Texas Gun Collectors Association


Fifteen years ago we were attending an auction in Missouri, buying inventory for our antique furniture store in South Dakota. As we were standing in line to pay and begin loading for a long trip home, a young lady and her mother came over and introduced themselves as Beverly and Tara Helin. Tara informed us she had inherited a large collection from her late father, Gary Helin, a collection which included antique guns and Old West items. They were trying to figure out the best way to dispose of the collection and approached us because we “looked upstanding and like professionals”.

We arranged to meet them in Kansas City that night to look at the items. Tara started by showing us the book Colts from Texas and The Old West by Jerry R. Hemphill which featured several of her father’s Colts including the US Marshal Henry Parnell’s Colt and holster which was pictured on the book’s dust jacket.

It would be an understatement to say that what we saw when we made our way to her basement to view the other stored items had us shocked and amazed. These were the items her dad had spent years collecting, many from his home town of Dodge City. As we looked through the items it was clear Gary had kept impeccable records of almost all of the history and/or provenance associated with each item she showed us. One such record is the subject of this article.

Our visit ran late into the night. We talked about ideas, made suggestions and accepted several consignments for the South Dakota store. The visit revealed one very important thing, Tara was feeling a huge weight on her shoulders and a grave sense of responsibility to do her Dad proud in dispersing the items he had spent years collecting, and giving the collection the justice it deserved. We spoke for hours about his love of collecting historically significant Old West items.

As we left that night, arrangements were made to return after a few weeks to pick up some of the items she was ready to part with. She gave us a copy of the Colts from Texas and The Old West


which she inscribed to “Rick and Margi - Keep your powder dry”, a quote her dad often used and one I’ve never forgotten. Later Tara decided not to sell  
the collection but asked to keep in touch from time to time with Margi. Periodically I’d pull the book out of our library and wonder what happened to her and all those wonderful guns?

ready to part with. She gave us a copy of the Colts from Texas and The Old West which she inscribed to “Rick and Margi - Keep your powder dry”, a quote her dad often used and one I’ve never forgotten.

Fast forward to the future; late last summer the ‘phone rang at 9:00 pm one Sunday evening. It was Beverly sadly informing us of Tara’s untimely death and to invite us to the local area auction where all of Gary’s remaining items would be sold. Many of the items we had seen all those years earlier were purchased days later as we rummaged through box lots, books, etc. trying to piece together the provenance that once accompanied each item, now scattered throughout the sale, a stark reminder for all of us to make certain our collections have been kept safe and in order. We still have provenance and letters pertaining to items that may have been sold before the sale on that day. Several of the items sold at that little auction including the US Marshal Henry Purnell Colt will be sold again at auction, April 28, 2018 by Dakota Plains Auction Co.

The account reproduced below was written by the late Gary Helin, we believe some time in the 1980’s. As well as being an account of how he acquired the subject revolver, it is also a report on the events in which the revolver’s original owner, a U.S. Marshal, was caught up during a tumultuous time in the history of Texas. This account is reproduced verbatim in its entirety, with no effort being made to correct errors in spelling, punctuation or grammar; it remains in the voice of Mr. Helin.

[Editor's note: I have taken the liberty of inserting images germane to the story into the body of this account; it is my opinion that these images help bring a little more life into the story.]



One cold winter morning in November of 1982, I was scanning the Denver Post Gun Ad section, as I had done many times, being a collector of old firearms. I noticed a small ad: Colt Single Action, Production 1875, Must Sell. After calling and discussing the gun for a few moments on the phone with the seller, it was agreed to meet in Shepler’s Parking lot in Denver to view the gun. From the phone conversation, I had learned that the gun was of nickel finish, 7-1⁄2 inch barrel, ivory grips with 3 notches on the right side, a carving of a Mexican Eagle and Snake on the left grip, and a man’s name inscribed on the butt strap, which the seller said he couldn’t make out. A true Gunfighter Gun, to say the least, I was excited, and although the weather was deteriorating outside, the snow was coming down in sheets and already accumulations on the ground, I fired up my V.W. and headed for Denver, a distance of 40 or so miles. The seller was very discreet about the gun and would only state that he

