Janice Williams

Tombstone Tuesday: Cliff Cunningham

In Gravestones, James Washington Cunningham, Second generation, Second Generation Stories, Tombstone Tuesday on September 8, 2020 at 9:41 am
Gravestone of Cliff Cunningham - Shiloh Cemetery

Growing up in a family of law enforcement officers lauded for their integrity might have become a burden on the next generation. All twelve of the children of Captain James and Susanna Cunningham lived long lives and added to our family lore. Their offspring, the grandchildren of the Cunningham family, had different pressures and challenges to deal with as the 19th century faded away. As the fear of threat to home and family from marauders ebbed, other threats replaced them.

Cliff Cunningham’s pressures, and demons, led him to a horrible crime and a violent end in 1915 in Los Angeles.

Robert Clifton Cunningham was born in Comanche County in the Shiloh Community in 1885. His father, James Washington Cunningham, was the Comanche County sheriff. When he was six months old the family moved into the town of Comanche.

 When Cliff was only 2, his 7-year-old brother, Joe, died. Within a few years, three more babies died at birth in the Cunningham home. All were buried in the Shiloh Cemetery near their farm.

At age 18, Cliff enlisted in the Army and served during the Philippine–American War. He wrote letters home to his mother and family from the Philippines telling about his experiences. Some of the letters were printed in the Comanche Chief for the community to share. He told of the beauty of the country, the rugged terrain, hikes to waterfalls. And a story of seeing a 29-foot-long snake. He told about the natives:  “All Phillipinos wear pants, have hair up, look androgynous. Further up the mountain, they only wear a smile.”

He served three years in the Army and was back home at age 21 when his mother died, leaving five living children. A year later Cliff’s oldest brother Champion died at age 27. Both were buried in the Shiloh Cemetery.

Cliff and his remaining older brother, Sydney, worked the farm while his older sisters, Ola and Floy, lived in Comanche and taught high school (Ola) and piano lessons (Floy). 

There may have been indications of Cliff’s temper in 1909 when he was 24 years old. The Comanche Chief reports that Hobe Carnes, a resident of the county who was over 50 years old, stabbed Cliff with a pair of scissors and pierced his heart. Cliff was not expected to live from such a dangerous wound. Carnes was arrested and no more reports about the incident were published.

About that time, Cliff moved west. He settled in El Paso for a year and worked for the Southern Electric Street Railway.

Finally, Cliff moved even farther west and settled in the growing city of Los Angeles and worked in their local fire department. His obituary in the Comanche Chief noted that he made a reputation for coolness and bravery and received special letters of recommendation for his work. 

But he was not brave and he was not cool in August of 1915.  According to newspaper reports of the time, he had a drinking problem. And a hot head. 

Cliff met Flora Saunders, a young widow with two children, at a picnic in 1910. They struck up a conversation when he asked her for a newspaper to wipe mud off of his shoe. They became friends and he called frequently on her at her home. Soon they were sharing his house and the landlady thought the couple were married and reported Flora used the name “Mrs. Cunningham.”

As his drinking and anger issues overwhelmed the relationship, Flora took her children and moved to another apartment, away from Cliff and his problems. Cliff found her there. In fear, she moved to another apartment, and Cliff had not been able to find her. She told her friends she was worried about his temper.

On August 12, 1915, friends had warned Flora that Cliff posed a danger to her. He didn’t know where she lived, but he certainly knew where she worked:  a vegetarian cafeteria at Third and Hill in downtown LA. She had refused his request for her to leave the job, saying she wanted to continue to work and support her own children without his help. They had discussed marriage, but she was reluctant to solemnize their relationship because of his drinking habits.

Before lunchtime, Cliff Cunningham began drinking and his anger was building. He went to a second-hand store and purchased “the biggest revolver” they had and two rounds of ammunition. Loading the gun, he headed to Third and Hill. 

Entering the cafeteria, he held the gun, but hid it under his coat. He took a tray and pushed through the line for food until he saw Flora serving squash.

“Are you going to come back with me or aren’t you?” he shouted with such anger and excitement, diners in the crowded restaurant turned toward him.

Flora shook her head too scared to speak.

“You’ve got one chance or you get this,” he said and flourished the old but powerful weapon.

She turned and ran into the kitchen behind a partition. Cunningham vaulted the serving table, tripping in the vegetables on the steam table, and he fired three times. Two of the shots hit the young woman’s torso.

