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· Charles Collins (1845-1906)
It’s Friday, October 7, 1927. Houston Whiteside, retired attorney-at-law, resident of Hutchinson, Kansas, since May 1872, is celebrating his 81st birthday at the Masonic Hall. Judge Whiteside has been encouraged to recall the good ‘ole days.
Reno County Sheriff Fay Brown, 36, the newest member of the Masons, has known Houston Whiteside for over a decade, mostly through fellowship in the Knights of Pythias. Since Whiteside retired in 1909, before Brown joined the Hutchinson Police force, the lawman never observed the well-known and well-respected attorney practice law in the courtroom.
“What do you recall about the first sheriff of the county,” asked Fay.
“We were friends. Charles Collins died too young,” began Whiteside. “He was only two years older than me, but he passed on at age 61 in 1906. He was never the same after his wife, Loretta McMillan, was killed in Los Angeles in a street car accident a year before his death. He brooded over her loss, and failed in his own health.
“In his youth, Collins was a tall man with eyes as black as his wavy, long hair, and with a commanding manner,” recalled Whiteside.
“I beat the first train to Hutchinson, but the first sheriff beat me here,” said Whiteside. “Charles Collins was appointed by the Governor as sheriff in the unorganized county and then was elected to the office at Reno County’s first election on March 12, 1872. Like all the other county candidates on the ballot that day, he faced no opposition. He was just 27 years old. But in 1871, Collins, who was one of the first settlers here—he took up a claim in the sand hills—helped Clinton Carter Hutchinson locate and stake out the town that would bear Hutchinson’s name.
“Collins was the first lawman to settle in the unorganized county. He carried a Deputy U. S. Marshal’s commission upon his arrival here, having become a U.S. Marshal while working as the first city marshal of Topeka. He not only knew William F. Cody, or ‘Buffalo Bill’, but he arrested him on several occasions when Cody and his men were having a good time. They became friends.
“C. C. Hutchinson didn’t want his town to become a lawless cow town of the wild west. Instead, he promoted it as ‘the banner temperance town’ of Kansas. When a fellow from Newton with two barrels of whiskey, two frowsy-headed women, a tent, and a wagon, set up his operation without consent on the banks of Cow Creek, C. C. Hutchinson sought the help of Deputy U.S. Marshal Collins. The marshal visited the Cow Creek den of sin, told them they were all under arrest for selling whiskey in an unorganized county, then escorted them to jail in Newton.”
Whiteside started laughing, just thinking about the story he was going to tell. “I used to give my friend a hard time about being a crook, prior to becoming a lawman. Even though Charles was born in Montgomery, Alabama, he fought for the Union. At the age of 12 he and his family moved to Leavenworth, Kansas. Four years later, at the outset of the war, the 16 year-old enlisted twice without his parents’ consent. Each time his father tracked him down and brought him home. Finally, on his third enlistment, still patriotic and anxious to serve his country, he traveled with young friends to St. Louis, and enlisted under the fictitious name of Michael Crook and claimed to be of foreign birth. He served in the Fifth United States Artillery for nearly three years under the name of Crook. That’s why I always told Collins that before he was sheriff, he was a crook.”
“Judge, did enlisting under a fictitious name, prevent him from collecting a pension?” asked a Mason in the crowd.
“He never filed,” answered Whiteside. “Of course, the pension system evolved. Originally, Union soldiers were required to be disabled as a result of their service. Later, as the veterans aged, they were eligible if they were unable to do manual labor whether they were wounded or not.
“Never was a man more loyal to his friends than Charles Collins,” continued Whiteside. “He was a secretive man until you got to know him. I suppose living in Leavenworth prior to the Civil War may have been a factor. Lawrence was the territorial capital of Kansas abolitionism. While the Kansas territory was home to many from the South, those settling in and around Leavenworth, learned early that a man’s politics, especially in reference to slavery, was potentially life threatening. Pro-slavery vigilance committees terrorized the territory, killing, lynching, tarring-and-feathering.
“Like me, Charles grew up in a family that owned slaves. I was born and bred near Shelbyville, Tennessee, a state with slavery. Our sympathies were divided. We were slave holders, and had no use for abolitionists, and yet we were not secessionists. Tennessee was loyal to the union.”
Houston considered referring to his own war injury, his crippled arm.
Russell, Houston’s father, died in 1854 when Houston was six. His father’s two brothers left home together for the war, one enlisting in the Union Army, and the other in the Confederate forces, and they fought against each other. One was killed at Chickamauga, wearing the blue; the other was badly wounded, as a rebel.
“Tennessee was in the path of the armies,” said Whiteside, “and hardly a week passed throughout the long years of the war but soldiers of either the Union Army or the Confederate passed through Bedford County.
“We were constantly raided by one side or the other seeking food and forage. Part of my work during the war was to hide out with the stock, and try to keep the animals hidden from the soldiers.
“When the war came, I was a youth of 15. Instead of trying to enlist like Collins, I served with other young men of the community in a patrol guard, an armed and mounted force. We sought to preserve the peace against the bandits and marauders.”
It was on patrol that I was severely wounded, Whiteside thought to himself, as he touched his useless arm and remembered the first, sharp pain before passing out.
“I was 15, and now I’m 81,” said Whiteside. “It was a long time ago, but it feels like it was only yesterday.”
Note: There are conflicting records for the birth year of Charles Collins. Some, like his gravestone, use 1844. Others, including his obituary, use 1845.
Until next time, happy writing and reading.