Above, San Antonio Express, August 23, 1913
Dr. Ferdinand Peter Herff, August 1913
The bell jangles on the front door.
“Missus Hatzenbuehler?” A voice calls out. “Hilda, are you ready?
Peter rises from his desk and unlatches the door.
“Oh, I apologize for disturbing you, Doctor Herff,” says Hedda. “Missus Hatzenbuehler said you would be out this afternoon. We were hoping to see the Edison Talking Pictures at the Grand tonight. Amazing. He takes words—words we can hear—and makes them appear to emerge from someone’s mouth on the screen. It sounds so much more exciting than viewing Little Mary Pickford in In the Bishop’s Carriage.”
“It’s quite alright, Miss Burgemeister. I was supposed to be away from the office. Missus Hatzenbuehler went home to prepare dinner for her husband. Please have a seat. She should return shortly. Missus Hatzenbuehler’s as excited as you are over witnessing Mister Edison’s newest achievement.
“Instead of one of man’s great accomplishments, I, on the other hand, witnessed one of his basest deeds. I’m supposed to be a protector of life, yet I was called upon to oversee an execution. And I wasn’t alone.”
Although the clock only now strikes five o’clock, Peter reaches to refill his almost-empty glass with the brandy usually reserved for waving under the noses of ladies feeling faint. Taking a whiff, then a gulp, he continues his story.
“One would have thought the circus was in town, so many thousands of people packed onto Commerce Street. But there were no clowns. Only one poor negro boy they clamored to see dangle.”
Hedda had remained standing, but now gropes for a seat.
“Doctor Gus Maverick was a friend. I was as shocked and upset as anyone by his sudden death. The end of a promising medical career. His two young children left fatherless. Were all the Mavericks not close to generations of my family, I would not have yielded to his grandmother’s plea that I be one of the attending physicians charged with ensuring the noose was not loosened until Leon Johnson was dead beyond a doubt.
“Although I am convinced of his guilt, Leon, dressed respectably in a black suit, appeared both vulnerable and courageous as he walked unassisted to his place on the scaffold. Clearly, with an unexpected polite formality, he expressed his gratitude to all for providing him with a fair trial.”
Now he is swirling more than sipping; yet Peter absentmindedly tops off his glass.
“But did the boy really receive a fair trial? People were crying for a lynching; yet his court-appointed attorneys requested no change of venue. San Antonians were out for blood. If Sheriff Tobin hadn’t hidden the man, the angry mob would have taken the law into their own hands.
“We would’ve been like Houston, Mississippi. A negro was jailed on the charge of murdering a white woman there. Without waiting for a trial, the townspeople seized him from the jail and hung him. But they hanged an innocent man.”
Clasping and unclasping her hands, Hedda moans. Peter notices her discomfort, but he cannot make himself stop the story he has started.
“The next day, the sheriff arrested another negro, and the wild crowd cheered as he confessed his guilt in the courthouse yard. Out of control again, the biased ‘jury’ chained him to the water pump, piled oil-soaked wood around him and set him ablaze. Was even the second man guilty?
“Leon Johnson pleaded innocent. He claimed shooting Gus was an accident. Appointed the day before the trial, his attorneys called just one witness to the stand to speak in his defense—the accused himself. I know he shot Gus, but he didn’t go to the house intent on murdering the doctor. The jury scarcely devoted a half hour to render their verdict. A jury of peers? Like all juries, all white men. I remain unconvinced the trial or the sentence were just. It pains me to think that Leon Johnson is dead because of the color of his skin.”
Hedda covers her eyes with a gloved hand.
Unburdening himself drives Peter to continue, but he tries to speak more gently. “Yet this morning, this unfortunate young negro even turned to thank his executioner, Sheriff Tobin, for the kind treatment he received at the hands of his jailers. I think he was merely happy they kept him out of the mob’s hands. His voice trembling only the slightest bit, he turned from the sheriff to face the crowd: ‘Gentlemen, I have a brief statement to make. I am sorry for the crime I committed.’