  had purchased it many years ago. and had to sell it now, as he had lost his job. He also had the original holster, all neatly packed in an old shoe box. My pesos literally flew from my wallet and I was the proud owner of a piece of the old west. All the way home I kept looking at the gun and holster laying on the seat beside me. The gun was of a very dull nickel finish and the old ivory grips were yellowed and tarnished from their many years of use. The three notches were a dull
  BUTT INSCIBED HENRY P. PURNELL   brown against the pale yellow finish, as well as the deep carvings around the Eagle and Snake. I could barely make out the name inscribed at the bottom of the grips, Henry P. Purnell in old English script.

After a few days of studying the gun and holster, I decided that I would research this piece of history and try to find out who this Henry P. Purnell was, and what part he may have played in this era that I was so interested in, The Old West. The holster was marked W.T. Wroe & Sons, Austin, Texas, Maker, so why not start in Texas with the Texas State Library? A letter was quickly drawn up and mailed, hoping this would bring results, but not really expecting any, as the chances of finding a name in history on an old gun, and being able to trace it to a historical event or a person of any great statue was very slim to none.

How wrong I was, after about 5 or 6 days had detail of maker’s mark passed, and I was out picking up the mail as I did each on Holster - W.t. Wroe Butt inscriBed Henry P. Purnell morning around 10 a.m., among the junk mail and bills I spotted a letter from the Texas State Library. Inside was a copy from the city director from Austin Texas dated 1877. Among the names toward the center of the

page I spotted a name underlined in ink, Henry P. Purnell, U.S. Marshall, Western District of Texas. My heart raced inside me as many things flashed through my mind. Could this be a true piece of Texas history? Was this really a U.S. Marshall’s gun? What is the rest of the story behind the pages of history concerning this gun? Could I find out? After many phone calls and clippings from newspapers and research at the Texas State Library, and also having located a direct descendent of the family, Thomas H. Purnell, Jr. in San Antonio, Texas, the story of the gun and a great part of early Texas history started to unfold right in front of me.

Henry Purnell’s father, Thomas Fassitt Purnell was born in Worcester County, State of Maryland,

May 3rd 1820. His mother having died during his birth, and father dying a short time after this, Thomas was raised by relatives and attended the schools in Maryland until the age of 12. At this time, he was sent to live with another relative in Philadelphia to work in a Dry Goods store and remained at this trade until 21 years of age. Having met a fine young lady at the store and falling in love with her, he married Carrie Ariadne Waller in the year 1847. Thomas and Carrie Purnell had 4 children--3 boys, Henry Porter Purnell, Thomas Leland Purnell, Edward Purnell. All these boys were to serve as U.S. Marshalls under their father in Austin in the 1870’s. They



had one daughter, Carrie Glenn Purnell, who would serve a part in Texas also, as the wife of Andrew Jackson Houston, the son of the great Sam Houston.

Thomas and his family eventually moved to Indianapolis Indiana and engaged in the Mercantile

Business there until the Civil War broke out. At the event of the war, Thomas Fassitt was appointed by the Governor of  
Indiana as quartermaster of the 34th Regiment, Indiana Vol, and when the fall of Vicksburg occurred, President Lincoln made him a Captain and after the fall of Mobile he was promoted to Major, and carried this title until his death.

When the Civil War ended, Thomas decided to move again. This time to Marshall, Texas where he was instated as Collector of Taxes for Harrison County until the year 1869. by now he was very well known in the political world and to President Grant, who appointed him U.S. Marshall of the western District of Texas, an area covering almost three-quarters of the State of Texas. He was to hold this office for over 2 full terms, with his sons, now grown, Henry, Thomas L., and Ed for a time, serving as U.S. Marshalls for him. With their office being in Austin on Congress Avenue and Mulberry Streets.


This was a very wild and turbulent time for Texas. A lot of the big cattle drivestHomas facett Purnell originated in Austin and from its surrounding area, and were headed north to Dodge City or other railheads, for there shipment back east. Many noted bad men and outlaws used Austin as their home base, or passed through Austin to seek their destiny. The Purnells had to deal with the likes of John Wesley Hardin, who was in the Austin City jail in 1877, and characters like the famous Ben Thompson, noted killer and gunfighter.

