Bill Sniffin: Journey from lawyering to writing favorite historical books about state

 

How many people can leave one successful career in mid-life and start another successful career?

John W. Davis of Worland is this type of person. And, by any measure, he has pulled it off.

Most recently, he has garnered renown and respect as a writer of books about Wyoming historical events and people.

His best-known books are about the notorious gunman Tom Horn and the infamous Johnson County War. He has been traveling around Wyoming this year doing talks about the Tom Horn book.

But before that he was an attorney.

He founded the successful firm Davis, Donnell, Worrall & Bancroft, P.C. in Worland, which did impressive legal work all over Wyoming for decades.

Davis always had a good aptitude for writing. Back in the 1980s, when he saw that Northwest College in Powell was offering a creative writing extension program in Worland, he jumped at the chance to enter it. The rest is history – really, it is all about history, since most of Davis’s works have all been about Wyoming history.

“I do remember one significant event, just before I entered law school. Back then, the Law School Aptitude Test had a section testing writing ability; I was told that I had the highest score of any applicant to the University of Wyoming College of Law in 1964,” he recalls. “I didn’t really focus on that too much, however, because I was intent on becoming a lawyer.”

Davis continues:

“I remembered that writing aptitude test and wondered whether my brain had become so channeled that the only thing I could write anymore were legal briefs. If I didn’t try to expand myself as a writer soon, maybe I never could. So, I signed up for the creative writing course.

“It was a great success that changed my life. We wrote fiction, and a piece I wrote was published,” he recalls.

Most of his writing focuses on history and the legal aspects of history. While most writers would groan and moan over the time they spend poring over legal documents and obscure briefs; to Davis, this is both fun and routine.

Thus in both of his most recent best-selling books, his ability to dive into the legal documents helped him paint pictures for the readers that are legally accurate. Much of the quotes were what people said under oath and which were duly recorded in the various court annals.

One of the recent highlights of his career was when the University of Wyoming College of Law staged a mock trial based on his book Wyoming Range War, which was about the Johnson County War.

The mock trial related to a legal case that didn’t happen, but according to the dean of the University of Wyoming College of Law, should have. The case was State v. Barber, wherein Governor Barber, the acting governor of Wyoming at the time of the 1892 invasion and who supported the big cattlemen in every way he could, was charged with being an accessory before the fact to murder. The murders were those of two men killed by the invading cattle barons and their gunmen.

A star-studded cast participated: Former Senator Al Simpson played Barber and former Governor Mike Sullivan played Barber’s attorney. Kate Fox, a sitting member of the Wyoming Supreme Court, represented the state and State Treasurer Mark Gordon played one of the witnesses.

“There was a great turnout; the courtroom had an overflow audience and a couple of adjacent large rooms were opened into which the video of the trial was piped,” Davis recalls.

His latest book is The Trial of Tom Horn. “I took it on for a couple of reasons. One is that it was the only big trial relating to the early day Wyoming problems with law and order that I hadn’t written about and as a lawyer that’s what I have wanted to focus on, how trials shaped the fight for law and order in early Wyoming. For something like thirty years the biggest problem in Wyoming was to suppress vigilantism in the state so that lawfully constituted authorities, not a bunch of thugs, would be the ultimate authority in the state,” he says. “The other is that, like the Johnson County War, disputes have continued as to the truth behind Tom Horn and his trial. A lot of modern folks have asserted that Tom Horn was railroaded by big ranchers and I wanted to get to the bottom of that question.”

He has done a huge service to the people of Wyoming by telling these stories. The books have gotten fabulous reviews and are available in fine stores around the state. Davis is an example of how people of a certain age can re-invent themselves after one successful career and ride off into the Wyoming sunset basking in the glow of a new success.