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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

A Hanging in Austin

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Until 1923, when the state began using the electric chair, a suspended sentence had a whole different meaning in Texas – hanging by the neck until dead.

Texas sheriffs once had the responsibility of conducting executions at the county level. Legal hangings didn’t happen every day, so when one came up, it usually made for big news.

Forty years ago, the late Edmunds Travis of Austin told me about a hanging he reluctantly covered for the Austin daily he edited in 1913.

For decades, Austin had a red-light district where prostitution was tolerated literaly within limits. The zone extended from Colorado Street on the east to San Antonio Street on the west, and from Second Street on the south to the alley between Fourth and Fiftth Streets on the north.

In 1913, a well-known barkeep who worked in the district got “run in” for shooting one of the damsels of the demimonde in the back of the head. The capital city then being a small town, the killing made for big news.

Police said the man had quarreled with one of the girls before shooting her. The bartender maintained he and the “lady” had indeed argued, but the rest was just an accident. He had merely meant to prod her in the back of his head with the barrel of his six-shooter. Unfortunately it discharged.

A jury bought the state’s version of the story and found the bartender guilty of murder. The judge sentenced him to hang. As the condemned man’s last day approached, the Travis County sheriff printed and distributed tickets to the event, which would be tastefully conducted inside the jail out of view of those who didn’t get official invites.

Austin had two competiting dailies back then, the Statesman and the Tribune, a scrappy afternoon paper edited by Travis, then a young man of 23. Travis had editorialized in favor of the man’s hanging, an act he later came to regret. But he had not planned to cover the hanging, preferring to leave that journalist chore to one of his reporters.

The Tribune’s co-owner, however, wanted his best writer there. That would be Travis.

Travis, with a young reporter in tow just so he could show him the ropes (well, the rope), dutifully walked to the jail, a castle-looking stone structure behind the courthouse at 11th and Congress. Before the execution, Travis and the cub were allowed to talk with the condemned man in his cell.

“I told him there was a lot of talk that he could clear up several mysteries around town,” Travis recalled. “He said that was true, but he wasn’t going to do it. It would handicap his children, he said, and for their sake he was going to keep quiet. Well, that really touched me. And I told him so.”

That, in turn, moved the barkeep.

“I’ll clear up one for you,” he said, confessing to a killing of which no one had suspected him

Two men had been killed in a shootout in one of the saloons in the red-light district and the bar tender had been the only witness. Police concluded that each man had shot the other, but the barkeep told Travis that wasn’t how it had been. One of the men had killed the other, but the bartender had risen from behind his bar and killed the first shooter.

Soon after his confession, the condemned man made his last walk.

As the barkeep faced his final moments, for Travis another sort of deadline loomed. He was running out of time to get the story in that afternoon’s edition of the Tribune.

The sheriff had thoughtfully set Travis up in an empty cell affording him a view of the metal gallows. The young editor sat at a small table, writing his story in longhand, sending out “takes” a page at a time to be rushed to the newspaper office seven blocks away.

Travis had the middle and the ending written, but he needed the beginning, the neck-breaking act that would be the barkeep’s ending.

Meanwhile, back at the newspaper, part-owner Glen Pricer started getting nervous. The hanging was running late, but a p.m. paper couldn’t wait forever on a story, even a big one.

“He decided to come to the courthouse to see what was holding me up,” Travis said. “About the time he got near the jail the condemned man came to the end of the rope, and it made a crack you could hear outside. Pricer fainted and fell down.”

While helpful citizens carried the unconscious publisher into the courthouse, Travis scribbled away on his story.

The barkeep had a black hood over his head, but the killing jerk when the rope went taunt had nearly severed his head. It was not a pleasant scene.

Travis wrote until he had said all he needed to say and it all got in that day’s edition.

He covered two more local legal hangings before the state switched to electrocution.

“I was invited to 45 executions down there [in Huntsville], but I never went to one,” he said.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" August 18, 2010 column

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