This day in Texas history: Hard living kills an English noble in a cowboy town

The town of Big Spring as it appeared in 2005, 120 years after the death of one of its most unusual residents. Photo by Joshua Scheide, Odessa American

The town of Big Spring as it appeared in 2005, 120 years after the death of one of its most unusual residents. Photo by Joshua Scheide, Odessa American

If you looked around Big Spring, Texas, in 1885, you probably would expect to see cowboys, strong and serious. Maybe a preacher, sober and stoic. Perhaps a few farmers. A saloon owner. A banker.

What you wouldn’t expect to see was English nobleman Joseph Heneage Finch, seventh Earl of Aylesford, three sheets to the wind, two weeks into his last party.

But there he was. And then he was dead.

Before he died on this day in 1885, Finch had lived a lifetime’s worth. In England, after marrying and having a couple of daughters, Finch entertained the prince of Wales at his estate outside London.

Finch became fast friends with the future Edward VII, accompanying him on a tour of India, before returning home in 1876 to an unfaithful wife, a scandalous divorce and, ultimately, exile from English high society.

After laying low for awhile, he emerged, of all places, in the West Texas town of Big Spring, where he bought a 2,500-acre ranch and populated it with neglected cattle and empty whiskey bottles.

If you’re thinking an English nobleman and West Texans weren’t likely to hit it right off in the late 1800s (or now, for that matter), you are right. But Finch spoke a universal language …

“Though initially unable to gain the acceptance of the local cowboy-cattleman fraternity,” the Handbook of Texas Online says, “the earl won them over in time by his generosity with his liquor, by his being introduced formally at roundup by a prominent cattleman, and by his pleasant personality. He spent his waking hours partying, drinking, and hunting.”

The website texasescapes.com says that Finch, nicknamed “The Judge,” was quick to buy a drink (or ALL the drinks), set up a butcher shop (where else would his personal butcher work?) and bought a hotel as a home.

Finch was only 36 when he died, but his liver was counting the miles — or perhaps the gallons. The doctor that prepared his remains for shipment back to England, according to texasescapes.com, said his liver was as hard as a rock.

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