Burges, William Henry (1867–1946)

By: J. F. Hulse

Type: Biography

Published: November 1, 1994

Updated: February 28, 2020

William Henry Burges, lawyer and political and civic leader of El Paso, was born in Seguin, Texas, on November 12, 1867, the son of William Henry and Bettie (Rust) Burges. He received an LL.B. degree from the University of Texas law school in 1889 and moved to El Paso in September of that year seeking a healthier climate for the asthma that plagued him all his life. Burges practiced law in El Paso from 1889 to 1946, except for a brief period (1917–18) as partner in a Chicago firm, and was El Paso city attorney in 1893–94. From the 1890s to the early 1900s, he led the reform group that fought open gambling and other public vices in what was then a rowdy border town. This civic attitude was dangerous, since such notorious gunmen as Bass Outlaw, John Selman, and especially John Wesley Hardin frequented El Paso in those years. Burges proposed a "reservation" in the city where prostitutes could ply their trade away from the traffic of polite society. Tillie Howard, famous El Paso madam, retained Burges to represent her in various legal dealings. He was also a champion of El Paso's large Chinese population. Mar Ben Chew, local Chinese leader, was a long-standing friend and client, and Burges often traveled to the federal court in San Antonio to defend El Paso citizens charged under the Chinese Exclusion Act. He also handled various Rio Grande boundary suits and legal disputes growing out of the Mexican Revolution. After 1897 he was associated with William W. Turney in the law firm of Turney and Burges, and became a dominant figure in the small group that controlled the politics of El Paso.

His most celebrated case was the defense of the copper companies in the civil and criminal prosecutions that arose out of the deportation of striking miners from Bisbee, Arizona, in 1917. On July 12, 1917, the sheriff of Bisbee and 1,200 deputized citizens rounded up more than 1,100 striking copper miners organized by representatives of the Industrial Workers of the World, loaded them on freight cars, and transported them to New Mexico, where they were abandoned in a remote area. Two miners died. Civil damage suits against the copper companies and the town totalled $14,000,000; nearly 400 Bisbee residents, including copper officials, were charged with kidnapping. Burges had moved to Chicago in 1917 to accept a lucrative partnership in a firm there, but found the climate unhealthy and the pace of urban life not to his taste. He had already determined to return to El Paso when Walter Douglas, vice president and general manager of Phelps Dodge Corporation, came to Chicago to ask him to represent the copper company and other defendants in the case. Burges returned to El Paso in 1918 and resumed his place in the firm of Turney, Burges, Culwell, Holliday, and Pollard. The State of Arizona v. Harry E. Wootton, popularly known as the Bisbee IWW Deportation Case, was tried in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1920. Burges's argument before the court–that the community, under "the law of necessity," had the right to preserve itself–was apparently convincing: only one man was actually tried on the charge of kidnapping (he was found not guilty), and by 1921 civil suits stemming from the case had been settled for $100,000. At the end of the spectacular trial Burges advised the companies involved to permit the miners to organize a responsible union.

Burges was a charter sponsor of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, prepared the Women's Club charter when it incorporated in 1910, and was one of the founding members of the city's famous Toltec Club. In 1904 he was a delegate to the Universal Congress of Lawyers and Jurists in St. Louis. He served as president of the Texas Bar Association (see STATE BAR OF TEXAS) in 1909–10, and was a regent of the University of Texas from 1911 to 1914. He also served on the executive committee of the American Bar Association from 1912 to 1915, was one of the sponsors of the formation of the second Texas Law Review, and was on the advisory committee of the original edition of Texas Jurisprudence. In 1924 he was special assistant to the United States attorney general in charge of postal-fraud prosecutions in northern Texas.

He married Ada Dean in 1892 in El Paso; she died of pneumonia the same year. In 1896 he married Anna Pollard of Fulton, Missouri. Burges had one of the finest private libraries in Texas, and while living in Chicago he negotiated the purchase of the famous Wrenn Library for the University of Texas. After his death on May 11, 1946, his library of more than 15,000 literary and philosophical classics was sold to the University of Houston. The College of Mines (now the University of Texas at El Paso) named Burges Hall for him. A street and school in El Paso are named for him.

J. F. Hulse, Texas Lawyer: The Life of William H. Burges (El Paso: Mangan, 1982). Proceedings of the Philosophical Society of Texas, 1946. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Owen P. White, Out of the Desert: The Historical Romance of El Paso (El Paso: McMath, 1924). Who Was Who in America, Vol. 2.

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Civic Leaders

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

J. F. Hulse, “Burges, William Henry,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 08, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/burges-william-henry.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1994
February 28, 2020