Edmond Jackson Davis, who was a leader of the Republican party in Texas, and also a leader of the almost successful attempt to divide Texas into 3 states, was to play an important role in Texas history as well as a big part in the destiny of the 4 U.S. Marshalls now in office. He won the election for Governor of Texas in 1869 over A.J. Hamilton, also a former Union Officer. Davis had the support of the Military and of President Grant's administration, yet he won by only 800 votes out of a total of 78,993 cast. His administration was unpopular. Riots and temporary reigns of terrors resulted from the activities of Governor Davis' State police, and the frequent imposition of Martial Law. By 'Carpet Bag Constitution'the Governor was empowered to appoint 8,000 state, county, and local officials, leaving only a small percentage left to be elected by popular vote. State police patrolled polling places, intimidated voters and stuffed ballot boxes. In 1872, the ex-official chief of force, Adjutant General James Davidson, absconded to Belgium with over $37,000 of state funds. Davis' State Police broke up Democratic rallies, entered private homes without warrants, made false arrests, tampered with elections, and permitted prisoners to escape from Huntsville Prison. They arrested 3,475 persons in a 14 month period. Frank Brittan, Governor Davis' brother-in-law replaced James Davidson as the State's Adjudant General.

At the next election for governor in 1873, Richard Coke pulled more than 40,000 votes more than Davis but Davis declared the Election void, and unconstitutional and refused to leave office. He appealed to President Grant for federal troops, the new Governor Coke and then elected Democratic Legislature organized an administration on the second floor of the Capital Building guarded by the Travis Rifles, while ex-Governor Davis, guarded by a company of Negro troops held the ground floor. Armed conflict seemed eminent but after several days, Grant wired Davis refusing federal support and Davis was forced to leave the capital, being escorted by U.S. Marshall Purnell and his 3 sons.

This political uproar led directly to the long and embittered conflict between the ex-Governor Davis and Frank Brittan faction and the Purnells, with the noted newspaper of the time, The Austin Statesman’s billing the feud almost daily. One such article headlined: Ex-Governor Davis gets a Caning, U.S. Marshall Henry Purnell fined $50.00 in court yesterday for hitting Ex-Governor Davis over the head with a cane. Another article reads:


Henry Purnell was fined in court for threatening the very life of ex-Governor Davis’ brother-in-law, Frank Brittan, chasing him down Congress Avenue with a bright nickel revolver in his hand, shouting that he was gong to kill him. Another such case involved Henry’s brother, Thomas Leland, who backed Frank Brittan back into a corner and threatened him with a double barreled shotgun.

This and many other confrontations led to a trip Frank Brittan made to Washington to speak to the President and the Attorney General of the U.S. in regards to the conduct of the 4 U.S. Marshalls and the abuse of their office in Austin. Frank Brittan succeeded in arousing suspicion on the part of the Purnell's in Washington and it put the Marshalls job on the line, so to speak, as he was reprimanded by a wire from the President’s office for his actions.

By the time Brittan had returned from Washington, happy over his deed, the Purnells were in a steam and waiting for him. This set the stage for one of the last true standup gunfights to take place in Austin.

At the hour of 5:00 p.m., August 9th, 1877, the Lawman and the Lawyer approached each other on Congress Avenue. From the many witnesses at the scene, a blast of words were exchanged between Thomas Purnell and Frank Brittan, and in another instant gun smoke filled the air. Brittan, being the first to get his gun into action, shot Purnell hitting him fully in the left shoulder and firing a second

bullet at the wounded opponent, striking him in the chest area, just above the fourth rib.  
bullet at the wounded opponent, striking him in the chest area, just above the fourth rib. Marshall Purnell staggered down Congress Avenue, and finally fell into a construction area of a new building being built. Shouting loudly, “I’m killed, I’m killed.” He was rushed to a general store nearby, shirt removed and the wounds inspected, and later carried to the doctor’s office. Frank Brittan being arrested by local police. U.S. Marshall  
Purnell was saved from death, but a few weeks later had to have his arm removed because of the wound.

