Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
From The Archives
Tom Threepersons: Prohibition Agent and Law Enforcement Legend
The legend of Tom Threepersons, the son of a Cherokee chief, began in April 1916 when he headed south to compete in a rodeo in Douglas, Ariz., a town on the Mexican border.
Within a month, Pancho Villa’s army, also known as Villistas, raided Columbus, N.M. Soldiers and citizens were killed and the little town sacked. The raiders then disappeared and a
Punitive Expedition to capture Pancho Villa was organized. Some accounts say that Threepersons was recruited by George Patton to scout for the Punitive Expedition, while other accounts have him simply volunteering as an intelligence scout. Whichever version of the story is correct, as part of the Punitive Expedition, Threepersons developed a friendship with the commander, Black Jack Pershing.
Threepersons – who carried a notched, pearl-handled six-shooter much like Patton’s—was captured by Villistas and sentenced to a firing squad. He escaped and trekked across the desert for three weeks. Although the Punitive Expedition was deemed a failure, for Villa was never even seen, it was good training for American soldiers with a World War drawing near.
In 1917, Threepersons enlisted in the army while still in Douglas, Ariz. The army failed to put to use his superb marksmanship; instead, he was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, breaking horses for the remount squad. Tom said his only excitement during his entire WWI service was being kicked in the head by a horse he was breaking, receiving a serious wound for which he endured a silver plate in his head the rest of his life. After the war he stayed on as a blacksmith’s helper, but was released in April 1920
due to reduction in force.
His release from the army was the genesis for his career in law enforcement. In 1920, he was hired by the El Paso police department as a patrolman, walking a beat in
dark and dangerous Little Chihuahua, the town’s Mexican settlement. Although he was quickly promoted, he continued to work in the Mexican-dominated area of South El Paso. Threepersons was reportedly wounded five times during his service as a police officer, nearly dying one time in South El Paso; his partner, Juan Escontria, reportedly saved his life.
On June 6, 1922, Threepersons was appointed as a Federal Prohibition Agent for a period of ninety days, with
…a salary of $1800 per annum, and actual necessary traveling expenses subject to the limitations prescribed by law and departmental regulations… He took his oath of office on June 8, 1922, and was presented pocket credential 9374 and badge 6318. Threepersons was permanently appointed a Federal Prohibition Agent on September 8, 1922. It is said that he was so feared by bootleggers, that they put a $10,000 price on his life. A newspaper account read, “He was a fearless officer and at one time captured $7,000 worth of liquor and 16 smugglers who were bringing it across the international boundary.” Word was that when bootleggers knew he was on their trail they left town on the first train out. He resigned from service with the Prohibition Unit on December 24, 1922 without prejudice.
By July 1923, he was working as a mounted U.S. Customs inspector in El Paso and Marfa, Texas. Although wearing a different badge, he was still working to put bootleggers out of business. “On September 2 of that year, he was run over by a “rum runner” on Newman road. He lost a tooth and was badly bruised.”
In November 1925, Threepersons joined the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy. According to newspaper reports, Threepersons quit the department in August the following year, the result of a controversy with the Sheriff. Threepersons wanted to turn confiscated liquor over to the Internal Revenue Service, but the sheriff interpreted the law differently and stored the confiscated liquor in the department’s vault.
In 1933, at the end of Prohibition, Threepersons was 43 years old. He turned down movie offers to retire in the Silver City area, turning instead to his first love, ranching. He worked as a foreman for many Texas ranches, including the John T. McElroy Ranch, 30 miles south of Odessa. In New Mexico he was foreman for the Tom Lyons ranch on the Gila, the Heart Bar Cross in the Mogollons and the Moon Ranch, near Buckhorn. Threepersons’ obituary, in the April 3, 1969, edition of the El Paso Times, says that Threepersons, “around 76 years of age,” died in Safford, Ariz., after a short hospital stay for pneumonia.
Tom Threepersons was a man of great courage and made a formidable enemy. Friends said that when he was hunting criminals he came on like “three persons,
just like a young army…he was an
honest to God” American, who will be remembered as a true figure of the Old West when a lawman’s longevity was determined by the quality of his courage and his dexterity with a gun.
Source materials used for this article include Tom Threepersons’ OPF File, National Archives and Records Administration; Tom Three Persons: Legend of an Indian Cowboy by Hugh A. Dempsey; True West (magazine) from August 1975; and an El Paso Times article by Trish Long dated August 29, 2009.
Tom Threepersons served with the El Paso Police Department during Prohibition, at a time when gunfights occurred for over 230 nights straight. The Southwest was still quite wild and unchanged; however, one major change was being instituted: peace officers switched from horses to horsepower. What worked well in the saddle, six gun-leather-wise, did not work in the cramped quarters of an automobile. Threepersons designed a holster that exposed all of the trigger guard, hammer and grip frame of a Colt Single Action Army, which at that time still remained the handgun of choice by many peace officers and certainly most Texas Rangers. The holster rode high and tight on the belt with a rearward cant and the grip frame, hammer and trigger placed above the belt where nothing could interfere with quick gun handling.