The Hero Without a Face

Last October, I was a little bit startled to see a message from the Austin, Texas Police Department sitting in my email queue. Once I’d confirmed that none of my kin had gotten themselves into trouble, I realized the inquiry belonged to the opposite end of human behaviors, – it was the search for a hero.  A senior patrol officer wrote,

“Our very first officer to die while serving, was a Cornelius Fahey on March 3rd, 1875.  The only information we really have on him was that he immigrated to the states from Cork Ireland. …He would have been 35 years old at the time of his death.

“I was hoping you knew of the Faheys in Cork and might be able to help. We would love to be able to dig up a picture of Officer Fahey in order to commemorate his service for our city.”

Monument placed at the grave site of Cornelius Fahey in 1997.

This image was contributed by lcommando67 at

Right out of the gate, I knew my Cornelius Fahey was no match. My same-named ancestor was born half a century before 1840, and his only known child in America was from County Galway, not County Cork.  However, like any of the tribe called to genealogy, my pulse quickened and my keyboard fingers itched to discover something that might help the resourceful investigating officer.

It took seconds to pull up a Find-a-Grave record for Officer Fahey. Buried in Oakwood Cemetery, he had a wife and family, and name of the contributor was “C. Fahey,” – possibly a living descendant!  What gave me pause was learning that Cornelius met his untimely end at the hands of a “whiskey-crazed” man named Mark Tine. Transcribed at the website is a lengthy account of the incident from the March 9, 1875 Austin Daily Statesman. Here’s an excerpt:

“On last Sunday night between 12 and 1 o’clock another of those events which come under the head of desperadoism, and which so long have been the curse of this State, occurred in this city. The repose of our own citizens was disturbed by what appeared to be a regular pitched battle, and the sharp peals of six-shooters, and the flashes of fire, smoke and deadly missiles they belched forth, the clattering of horses, feet upon the hard street as the demon incarnate was borne away, all tended to frighten and excite women and children and men as they rushed from their beds to the windows, doors and streets.

” Strange thoughts and forebodings were uppermost in the minds of all, and the general inquiry was- what is the matter? The question was soon answered, for there upon the sidewalk was policeman Fahey shot through the abdomen, and other policemen were following after the assassin who, on horseback, was taking flight up the Avenue shooting at every one who would dare to hail him.”

Holy moley. Contemporary relations of my Cornelius Fahey lived lives less colorful (think soot gray), and much less violent in Lowell, Massachusetts, a city built, literally, to industrial order. Its mills signaled the day’s beginning, the mid-day meal, and quitting time. Lowell’s police department formed in 1830, but no officer was lost to gunfire until 1957. Cornelius Fahey of Austin, Texas lived in a different world, yet his immigrant experience fits a pattern.

As the most despised newcomer group of the 19th century, many Irish men won respect and citizenship through military service during the Civil War (1861-1865). In later years, they began to fill public service jobs, until the Irish cop with the lilting brogue became an American icon.

Records show in March  1866, Cornelius Fahey signed on with Company D of the US 6th Regiment of Cavalry for a three-year hitch, – interestingly, at Boston, Massachusetts. The regiment established its headquarters in Austin and became part of Fifth Military District of Texas. Its mission was to supervise civil authorities in applying federal law, which included pursuing Native Americans and outlaws. These bits from official reports show Private Fahey in the thick of it.

  • February 7th 1867. Austin—Corporal Thomas Casey—Co M 6th US Cavalry—gunshot wound of the abdomen; admitted from camp to regimental field hospital; died February 8, 1867.
  • February 9th 1867. Austin—Pvt Michael O’Callaghan—Co D 6th US Cavalry—shot by a citizen—admitted to hospital February 10; died February 11, 1867.
  • October 1867. … with troops of 6th Cavalry 45 men and 22 Indians. Encounter with Comanche; 3 Indians killed, 1 captured. 19 horses/1 mule/2 revolvers recovered. Remains of 5 citizens killed by Indians buried. 
  • November 8th to 12th 1867. 6th Cavalry from Buffalo Springs, Texas. Troops from the 6th Cavalry 1 officer/25 men and 1 citizen. Passed through Montague and Clay Counties; traveled 120 miles to operate against Comanche.
  • March 7th to 10th 1868. Troops from 6th Cavalry {Co D} 13 men and 7 citizens. Passed through Collins, Hunt, and Grayson Counties. Traveled against Lee’s band of thieves & outlaws in Read Creek Swamp, Collins County. “Indians killed, 2; prisoners, 5 (men)”.
  • April 1 1868. Austin─Private William Burke, Co. B, 6th Calvary, aged 21 years, received a wound to the abdomen from a conoidal bullet. Admitted to hospital and died same day.

Horrific traumas, rendered in spare language, convey a lack of humanity sadly not unique to by-gone times. However, cold and steely-eyed men might still be moved to tenderness.  On April 2, 1868, Cornelius Fahey’s name appeared on a district official statement distributed to the Austin Republican, to Flake’s Bulletin (Galveston), the Army and Navy Journal, and  Richmond, Virginia’s New Nation. Titled a “resolution,” it is clearly an expression of deeply felt grief.

“…our friend and companion William Burk (sic)…most foully murdered in cold blood and without any apparent provocation… we most deeply deplore his untimely end. As a firm friend and companion…and by his uniform kindness and genial disposition has caused his memory to be respected by all who knew him…”

Cornelius re-enlisted at Austin on April 9, 1869 and was discharged, for reasons unknown, on November 30, 1870 at San Antonio. I found him next in the Galveston Tri-Weekly News of Monday, June 19, 1871  among appointments made by Chief of Police, Colonel Hobbs, to the police force.

 Was it during this six months break between soldiering and policing that Cornelius Fahey married?

Had he come to love the harsh terrain of Texas as well as the green island of his birth?

 Did he envision a future Austin where he and a family might prosper?

Signs were there. In 1871, Austin became the westernmost link of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad. Trade and construction boomed. Gas street lamps appeared in 1874 and the first streetcar line began operating in 1875. But it was March that very year, a bullet fired by a drunken desperado killed Cornelius Fahey at the age of 35. Thus, his name entered into history.

What touches me most deeply about this tale, is the brotherhood of police officers whose enduring respect launched an effort to put a face to the names of all its fallen comrades. I am sad that I could not help.

We cannot know whether Officer Fahey ever had a photograph made in his lifetime. If he had, time and the elements may have taken their toll. If an image survived, who could identify it with certainty? I hope that descendants, or a local historian may yet be able to help.

In the absence of an image, we might sketch Cornelius Fahey in the mind’s eye. Army enlistment records put his height at 5 feet and 9 1/2 inches. He had brown eyes and dark hair. Odd for an Irishman, his complexion was noted as dark. — I imagine the Cork native’s fair skin burnished by the Texan sun.

Please visit the Austin Police Department Officers’ Memorial website where you can read modest and moving salutes to all of Austin’s brave officers lost from 1875 to 2012.