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Pioneer Attorney William Burges Tackled Unpopular Issues
By Merica Lindstrom, Ashley Martinez, and Chris Hancock
At the turn of the 20th century, El Paso was a city fraught with controversy. Gambling, prostitution , immigration laws, local elections and a growing population were issues to be reckoned with. While some sought answers in politics, William H. Burges initiated reform in his own way.
The Burges family was dedicated to the law. A member of the Texas Bar Association, William H. Burges Sr. settled in Seguin, Texas, with his wife, Bettie Rust. The couple had several children, with three of the boys becoming lawyers, like their father. William Jr. entered the world on November 12, 1867. With little formal early education, William Jr . still learned enough of the basics to attend the University of Texas. His was the first law class to graduate from the university in June 1889.
Image caption: El Paso lawyer and reformer William Henry Burges, Jr. worked to clean up the city. Photo courtesy of El Paso County Historical Society
An asthmatic, he sought a healthier climate in El Paso and set up his law practice in 1889. His prominent uncle, Dr. W. M. Yandell, an El Paso health officer, announced his arrival, practically guaranteeing employment.
In one of his first cases, Burges defended the publishers that distributed the St. Louis Republic in a libel case brought by Robert F. "Poker Bob" Campbell. An 1891 article accused Campbell of trying to drive out F. P. Clark as collector of customs, a post that Campbell had wanted. Much was made of the fact that Campbell owned a gambling house and had been indicted for illegal gambling several times.
Despite state laws against gambling, El Paso derived a great deal of money from said activities with “fines” on each gambling establishment serving as licenses. William Burges believed this case could be his chance to influence the rampant gambling problem in El Paso.
By 1895 when the case went to trial, Campbell had been elected mayor of the town. Not only did Burges lose the case but also his job as city attorney. This did not discourage Burges because he had the support of the Law and Order League that included Dr. Yandell, his brother Richard and other like-minded individuals who publicly spoke out against gambling and attendant ills in the city. Nevertheless, he served as legal counsel to Tillie Howard , one of the best known madams in El Paso. Burges saw Howard as a human being. He believed that prostitution needed to be restricted to a “reservation” in the city since it could not be eradicated.
In his book, Texas Lawyer: Life of William Burges , J. F. Hulse wrote that prior to the Campbell case, Burges and the League had supported Mayor Robert Johnson when he issued a proclamation on August 4, 1894, banning open gambling. But after two months, the economy of the city was suffering, and open gambling returned to town. Burges continued to try to clean up El Paso despite threats and attempts on his life.
In 1896, William Burges formed a brief partnership with his brother Richard who also had come to El Paso to practice law. According to Hulse, Richard struck out on his own after a year, and William found a satisfactory partner in William Ward Turney , a lawyer-legislator-rancher from Marshall, Texas. Their law firm, Turney & Burges, was established on April 1, 1897, and lasted 41 years.
By 1903, Burges was a leading public figure, speaking out vehemently against corruption. It was also an election year, one in which former sheriff and reform party member, James H. White, ran for mayor against C. R. Morehead , president of the State National Bank and member of the traditional Democratic faction, known as " the Ring," which allowed gambling and prostitution to flourish.
In his biography of Burges, Hulse wrote that "the White-Morehead election was long remembered as one of the hottest El Paso, or any town, had ever seen. The spark plug of the White campaign was W. H. Burges. … The election heat and hatred centered on him.” Almost daily, William Burges’ wife, the former Anna Pollard, received anonymous threatening letters or phone calls.
During the spring of 1903, the two factions of Democrats held several rallies for their candidates, often resulting in physical fights between the supporters of Morehead and White. During one rally for Morehead at the Myar Opera House , young lawyer Zach Cobb fired up the crowd when he said he would "roast" Will Burges for some previous insults, real or imagined. According to Hulse, Cobb said, "I don't intend to do it, for there is not enough meat on Mr. Burges to roast. He's a half-fry. He's better known as the junior partner of Senator Turney."
