The Customhouse Murders
By Steven W. Hooper
The Rio Grande flows as a crystal clear stream in the mountains of south-central Colorado and then runs through New Mexico into Texas where it forms the international boundary between the United States and Mexico. After traveling across the entire state of Texas, it reaches Cameron County where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico near Port Isabel. Along this 1896-mile journey, the clear water becomes murky and brown. But even as the cloudy water enters the Gulf, it cannot obscure one of the worst tragedies in U.S. Customs history. In December 1868, two Customs Officers were viciously murdered and another was seriously injured at the mouth of the river in the small village of Clarksville.
Clarksville was situated on the river opposite the Mexican town of Bagdad, both thriving ports during the mid-1800s. During the Mexican-American War, a temporary army camp was established there to support General Zachary Taylor’s troops. Throughout the early part of the Civil War, Clarksville thrived on trade from Confederate blockade runners moving cotton to Europe. In 1863, the Union captured the city and held it for most of the rest of the war. The small port continued to prosper.
On December 18, 1868 at approximately 8:30 PM, Acting Deputy Collector Robert R. Ryan and 19-year-old night inspector William H. Phelps were working in a small building in Clarksville which was used as the customhouse. From out of the darkness a group of mounted men rode up to the customhouse and hailed the occupants. Ryan stepped outside to speak with the men. After a brief conversation, one of the men threatened Ryan and pointed a pistol at his heart. Ryan grabbed the pistol with one hand and grabbed the robber by the throat with his other hand. As they struggled, another robber ran up behind Ryan and hit him in the back of his head with a pistol knocking him unconscious.
The men then entered the customhouse and found inspector Phelps seated on a cot. Without uttering a single word, the robbers fired at Phelps killing him instantly. Not content with the cold-blooded killing of this young inspector, the robbers proceeded to cut and horribly mangle Phelps’ body. The killers then ransacked the customhouse taking everything of value including firearms and clothing. In the meantime, Ryan recovered consciousness and began to flee. The killers immediately began to fire at Ryan as he fled but fortunately all their shots missed the injured officer.
The robbers then moved to the residence of Captain James Selkirk. His daughter Mrs. Thornham was at the home alone and she refused entry to the men. U.S. Customs Mounted Inspector George T. Hammond who had been spending the evening at the nearby residence of William Clark became concerned when he heard pistol shots ring out and men shouting. Hammond immediately ran next door to check on Mrs. Thornham. Entering through a side door, Hammond attempted to arm himself at the residence but was told that there were no weapons in the home. Hammond decided to seek help and alert the town’s citizens of the danger the robbers posed. As he was leaving the residence, Hammond was met by gunfire and wounded in both legs.
In the meantime, the robbers were sacking the Clark home as a wounded Hammond attempted to seek cover back in the residence. The robbers spotted him and cried out “kill him, kill him” as he tried to hide. The robbers grabbed Hammond, dragged him out of the home and shot him before proceeding to cut him into pieces with their knives. Hammond could not survive this attack. The robbers then continued to ransack the Clark residence stealing everything that was valuable.
The killers then attempted to rob one more house but were driven off by heavy gunfire from the residents. A search party tracked the bandits two miles up the river where they crossed into Mexico. None of the robbers were ever captured. Officers Phelps and Hammond were buried the next day in Clarksville with law enforcement officers from throughout south Texas and Mexico in attendance. Officer Ryan survived the attack.
In 1872, Clarksville began to decline when a railroad was built from Brownsville to Port Isabel. In 1874 and 1886 severe storms struck the doomed town further destroying its commerce. The city would eventually become a ghost town. In 1953, the Rio Grande changed its course and began flowing over the abandoned townsite washing away any traces of the customhouse or the once thriving port.
The sands of time and the river may have washed Clarksville off the map, but Customs officers will never forget the horror that was visited upon our fellow officers there by cold-blooded killers in 1868. Officers Hammond and Phelps are remembered on the CBP Wall of Valor, the Texas Peace Officer’s Memorial in Austin, Texas and the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Source: The Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas), December 24, 1868, December 28, 1868 and The Times-Picayune (New Orleans), December 24, 1868.