“First family” of Fort Worth photographers created “visual biography” of Cowtown

Posted Friday, May. 31, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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This report has been updated to correct some historical details.

Fresh off a Nevada bank robbery and dressed to kill, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid joined three other members of the notorious Wild Bunch for a portrait on Nov. 21, 1900, in a Fort Worth photographic studio just a short stumble from the red-light district known as Hell’s Half Acre.

The captivating picture of the smirking bad boys in their bowler hats, suits, vests, starched collars and ties is likely the most famous image every taken in Cowtown. The Smithsonian Institution ranks it among the top 10 of the most important photographs in American history, says Fort Worth historian Dr. Richard Selcer.

The photo, which eventually led to the demise of the Wild Bunch, captured the stuff of legends in one simple setting — the wild, wild West, handsome and elusive outlaws as well as the enduring question of the fate of Robert Leroy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy, and his sidekick Harry A. Longabaugh, also known as the Sundance Kid.

And then the image got catapulted into the heights of American lore when Paul Newman and Robert Redford became their cinematic faces in the 1969 classic, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

But few remember John Swartz, the photographer who took the portrait in his studio above John P. Sheehan’s Saloon, or his brothers, David and Charles, who together compiled a stunning visual narrative of thousands of Fort Worth faces, places and scenes from 1885 to 1918.

But the trio are finally getting their due in a new photo exhibition, “The Swartz Brothers: Fort Worth’s First Family of Photographers,” compiled by Selcer and researcher Donna Donnell. The exhibit of 44 photos is on display through Friday at the Fort Worth Central Library. The two researchers hope to find a larger venue that can display more of the 250 prints they’ve assembled.

And there’s another story behind the vintage photos — the tale of a disconnected family that was reunited after more than 100 years through the nagging question that got Donnell to digging four years ago: Who was that man behind the camera when the Wild Bunch got frozen in time?

‘Visual biography’

The three brothers’ wide variety of subjects represents a “visual biography” of Fort Worth history, said Betty Shankle, manager of the library archives, which holds 14 original Swartz brother photographs.

But other than a few brushes with notables of the day such as the Wild Bunch, Comanche chief Quanah Parker and President Theodore Roosevelt, the Swartz brothers were never famous, said Selcer, who teaches history at Tarrant County Community College and Weatherford College.

They were just “working schlubs” who hustled to make a buck on whatever commissions they could rustle up, Selcer said.

In the process, the Swartz brothers recorded portraits of cute kids, pretty women, grizzled Mexican War and Civil War veterans and tough cops.

They also photographed local landmarks like the Tarrant County Courthouse, drugstores, homes of Fort Worth luminaries and even a record-setting pumpkin, Selcer said.

While David and John “considered themselves artists,” who primarily focused on beautifully composed portraits, younger brother Charles took his camera to the streets.

Billing himself as “Whiskers on Wheels,” the thick-bearded Charles tooled around town on a bicycle with a cumbersome box camera slung over his shoulder.

He recorded 20,000 people crowding downtown for a visit by Roosevelt and a fire that engulfed the Texas and Pacific Station. In the fire photos, gawkers crowded the scene, some standing on top of an adjacent railroad station awning while others climbed poles for a treetop view.

“Charlie was an action photographer. That was new at the time; he was the Matthew Brady of the West in one sense,” Donnell said.

Itinerant photographers

David, John and Charles Swartz were born in Shenandoah County, Va., in 1854, 1858 and 1864 respectively. Their father operated a grist mill, according to research by Selcer and Donnell.

David left first for Dayton, Ohio, where he fell in love with Nellie Barnum, the daughter of an amateur photographer. The couple, working has itinerant photographers, landed in Texas in 1880 and came to Fort Worth in 1885.

John joined them later that year and began working with his brother in his studio. John struck out on his own in 1888 and established a studio in Dennison. He came back to Fort Worth and started his own studio in 1896.

Charles came to Texas around 1890, and he, too, began an apprenticeship with his oldest brother. By 1896, all three enterprising brothers had their own studios in Fort Worth.

But their fortunes took a fall in 1905, when Charles was struck and killed by train while he was photographing an advertising spread for the Fort Worth Iron and Steel Manufacturing plant 5 miles south of downtown Fort Worth, Selcer said.

He had set up his camera tripod on a railroad track and while he was clearing some weeds for his shot he heard an approaching train and rushed back to rescue his camera.

He arrived at the same time as the southbound “Katy Flyer.” The impact threw him at least 15 feet, and he died a short time later. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

Charles’ last act fascinates Adam Smith of Arlington, a collector of vintage photographs of the West , who loaned three copies to the exhibit.

“The guy died trying to take a good photograph and trying to save his camera. I’ve never heard of something like that,” Smith said.

The tragedy fractured the Swartz family.

Charles’ wife, Jennie, and their children were in Virginia at the time of his death and they never returned to Fort Worth.

David had given up on photography sometime after 1898 and moved to Dallas, where he re-invented himself as Dr. Swartz, a chemist concocting women’s toiletry products.

John and his wife, Blanche, divorced in 1917. His business struggled and he sold his studio, including plates and negatives, to George Bryant, a Star-Telegram photographer, Selcer said. In 1920, he opened a studio in Sulphur Springs and operated it until 1928. He died in 1930 in Virginia.

A family reunited

Houston retiree Tom Williams was aware that his grandfather John Swartz was a photographer, but that’s about all he knew.

Four years ago, he got an intriguing email out of the blue from Donna Donnell. Did he know his grandfather had taken the famous photograph of the Wild Bunch?

“It was astonishing,” Williams said.

But Donnell, a tenacious genealogist, wasn’t done digging. She also helped Williams connect with long-lost Swartz descendants in California and Virginia.

“I had been doing family research, and Donna kept coming up with more. She produced a genealogy of the family that went back centuries,” Williams said.

Donnell doesn’t know why she “does these things.”

“It’s like reading a book and discovering the last chapter is missing. ... I'm strange, I just write the ending myself by deep research,” she said.

Donnell and Selcer took one last step.

On May 11, with reunited Swartz family members on hand, they placed a marker on Charles’ grave in Oakwood Cemetery.

It reads, “Charles Lee Swartz, Professional Photographer, Sept. 7, 1864 — Oct. 6, 1905, Run Over By A Train.”

As for Butch and Sundance and the rest of the gang — Ben Kilpatrick, alias the Tall Texas, Will Carver and Harvey Logan, alias Kid Curry — the vanity photo turned into major misstep.

“Nobody knows why they stopped in Fort Worth. This photo probably drove them out of here,” Selcer said.

An alert Fort Worth detective who Selcer believes may have brought a “perp” to John’s studio for a mug shot, saw the portrait and recognized “one or two of the other guys and put out the word.”

“The end game for the Wild Bunch started right here in Fort Worth,” Selcer said.

With the Pinkerton Detective Agency hot on their trail, Butch and Sundance fled to South America, where they are believed to have died Nov. 6, 1908, in a shootout with Bolivian police.

But legend has it that they survived the gunfight and lived on, just like in John Swartz’s photograph.

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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