A violent man in power. A divided populace who sees him as savior or sinner. Streets filled with guns. Anger toward those who can’t speak English. The presence of the Klan. A media in its infancy, awakening to its ability to sway public discourse. This is not modern day America, but postwar Texas. Beeville was the most American of small towns—the place that GIs had fantasized about while fighting through the ruins of Europe, a place of good schools, clean streets, and churches. Old West justice ruled, as evidenced by a 1947 shootout when outlaws surprised popular sheri Vail Ennis at a gas station and shot him five times, point blank, in the belly. Ellis managed to draw his gun and put three bullets in each assailant; he reloaded and put in each three more. Then he drove himself sixteen miles to a hospital.
Time Magazine’s full-page article on the shooting was seen by some as a referendum on law enforcement owing to the sheriff’s extreme violence, but telegrams, cards, and flowers from all across America poured into the Beeville’s tiny post office. Most of Beeville took comfort in knowing that Ennis kept them safe, that Texas was still Texas. Yet when a second violent incident threw Ennis into the crosshairs of public opinion once again, his downfall was orchestrated by an unlikely figure: his close friend and Beeville’s favorite son, Johnny Barnhart.
Feeling the town had to take responsibility for the violence, Barnhart confronted and overthrew Ennis in the election of 1952: a landmark standoff between old Texas, with its culture of cowboy bravery and violence, and urban Texas, with its lawyers, oil institutions, and a growing Mexican population. The town would never be the same again.
The Last Sheriff of Texas is a riveting narrative about the postwar American landscape, an era grappling with the same issues we continue to face today. Debate over excessive force in law enforcement, Anglo-Mexican relations, racism, gun control, the influence of the media, urban-rural conflict, the power of the oil industry, mistrust of politicians and the political process—all have surprising historical precedence in the story of Vail Ennis and Johnny Barnhart.