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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

William H. Frizzell's
First and Last Speech

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Few things perked up a community better than a public hanging.

The relatively simple act of breaking a condemned person's neck by causing them to fall through a sprung trap at the end of a rope generally played out as spectacle attracting thousands of visitors. A legal hanging was a ritual with typical elements, something of a cross between a circus side show act and a morality play.

Twenty-seven-year-old William H. Frizzell had the honor of being the only person legally hanged in Taylor County. (The qualifier "legally" is important. In 19th century Texas, many capital cases ended up adjudicated by a citizen's committee who spared the local sheriff the trouble of executing someone according to law.)

Indeed, Frizzell had barely escaped becoming just another victim of a lynch mob when arrested for killing his 24-year-old wife Annie in Comanche on Jan. 24, 1891 in front of numerous witnesses. Due to local sentiment against him, Frizzell's trial had been moved to Abilene on a change of venue.

Admittedly, his marriage at Glen Rose in February 1890 had gotten off to a rocky start. They had known each other only three weeks, but Frizzell soon found that Mrs. Frizzell was pregnant -- by someone else. Even so, they stayed together for six months or so before divorcing. (What had become of her child is not mentioned in news reports.)

Frizzell decided he'd like to give the relationship another try and went to see his former wife, who was living with her mother at Comanche. When Annie said she wasn't interested in a reconciliation, Frizzell pulled a .38 caliber revolver and shot her. As she tried to run, he shot her two more times.

"Mr. Frizzell, for God's sake, do not shoot me anymore for you have already killed me...," she said as she sank to her knees. Frizzell then shot her a fourth time.

"If I had had another cartridge," he told sheriff's deputies as he was led from the scene, "I would have shot her again."

Tried in Taylor County, Frizzell soon found that a jury of his peers did not approve of a man shooting his ex-wife four times. The district judge sentenced him to hang, which until the state began using the electric chair at Huntsville in 1923 was the legal responsibility of the county in which the conviction occurred.

When a reporter for the Taylor County News interviewed Frizzell in his jail cell a few days before his execution date, the condemned man spoke differently of his late ex-wife. He was sorry for what he had done, he said.

"If I knew that my wife could be brought back by my death," he told the reporter, "I would be willing to die two deaths in the same way I've got to die."

The sound of saws and hammers as carpenters built a gallows not far from the county jail apparently helped clarify Frizzell's thinking. Understanding that dying even once would not bring his wife back, he apparently decided to delay his departure as long as he could.

An estimated 1,500-2,000 people gathered outside the courthouse on the day of the hanging, Nov. 20, 1891. At 2:20 p.m. Sheriff John V. Cunningham escorted Frizzell, clean-shaven and dressed in a black suit, from the jail to the gallows. Two preachers, several deputies and a dozen or so newspaper reporters made up the rest of the entourage.

Flanked by the sheriff, Frizzell climbed "unfalteringly" up the steps as local dignitaries and the reporters took front row seats. Cunningham read Frizzell's death warrant aloud and then Rev. J.C. Wingo led the spectators in singing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."

Next, according to tradition, the sheriff asked Frizzell if he had any last words. As a matter of fact, he did. The condemned man cleared his throat and proceeded to talk "in a random and disconnected way" almost non-stop for the next half hour. Frizzell may or may not have known the definition of the word "filibustering," but that's what he was doing.

"Several times he seemed to have said all he wished," the newspaper reported, "but when he turned and caught sight of the trap so near his feet and of the rope dangling over his head, he would break out anew."

Sheriff Cunningham must have been a patient man. Though he had a piece of paper in his coat pocket giving him legal authority to get the proceeding over with, he let Frizzell keep talking until he ran out of things to say.

Not having a phone book to read to the crowd line-by-line, Frizzell finally asked the crowd to join him in the hymn, "There's Never a Day So Sunny." As the last note faded, Frizzell said, "That's good."

At 3:21 p.m., as the newspaper put it, the convicted wife killer was "launched into eternity."

The author of the report concluded: "Now both [Frizzell and his wife] have gone with their grievance before a higher tribunal--a court of last resort--and there let us leave them."

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" December 7 , 2017 column

Mike Cox's "Texas Tales"

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    Mike Cox's "Texas Tales"

  • Ever Heard of Dalworth? 11-30-17
  • "Get Along Little Turkeys..." 11-16-17
  • The Bullet that Killed John Wesley Hardin 11-10-17
  • Duels 11-2-17
  • The Rogstads of Bosque County 11-2-17

    See more »


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