Fallen Heroes: Officer William F. Weiss

Nelson Zoch

July 30, 1901

In the summer of 1901, there resided in Houston two brothers from Powder Springs, Georgia. These two young men were cocky, confident and seemingly of means beyond appearance. They were J. T. Vaughn and his brother Newt. Their apartment/business was at 1113½ Congress Avenue between Fannin and San Jacinto. It was common knowledge in the community that they were well supplied with money since they were in the money-lending business. J. T. also was a law student at the time. It was reported that their father and a brother practiced medicine in their home state of Georgia.

Policing in the downtown area of Houston in 1901 involved the dedicated Houston officers who were charged with keeping the peace and at the same time provided some protection for one another. Their jobs didn’t yet include the convenience of radios or vehicles. Any “report” came from the officers personally witnessing a crime or from citizens’ word of mouth.

At 7 p.m. Monday, July 29, 1901, J. T. Vaughn, later described as having a “propensity for strong drink and drinking sprees,” was arrested by Officer Herman Youngst for discharging a pistol through a window in his apartment. Officer Youngst booked him in jail but Vaughn was released about 11 p.m. that same night. Once he got this freedom J. T. Vaughn set out to find the arresting officer, claiming that his watch and $25 was missing from the effects he reclaimed upon leaving the jailhouse. He returned to the area around Yadon’s Saloon at the corner of Congress and San Jacinto. Yadon’s was a popular place among locals who had the means to buy themselves drinks.

  1. T. found his brother Newt and told him about his missing cash and watch. At about the same time, their attorney, R. E. Kahn, with whom the two brothers had transacted considerable business, was walking toward Yadon’s for a nightcap. He had just left the nearby Red Men’s Hall, where he was a respected member.

The Vaughn brothers advised Kahn of the situation and he went in search of the arresting officer, Herman Youngst. While en route, they met Officer William F. Weiss, to whom Kahn explained the details of the missing money and watch. Officer Weiss, also a member of the Red Men’s Lodge, was apparently a welcome ear to Kahn and J. T. Vaughn, his disgruntled client. Several citizens later identified as witnesses said it appeared to them that a conversation between Youngst, Weiss, Kahn and the Vaughn brothers went well. Officer Youngst said he had no idea what Vaughn was talking about and, further, that if J. T. Vaughn had any property missing, he needed to go back to the police station in the morning to claim it.

Apparently, Kahn was satisfied at this point but J. T. Vaughn was not ready to put this matter to rest for the night. Officer Bill Weiss, an acquaintance of Kahn’s from the Red Men’s organization, was standing nearby during the conversation involving Vaughn and Youngst. It is whether J. T. Vaughn was intoxicated at this point, but it is safe to say he was definitely agitated over the matter. Information from an independent witness, Dick Miller, indicated the following chain of events leading up to the tragedy:

  1. T. Vaughn pointed toward Officer Weiss and said, “Maybe he got it.” Whereupon Weiss responded, “I don’t know anything about it.” As the officer turned to walk away, Vaughn continued with the words, “Maybe you would, too.”

Weiss grew somewhat agitated. With authority, he stated to Vaughn, “Don’t you accuse me of anything like that” and raised his club.  Newt Vaughn stepped in between his brother and the officer, provoking Weiss to push him back.

“Don’t step between us when I am talking to your brother or I will let you have it too,” Weiss said.  “If you are looking for trouble, I can whip you without my club.”

  1. T. Vaughn then reached for his hip, pulling out a pistol from his pants. He shot Weiss four times, causing the officer to fall to the street, mortally wounded.

Officers J. C. James and Henry Lee were sitting in front of the station on Caroline when they heard the shots. They ran down to the corner of San Jacinto and Congress, where they found Officer Youngst standing near the body of Officer Weiss, who was already dead at the scene. Youngst told them that “they” did it and that “they” were inside the saloon.

All three officers charged inside Yadon’s, where they were told that Vaughn “did it” and that he had run out the back door. Officers Lee and James then pursued the suspect, who ran north on San Jacinto and west on Franklin before making the block by running back south on Fannin and east on Congress.

A gun battle between the two officers and Vaughn ensued around the block. Officer Rabouln and Special Officer Quinby followed, ready to help their fellow officers.

