the afternoon of July 7, 1892, two men wielding a cross-cut saw
hurried to fell the mighty pin oak tree which shaded the front entrance
of D. Call and Sons Grocery at Fourth and Front Streets, on the
waterfront at Orange,
Texas. The opprobriously-heralded "Hanging Tree," as it was
widely renowned, was not diseased or in anyone's way. No tree worms
or borers had weakened its trunk or limbs, nor was it bound for
the sawmill or fireplace. In fact, as far as pin oaks go, it stood
as healthy, stately, and proud as any, its myriad of mighty branches
and green leaves crowfooting out in all directions.
The disease was in the minds of men, and Orange
was announcing to the world that it no longer needed a monument
of derision, commemorating that frontier era of justice, or injustice
would be more fitting, that for so long had been dispensed by "Judge
During the decade of the 1880s alone, the citizens along the Sabine
River ignored the same laws they had helped enact, and the lives
of three men were snuffed out on the "Hanging Tree." And some claimed
that the "Gibbet Limb," that giant branch which projected its greenery
in the general direction of the store, was purposely endowed by
nature to become a "trail's end" for murderers.
At that moment, Orange's
first convicted murderer was awaiting legal execution at the county
jail, and even the sight of the gibbet limb by some inflamed mob
might be a sufficient catalyst to incite a lynch party into action.
The tree's notoriety had already spread far and wide. Visitors from
Houston and New Orleans came to see it, and others pointed to it
as the eventual reward for wayward sons who refused to obey their
parents, or who flouted the laws of the land. Often rail passengers
expressed their anger upon learning that the Southern Pacific passenger
trains would not stop anywhere near the tree. And sightseers visiting
Front Street were sometimes disappointed when no pair of limp legs
were dangling from the pin oak's greenery.
But times had changed, indeed, and Orange,
bursting at the seams with new industry, population, and pride,
felt its earlier penchant for frontier justice had changed as well.
For the first time, the citizens of the town seemed content to let
the laws of Texas prevail. Archie Washington, the condemned axe
murderer of his wife, had just been refused a stay of execution
by the governor, and nowhere in the streets or saloons, not even
in the Casino Saloon frequented by the border rowdies, was there
any clamor for a "necktie party."
From the beginning, Southeast Texas and the "Neutral Strip," principally
Calcasieu Parish, in Southwest Louisiana were collecting points
for the killers, brigands, social outcasts, and outlaws of every
hue in the export-import trade in human garbage. And Orange became
the crossing point for the nefarious traffic in undesirables. Under
the Texas Republic, murderers fleeing American justice crossed the
Sabine River, whereas other, running from Texas murder warrants,
fled eastward. In 1856, Jack Cross was one Texas killer in that
category, fleeing eastward from the Bexar
County sheriff, proud to stop at Orange and 'fan' his gun, as
a member of a Moderator mob, on the side of 'law and order' for
a change. But just retribution sometimes lurks stealthily in waiting,
and after gunning down another man at Lake Charles, Cross eventually
'stretched hemp' in 1857 from a cypress tree on the bank of the
Whenever law enforcement broke down or ceased to function on the
frontier, it seemed an inevitable or unwritten law of nature that
"justice" would then be meted out by vigilante groups, who often
called themselves 'Regulators"
or "Moderators." And although a sizeable percentage of 'Judge
Lynch's' victims were white, the inequity of lynch law, inflamed
as it usually was by racial overtones, fell most heavily upon Negroes.
first record of vigilante action in Jefferson
and Orange counties occurred in Sept., 1841, when Regulators broke
up the infamous Yocum's
Inn murder ring near Pine Island Bayou, northwest of Beaumont.
Forewarned of their advance, Thomas D. Yocum, the alleged killer
of twenty men, escaped to Spring Creek, Montgomery County, where
the vigilantes eventually captured him. After giving him 30 minutes
to "square accounts with his Maker," they then shot him five times
through the heart.
