once openly published fiction along with fact, but sometimes readers had to wonder
whether a story really rang true.
The tale of one Sam Walker, told in the
Shiner Gazette on Jan. 12, 1898 and rediscovered by Austin
history buff Sloan Rodgers, is likely fiction disguised as news, but that surely
didn’t lessen the pleasure of reading it.
A correspondent named D.C.
Cherry wrote that he and a friend had been sitting around a San
Antonio hotel lobby one day when they overheard some traveling salesmen (better
known back then as “commercial travelers” or “drummers”) regaling each other with
“Having nothing to occupy us at the time,” Cherry related, “we
concluded to join them.”
Drummers, used to making their living on their
verbal skills, were good storytellers, he observed.
The incident Cherry so thoroughly enjoyed hearing about took place in a community
he called Paradise Flat. While Texas has no town with that name, the most prominent
settlement in Wise County used to be a place called Paradise Prairie, later shortened
to just Paradise. Settled
on a flat six miles from Decatur,
in its heyday, Paradise
boasted two hotels, two cotton gins, a lumberyard and a weekly newspaper.
On Dec. 1, 1896, the tale’s protagonist supposedly gunned down a fellow named
“Silver” Davis on the streets of Paradise Flat.
Law-abiding citizens who
saw the shooting did not consider it a fair fight. Taking Walker into custody
while gunsmoke still wafted in the air, they concluded to spare Wise County the
expense of a trial by lynching him.
Though not smart enough to have killed
Davis in the absence of witnesses, Walker demonstrated an admirable talent in
thinking on his feet.
“The rope was already noosed…when he asked to make
a few remarks,” Cherry wrote.
Since execution etiquette has always called
for the condemned to be granted a final statement, the vigilantes readily agreed.
Clearing his throat, Walker began the most important declamation of his life:
“This town…hadn’t any Fourth of July to speak of, and it was way behind
…on Thanksgiving,” he began. “Christmas will soon be at hand, and you can’t even
get up a decent dog fight to celebrate the occasion. I should think you’d want
to show off over Hill City and Jackville.”
The civic-minded leader of the
mob allowed that indeed, the good people of Paradise Flat would like something
to distinguish their community from the other two towns, but given the circumstances,
he didn’t see how it could be done.
Fortunately Walker had thought it
over, albeit rather quickly.
“You’ve got [your chance] right here,” he
said. “I killed Davis and have got to be hung. Instead of hanging me today, why
don’t you put it off until Christmas and make a big thing of it? It’ll be the
only hanging for 50 miles around.”
The mob concluded that Walker had come
up with a fine idea. He would be “saved up” like a holiday goose until Christmas.
Handed over to the real though apparently powerless local authorities for safe-keeping,
Walker soon languished in Paradise Flat’s lockup.
In recounting the story,
Cherry said Walker enjoyed three good meals a day while in custody and that “every
evening a number of the boys made it a duty to call on him and help him to pass
the time as pleasantly as possible.”
Meanwhile, the condemned man seemed
almost to be looking forward to the day of his hanging and all the attention the
event would focus on Paradise Flat. Mob members and others who visited him grew
so found of the killer that all agreed he should be hanged as gently as possible
when the big day finally came.
With Christmas nearly at hand, Walker made
one last request.
“Boys, as I’m doing the fair thing by you, I expect
you to pet me a little,” he said. “For instance, I’m going to hang up my stocking
on Christmas Eve, same as innocent children do, and I hope I shan’t be neglected.”
And indeed he wasn’t. Knowing they’d get their money back as soon as Walker
hanged, the vigilantes and residents cheerfully contributed to Walker’s holiday
“gift.” By the time the collection hat had made its rounds, it had lost its creased
crown under the weight of $200 in silver subscribed toward making Walker’s final
Christmas his brightest ever.
Christmas Eve, the last person who saw Walker
reported him sleeping peacefully as a child no matter what would happen the next
Christmas morning, as families gathered around their tree or got ready
for church, someone walking past the jail noticed a man-sized hole coming out
from beneath the frame hoosecow. Walker had decided not to hang around for the
festivities. Also missing was the purse so jocularly collected to enhance his
As Cherry put it, “Public indignation was so great that all
were stupefied for a time.”
However, shock soon hardened into firm civic
resolve: The next fellow who needed hanging in Paradise Flat “would be stretched
up so durned quick that nobody but himself will get any fun out of it.”
- March 28, 2013 column
Murders, Hangings ...
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