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
Indeed, Frizzell had barely escaped becoming just another victim
of a lynch mob when arrested for killing his 24-year-old wife Annie
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.
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
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."
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
in 1923 was the legal responsibility of the county in which the
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
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
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."
"Texas Tales" December
7 , 2017 column