His son, Chris Yocum, was an honorably-discharged Texas veteran
from Capt. Franklin Hardin's company and was described by Frank
Paxton in 1853 as being "the best of the Yocums." Some believed
that he had not been implicated in the murders at all. But bearing
the Yocum name and aware of the public lust for retribution, he
fled from Beaumont anyway. After a four-months absence and possessing
a false belief that the vigilantes' clamor for revenge had subsided,
Chris Yocum returned to Beaumont on January 15, 1842, to visit his
That night Sheriff West locked up young Yocum for his own protection
in the county's log house jail. The next morning, West found him
swinging from an oak limb on the courthouse lawn, with a 10-penny
nail driven into the base of his skull.
Also in 1841, vigilante justice struck most heavily in neighboring
where several persons were killed by vigilantes. The details of
war would fill a book, brought stringent denunciations from
President Sam Houston,
and lack of space will allow no greater elaboration of it.
In June, 1856, law enforcement not only broke down completely in
but was indeed a part of that county's crime-ridden element. The
sheriff, Edward Glover, and his uncle, John Moore, were perhaps
the most notorious counterfeiters in frontier Texas history, and
the violence ended when the Moderators, by self-election the side
of 'law and order,' captured and executed them. In addition to the
criminal sheriff, the six weeks' reign of terror featured the notorious
killer, Cross, who was fighting with the Moderators, and a number
of wealthy Mulatto cattlemen, who were allied with their white neighbors
At the end, twelve people, most of them innocent victims, were gunned
down; free black families were stripped of their land and cattle;
and thirty Mulatto families were driven permanently from the state.
Jack Cross gunned down one man on the streets of Orange,
and when a young doctor knelt to treat the wound, Cross held his
gun to the doctor's head and killed him. Underlying causes of the
violence were deeply rooted in racism, jealousies, and economics,
but the immediate cause of the conflict was to account for the only
legal execution in either Orange
or Jefferson Counties
prior to 1886.
Late in May, 1856, Jack Bunch and Sam Ashworth, members of the Mulatto
families, collaborated in the murder of Dep. Sheriff Samuel Deputy
as he rowed a boat on the Sabine River. Ashworth escaped capture
for five years, and was subsequently killed at the Battle of Shiloh
while he was in the Confederate Army. Bunch was captured and on
a change of venue, was convicted and hanged at Beaumont in Nov.,
1856, in an execution so barbarous that the 18-year-old youth was
strangled after mounting a ladder which was then twisted and pulled
out from under him.
In the fall of 1861, Tom Magnes and G. H. Willis, both of them white
men, were lynched at Old Hardin, then the county set of Hardin
County, for the robbery of Major Joe Dark of Batson's Prairie
and for the wounding of Dark's wife.-
If post-Civil War letters from this area were any indicator, the
Reconstruction years saw no improvement, and if anything a worsening,
in the volume of lawlessness and the general laxity of law enforcement.
For ten years, Beaumont,
were under Federal troop occupation, and the "Ironclad Oath" requirement,
forbidding public office to those who had served or sworn allegiance
to the Confederacy, proscribed nearly all adult males from any law
In 1866, one letter, signed by 36 Beaumonters, warned all potential
malefactors that any acts of resistance or violence against the
U. S. Government or its officers would not be countenanced, nor
remain hidden, by the civilian populace. In May, 1869, a letter,
signed by 33 Orange
County citizens, read as follows:
|"We the undersigned
citizens of Orange County,
feeling that our community and our laws have been outraged by the
late cruel murders of Newton and Erastus Stephenson at the jands of
-- Gill, -- Wilson, and 'Yellow Bill,' . . . do agree and form the
following resolution, to wit:"
. . that we are determined to look to the safety of our neighbors
during the absence of officers in the county; and for the aforementioned
purposes, we agree and bind ourselves together in making the following
declaration to all the parties concerned, to wit:"
|"If any further
violence is committed in our midst, we will take the matter into our
own hands and visit merited vengeance on all who may be guilty, and
hereby warn all aiders, abettors, and coadjutors to look well to their
own skirts for they shall not go unscathed . . ."
|Only the Orange
County district court minutes for 1869 might reveal if any of
the Stephenson murderers were ever caught, for most area newspapers,
including those of Galveston
and Houston, did not survive
for that year.
