In July 1877, thirty year old James E. Farmer arrived at Fort Sill from Texas having come West after making several bad investments and at the time being in financial turmoil. Soon after arriving, Farmer gained employment with the Indian Agent and was given the job of storekeeper at the agency commissary (1). In such capacity, Farmer joined several other employees including G. Lewis Postalthwaite who was a laborer, likely a farmer, for the agency (2). Farmer had already led a fairly full life before coming to Fort Sill. He was raised in New Orleans, Louisiana which he left at the early age of fifteen. He enlisted in the Confederacy and, following the war, went to Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory where he was a post sutler (3).
On the evening of Saturday, May 17, 1879, Agency doctor, David Mackay, was returning to his office from Fort Sill where he was likely making a call. Postalthwaite had just returned from the Wichita Agency and entered the doctor's office. The two men chatted and shortly thereafter, Postalthwaite produced a bottle of whiskey he had secretly purchased at the Wichita Agency and offered Dr. Mackay a drink which led the doctor to inquire if he could obtain more. Mackay related:
"he [Postalthwaite] said he would have some [whiskey] for me next morning. I said allright[sic] I will be down early. On the road down Sunday morning, I met with Mr. Farmer and a Mr. Richards in an ambulance on their way to church which is close to my house. Postalthwaite winked to me and remarked all right he would have it up there when I returned from my office. After my office work was done I expected to find Farmer and Postalthwaite at church and went there but did not find them. After the service I saw Farmer and he told me that Post[sic] had gone down to tell my wife to get ready to ride out with Farmer's wife and that he had given Post[sic] a vial of whiskey to give to me. I went immediately down to my house and found Postalthwaite there. He said what kept you Dr. or words to that effect. I have been waiting here to give you a rink. He then winked to me to go into the kitchen with him and took from his pocket a six or eight ounce vial half filled with whiskey. He then apologized for having drank the whiskey but that he had waited so long he got thirsty and took a drink by himself" (4).
The plan was for the three men who were apparently very good friends to see the two women, Mrs. Farmer and Mrs. Mackay, off on a joy ride through the countryside while the men whooped it up at the house with what whiskey was available to them. Further, Postalthwaite went on to tell Dr. Mackay that Farmer would be bringing down his new pistol and the three of them could have some target practice with it (5). As Postalthwaite continued, Mackay noticed "his eyes were very much bloodshot andwarned him not to drink too much whiskey". Mackay later described the merriment:
"After the women and children had gone we adjourned to the backyard. Postalthwaite fixed up an old box for a target. Farmer took from his pocket a box of cartridges and we had a merry time firing at the target. After we had got through and in the mean time we had drank up all the whiskey in the vial" (6).
The women soon returned from their ride and the three men strongly urged them to "ride out again". The women took the hint and again left the house. The three friends continued their party:
"After they had gone out the second time, we commenced singing, rehearsing some tunes we intended singing that evening at church, then they both prosed to go up to Farmer's room and get a little more whiskey and they both left for that purpose" (7).
Postalthwaite and Farmer then proceeded to the latter's house. Mackay remained at his own home as a woman with a sick child had just arrived as the two men were heading up the road. Not long after, a black man rode up to Mackay's house and presented the doctor with an old coffee sack stating, "Doctor, Mr. Postalthwaite and Mr. Farmer send this down with their compliments". Taking the sack, Mackay returned to his patient and while he was "fixing up the medicines", Postalthwaite and Farmer entered the house. It was apparent to Mackay that "they had had several drinks since they left" his house. Postalthwaite then said, "for God's sake Dr. hurry up how long are you going to keep Mrs. McBride here". The patient left shortly after and the contents of the coffee sack were revealed to be yet more whiskey. The bottle was being passed around when the ladies again arrived from their ride through the country. Again, the men urged them to go out again and "against their earnest protestations they did leave". The merriment continued with more songs being sung, pipes being lit, and the whiskey bottle being passed (8).
