The Goodnight Gang was a name given to a group of outlaws operating in East and Central Texas headed up by William E. “Doc” Goodnight. Members of the group included Goodnight, Hugh Merrick, J. R. Willis and J. H. Johnson according to various newspaper accounts. They were by reputation robbers and the crimes mostly attributed to them involved the theft of cash from local individuals. There was a legend that William E. Goodnight was somehow related to rancher Charles Goodnight of North Texas, but we can find no obvious connection after looking into Charles Goodnight’s extended family. Perhaps coincidentally, Charles Goodnight had a number of relatives in Illinois and the State of Illinois appears to also figure into Doc Goodnight’s early history.
William Goodnight was often called a doctor, and in at least one newspaper account was called “Dr. W. G. Goodnight” (note the incorrect middle initial) but no record can be found of where he may have attended medical school, if he earned a medical degree or if he ever practiced as a physician. His background is somewhat murky. Traditional genealogical sources do not reveal who his parents were. He was thought to have been born in Kentucky around 1848. On December 27, 1868, he married Elizabeth “Eliza” Rawls of Brazos County. Over the next ten years, the couple had five sons, three of whom lived to adulthood.
Two of the incidents involving the gang received the most local coverage in the press. One was the attempted robbery of rancher Tom Higgs. In late 1878, Goodnight and some associates were suspected of attacking Higgs and his brother Sam Higgs at Tom’s home. The rancher was wounded, but survived. Tom’s brother Sam Higgs was actually related by marriage to Goodnight, as Sam’s wife Bethiah Rawls Higgs was a sister of Goodnight’s wife Elizabeth. So, Sam Higgs was Goodnight’s brother in law. The gang was later suspected of robbing J. C. Fisher of Chambers County of an accumulation of cash. The amount was originally reported as being $8,000, but later revised down to $5,000.
A constable out of Palestine named Horace Word, then about 25 years old, along with a local policeman, received information that Goodnight would be arriving in Palestine by train on April 21, 1879. Constable Word was there when Goodnight tried to get off the train. Spotting the officers, Goodnight drew his pistol, but Word got off the first shot, hitting Goodnight in the head. The bullet was said to have entered behind the ear of Goodnight and did not exit. Goodnight was captured and survived a few days before finally succumbing to the wound. At the time of his death, Goodnight was thought to be in his mid to late 30s.
Elizabeth Rawls Goodnight was questioned and found to be in possession of $3,500 that was suspected of having been stolen from Fisher. Another $725 was found on Hugh Merrick, an associate of Doc Goodnight. Both Merrick and Mrs. Goodnight affirmed that the money belonged to Fisher. Mrs. Goodnight also provided some additional background on her husband, saying that he had moved to Texas from near Quincy, Illinois about a year before their marriage. She also said that Doc Goodnight had served under General William T. Sherman in the Union Army during the Civil War. The trunk that Doc Goodnight had been traveling with was found to include a set of false whiskers, masks and, oddly enough, a set of surgical instruments. These discovery of these articles and the recovery of the rest of the money appears to have closed the Fisher case.
Mrs. Goodnight’s statement leads to a roster of Union soldiers from Illinois. In the 50th Infantry Regiment, Company E (or F), there is listed a William E. Goodnight who entered the Army and was discharged at the end of the war at the rank of private. If he was born around 1848, Goodnight would have been a teenager all during the war.
Elizabeth Rawls Goodnight died in 1883, a little over four years after Doc Goodnight was shot and killed. The three surviving sons, John, Henry and Wade all went to live with their relatives before being transferred to the Buckner Orphanage in Dallas, Texas. They all eventually married and raised families of their own. One worked for the Post Office in Dallas and another worked for the company that made Fritos.
It is unknown now long Constable Word remained in law enforcement, but he was elected Tax Assessor in Palestine in 1884. Hugh Merrick claimed to have been “bulldozed” into running with Goodnight. He was eventually convicted of another robbery known as the Walker case and was sentenced to ten years in jail. As for Doc Goodnight, the cases against him ended with his death. His burial place is thought to be in or around Palestine, though the actual location is unknown.
Still, some questions remain unanswered. Who was Doc Goodnight? Who were his parents? Was William E. Goodnight his real name? Was he a physician? Even with current resources, Goodnight’s background still remains a mystery.
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