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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

When a Hanging
Goes Wrong

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Right up to the end of his life, mule skinner Lucius Hightower had only one thing in common with one of the Old West's most notorious outlaws, "Black Jack" Ketchum -- both men hailed from the Lone Star state.

But early one spring morning in 1916, that would change. What had happened to Ketchum in 1901 happened to him. Even so, Ketchum got most of the ink. "Black Jack's" legend lives on while Hightower and his claim to fame has long sense been forgotten.

Whether Lucius and wife Hallie left Texas for a new start on their marriage or simply to afford him a better paying job, their relocation to the high country of southwestern New Mexico definitely offered better scenery. Tall pines forested the higher elevations, crowning mountains hiding rich veins of silver. That aspect of the area's geology had made picking a name for the Grant County seat a no-brainer -- Silver City.

The couple had moved from Colorado City in West Texas to the then-booming mining town of Tyrone, NM around 1915. A classic company town, Tyrone had been designed and built by the mining company whose employees lived there. While Tyrone amounted to a state-of-the-art environment, the effect of ethyl alcohol on human behavior could not be influenced by a change in geography.

Lucius and Hallie had been married 24 years and had five children. No matter the common bond of parenthood, in today's relationship speak they "had issues." On the night of Sept.30, 1915, a next-door neighbor busily cooking supper for her family saw Lucius approaching his house. Even at a distance, Mrs. Bailey (newspapers didn't mention her first name) could tell by the way the 50-year-old man walked that he was badly drunk.

Hallie had been cooking as well. After they ate, the couple got into an argument. The neighbor heard Lucius yell that if they didn't quit their constant fighting, he'd kill himself.

"I'll go get Bailey's Winchester and save you the trouble," Hallie replied. As she walked toward the door of their bedroom, Lucius grabbed a shotgun and charged after her. The frightened woman ran to the Bailey family's tent and rushed inside, her husband close behind. Seeing Lucius raising the weapon to fire, Mrs. Bailey tried to push Hallie out of the way, but the blast caught the woman on her left side and she fell mortally wounded.

At that, Lucius yelled, "Now I shoot myself," and walked outside the tent. As she tried to comfort Hallie, Mrs. Bailey heard the scattergun go off again, but when she looked outside, Lucius was nowhere to be seen.

A few moments later, Lucius -- clearly uninjured -- returned to the tent, bent down to kiss his dying wife, and ran off into the hills. Hallie took her last breath two hours later. Grant County law enforcement officers arrested her husband later that night and a grand jury went on to indict him for murder. His case went to trial on March 20, 1916 in Silver City and to the jury the next day. It took the panel only 22 minutes to find Lucius guilty of killing his wife. For that crime, they further concluded, he should hang.

The judge sentenced Lucius to hang on May 5 "between the hours of 6 o'clock in the forenoon and 6 o'clock in the afternoon...in an enclosure to be erected by the [sheriff] on the courthouse grounds...."

Already having another condemned man in his jail, the sheriff ordered construction of a gallows and began planning for two consecutive executions. Back then, hangings always drew a crowd, but to shield the public from too gruesome a sight, courts usually ordered that the execution be carried out in a relatively discreet manner.

To this point, the Hightower murder had merely been a tragic example of domestic violence in a Southwestern mining town. Unfortunately for all concerned, when the sheriff sprang the trap door, the 200-plus-pound Hightower reached the end of the rope and kept going. Rather than humanely snapping his neck, to the horror of the onlookers the new rope jerked the man's head off.

And that's what Lucius Hightower came to share with "Black Jack" Ketchum. Fifteen years earlier, San Saba County native Thomas E. Ketchum had gone to the gallows in Clayton, NM for train robbery, then a capital offense in New Mexico. He, too, suffered decapitation when they tried to hang him. Given his reputation and ample press coverage, "Black Jack's" horrid demise became one of the most famous executions in the history of the Old West.

Of 62 men and one woman legally hanged in New Mexico from 1847 to 1923, only two of the executions resulted in decapitation. Amazingly, both of those hangings featured Texans as the "honoree."

As the Twenties began to roar, most states switched to a more high-tech form of capital punishment -- the electric chair. Society viewed death by high voltage as more humane, and while that concept became debatable and eventually ran out of juice in favor of lethal injection, at least those who took a final seat in "the chair" got to keep their head about them, so to speak.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" February 4, 2016 Column

Texas Murders, Hangings...
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