On April 8, 1874, Turner Ardasal, who was alleged to have been an
Italian ship captain, raped and murdered Mrs. John Jett and her two
children who lived near Orange.
Ardasal was captured by neighbors as he attempted to burn the bodies
of his victims. While the offender was in jail that night, a lynch
mob overpowered the guard and riddled the prisoner's body with 100
four decades of such unsettled social conditions, the "Hanging Tree"
in Orange was
not used until Aug., 1881. The sheriff, George W. Michael, was a popular,
efficient, and brave officer, but he had acquired a few enemies as
a result of his upholding the law and corralling the saloon rowdies,
one of whom was a white man named Charles Delano.
In order to conceal his role in the sheriff's attempted assassination,
Delano paid two black men, Samuel and Robert Saxon, to engage Michael
in a saloon brawl and kill him. During the resulting affray, both
Sam Saxon and Michael were severely wounded, the latter with buck
shot, but the sheriff miraculously recovered.
A mob took Robert Saxon, who confessed to the plot with Delano, to
the "Hanging Tree" and lynched him. Delano was arrested and released
on $2,000 bond for his role in the crime, but no attempt was made
to lynch him, perhaps because he and other white families equally
implicated had already agreed to leave Orange
and never return. On Aug. 26, 1881, the Galveston "Daily News" reported:
is connected by marriage and blood kin with several prominent families,
strong numerically and financially, and should the Citizens' Party
lynch him, it is believed there will be bloodshed."
|For a week, the
town was under martial law, patrolled by Capt. B. H. Norsworthy and
his militia company of Orange Rifles, and several white and black
families again deserted the county permanently.
In September, 1885, Sheriff J. C. Fennell of Orange
was killed while attempting to arrest a railroad transient, Dave Anderson,
who was wanted on a murder warrant from Tennessee. The city marshal
and a posse tracked down the killer and lodged him in the county jail.
After dark, a torch-light mob of masked men marched to the jail, and
"at the point of 100 cocked revolvers," forcibly removed the prisoner.
He was quickly carried to the oak tree and hanged on Front Street,
after which the mob quickly dispersed, leaving Anderson's body "literally
riddled with bullets."
On August 14, 1889, Jim Brooks, a black man accused of rape, was removed
from the Orange County
jail by a "masked mob, variously estimated from 300 to 500 men," and
was lynched on the same old pin oak. Again the Galveston editor noted
that, "at least 100 shots were fired at his body."
Between 1892 and 1895, Orange
County finally succeeded in executing on the gallows its first
two men convicted of murder and condemned to death. On January 15,
1886, Jefferson County
executed its second condemned man, Bill Madison, a young Negro convicted
of killing an elderly black logging contractor, Elbert Smith, during
a dispute over wages.
sawing-down of the "Hanging Tree" did not end lynch law in Southeast
Texas, but the infamous practice became much less frequent. In February,
1900, a Port
Arthur mob, supposedly friends of the victim, hanged Peter Sweeney,
a white man, to a telephone pole after the man had already been acquitted
by a jury of his peers in Beaumont.
And well within the memories of many persons still alive, an incited
and vengeful mob at Honey Island, Hardin
County, lynched a young black man about 1938.
Lynch law was a holdover from frontier days before state or territorial
governments were organized and no elected law enforcement officers
existed. Unfortunately, due to rural and racial attitudes, it lingered
on in many areas for decades after any need for it may have existed.
Perhaps it is too early to predict that that unsavory institution
is gone forever, particularly when some individuals and vigilante-prone
organizations seem to esteem vigilante misrule as preferable to all
constitutional avenues of justice. At any rate, the latter is the
utopian state of social justice that one must hope for and work for.
Whatever one's race, anyone who today conspires or reacts violently
against the civil rights of another can expect swift and stringent
retribution for his crime.
T. Block, Jr.
19, 2006 column