Texas claims its share of frontier characters—buffalo hunters, Indian fighters, gunslingers, and cowboys—who roamed and sometimes helped settle the vast western regions. The remittance man, although a less well-known frontier character, represents a few hundred wealthy Europeans, mostly Englishmen, who found themselves exiled in the wilds of West Texas. Although these nobles lost their positions at home, their families continued financial maintenance (remittance) in an apparent effort to keep them out of sight.
Joseph Heneage Finch, Seventh Earl of Aylesford, fits the bill as a remittance man. He held claim to one of the finest estates in England until his life blew up in a scandal that shook British nobility, including such personages as the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII), and Lord Blandford Churchill, uncle of the future Sir Winston Churchill. It seems Finch accompanied the Prince of Wales on a goodwill trip to India in 1875-76 only to abruptly leave his sponsor and return home to confront his unfaithful wife and her lover. A divorce followed that shook the highest levels of English society. Finch lost his estate, and he left for adventure in America.
Upon arriving in New York, Finch met Jay Gould, president of the Texas & Pacific Railroad, who described the cheap land and good turkey and antelope hunting in West Texas.
With former buffalo hunter John Birdwell serving as his guide, the earl bought a 37,000-acre ranch northeast of the new railroad town of Big Spring in 1883 and stocked it with $40,000 worth of cattle. Birdwell warned Finch that cowboys “don’t cater to big names and such, so we’ll just call you ‘Judge.’ ” The Judge became popular with the local cowhands for his tales of hunting in India with the Prince of Wales and for footing the bill for their drinking parties.
Storytellers say Finch bought a saloon, tended bar himself, and at the end of the party gave the establishment back to its former owner. We know he satisfied his yen for mutton, which did not sit well with local cowboys and cattlemen, by building his own meat market, the first permanent building in Big Spring. He lined the walls of his lodge with an amazing collection of hunting gear and after the structure burned, he bought the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Some folks say he bought the hotel because he and his friends needed a place to party for one night. He gave the hotel back the next day with the understanding that there would always be a room for him and his buddies. On January 13, 1885, after throwing a lavish Christmas dinner and drinking party that lasted two weeks, the Seventh Earl of Aylesford died in his hotel room at the age of 36.
A Texas Historical Marker in Big Spring tells the English nobleman’s story.