Another witness, M. A. Grant, saw the latter part of this event. Grant and his family occupied rooms upstairs in the building adjoining the Vaughn brothers’ rooms. Grant was a witness to the shooting earlier in the evening that led to Officer Youngst’s arrest of J. T. Vaughn. Grant heard the gunfire that killed Weiss and started downstairs to investigate when J. T. Vaughn met him on the stairway. Vaughn proceeded to push him aside, causing Grant to go back upstairs to protect his wife. Vaughn followed, running into their sitting room.

Grant had personal experience with Vaughn and was well aware of his propensity for strong drink. Thinking he was under the influence of liquor, he pushed Vaughn out into the hallway. In doing so, Vaughn was silhouetted, gun in hand. Officers Lee and James began firing at Vaughn, wounding him and causing him to stagger down the stairs. He fell down, not fifty feet from where the slain Officer Weiss lay. Newt Vaughn was allowed to go to his brother and, along with the other officers, heard his brother’s last words: “I died game.”

Then he breathed his last breath, leaving his .41-caliber pistol in the stairway.

After Sergeant Busey arrived, Yadon’s Saloon was shut down for the night. Justice of the Peace Malsch arrived and held an inquest into the deaths of Officer Weiss and his deceased assailant, J. T. Vaughn. On orders from Justice Malsch, an autopsy was performed on the body of Weiss, who had been taken to the Westheimer undertaking establishment. There the judge continued his inquest as the autopsy was performed.

Two .41-caliber slugs were found in Officer Weiss, one that had passed through his heart and another very near it. Both were determined to be sufficient to cause his death. The judge also ruled that the wounds were inflicted from very close range – Weiss’ clothing contained powder burns.

  1. T. Vaughn was removed to the undertaking establishment of Ross and Wright. While no autopsy was ordered on him, Justice Malsch determined his cause of death was from one bullet wound to his abdomen. His brother Newt was taken into custody for questioning and investigators released him after concluding he had no part in the death of Officer Weiss. Newt was allowed to send messages to his brother and parents in Dallas and Powder Springs, Georgia.

William A. “Willie” Weiss was born in Houston on March 7, 1870. His parents were Mr. and Mrs. J. F. Weiss. Besides his mother and father, he left a wife and two small children. Funeral services for the beloved officer were held at his residence at 215 LaBranch at 4 p.m. Wednesday, July 31, 1901. The services were under the auspices of the Little Elk Tribe No. 94, Improved Order of the Red Men and the Maccabees, both organizations who were proud to have Willie Weiss as a member.

In addition to the members of these fraternities, the entire night police force attended as active and honorary pallbearers. The night police force met at police headquarters at 3 p.m. and marched to the residence. Active pallbearers were Deputy Chief Henry Thompson, Sergeants J. C. Busey and Charles Williford and Chief Clerk William Kessler. Serving as honorary pallbearers were Officers Lee, James, Bernner, Lahey, Gossett, Patrick, Whittington, Youngst, Newhoff, Higgins, Proctor, Howard, Charlton, Cahill, and Night Clerk Krum. Burial followed at Glenwood Cemetery on Washington Avenue.

A newspaper account about the effects Officer Weiss’ death had on the community included this passage:

 

“Officer Weiss, very popular as an officer and as a citizen. The lawyer at the bar, the clerk behind the counter, the blacksmith as he shod a refractory colt chewing an unaccustomed bit, the street car motorman as he turned on and off the mysterious currents that propel the cars. All who knew the dead officer joined in some kind of tribute to him. At the police station the customary show of solemn bleak was made, and the crepe by the door was but the trappings and suits of woe which was felt by every member of the department with whom this reporter talked.”

 

Officer Weiss was the fifth known HPD officer to give his life in the line of duty, the first in ten years and the first in the 20th century. What followed just four short months later continued a sad trend for the entire century. Weiss’s gravesite was located at Glenwood Cemetery. From the handsome marker placed on his family plot, it appears his survivors were people of means.

His marker reads:

William A. Weiss, March 7, 1870-July 30, 1901.

 

“There was an angel choir in heaven that was not quite complete,

so God took our darling Willie to fill the vacant seat.”

 

With the wonderful cooperation of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Ambrus at Glenwood Cemetery, an additional marker was placed at the foot of Officer Weiss’s grave in 2004. This marker is the LINE OF DUTY foot marker provided by the 100 Club of Houston and Harris County. Mr. and Mrs. Ambrus and Glenwood Cemetery donated the installation costs.

There is one other HPD Officer killed in the Line of Duty interred at Glenwood. That is Officer Rufus Daniels, one of five Houston police officers killed in 1917 during the Camp Logan riot. His gravesite has never had a marker.