Ambush at Seminole
The Gaines Hotel, Seminole, in 1923. Photo courtesy of the Cattle Raisers Museum.
By Carol Hutchison
Smoke hung in the dim light of the Gaines Hotel lobby in Seminole, Texas. Conversations among the men in the room swirled around the problem of cattle theft. On April 1, 1923, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association Inspectors (TSCRA) (special rangers, today) H.L. Roberson and Dave Allison sat at a table talking over cases and the reason for their trip to Seminole — a cattle thief by the name of Tom Ross. Ross owned a large cattle ranch nearby and his character had long been in question after several run-ins with the law. Another case against him, filed by Roberson and Allison, was going before the grand jury in Gaines County the following morning. No one could predict the events that followed.
Not unlike special rangers today, Inspectors Allison and Roberson were called in to investigate missing cattle. Special rangers often partner in neighboring districts. Deep and lasting friendships form out of their common respect for law and order and the unspoken brotherhood of lawmen.
Inspectors Roberson and Allison teamed up many times. Over the years, the 2 men spent long hours together, riding out in large sections, checking cattle brands, arresting cattle thieves and, no doubt, discussing life.
Stationed in Midland, 48-year-old H.L. Roberson had been married just shy of 2 years to his longtime friend and love, Mattie, a trained nurse. Dave Allison, 63, was stationed in Post with his wife, Lena. The couple had a grown daughter, Hazel.
On one of their long rides, in 1922, the year before the Ross case developed, Inspectors Allison and Roberson came upon Milt Good and 2 other men in possession of 516 head of cattle in Martin County, Texas. The inspectors noted the brands on the cattle, discovered they were stolen, and returned the cattle to their rightful owners. Milt Good, no stranger to thievery, faced 7 counts of cattle theft and was set to be tried in the fall of 1923.
After enjoying a nice supper in the Gaines Hotel lobby, Inspector Roberson kissed his wife, Mattie, goodnight as she went upstairs to her room for the evening. Roberson remained in the lobby to visit with his partner, Dave Allison, who had made the trip alone.
“We have Tom Ross, Dave. Between the two of us, we’ve documented the case well. We’ll prove it tomorrow at the grand jury hearing,” Roberson said, his chair reared back against the wall, facing Allison at the table. Eight men were present in the lobby that night — Allison and Roberson; both the sheriff and district attorney of Gaines County; G.E. Lockhart, attorney for the suspected cattle thieves; and 69-year-old Judge N.R. Morgan, along with 2 other men.
Meanwhile, at Tom Ross’ ranch just outside Seminole, Milt Good had paid a visit to his old friend the day before. On Sunday, the conversation finally came around to the cattle theft cases against the 2 men.
“Those inspectors think they’re going to arrest me tomorrow? I heard Roberson’s been saying he’ll get me one way or the other. I say we pay them a little visit tonight, Milt,” Tom Ross raged.
What happened next sparked outrage from ranchers all over Texas and the Southwest and shook the core of lawmen and TSCRA special rangers for many years to come. You might say that the events of that evening were a turning point — a push between good and evil.
Ultimately, the law won, and a message was sent to those who would steal cattle from innocent ranchers and who would exact revenge on 2 law enforcement officers as if it were their God-given right.
Upstairs in her hotel room, Mattie Roberson, unable to sleep, switched on her lamp and picked up a book to read. Suddenly, she heard gunfire and a loud commotion in the lobby.
Mattie bolted downstairs, still in her nightgown, amid flying bullets and gunfire ringing in her ears. Her eyes focused only on her beloved husband, who was slumped in his chair against the wall. Without regard to her own safety, she ran straight to him. In that sorrowful moment, Mattie touched his face and realized the gunshots to his head and body had taken his soul from her forever. Enraged, she looked up as 2 men with guns backed out the door. Instinctively, she felt for Roberson’s gun.