The men were all lying about with Postalthwaite reclining on the side of the bed, Farmer sitting at the foot of the bed, and Mackay pacing slowly about. According to Mackay, the pleasant atmosphere was broken when Postalthwaite suddenly yelled, "Farmer go to hell! I don't care a God-damn for you! You are a God-damned son of a bitch!". Farmer jumped from the bed and reeled hollering a response. Postalthwaite was on his feet in a moment and a brawl ensued. Mackay described the scene:
"Postalthwaite sprang like a tiger from his reclining position and beat Farmer on the head with his closed fist and said through his clenched teeth, God damn you. I will kill you'. They then grappled or they were grappling while he said thatFarmer between him and the fireplace. They wheeled around changing positions. Postalthwaite's hands around Farmer and then he pressed Farmer down on the bed his right hand on Farmer's throat. Then I saw the pistol drawn. Postalthwaite's left hand following the right hand of Farmer that contained the pistol. The pistol went off several times. Post[sic] fell. It all occurred all in a flash and I just had time to say gentlemen, what is this, stop, stop, in the name of God what is this. When he fell I stooped down and felt his pulse. I said then My God, Postalthwaite is dead'. Yes' said Farmer I have killed my best friend but how could I have helped it he would have killed me if I hadn't killed him. You saw him going for my pistol.' Oh' I said God damn the pistol and the whiskey too' and ran out and called for help" (9).
The bullet had hit Postalthwaite in the abdomen and he died immediately. Farmer then told Mackay to take his pistol and asked him to surrender him to the proper authorities. Realizing that he had killed his friend, Farmer "went down on his knees and cried bitterly over the corpse". Shortly after the brawl, Farmer was placed under arrest by Agent Jonathan Richards and delivered to the guardhouse at Fort Sill (10).
Farmer was taken to Fort Sill where he was incarcerated on May 18, 1879 and officials at Fort Smith notified. He was turned over to Deputy U.S. Marshal James H. Mershon along with three other civilian prisoners on May 23, 1879 (11).
Two weeks later, the Fort Smith Elevator of June 6, 1879 reported: "J.H. Mershon, deputy U.S. marshal, brought in seven prisoners from Oklahoma on Wednesday [June 4]. Among the number was James Farmer who killed his friend Postal Waite[sic] at Fort Sill on May 18, while drunk" (12).
It was later realized at the trial that Farmer and Postalthwaite had both been drinking heavily. Dr. Mackay testified that "there had not been an ugly or aggravating word spoken by any of the party until Postalthwaite commenced". Further, the testimony of Dr. Mackay indicated to the jury that the killing was done in self defense and a verdict of "not guilty" was passed down by the jurors. This was in contrast to the version of the event Mackay told to Agent P.B. Hunt shortly after the killing. In a letter to District Attorney William H.H. Clayton on June 27, 1879, Hunt stated:
"I was at Anadarko [Wichita Agency] when the killing occurred, but went down the following day and had Dr. Dan'l McKay[sic] (the only witness to the shooting) make me a statement of the case. That statement would convict Farmer in any court. A case of self- defense cannot be made out of this" (13).
Following the trial at Fort Smith and his subsequent acquittal, Farmer returned to the agency. He described this episode in his life in his memoirs:
"About a year after [arriving at Fort Sill], I was envolved[sic] in a series[sic] fray with another employee which resulted fatally for one of us. At this time and for many years prior, men on the frontier settled their affairs with their guns as there was no law. While I was justified by the U.S. Court at Fort Smith, Arkansas, I was compelled to resign" (14).
Farmer did surrender his employment shortly after his acquittal and headed west to Fort Elliott, Texas where he found work with the Quartermaster Department as a teamster. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1898 at the age of 55 and fought in the Spanish American War. In later years, Farmer was employed with a railroad until about 1916 when, with the United States entering World War One, Farmer gained employment at the shipyards at Seattle, Washington. Following the conclusion of hostilities, Farmer "entered into quite a few little different employments until [he] finally came to the State Training School as a dormitory watchman" where he was working at the time his memoirs were published when he was eighty-one years old (15). The last page of Farmer's story was written when he died on October 28, 1932 at a Masonic Home in Zenith, Washington (16).
