Wrecked Lives and Lost Souls; Joe Lynch Davis and the Last of the Oklahoma Outlaws, Jerry Thompson, University of Oklahoma Press, $24.95, Paper. Nonfiction, U.S. History, Illustrations. Maps, Notes, Bibliography, Index.
Born in 1891, Joe Lynch Davis was the second of five children born to Jack Davis and Bessie Satterwhite. The first part of this biography explains how the early Davis family migrated from northern Georgia to Oklahoma before the Civil War, accumulating land and becoming successful ranchers.
Jack Davis and his kin were tough people, allowing nothing to stand in their way of gaining vast amounts of cattle, horses, and other business interests through hard work. However, friends and neighbors were of the same cloth, and some of their endeavors were mixed with cattle rustling, horse theft, bank heists, train robberies and murder. In the midst of all this, Joe Lynch Davis, the main subject of this nook, grew into a tough young hellion good with guns and horses. By the time he was in his late teens he had already been involved in much of the mayhem. He seemed never to quell his enthusiasm whether in a roping contest at the local rodeo, or riding hard one step ahead of a sharp-shooting posse.
Joe’s family was mixed up in a Porum, Oklahoma feud that left more than 20 men dead. The Davis clan along with friends and enemies shot it out resulting in night-riding, arson, ambushes, missing persons, maimed bodies, and bloody folks getting even with each other by a variety of aggravated misunderstandings that end like all feuds do – with nobody knowing for sure what started it all.
During and after all this, young Joe was involved in one scrape after another quite fearlessly planning and carrying out cattle rustling, bank holdups and train robberies. Sometimes he and his gang pulled off more than one heist in one day. When occasionally Joe got caught and had to stand trial, he was let go by juries too scared of his family to find him guilty. Behind the scenes was Joe’s rich daddy who always found top-notch, high-priced lawyers to defend his son.
The book goes into detail about all the train and bank robberies, how much was stolen, and the aftermath. Somewhere along the way Joe met an attractive young lady named Lula Cobb, and together they had a little girl.
In 1917 Joe got caught after another train robbery that included the shooting death of a railroad employee. Railroad and Postal detectives this time got their man. Joe and his buddies did not get away with it. Joe did 17 years at Leavenworth Penitentiary, including several years in solitary confinement living on bread and water. The Davis family spent all their money hiring lawyers to free their son. Eventually President Herbert Hoover gave him a conditional commutation. Joe quietly returned to a desolate Oklahoma, ravaged by the Dust Bowl era’s Great Depression. His family was now poor, and Lula had been murdered years before by a violent and abusive husband who committed suicide.
Old and broken, in poor health, rebuffed by his family for having caused so much pain, Joe minded his own business, got a job, and never gave an interview. Joe died at age 86 in 1979. The author of this book is the son of Joe’s orphaned daughter. His interest in his grandfather was piqued when he found some old letters in a dresser drawer after his mother’s death. This led to years of painful research, thus readers feel the strength of his writing and depth of emotion, as he finds out about a grandfather whose outlaw life had been kept secret by the Davis family. Jerry Thompson is to be commended for his story, neither condemning nor defending a grandfather who was never part of his life.
Publisher’s Notes: The reviewer, Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of numerous books about the Old West, including Death For Dinner, the Benders of (Old) Kansas, Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 399, Unionville, New York, 10988. Ph. (845) 726-3434. www.silklabelbooks.com