The Sons of Katie Elder is a western movie classic. Who can forget the tale of four brothers falsely accused of the murder of a popular sheriff, chained together and fighting off a vicious mob? What is not typically known is that this movie was very loosely based on the story of a family that resided in our great state.
The tale reads like the fictional work of American storyteller Louis L’Amour, but the story of courage and gunplay is true. In this case, the men at the center of the action weren’t named Elder – they were the Marlows.
During the early 1880s the Marlow family settled in Indian Territory in the present-day southwestern town of Marlow, located just 15 minutes north of Duncan. The father, Dr. Williamson Marlow treated the sick and injured in the area, while his second wife Martha Jane ran the household. Their five sons, George, Charlie, Alfred, Boone and Lewellyn, made a living farming and doing the occasional odd job. It wasn’t long after Dr. Marlow’s death that the Marlow family experienced a series of dramatic and fatal events.
In 1885, Boone Marlow shot and killed a cowboy in Vernon, Texas. Boone claimed self-defense, stating the cowboy fired the first shot, but fearing the jury would find otherwise, he chose to flee the area. By the late 1880s, Martha and her boys had settled in the southern portion of Indian Territory. The boys worked herding horses and selling them to the U.S. Army at the nearby post of Fort Sill.
Four of the five brothers (Alfred, Boone, Charlie, and Lewellyn) were unjustly accused of stealing some of the horses for which they were responsible. When arrest warrants were issued, Deputy U.S. Marshal Ed Johnson arrested and transferred them to the Northwest Federal District Court located in Graham, Texas.
At the time of the arrest, George was out of state. However, once he returned home, he traveled to Graham to attempt to clear his family’s name. Unfortunately, he soon found himself behind bars, too.
All five brothers were indicted but made bail and were released to await trial.
It was during this time that the Deputy U.S. Marshall Johnson learned of Boone’s run-in with the law and issued a warrant for Boone’s arrest. Johnson sent Young County Sheriff Marion Wallace and Deputy Tom Collier to the Marlow cabin to arrest Boone. There are conflicting stories as to what happened, but Sheriff Wallace was shot. Lewellyn was arrested while riding to Graham for a doctor, and Charlie was arrested. Alfred and George hadn’t been home during the fight, but were arrested soon as well. Boone managed to slip away and escape arrest.
During the time the four brothers were held in jail, rumors circulated about a lynching. A mob tried to break into the jail to take justice into their own hands, but were unsuccessful. The Marlow brothers attempted to escape, hacking through the wall of the cell. Unfortunately, the brother’s freedom was short lived, and they were recaptured.
An order came down to transfer the bothers to a jail in Dallas for their safety, and they left during the dark of night. George and Lewellyn were shackled together, as were Alfred and Charlie. Just a couple miles east of Graham the convoy was ambushed by a mob composed of 15 to 40 people. George Marlow eventually testified that the guards who were supposed to be protecting them actually provided the mob with weapons.
Because of their shackles, the prisoners could not run or hide, but managed to get to the wagon carrying the extra guns and ammunition. They held out until the mob retreated, but unfortunately both Lewellyn and Alfred were killed, leaving their injured brothers shackled to their dead sibling. One guard and two mob members were also dead.
George and Charlie had to free themselves from their brothers by cutting off the shackled feed of Lewellyn and Alfred. They went back to their home, expecting the mob to return at any time.
Sadly, Boone was poisoned and shot to death for reward money, though his killers and the angry mob were ultimately brought to justice. George and Charlie were later acquitted and moved away to become law enforcement officers. Visitors can still see artifacts from the original Marlow family at the Marlow Area Museum.