Frank Brittan was brought to trial for the shooting of a U.S. Marshall but after much deliberations and statements from eye witnesses, was released, stating it was all in self defense.

Shortly after this he was said to have left the Austin area for South Texas, and was never to be heard of again. Some individuals feel that Henry Purnell had a lot to do with this, and could account for one of the notches on his gun.

After finishing his term as U.S. Marshall, Thomas Fassitt served several duties for Texas. First, Justice of the Peace, then U.S. Postal clerk, and finally assessor and collector of taxes. He passed away on December 30th, 1894.

Edward Purnell, after his term as Marshall, left Texas for Helena Montana, and was successful in the mining business until his death there in the mid 1920’s. Thomas Leland held many positions in Austin for many years, one being a large cotton buyer for the area, dying in Austin, May 14th, 1929.

Henry Purnell stayed with law enforcement in the Austin area, and it is known from a hand written letter in 1879 to the then governor, Governor Peace of Texas, he applied for the job of collector of customs in Galveston. Whether he got the job or not is not known. At the time of this letter he was engaged to Governor Peace’s daughter, Julian Peace. The Austin City Directory lists him as a deputy Sheriff at the beginning of the year 1885.


One of Henry’s favorite sports was quail hunting, while on a hunt one day, after returning to his mule for the ride home, his transportation at the time, he found the mule being attacked by a swarm of bees. Rushing in to free the mule, he was accidentally kicked in the head by the bucking animal. This apparently caused some type of brain damage, and he slowly started acting strange, acting incoherent at times, and doing many strange things. This led to his admission to the Texas State Asylum in the last part of 1885. He remained under their care until November 19th


1891, at which time he was declared cured and released. Some time elapsed and he seemed to be doing alright, but on December 29th of the same year, he went to a friend’s house and asked if he could borrow his double barreled shotgun, as he wanted to go hunting. The gun was loaned to him and he took a buckboard to the State Asylum, approached the grounds, and was walking up the steps of the main building when confronted by the superintendent of the asylum. Nobody knows for sure what happened, and what words were said, but Henry fired both barrels at Dr. Reeves, killing him

instantly. Witnesses said he calmly backed down the steps, loaded himself and gun in the buckboard and returned to town and turned himself in to the authorities. Within minutes the asylum grounds were crawling with people, including the Governor and several other prominent figures of Texas. Everybody wanted to know what had happened.

Henry was placed in jail and a murder trail was set. During the trial, nobody could come up with a motive for the shooting and Henry, after much questioning on the stand, would only state that he had a very good reason for killing Dr. Reeves, but

  could not divulge the information to anyone. Some talk was made at the Asylum that it involved a young nurse that Henry was fond of and somehow Dr. Reeves had interfered and threatened this relationship somehow. This was never proven.

On April 15, 1982, the jury found Henry P. Purnell insane, and therefore unable to account for his actions. All proceedings were dropped and he was to return to the asylum until such time he could be declared sane and could stand trial. He was admitted back to the Texas State asylum shortly thereafter and placed on the 3rd floor in a small room, in solitary confinement. It was said at the time of his death, Sept. 15, 1909, that he had not left his room for over 17 years. It is also known that Julian Peace remained unmarried and visited him regularly, bringing him newspapers, and other articles for his benefit and remained his friend until death. He is buried in Oakwood cemetery, Austin Texas. One of the few people of

record of Henry Purnell’s death the Purnell clan left, Thomas A. Purnell, now living in San Antonio, was very helpful in the research of the Purnell family and the gun. He is retired from the San Antonio Police Department as Detective Investigator for more than 30 years.

The Colt 45 Serial No. 20816 which Henry Purnell carried the day he threatened Frank Brittan’s life on the streets of Austin over 100 years ago in the 1870’s is still owned by the original purchaser of the gun on that cold winter morning in November of 1982.



Although the account above is unsigned and undated it is part of the documentation that came with the revolver; to place its authenticity beyond doubt, the notarized affidavit hereunder, sworn to and signed by Henry Purnell’s great nephew Thomas A. Purnell, Jr. should be evidence enough.