Cooks, taken by surprise, had little opportunity to detain him. One threw a sugar bowl.. Cunningham darted out of the kitchen toward the cashier. Temporarily cornered, he turned the gun on himself and shot three times. 

Despite the point blank blows, he remained standing, but began to waver on his feet as he ran towards the door lurching into a table where four frightened diners sat. Reaching the door he started across the street with dozens following him.

On the opposite side of the street, a fur store had a large stuffed bear standing outside its doors as a novelty to attract customers. Cliff stumbled toward the bear as if it were his goal and he and the bear toppled to the ground.He came to rest between the bear’s front legs as if he were in an embrace. 

Ambulances and police soon arrived on the scene and carried the wounded couple to the hospital. News reports in the immediate aftermath said neither was expected to live.

Cunningham’s identity was not hard to ascertain since Flora’s friends in the restaurant knew she feared for her life, but the police also identified him from a letter in his jacket pocket from his brother in Comanche, Sidney Winfield Cunningham, sending him money he was owed. 

Cliff regained consciousness and bemoaned the fact that he had not done “a better job.”

Cliff Cunningham died two hours later on August 12, 1915, in an LA hospital. 

Newspaper reports a day later gave a brighter outlook for Miss Saunders’ prospects for surviving. Her children, Ollie, 12, and Chester, 8,  were at her mother’s, Mrs. C.E. Busby, in Bakersfield. 

A week later Cliff Cunningham’s body was on a train back to his hometown of Comanche. His obituary was on the front page of the Comanche Chief, not far from the article about the annual Cunningham Family Reunion, held at Uncle Aaron’s place for the 15th year. Cliff’s obituary outlined his life’s work and moves, ending with his work as a fireman in Los Angeles. No cause for death was noted.

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Sources:  Los Angeles Express (Los Angeles, California) August 12, 1915, pg. 1-2, “Woman Pierced by Two Bullets.”

Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) August 13, 1915, pg. 2, “Death Stalks in Cafeteria.”

Comanche Chief (Comanche, Texas) August 20, 1915, pg. 1, “Robert Clifton Cunningham.”

The Porch Picture 1889

In Basic Family Information, General Musings, Original 12 Cunninghams, Sheriffs on July 26, 2020 at 5:29 pm

Of all the pictures we have of the Cunningham family members, “the porch picture” is the only one with James and Susie Cunningham and all 12 of their children. And, as far as I know, the only picture of James and Susie with ANY of their children. We have several pictures of them as a couple, but none with other family members—that I know of.

My understanding is that the porch picture was made in 1889 when all of the family members were gathered at the old homestead. Of course, the porch is still there today and many of us have had our family photos taken there to carry on the tradition. This was the gathering that is counted as the first Cunningham Family Reunion and this year’s reunion will be number 131.

C_familyonporch1889_LG_wNAMES

I don’t know the circumstances that brought the family together for this group picture. It appears to me that it was the colder months of the year, just from their clothing (and John’s coat on the far left) and it appears that they are in their Sunday best.

I’ve been reading up a bit on fashion in the 1880s and 1890s and it appears that the Cunningham family stayed up-to-date on the latest fashions from the east coast and the big cities. All of the girls are wearing the long slender dresses with very tight sleeves and elaborate trim and high collars that were in style. They likely have a prominent bustle in the back, if we could only see more! Their hair, too, was very current style, the tightly slicked hair back in a bun so that hats could be worn.

I’m not as certain about the men’s fashions, but both bow ties and knotted ties were in style at the time, I read. I do think it is interesting to see the facial hair of the family. Only Captain James and Aaron, the oldest, continued with the more traditional beard. All of the younger men in the family had only the mustache, the more modern look. The first safety razor came on the market in 1880.

But my main purpose at looking at this photo is to consider the lives they each were living at the time.

In 1889, Captain James was 73 and Susie was 72. They had lived in Comanche County for 34 years and were prominent and prosperous members of the region. All of their children had married and there were about 70 grandchildren by this time. They, of course, went on to have about 100 grandchildren.

Captain James died 5 years after this picture and Susie lived another 5 after that.

Many of the pictures you see of the 12 Cunningham children has them in birth order. This one is in correct birth order on the back row, but not the front.

