Murder at Fort Graham

Josephus Steiner
  Dr. Josephus Steiner

When a man is murdered at an army post, it is news now and it was news back in the days of frontier army forts.

Dr. Josephus Steiner, the first doctor to practice in the area that was to become Hill County, was beloved by early settlers because of his willingness to travel many miles in all kinds of weather to care for the sick of the community. In the fall of 1853, just after Hill County was founded, the doctor was stationed at Fort Graham as the army surgeon.

Commanding officer and West Point graduate Major Ripley Arnold felt that he had been unjustly investigated by the military because of a report from Dr. Steiner regarding the sale of government horses, and they had little respect for each other.  On the day before the fort was to be closed and the army transferred, Arnold sent Lieutenant Richard Anderson to arrest Dr. Steiner for drunken and disorderly conduct the prior evening.  The doctor denied the charge and then a second charge of falsifying was placed against him.

A volley of shots followed.  Bystanders later gave conflicting reports about who fired the first shot, but either way, Major Arnold had been killed. What followed was a series of legal shenanigans with all the ingredients of a comic opera.

 Lt. Richard Anderson
Lt. Richard Anderson  

The Army maintained it was a clear case for court martial [more].  The citizens of Hill County disagreed, saying it was a civilian matter that should be tried in the new county courthouse in Hillsboro. Steiner knew that he could easily be convicted in a military trial whereas an acquittal was almost assured in a civilian trial.

In April of 1854, Steiner failed to appear in Austin for the court martial proceedings. Lieutenant Anderson, who was in Austin to testify, was sent to bring Steiner back. Along with sixteen men, Anderson arrived at Ft. Graham, arrested Steiner, and began the trip back to Austin.

When the Hill County sheriff learned of this, he headed to Waco.  There, he convinced local law authorities that Steiner rightfully should be in the custody of Hill County law enforcement, claiming that Anderson and his group overcame guards, broke down doors, and forcibly took Steiner out of the county. Steiner was freed, and the lieutenant returned to Austin without his man.

Anderson, who later had the distinction of being the man who fired the first shot of the Civil War in the harbor of Fort Sumter, South Carolina,  made several attempts to return Dr. Steiner to Austin.  One time when Anderson had arrested Steiner and they were once again on their way south, a group of Hill County men heard about the situation and headed to Waco.  The group included County Judge Dyer, who operated the Towash Mill, and others.  The rescuers reached Waco first and came up with a plan with a group of Waco men who were friends of both Anderson and Steiner.  The lieutenant fell into the trap, was overpowered, and forced to release Dr. Steiner.

After all of this, the civilian trail was finally held.  Witnesses included soldiers who were at the fort on the day of the murder. Major Arnold’s threat, "I will put him out of the way.  He shall not live to give evidence against me," was verified on the stand.

The jury deliberated for an hour after all of the evidence was presented, and found Dr. Steiner "Not Guilty."  Amidst shouts of joy and a storm of applause, Dr. Steiner was carried away from the courtroom by the cheering crowd.

Anderson was once again in town that day, planning to arrest the doctor yet another time. But after the trial, citizens convinced the lieutenant that a man could not be tried twice for the same offense, and Anderson left town, with Dr. Steiner a free man.

True Texas Tales of the People, Places, and Events of Hill County, Texas