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The Last Sheriff in Texas

List Price: $16.95

ON SALE: November 13, 2018 | Paperback | 5.5 x 8.25, 272 pages | ISBN 9781640091269
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A timely and sharply observed examination of a changing America through one small town election

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, he was opposed 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 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 in 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, 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.


JAMES McCOLLOM is the author of The Continental Affair: The Rise and Fall of the Continental Illinois Bank. A native son of Beeville, Texas, he worked as a banker and business executive in the Northeast before settling back in his hometown.


An Amazon Best History Book of the Month

“A true-crime story centering on a South Texas lawman who became a law unto himself . . . Of interest to students of Texas history as well as aspiring law enforcement officers, who should read it as an example of how not to conduct themselves.” —Kirkus Reviews

“[A] riveting story of a time when sheriffs could get away with murder.” —Dallas Morning News

“[A] narrative with resonance well beyond seekers of Texas history. The Last Sheriff in Texas would be an amazing allegory for our times, were it fiction. Instead it suggests cultural trenches that we view as new that were dug decades ago.” —Houston Chronicle

“With a cover that’s half sepia and half the black-and-blue of storm clouds and bruises, the design of The Last Sheriff in Texas echoes McCollom’s style, a hybrid of old-timers sitting on the front porch telling tales and true crime. The book is consistently entertaining and a valuable chapter of South Texas history, the patron system of vote fraud (think box thirteen and LBJ), and the nascent struggle for Mexican American civil rights . . . McCollom skillfully conveys the personalities of his large cast of fascinating characters. He conjures a visceral sense of foreboding as the election approaches, and evokes the time and place with rich detail and personal experience . . . The Last Sheriff in Texas takes place in the middle of the last century and remains sadly relevant today.” —Lone Star Literary Life


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