Starting with the OLDEST son—Aaron is the second man on the front, with the light pants and the beard. Aaron was 19 when the family got to Comanche County. When this picture was made he was 53 years old and already a grandfather of two children. His first wife Minerva had died six years earlier so there were several of her children and three new babies with his second wife Amanda.

Betty is the second oldest. She and Aaron were both born in Alabama and made the move to Texas with the parents. She is standing next to her mother on the front in this picture. She was 16 when the family arrived in Comanche and was the first person to marry in the county, at age 17. By this picture she had had all of her 11 children and even had 7 grandchildren. She still had most of her children at home, ages 5 through 17.

Dave is on the left on the front row. He was 47 when this picture was taken. His wife, Rebecca, had been dead 10 years already. Dave is the only son to lose a wife and not remarry. He still had 5 children at home with the youngest age 12. His oldest daughter, Molly, married David Christian in May of 1889…. could that be the reason for this gathering?

Dick is on the right on the front row. He was 45 at this time with all 10 living children still at home. His oldest had died 5 years before at age 18.

Top left is John, age 43. He was already a grandfather of three and still had three at home. He and his family lived in Abilene and he was the sheriff of Taylor County.

Next to John is Bill, age 41. His eight children, ages 4 to 20, were all still at home.

Jim is third on this row and he was 39. He had been sheriff of the county from 1884-1886, just previous to this picture, following along after older brothers Dave and Bill who had been sheriffs many years before. Jim had five children in his household, but he and his wife had had three babies and a 7-year-old die in the previous five years.

Joe is fourth on the back row. He was 37 in the picture. His first wife George Etta had been dead 6 years. George Etta and her older sister Minerva (who was married to Aaron) died with a few weeks of each other. Dave’s wife Rebecca was also their sister. So, oddly, three first wives in the family had died by the time this picture was made and they were sisters. Joe had remarried in 1887, two years before this picture. His new wife Nannie was raising the four children he had had with George Etta, but would be having ten of her own in the coming years.

Tom is next and he was 34 in this picture. He had three small children by this time, just getting started on his family.

George is the last man on the row, the youngest man in the family. He was the first child in the family born in Comanche County. I think he claimed he was THE first child born in Comanche County, but I need to research that. When this picture was taken, George was the first sheriff of Mills County. He and his wife Eliza (who would die the next year) had four children and lived on the first floor of the jailhouse on the square in Goldthwaite.

Mary Jane is second from the right. She was only 29 when this picture was taken and already had five children.

Unity is the youngest and last on the row. She was 27 and had five small children, one a newborn.

Most of this information is simply ages and children from the family trees. But I find it interesting to to try to see it in a perspective of where they were in their lives and in relation to each other. If I’ve missed something or need to make a correction, let me know.

Mills County Officers

In George Washington Cunningham, Mills County, Original 12 Cunninghams, Sheriffs on August 25, 2018 at 6:05 pm

I’ve neglected this blog for way too long. Today is a day to catch up after the fabulous Cunningham family reunion two weeks ago and I’m digging into some history again. Stumbled across this and instead of filing it and forgetting I had it, I will share it here first.

Rootsweb was once a site that provided lots of genealogy information. It was purchased by ancestry.com and unavailable for a long time. Now they are bringing some of the sub-sites within it back to use. I’m glad because I always found it very helpful and especially liked their search function for finding others’ family trees. A lot more functionality than ancestry or familysearch.

But I was looking at the Mills County site on Rootsweb (oddly there is not one for Comanche County) and found this newspaper photo.  Shirley Runnels contributed it to the site and it had once been published in the Goldthwaite Eagle.

MILLS COUNTY

Of interest to our family is George Washington Cunningham (one of the original 12 children of Capt. James and Susannah) in the upper right. He was the first sheriff of Mills County when it formed in 1887.

The picture was “furnished to The Eagle by R.E. Clements.” That would be Roger Earl Clements, a Goldthwaite druggist. He married into our family on Christmas Day in 1899 when he married George’s oldest daughter Gertrude Elizabeth Cunningham. His own father is pictured as well. He is standing next to George Cunningham and was the first County Clerk of Mills County, Phil H. Clements.

Betty Foster was back with us at the reunion with her husband Bill Foster. It was great to have them back and looking so well. Betty is the great-granddaughter of these two original Mills County officers, Phil H. Clements and George Washington Cunningham.