Trouble in 1862. The Great Hanging in Gainesville, Texas

Great Hanging site

It was the place I had been seeking. After visiting his grave, I was searching for the site where Nathaniel Miles Clark had died on October 13, 1862. His life ended as he swung from a massive elm tree that once stood on this unprepossessing spot. During a span of several days of mass hysteria in 1862, at least forty men were hung from the same tree — hung by their neighbors. Their crime? Simply put, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were Union sympathizers living on Confederate lands while the Civil War was raging.

It was called The Great Hanging, and men were being lynched by vigilante mobs in neighboring Texas counties as well, but Gainesville had the most victims. They were accused of conspiring to commit treason and foment insurrection. Most of the men were innocent, but that made little difference once the mob hysteria began.

This is a difficult post to write for several reasons. First, I don’t want the reader to judge Gainesville, Texas by an incident that happened over 150 years ago. Gainesville is a beautiful town with a rich history that goes far beyond this one event. Please keep in mind that during the Civil War similar incidents were happening all over the nation.

Second, I am struggling to make sense of a tragedy that happened during a time when there was no “normal.” I don’t want to any of us to judge either side too harshly. We weren’t alive back then, so we can never know the fear citizens really felt. The closest analogy that I can make is to consider how our nation reacted after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

We were. indeed, terrified. “Will it happen again?” we wondered. “Who did it?” Collectively, Americans looked askance at anyone with brown skin … especially if they were from the Middle East … and thought, “Is that the enemy?”

Now consider the early settlers, and multiply the fear we felt. They lived at the edge of civilization under hardships that were frightening enough, but they also had to worry about attacks from righteously angry Native Americans. When the Civil War broke out, and the settlers wondered. “Is that the enemy,” the “enemy” looked just like them! In fact, the enemy could be their own blood kin.

Nathaniel Miles Clark

Nathaniel Miles Clark

The men who were hung in Gainesville, like Nathaniel Clark, were respected members of the community, although none of them were particularly wealthy; they were not slave owners. Clark was a farmer living east of town. Members of his family had donated the land upon which the town of Gainesville was built. As Nathaniel Clark was “tried” by a Citizen’s Court, found guilty, and hanged for being a Unionist, his oldest son, James Lemuel, was fighting for the Confederacy!

In fact, many of the men who were lynched in the Great Hanging had family members who were fighting for the Southern Cause. Most of them admitted that they were part of the “Peace Party,” although some were found guilty by association. Their goals were “to provide for the families of those at war, to protect members from Confederate authority, and to restore the Union.” Yes, that sounds like treason, which is punishable by death, but the story is a complicated one.

To understand why these men chose to side with the Union, you have to know that when Texas voters went to the polls on February 23, 1861 to decide if Texas should secede from the Union, and become a part of the Confederacy, the issue was about slavery. If you believe that it was about “state’s rights,” go read the full DECLARATION OF CAUSES: February 2, 1861 A declaration of the causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union.” Pay special attention to the following words:

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.

By the secession of six of the slave-holding States, and the certainty that others will speedily do likewise, Texas has no alternative but to remain in an isolated connection with the North, or unite her destinies with the South.

Since most families in Cooke County did NOT own slaves, it is not surprising that Cooke County was one of only 18 out of 122 counties to vote against disunion (with 61% of the voters against secession).[https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mgs02] I’m not naive enough to think that the majority of residents of Cooke County were abolitionists. In fact, most of them would probably have owned slaves — if they could have afforded them. They couldn’t. Slavery was an institution that benefited the rich, so why would a poor man vote to risk going to war for it?

On top of that, secession was almost certain to mean war and chaos. Especially for communities on the frontier, a break with the Union would be disastrous. The area was under constant attack by Native tribes, such as the Comanche and Kiowa. The best defense those communities had was from nearby forts staffed with Union soldiers … who would be removed if war ensued, leaving the settlers at risk.

The Confederate Conscription Act of April, 1862 was enacted, and it only fanned the flames of dissent. It required that men between the ages of 18-35 enlist in the military, although wealthy men could hire a substitute (or send a slave) to fight for them, and there was an exemption from the draft for the men who owned a large number of slaves … the very men whose cause was being fought. And, if all of the able bodied men were fighting in a far away war, who was left to protect their homes? Only the women, children, and the elderly.

Now consider the mindset of the people in the communities who sided with the Confederacy. In 1862, rumors abounded that bloodthirsty abolitionists from Kansas intended to invade the state; free the slaves, and murder every man, woman, and child who was loyal to the Confederate cause. It’s easy to understand why people were suspicious of anyone who sided with the Union; their fear churned and bubbled until at last the pot boiled over.