1 Farmer, J.E. My Life With the Army in the West: Memoirs of J.E. Farmer. Edited by Dale
F. Giese, Stagecoach Press, Santa Fe, NM: 1967, pg. 60
2 Kiowa Agency Photostats, January 15, 1878, List of Agency Employees; Kiowa Agency,
Passes, July 1, 1873-December 23, 1874, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City,
3 Farmer, 7-8
4 Western District of Arkansas Criminal Case File, James H. Farmer, Jacket #65.
5 The pistol that Farmer had acquired was described in court records as a "self-cocker" and
was most likely either a Colt Model 1877 or Colt Model 1878 double-action revolver.
6 Western District of Arkansas Criminal Case File, James H. Farmer, Jacket #65
7 Western District of Arkansas Criminal Case File, James H. Farmer, Jacket #65
8 Western District of Arkansas Criminal Case File, James H. Farmer, Jacket #65
9 Western District of Arkansas Criminal Case File, James H. Farmer, Jacket #65
10 Western District of Arkansas Criminal Case File, James H. Farmer, Jacket #65.
Further information about the episodes involved in the killing of G. Lewis Postalthwaite were related by George W. Conover in his memoirs, Sixty Years in Southwest Oklahoma. However, there is no mention of Conover in the court records and his version of the events may be incorrect. He states that on May 18, 1879, he went to the office of Dr. McKay[sic] to pick up some medicine. As he arrived, he noticed the doctor and his five year old son going down a path away from the office. Conover stepped up to the office door and was suddenly confronted by Farmer who informed Conover that he had just killed his friend Postalthwaite and was in a state of understandable confusion (Sixty Years in Southwest Oklahoma, by G.W. Conover, pgs. 70-71).
11 Guard Report for January 16, 1879-July 01, 1879; Kiowa Agency Letters Sent, P.B. Hunt
to U.S. Marshal at Fort Smith, May 20, 1879, #260. The names of the other three prisoners are not given in official records. However, the records do state that the three men were received from a deputy marshal on May 22 and then released to him on May 23
12 Fort Smith Elevator, June 6, 1879, pg. 3
13 Kiowa Agency, Letters Sent, September 3, 1878-July 21, 1879, P.B. Hunt to
William H.H. Clayton, June 27, 1879, #440.
14 Farmer, 61
15 Farmer, 67
16 Farmer, 7-9. Shortly after the killing of Postalthwaite, it was reported by Agent Hunt on
July 7 that the estate of the murdered man had been settled (Kiowa Agency, Letters Sent, September 3, 1878-July 21, 1879, P.B. Hunt to E.A. Hayt, July 7, 1879, #468)
Conover, George W. Sixty Years in Southwest Oklahoma. 1926.
Farmer, J.E. My Life With the Army in the West: Memoirs of J.E. Farmer. Edited by Dale
F. Giese, Stagecoach Press, Santa Fe, NM: 1967.
Fort Sill Guard Reports, January 16, 1879-July 1, 1879, Fort Sill Museum Archives, Fort Sill,
Fort Smith Elevator, June 6, 1879, pg. 3, Fort Smith Public Library, Fort Smith, AR.
Kiowa Agency, Letters Sent, September 3, 1878-July 21, 1879, Microfilm #KA8, Oklahoma
Historical Society, Oklahoma City, OK.
Kiowa Agency Photostats, c. 1870-c. 1880, File Copies, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma
Historical Society, Oklahoma City, OK.
Western District of Arkansas Criminal Case File, United States v. James H. Farmer, Jacket #65,
National Archives-Southwest Regional Archives, Fort Worth, TX.
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