“Father Kane’s prayer extended to an unmerciful length, but, towards the end, a chorus of ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ echoed above the heads of the crowd. The hymn would’ve seemed as coming from heaven were it not for the gruffness of the voices. Those weren’t angels singing. They were Leon’s incarcerated companions glumly watching the proceedings through the bars of their cell windows overlooking the plaza.”
Hedda wipes a tear from her eye.
“With a smile spreading over his face like that of a preacher dismissing his flock for a fried chicken supper on a sunny Sunday, the negro loudly proclaimed, ‘Lord have mercy.’ If you had no knowledge of his crime, you’d think the man standing on the precipice of death was more a saint than a sinner, further deepening my doubt of the righteousness of taking an eye for an eye as a civilized method of doling out justice.
“As Sheriff Tobin adjusted the noose around the negro’s neck, the rope snagged the medallion of Saint Mary already around it. The young man requested the sheriff pause to untangle the medal, which Johnson then kissed before calmly looking the sheriff straight in the eye and telling him, ‘Go ahead.’
“His eyes seemed huge, a tear beginning to well up in one of them as the Sheriff pulled the black cap down over his face. The cap served more to spare the crowd from those penetrating deep, dark eyes, than to spare the condemned man. The boy’s final words, uttered softly, were: ‘I’ll meet y’all in heaven.’”
Hedda blots her eyes with her handkerchief but continues to sit quietly.
“As the clock struck eleven, Sheriff Tobin pulled the lever. I jerked back.”
“The body dropped like lead through the trap door and hung there. Rigid. But still it was not over. No one in the crowd left, but all remained quiet. There I was—with three other physicians who should have been elsewhere saving lives—waiting. Waiting and waiting to be scientifically convinced his last breath was drawn and no pulse remained in his body.
“Seventeen minutes. We stood there for seventeen minutes watching his body hang before our stethoscopes finally no longer detected the slightest beat from his heart. During all that time, the negro’s right hand never loosened its grasp on the holy medal he had carried with him to his death.”
Hedda says nothing. He expects no comment. He should never have shared that with her. He stares at the brandy he is swirling in his glass. Hedda’s eyes, too, follow the swirling brandy. “It’s the color of his eyes,” Peter whispers. The observation prompts him to put down the glass and cork the bottle.
Mrs. Hatzenbuehler bustles into the office, apologizing for running late. Upon spotting the bottle and the doctor, she offers to sit with him instead of going to the Grand.
“No, no, I am recovered now. Miss Burgemeister kindly provided me with the cure I needed, a patient ear. Miss Burgemeister, please try to excuse my behavior. I shouldn’t burden you with such a gloomy tale. I fear you will balk at accepting employment from such a morose man.”
“I couldn’t respect a man not profoundly impacted by the taking of a life as you were today, Doctor Herff. Would it not be therapeutic for you to join us?”
“Thank you, but I fear my company would only detract from your enjoyment tonight. You two go ahead before you’re late.
“Missus Hatzenbuehler, you must tell me about the marvels of Mister Edison’s work tomorrow. Imagine. His genius is giving us the capability to preserve not merely the words, but the actual voices, of great men and women for future generations. He is making a part of them immortal.”
Edison talkies made their way to screens in San Antonio, but the Author does not know whether Hedda was among the first to go.
Dr. Herff was not among the doctors summoned to pronounce Leon Johnson dead, but the detailed account of the event is drawn from the papers. The entire process occurred in a time frame probably about as short as was legal in Texas, with the guilty verdict delivered five days after Dr. Maverick’s death. The actual date of Johnson’s execution was in mid-September.
The horrible, speedier form of vigilante “justice” carried out in Houston, Mississippi, took place in February of 1913. The innocent man, Andrew Williams, was lynched the day before a mob set fire to the second, possibly guilty, man, Divel Rucker, whose confession had been made under the duress of the crowd.