Realizing the gun was disabled by gunfire, Mattie unholstered the small spare gun Roberson kept in his waistband. She ran to the screen door of the hotel lobby as the two murderers made their escape. Mattie, in her anger and unspeakable sorrow, gripped the pistol just as her husband had taught her, raised and aimed it, and fired twice at the men who murdered her husband. One bullet hit Ross in the stomach after it deflected from his belt buckle. The second hit Good through his arm, sinking into his hip.
Mattie watched in frustration as the 2 gunmen, though wounded, continued to flee. She laid the gun down and returned to her husband’s side. When she realized his death was, in fact, a grim reality, she turned to his friend and partner, Dave Allison, who lay still on the floor. She put her hands on his shoulder, turned him over and realized that he, too, was dead.
Judge Morgan sat motionless in a chair in the middle of the room, in apparent shock after a bullet passed between his arm and his body. The other men, who were seated just a moment ago in light conversation, fled the lobby in the midst of the chaos.
Ross and Good were reportedly injured, bleeding, and required medical attention due to Mattie Roberson’s bravery. Just a few hours later, in pain and out of gas in their vehicle, the gunmen made a phone call from a ranch near Seminole to the Gaines County sheriff, offered to surrender and asked for the doc.
The same grand jury that convened to indict Ross for cattle theft indicted Ross and Good for murder on April 2, 1923.
Tom Ross and Milt Good’s failed attempt to evade justice for cattle theft bought them both murder charges. Tom Ross testified that he was in fear for his life because Roberson declared he would bring Ross to justice for cattle theft.
The witnesses who escaped harm that night all testified that a door opened and a shotgun appeared with Milt Good and Tom Ross behind it. Shots rang out in a split second. The first hit H.L. Roberson in the head. The second tore through the heart of Dave Allison, and the shots kept coming. “I don’t think either man saw who was shooting him,” Judge Morgan testified. None of the men present, even Mr. Lockhart, attorney for Good and Ross, could admit that either Roberson or Allison had a chance of knowing the identity of their killers. No witness could testify as to how many shots were fired, but the guess was between 12 and 20, both Roberson and Allison being hit numerous times.
As soon as the smoke cleared, Mattie Roberson sent a telegraph to relatives and to TSCRA before leaving Seminole to bury him. Her telegraph simply stated, “My husband murdered at Seminole. Leaving tonight for San Antonio.” Lena Allison, immediately upon learning of her husband’s death, made the agonizing trip to Seminole to accompany his body to Roswell, New Mexico, where he was buried.
News spreads to the members
The Cattleman magazine had plenty to say to Association members about the murders. Details came to light at a hearing on April 11, when Ross and Good unsuccessfully sought to be released on bail. Those details were available in time for the May 1923 issue. Still reeling at the loss of 2 of their own, the Association relayed some details of that awful evening in Seminole.
“The cold and calculating manner of the assassination of Horace Roberson and David Allison made men’s blood run cold that night there in the little Seminole hotel where friends had gathered for conversation after supper. Leave the question of deliberacy to one of the assassins himself. Under the questioning of counsel for State, the defendant, Tom Ross, on the witness stand in his own behalf seeking release on a writ of habeas corpus, admitted: ‘I aimed at his head, at his neck, at his heart and at his hip.’”
In many ways, the murders strengthened the cause of TSCRA. Members and non-members from all over the U.S. wrote letters to the Association. In June of 1923, The Cattleman published portions of those letters.
Fear, outrage, sorrow, unconditional support and an outpouring of love for Roberson and Allison were evident in their remarks. One wrote, “It looks like the thieves were trying to take us in, as they have gone to killing our ablest inspectors who had nerve enough to go after the big fellows who plan the drives. Such a cause as this will show the world where we stand.” Another wrote, “Mr. Roberson saved my life once and therefore I do not know how to explain how bad it hurts me.” Another, “I have known Dave Allison for more than thirty years, but more intimately during the time he was sheriff of Midland County. There never was a better man than Dave.” Finally, a former member declared, “We sold our cattle in 1922, but since the Association has lost two of its best men we feel that it is our duty to pay our dues, cattle or no cattle.”