Neighboring farmers and friends were accused of being a part of this murderous plot. “Can we trust them?” they whispered. “Are they the enemy?” No one knew.

One hundred and fifty men in Cooke County were rounded up and brought to town for trial by a citizen’s court. Keep in mind that this wasn’t an established legal court … it was just twelve citizens (all of whom were well-to-do, and seven of whom were slave holders) who held court and passed judgement on these men.

In a dramatic exhibition of vigilante action during the Civil War, authorities in Cooke County in October 1862 arrested about 150 men who allegedly belonged to a “Peace Party” thought to be conspiring to reestablish Union control in Texas. Curious residents, families of prisoners, militiamen, and volunteers crowded into the square where many called for hanging all the prisoners. Then a church bell rang, calling a town meeting. Chaired by William C. Young, it proceeded to create a “Citizen’s Court” and to pass resolutions legitimizing its actions.

With Daniel Montague presiding and Young interrogating, the court met in a store on the square and convicted seven prisoners of conspiracy to commit treason. They were promptly hanged from a giant elm at the site of this park. Two others were shot and killed when they tried to escape. Dissension among the jurors led to an agreement that any further convictions would require a two-thirds vote. By that standard, all the accused were acquitted, to be released a week later. But a mob demanded and the jury surrendered fourteen men to be lynched.

The jurors scattered on Monday, October 13, planning to reconvene the next Saturday and release all remaining prisoners. However, during the week, James Dickson, member of a prominent family and William C. Young were shot and killed from ambush on Hickory Creek north of Gainesville. Fear swept the countryside. Hysterical demonstrators in Gainesville urged the hanging of all prisoners. When the court reconvened on the 18th, it sent nineteen more men to the gallows tree.

The words above are from a marker that was placed at the site, in the Georgia Bass Memorial Park, on Saturday, October 18, 2014. It’s a tiny park, and not terribly photogenic, but I’ll show you a picture, so you will recognize it if you go to see it.

Great Hanging monument

Great Hanging monument

I warned you that it wasn’t terribly eye-catching! As opposed to looking at it, I preferred to stand under a large tree that stands on the site and imagine the events of the month. I thought about the fear in the community, and the shame the citizens might have felt that it got so out of hand.

I also thought about the men who died, whose bodies were stacked in a warehouse at the edge of town, because their families were too afraid of the mob to claim them. Only about eleven men got a proper burial. The rest were put into a mass grave at the edge of the creek. Their bodies got ravaged by feral hogs, and some were washed down the creek.

I thought about the families that were torn asunder, and the division in the community that lasted for many years. Before Nathaniel Clark was hanged, he asked that no one seek vengeance for his death. No one was punished for the mob riot, and the community tried to move on as best it could.

not the hanging tree

not the hanging tree

The actual hanging tree was cut down long ago; its stump was ground down to nothingness in an attempt, I suppose, to erase the evidence of that horrible month in 1862. Below is a portion an artist’s depiction of the event from the Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 20 Feb 1864. The memories linger, as well they should, for one would hope that such terrible actions would never occur again.

Civil War, Great Hanging At Gainesville, TX 1862

image courtesy of http://www.gainesvilletx1862.blogspot.com/

If you would like to read more about the Great Hanging, I suggest reading Tainted Breeze by Richard McCaslin. You can also find much historical information about the men who died that October on Gainesville, Texas 1862. As for me, my pilgrimage is at an end.

A Gem Of A Depot in Gainesville, Texas

Santa Fe Depot, Gainesville, TX
At this sleepy little Santa Fe Depot, I squinted my eyes and tried to imagine it as the bustling hub of Gainesville, Texas. That was hard to do when there wasn’t another person on the street with me. However, in 1944, passenger tickets sales for the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway in Gainesville were the 8th largest in the nation! Soldiers from nearby Camp Howze (an infantry replacement training camp), families with fidgety children, and businessmen would have crowded the sidewalks, sweating in the midday sun.

Built in 1902, the brick train station served passengers until December 1979, when the last Amtrak train came thundering down the tracks. For twenty years, the station was unused by passengers, until the Amtrak Heartland Flyer began making a stop here in 1999. You can still hop aboard a train in Gainesville, but only twice a day. That’s not why you want to stop at the depot. Visitors to this neck of the woods need to stop because it houses a gem of a museum that pays homage to (among other things, including memorabilia of the Gainesville Community Circus) the first twenty-nine years of operation — when a Fred Harvey lunch counter operated out of the building. As a sweet aside, it might also have a ghost! Hang on. I’ll get around to that in a minute.

