Mobs employing limbs of live oaks to mete out ‘justice’ were not uncommon

Above, “The Reason” by Albert A. Smith, 1920

Spent a lot of time with my nose buried in the pages of newspapers of a century ago while researching An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: And Yes, She Shot Him Dead and found myself often shocked by the stories I encountered.

Racism was not only entrenched, but there appeared little shame in embracing it openly in print. Ways were found to prevent Black men from affecting elections: poll taxes to discourage participation and refusal to allow Blacks to vote in the Democrats’ primaries. If no Blacks could vote in primaries, Black candidates would not be listed on the ballot. Mainstream white Democrat candidates boasted about this practice on the campaign trail. But that is all so minor compared to the accepted bias in the system of justice.

The truthful novel opens with the very public hanging of Leon Johnson for killing Dr. Augustus Maverick (1885-1913), an example clearly illustrating to Hedda Burgemeister what could happen to someone found guilty of shooting a powerful man in San Antonio, as she had done to brewery owner Otto Koehler (1855-1914). Executions attracted large crowds downtown.

During that period in time, Leon Johnson was fortunate to have even made it to trial, albeit a rather rapid one, without a mob carrying out its own form of justice. Black men like him often did not. Lynching was not unheard of even in major cities. The newspapers revealed that Sheriff John Wallace Tobin (1867-1927) feared San Antonians would not wait for the trial and verdict in the case of Johnson. As Koehler, before she shot him dead, relayed to Hedda in An Ostrich-Plumed Hat:

The police have no doubt of his guilt. District Attorney Linden told reporters that a lynching would almost be an excusable act given the nature of the crime. But Linden said a far greater punishment is to make him wait. To wait in jail, day after day for 30 days, the clock tick-ticking….

Alex Halff is sitting on the grand jury. He told me that, fearing the crowd would get out of control, Sheriff Tobin moved the prisoner from the city jail to the county jail. Still ill at ease, the deputies dressed the negro up like a woman and slipped him past the angry mob. They drove him clear to Austin, hiding him in the jail there to protect his life.

I kept wanting the real-life characters in the book to react sympathetically, trying to erase some of the racist past of Texas even though it glared out at me from the newspapers of the period. So, while still using the language of the period gleaned directly from the newspapers, I tasked Dr. Ferdinand Peter Herff (1883-1965) to try a little bit:

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…. 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?

And the horrors of Panola, Texas, insisted on jumping out at me. This time I pressed former Texas Governor Thomas Mitchell Campbell (1856-1953), who would later serve as Hedda’s defense attorney, to question the dark side of our past:

Tennie Sneed, shoots a white man, and mob rule takes over in Panola County. When they couldn’t take their anger out on the accused, they hanged two of his friends. One of them a woman. I ask you, what kind of justice do we have in Texas?

Sneed was suspected of killing Paul Quincy Strange (1877-1912), but, when a vengeful mob failed to locate him immediately, his housemates were seized. According to the Waxahachie newspaper:

News has reached here that two negroes, George Sanders and Mary Jackson, were lynched to the same limb of a tree in Panola county Tuesday. They resided in the same house with the negro, Tennie Sneed, who is accused of killing a white man, Paul Strange, a few days ago near Elysian Fields. Sneed is now in the penitentiary at Rusk for safe keeping.

A follow-up attempt at lynching Sneed was anticipated, so additional units of the Texas National Guard were called up to ensure his safe return to Marshall, Texas, for trial. While a crowd had been on hand for the lynching of his housemates, The Panola Watchman reported on February 28, 1912, that no indictments for the illegal execution were issued by the Grand Jury. Faced with token political pressure from Governor Oscar Colquitt’s office, the District Attorney of Panola found a convenient technical out: the tree chosen by the mob was near the county line. Maybe it was in Harrison County, not Panola. The hot potato presumably was easily tossed between the counties until it became a cold case.

After discussing numerous unpleasant issues affecting Texas, former Governor Campbell returned to the lynching:

Heaven. Elysian Fields. It’s supposed to be paradise, the final resting place of the souls of the virtuous. Yet, Elysian Fields is the name of the place in Panola County where those negroes were left swinging from a limb by a misguided vigilante ‘jury.’ I ask you again, Judge, what kind of justice do we have in Texas?

And all of the above can be lumped into the category of history currently banned from being taught in some Texas schools, unpleasant truths that should be swept under the rug. It’s uncomfortable for white students to face, so why do it?

Unbanned, as it is found in no school or public libraries, An Ostrich-Plumed Hat, and Yes, She Shot Him Dead is available now via Amazon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.