In the wake of the murders, cattlemen in many states made donations to the TSCRA totaling almost $2,000 for the widows of Allison and Roberson, a large sum in those days. And a few months after the murders, a formal resolution by the TSCRA was passed, granting the 2 widows $50 per month and honoring them as lifetime Association members.
The murder trials
Just 2 months after the killings, Good and Ross stood trial in Lubbock for the murder of Dave Allison. Venue was transferred from Seminole to Lubbock due to the large amount of publicity.
The trial drew media from all over the country, as well as sympathizers on both sides. The Cattleman credited the Lubbock County district judge and sheriff for preventing violent incidents.
Approximately 50 sheriffs and deputy sheriffs from Lubbock and the surrounding area, and a sergeant with the Texas Rangers, were present at all times, patrolling the courthouse and grounds. Anyone entering the courthouse was searched — not a daily occurrence in those days — ensuring an orderly trial.
The defense of both Ross and Good was centered on attacking TSCRA as well as the reputations of Allison and Roberson. It was reported that Ross and Good testified that they only fired after the 2 lawmen reached for their guns; however, no witness could corroborate their defense.
The trials were heavily attended by Association members, Mrs. Roberson, Mrs. Allison, Mr. Allison’s daughter, Hazel, special rangers, lawmen, reporters, and cowmen from all over Texas.
After the verdicts were handed down for each defendant for the murder of Dave Allison, the July, 1923 issue of The Cattleman reported: “The District Court of the Seventy-second Judicial District of Texas gave an answer to Tom Ross and Milt Good which should strike home to the lawless element of the Southwest that they cannot murder when their right to steal cattle without impunity is denied by the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association through its brand inspectors.”
Ross, sentenced to 35 years, and Good, 26 years, received their answers loud and clear.
Trials for the murder of Inspector H.L. Roberson were moved yet again, due to high publicity, to Abilene.
After equally publicized and widely reported trials in Abilene, Ross and Good were also found guilty of the murder of Inspector Roberson. Ross was sentenced to 20 years, and Good, 25. All sentences were to be served consecutively, resulting in punishments that amounted to life sentences.
Good and Ross escape
After serving only a few years in prison, with no hope for release, in November of 1925 Ross and Good successfully escaped from the penitentiary at Huntsville. Rewards were offered by the State of Texas for their capture and return to prison.
In Milt Good’s book, Twelve Years in a Texas Prison, he described going to Antlers, Okla., in June of 1926 while still a fugitive, to hunt and fish with his brother. One day, while he was hunting, the sheriff and 4 deputies appeared out of nowhere and captured him. “I had been betrayed by the man I was hunting with,” Good wrote.
In October of 1927, Milt Good attempted a second prison break, but failed.
Tom Ross was actually an alias of Hill Loftis. It was believed that Loftis changed his name to Tom Ross due to his criminal past which, ironically, caught up with him again. After Ross’ escape from prison, he took on a second alias, Charles Gannon. In February of 1929, almost 6 years after he murdered Inspectors Allison and Roberson, and 3 and a half years after escaping from prison, Tom Ross worked under the alias Charles Gannon as a ranch foreman in Montana. After Ross was criticized for his work by another cowboy, Ralph Hayward, Ross shot and killed Hayward, went to his room and shot himself.
On Jan. 20, 1935, Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson granted Milt Good a full and complete pardon. Ma Ferguson pardoned almost 4,000 inmates during her time as governor to save money for the State during the Great Depression. Good was released from prison after serving only 12 years for the murders of Inspectors Allison and Roberson. Ironically, in 1941, Good returned to prison for theft.
Reading through old newspaper articles, old books and The Cattleman archives confirms that very little has changed in our society and in the way the Association and its special rangers have conducted business since the 1923 murders of Allison and Roberson.
TSCRA special rangers continue to serve members in much the same way — on horseback, checking brands, building cases, making contacts, testifying before grand juries, and working together with partners and fellow lawmen. The push between good and evil continues, but law and order wins when good people like Allison, Roberson and Mattie stand up against evil. -TC
“Ambush at Seminole” is from the December 2016 issue of The Cattleman magazine.