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Texas | Columns | "Cannonball's Tales"



By W. T. Block, Jr

On 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 Lynch."

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 Calcasieu River.

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.

The 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 young wife.

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 Shelby County, where several persons were killed by vigilantes. The details of that Regulator-Moderator 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 Orange County, 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 through marriage.

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, Sabine Pass, and Orange 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 enforcement assignments.

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:"


"RESOLVED, . . . 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 bullets.

Despite 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:
"He (Delano) 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.

The 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.

W. T. Block, Jr.
"Cannonball's Tales" June 19, 2006 column

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