The colorful Judge Cooley
The Texas Hill Country has always attracted mavericks, nonconformists and eccentrics. Its history is filled with more characters than the Chinese alphabet and more drama than “The Young and the Restless.”
Judge A.O. Cooley felt the attraction of the Hill Country the first time he saw it. He rode into Gillespie County one day to do some prospecting, lost his horse in Fredericksburg, stopped to hunt him and never left town.
Judge Cooley was born in New York in 1826. He attended college in Tennessee. He was a frontier lawyer, land agent, politician and circuit judge.
Cooley represented Gillespie and surrounding counties in the state legislature between 1857 and 1870. The San Antonio Daily Express described him as a union man and a republican “until the election of 1868 when he became a Hamiltonian, and like so many others, after having passed through the purgatory of liberal republicanism, landed safely in the harbor of the democratic party.”
He soon sailed out of that harbor and became a republican again.
Friends and foes alike respected and feared his quick wit and agile mind. “As a lawyer he had few equals,” a San Antonio reporter wrote. “In any other sphere than the frontier town he had chosen to make his home Judge Cooley would have made a national reputation.”
A colleague who admired the judge but didn’t like him very much called Judge Cooley “one of those creatures whom God Almighty put on this earth for a purpose known only to himself.”
On July 10, 1868, a rider shot and wounded Cooley as the judge stood in the doorway of his house in Fredericksburg. Gillespie County Sheriff Frank Young and Captain Alfred Hunter tracked the shooter to Fayette County, arrested him and delivered him to military authorities.
Radical republicans labeled the shooting an “attempted political assassination,” but the truth was far less dramatic. The shooter, Tom Nixon, a “mere boy,” was angry at the judge for a ruling in a family matter.
While holding court on the frontier, Judge Cooley often had to improvise. A reporter for the Mason News-Item wrote, “Court met — not as it did in lovely spring last on the verdant lawn under a bee tree but in a blacksmith’s shop (in Junction) ... His Honor and Judge occupied the anvil’s place on an old live oak stump in the center of the room ... while the lawyers and the jury roosted on sycamore poles that were especially provided for their benefit.
“On Friday night,” the Mason reporter continued, “the Indians paid us a visit and confiscated 14 horses belonging to natives of the county seat, besides Amos Coyote Gray, a gallant steed belonging to Judge Cooley of Fredericksburg.”
Judge Cooley’s law office was upstairs in the Maier Building at the corner of Main and Adams in Fredericksburg. The judge’s law partner was A.W. Moursund, an immigrant from Norway. Moursund’s nephew was a member of Lyndon Johnson’s inner circle.
On July 2, 1888, two men robbed the Bank of Fredericksburg located on the first floor of the Maier Building. Judge Cooley and two bank employees fired shots at the robbers from Cooley’s second story window as the thieves made a mad dash for Palo Alto Creek.
Judge Cooley married Samantha McKittrick in the 1860s. The judge maintained a home in Austin for his wife and family and a separate home and office for himself in Fredericksburg. He never told his friends in Gillespie County about his family in Austin.
On Aug. 22, 1894, Judge Cooley, A.W. Moursund, L. Hagen and Louis Priess formed the Greenwood Cemetery Association.
Judge Cooley died of natural causes in Fredericksburg on Sept. 26, 1899. He was the first person buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
He left no will. No one claimed his considerable estate. Lawyers settled the matter years later after selling the judge’s property and depositing the cash assets in the state treasury.
The Cooley family wasn’t close. Judge Cooley’s wife learned of his death after reading his obituary in the Austin newspaper.