence to life imprisonment. The first of 15,000 Dallasites to sign the petition was none other than the new sheriff, Schuyler Marshall Jr., who shared the prevailing opinion that the jurors had been too harsh and that the electric chair was no place for a white man.
Intending to deliver the petitions in person to Gov. Ferguson, a state representative accompanied Mrs. Welk and the kids to the capitol in mid-March. “Ma” avoided a face-to-face meeting with the little delegation but caught a glimpse of the tear-stained family in the waiting room.
Rumor had it someone high up in the sheriff’s department had taken a thousand-dollar bribe to smuggle the weapons to Gaines and Welk for their doomed escape. Sheriff Marshall was willing to do practically anything to learn the identity of the corrupt lawman and even went so far as to allow Mrs. Welk to spend the night with her husband before his one-way ride to Huntsville.
Welk clung to the hope that the governor would come through with a last-minute stay of his execution scheduled for a few minutes past midnight on Apr. 3, 1925. But after reading a letter from Ferguson’s secretary, hand-delivered by the warden to his cell, he said with a resigned sigh, “If the governor feels like I ought to go, it is all right with me.”
As Welk was strapped into the electric chair, Sheriff Marshall begged him one last time for the name of the smuggler. But the answer was still the same. He did not know.
So many people showed up for Pete Welk’s funeral, newspaper reporters estimated the crowd at ten thousand, hundreds of mourners had to walk two miles through the mud to reach the cemetery. They dropped $800 in nickels and dimes into two wash tubs at the front gate to help the destitute widow and her fatherless brood.
San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.
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