Soon after, the Young Men's White Club organized a rally for White at the same venue, affording Burges the opportunity to reply. Threats all over town and at his home let it be known that if Burges made one derogatory comment about Morehead, he would be shot dead on the stage.
That night about 800 people from both sides filled the opera house, including Zach Cobb. Burges told the crowd that he appreciated the young attorney, but he refused to argue with him. Referring to the man’s name, Burges then said, “Besides, I've no time to shuck a nubbin,” a nubbin referring to a stunted or deformed cob of corn.
Switching to the real subject of the evening, Burges declared that Morehead would be an ineffectual mayor, as he had been in Leavenworth, Kan. Burges stated, "He doesn’t want the city to advance; a little village is easier to boss than a big busy city. … He has fought me, and I have fought him, and I'm going to give him some more."
The crowd waited anxiously for a gunshot, as hired gunmen were supposedly in town. Owen P. White was at that rally, and in his book Out of the Desert he wrote, "No shot ... rang out from the gallery; no young attorney lay sweltering in his own blood on the stage of the opera house, and those of the audience who, filled with gory anticipation and hoping to see a tragedy, had attended the meeting, went home disappointed and sore." Morehead won this election, but Burges and the reformers would regain power later. Burges escaped death several times, including once at his residence, where he was able to talk the gunman out of the idea.
Burges had a keen sense of justice. Hulse wrote that when the large Chinese population in El Paso began to suffer the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Burges enthusiastically took up their cause. The law, introduced in 1882 and renewed in 1892, was an effort to reduce immigration and prevent Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens. Over a span of about 20 years, Burges traveled regularly to San Antonio where such cases were tried.
Among his most notable cases was his defense of Phelps Dodge Copper Company and hundreds of Bisbee, Ariz., residents involved in the deportation of almost 1,200 striking miners to the New Mexico desert near Columbus in the summer of 1917. Two miners died before they were rescued. The I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) had called strikes throughout the Arizona copper mining country just as America had joined World War I. The I.W.W. or “Wobblies ,” as they were popularly known, imported union agitators, and picketers harassed scab workers.
When the town felt threatened by the dispute, Bisbee’s sheriff deputized over 1,000 residents, and they rounded up the striking miners, loaded them into empty freight cars and sent them east. Kidnapping charges were brought against some 400 residents, along with civil suits for damages in the millions of dollars. Burges, who had accepted a partnership in Chicago in 1917, took the case for the defendants. He was ready to return to the Southwest for his health.
By 1921, the Bisbee I.W.W. Deportation Case had been tried in Tombstone, Ariz., and the civil suits were settled for about $100,000. Burges had used a defense called “the law of necessity,” allowing a community to protect and preserve itself when endangered. He had won a huge victory.
In addition to maintaining his law practice, Burges was also a civic leader. He was a charter sponsor of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, founder of the Toltec Club, president of the Texas and El Paso Bar Associations and a regent of the University of Texas. Knowledgeable about literature and music, he acquired an extensive library of some 17,000 volumes.
In his 70s and nearly deaf, Burges still sat in on trials, eagerly watching the magic of the courtroom. On May 11, 1946, he died after suffering a heart attack. According to his obituary in the El Paso Times, he requested friends to direct money towards a library fund rather than send flowers. His personal library was sold to the University of Texas at Houston.
U. S. Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas nominated him to the El Paso County Historical Society’s Hall of Honor. An eastside street, a high school and Burges Hall at UTEP further honor the man who boldly confronted unpopular issues and worked to make a wide open frontier town a more law abiding modern city.
Border Proletariats: Mexican Americans and the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers" in Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology & Identity, 1930-1960 , by Mario T. Garcia. Yale University Press, 1989. available in these libraries
Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920 by Mario T. Garcia. Yale University Press, 1981 Available in these libraries .