Outline of lunch counter

Although the counter has long since been removed, you can still see the outline on the floor of where it stood. Displays throughout the building give you a hint of what it was like when waitresses in black dresses, black hose, polished black shoes, and crisp white pinafore aprons efficiently buzzed about the counter serving meals to hundreds of passengers each day.

Courtesy of Morton Museum of Cooke County

Courtesy of Morton Museum of Cooke County

They were The Harvey Girls. The picture on the left shows the Harvey Girls and their German-born chef, Ernest Emil Schurig, around the lunch counter.

This tiny museum in Cooke County, Texas preserves a bit of the Harvey Girl history. It whetted my appetite for more. I had no idea the part that the Harvey Girls, and their employer, Fred Harvey, played in changing the West.

Fred Harvey came to the United States from England in 1853 at the age of seventeen. Like most immigrants, he was chasing the American Dream — and he caught it. His first jobs were as a dishwasher and as a busboy in a restaurant in New York. He quickly moved up the ladder, learning all about the food service industry. He later owned restaurants but the Civil War, and the depressed economy following it, hampered his success. Then, he had a brilliant idea: he made a deal in 1876 with the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway to put eating houses along the rail line.

Rail travel in the 1800s was pretty miserable. With no air conditioning, the open windows made for dusty, hot travel … with no food served! Passenger had to wait until the train stopped, every hundred miles or so, and hope to be able to buy beans and biscuits during the short pause at the station. Fred Harvey changed all that with his Harvey lunch counters — the first restaurant chain in the United States. Ticket masters queried the passengers about whether they planned to eat at the next stop and telegraphed ahead, so that the chefs at the Harvey diners could plan for the amount of food to have ready.

Harvey House place setting

Excellent food, served on fine china, awaited the passengers. Imagine how difficult it would have been to accommodate everyone during the twenty minute stop! Was the food excellent? Yes, it was only the best. Beef was shipped in daily from Kansas City; oysters and clams were shipped from the coast; and in Gainesville the water was deemed unsuitable for coffee, so it was shipped in daily from Fort Worth! Here is an excerpt from a 1927 Harvey diner menu, on display at the Gainesville Depot Museum, to give you an idea of what foods you might find waiting at the next stop.

excerpt from 1927 Harvey House menu

Prime rib of beef for $1.10? Jumbo Bull Frog Almandienne? Grilled Boston Scrod? I don’t even know what a Scrod is, and I don’t think I want to find out!

All of this would have been served to you by those immaculate and efficient Harvey Girls. That women were serving the food in these fine establishments was a bit of a novelty in those days. Before Fred Harvey started hiring women to serve in his diners, most waitresses were “shady ladies,” or at least perceived to be so. Waitressing was not considered a job for a proper young lady.

The story goes that in a Fred Harvey restaurant in Raton, New Mexico, the waiters were a bunch of rowdy ruffians. After a fight one night, they didn’t show up for work the next day. Mr. Harvey was so enraged that he fired the lot of them and promptly advertised for young ladies to take the positions. Ads went out in newspapers across the land saying:

Wanted: Young women 18 to 30 years of age, of good moral character, attractive and intelligent, to waitress in Harvey Eating Houses on the Sante Fe in the West. Wages, $17.50 per month with room and board. Liberal tips customary. Experience not necessary. Write Fred Harvey, Union Depot, Kansas City, Missouri.

Adventurous young women from farms in the Midwest, cities in the northeast, and all points in between rushed to apply. The money was good, the thought of adventure in a new community out west was enticing, and some of the young ladies figured that there was always a chance that a suitable husband might be on the next train.

The women had to sign an affidavit that they were of good character, they had to agree not to marry within six months of employment, and they had to abide by strict rules of conduct (including “no expectorating on the floor”). After six weeks of training, they went to work.

Fred Harvey and his Harvey Girls raised the reputation of the job of waitress to a high level of respectability. In a time when there weren’t many jobs available to women, the Fred Harvey chain offered females a chance to gain independence. That history is commemorated at the Museum at the Depot in Gainesville, Texas.

I know what you are thinking. “Wait a minute, Shelly. You mentioned a ghost!” I did, didn’t I.

bedroom for Harvey Girl

The ghost is upstairs, where you will find the rooms that were once occupied by the Harvey Girls who worked at the depot and the manager. There are seven sparsely furnished rooms that were for the girls, a common bathroom, and two rooms for the manager.

hallway at the Harvey House

Museum volunteers and guests often hear footsteps tap-tap-tapping down the hardwood floors of the long hallway when there is not a living soul upstairs!

Who could it be? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps it is the manager of the Depot, making certain that these ladies of high moral character are safely tucked into their rooms at night? Perhaps it is the restless spirit of a Harvey Girl stepping down the hall to the communal bathroom? I suggest that you visit the museum and decide for yourself. It’s definitely worth the stop.

The museum is located at 605 East California Street in Gainesville. Just find the train tracks, and you will be there. Because it is a small town, you might want to call ahead before visiting at (940) 668-4579.

[Note: If you are curious and want to read more about the Harvey Girls, I suggest Harvey Houses of Texas: Historic Hospitality from the Gulf Coast to the Panhandle (Landmarks) by Rosa Walston Latimer.]

Paying Respect To The Lawman, Not The Outlaw

The family of Alijah W. Grimes was reportedly infuriated that the outlaw, part of the gang who had murdered their loved one, would be buried in the same cemetery with his victim. They insisted that the outlaw be “planted” at the outskirts of the cemetery next to where the slaves had been buried before the Civil War, because in 1878 they considered that an insult for a white man.

So, the outlaw Sam Bass is buried on the western edge of Round Rock Cemetery. There is a historical marker beside Sam’s grave. A.W. Grimes, a former Texas Ranger, is buried across the way on the east side of the cemetery with a tiny metal cross (indicating his status as a Texas Ranger) beside his tombstone instead of a historical marker.

Texas ranger cross

My husband and I were traveling home from the Austin area today, and decided to go down Sam Bass Road in Round Rock to visit the cemetery. You see, today (July 21st) is the anniversary of both the birthday and death day of Sam Bass. After being wounded in a gun battle in Round Rock on July 19th, 1878 in a failed bank hold-up, Sam escaped down the road that now bears his name. Two days later, on Sam’s 27th birthday, he was found sprawled helplessly dying in a field north of town.

Because I tell ghost stories about Sam Bass on my Ghosts of Denton haunted tour, I came to see his grave out of curiosity. I wasn’t necessarily “paying respects,” because it’s hard for me to muster respect for a thief. Yes, I know that he was dubbed “The Robin Hood of Texas” because he stole from the “rich” and he gave to the poor … but he stole first. Probably the only reason Sam Bass wasn’t also considered a murderer is that folks he robbed got lucky.

As we snapped photos of the grave a stranger came striding toward us. He called out, “Thanks for remembering Sam on his birthday!” The man was dressed in Western style (boots, jeans, white shirt, vest, string tie, and a cowboy hat). That “long, tall drink-of-water” looked like he had just stepped out of a movie — and in fact “Tex” told us he had played bit parts in several well-known Western movies. He had come to take a photo of Sam’s grave for an elderly friend whose father knew Sam Bass. Tex knew a lot about Sam Bass, and he wanted to share it, not knowing that I already have studied the man.

I could match him fact for fact on Sam’s life story, but Tex told me about A.W. Grimes and the anguish of his family at the fact that Sam Bass would be buried in the same graveyard. I knew nothing about that story. Suddenly, I knew why I was in that cemetery. In open-toed shoes I sashayed across the cemetery, fending off the fire ants, to find Mr. Grimes. I noticed his original tombstone flat on the grass, broken of course.

A.W. Grimes original headstone

The tiny metal marker shown above is beside the older tombstone. More recently, another tombstone was added:

A.W. Grimes new headstone

The inscription reads:

Here lies A. W. Grimes, Williamson County Deputy Sheriff & former Texas Ranger who was killed in Koppells Store, Main Street, Round Rock, July 19, 1878 as he attempted to disarm gangmembers Sam Bass, Seaborn Barnes & Frank Jackson. It is not known who fired the fatal shot. He left a wife and three children. She received $200 & one of the Bass Gang horses as indemnity for her husband’s death.

I realize that $200 was a lot of money in 1878, but it still seems a small compensation for a man’s life.

I decided not to post the photos we took of Sam Bass’ grave today, even though one tiny wildflower bloomed to wish him, “Happy Birthday.” I will show you a picture of a road sign, though, because I made my husband turn around and stop the car so I could take the picture. If I don’t use it, he just might start refusing to give me any photo-ops! It’s at the junction of “Sam Bass Road” and “Hairy Man Road.” The Hairy Man is a spooky tale told in Round Rock that I’ll save for another day.

Hairy Man Road

I won’t post his grave, because I think that Sam has gotten enough of the glory. Sam had a road named for him many years ago, but A.W. Grimes didn’t get a road with his name on it until the year 2000. Sam is memorialized in song and story, but A.W. Grimes has been largely forgotten despite the words on his original tombstone.

Today I want to pay my respects to the lawman, not the outlaw. May Alijah W. Grimes rest in peace.

A.W. Grimes

Photo of A.W. Grimes courtesy of Find A Grave.