Public torture and executions have been a part of history for centuries. Honestly, I don’t get it. But that’s a bit hypocritical since I am a huge fan of true crime. And the more psychologically twisted and brutal the act, the more fascinating it is for me. However, capital punishment with an audience is a different cup of dark roast.
From the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century
During the Medieval period, public torture and executions were basically like what streaming is for us today. But we can’t give all of the honor to the original Ren Fair folks, the Greeks and Romans had some creative means to off people with an audience.
Greeks and Romans
Socrates (470-399 BC) was forced to drink hemlock in front of a small audience. His execution was suicide. Ancient Rome fancied crucifixion. As the poor crucifixee was nailed to the cross, soldiers and bystanders had the opportunity to flog and humiliate them publicly. It was a slow, painful death, eventually abolished in 337.
. The Dark Ages
Back in the good old Middle Ages, prisoners had no rights, and the crowds liked it that way. The locals attended tortures and executions and shouted their opinions eagerly.
A woman found guilty of treason or a heretic was publicly burned alive. (This is especially unsettling for us at Spell Caster.) They would be bound to a stake, placed on top of a pyre, and then lit up for a crowd to watch and jeer.
Local clergy preached to the crowd as the flames grew. It was common for the executioner to go the extra mile for the crowd and wet the wood, making it a long and slow burn.
Gifts for the New World
The British settlers didn’t just bring disease over, they brought over their definition of crimes punishable by death. In the 1700s, there were 222 things you could do to get executed in Great Britain; they included cutting down a tree (room for debate on that one) and robbing from a warren of rabbits (understandable).
In the New Colonies, the first recorded execution was in 1608. Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia was executed by firing squad for allegedly being a spy for Spain. And by 1612, the Divine, Moral, and Martial Laws kicked in for things like picking flowers from a neighbor’s garden and trading with Indians.
By 1665, The New York Colony had its own ideas of what should be punishable by death. Duke’s Laws stated that offenses like slapping your mom or dad, or denying the “true God,” were grounds for execution.
Not sure if we even need to go into the 1692 torch fest in Massachusetts, but we are Spell Caster Ghost Tours, so we’ll take advantage of the subject. But prior to the Witch on a Rope outcomes of 1692, there was the hanging of America’s first condemned Witch, Alse Young, in 1647.
It would be very easy to send this article into an existential look at the persecution and execution of Witches in America, but we’ll save that for another post. Though we are feverishly working our way to Hangings in Texas, we still think it’s worth noting that Witches set the standard for the gallows in 17th century America.
In 1642, Connecticut made practicing Witchcraft a crime punishable by death. And in 1647, Alse Young was made the first example as she was led to the gallows for her sorcery. By 1662, eleven people, nine women, and two men were executed for their woo woo.
Massachusetts followed suit, and in 1656, Ann HIbbins was executed for Witchcraft in Boston. She was the third Witch hanged in Boston, with Salem jumping on the “hang the Witch” train in 1692.
Cruel and unusual punishment shall not be inflicted, according to the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of rights. And until the 20th century, hanging was not considered cruel and unusual. In fact, it was pretty common, only considered cruel if the noose was placed incorrectly and the receiver was decapitated.
And after the Eighth Amendment, capital crimes started to get a little more “practical.” You could no longer be hanged for cheating on your spouse or hexing. And by 1815, many states only made murder worthy of the noose.
And as folks moved into the 1800s, some began to question the public display of executions. But there were still the die-hard (ha!) fans of community gatherings around the gallows. Folks were even starting to capitalize on capital punishment. Merchants made souvenirs to commemorate a hanging as crowds of spectators grew with every lynching event.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln called for 39 Sioux Indians to be hanged for murdering white settlers. This was the largest mass execution in United States history. The Universe kept up the game; four people were hanged for their involvement in the assassination of President Lincoln. One was a woman, Mary Surratt.
Six-Shooters and a Noose
The Wild West was down with executions, but they decided to beef up the offenses that warranted the noose. Robbery and rape were added back to the list of crimes that were punishable by death.
Isaac Parker became known as the “hanging judge” because he sentenced 160 men to the gallows. Some got off on appeal, some died in jail, but he hung 79 of them.
In the 1890s, the electric chair hit the scene, and hangings declined. But there was still a ton of them happening in Texas.
Hang ‘Em High in Texas
Don’t Mess With Texas
Texans are proud. Every state has its allegiance, but there is something different about folks from the Lone Star state. If you have Texas roots, then you get it. If not, then it’s probably not yours to get.
Before Texas was a Republic (that happened in 1836), the first legal execution was in the East Texas town of Nacadogches in 1834. The state changed the law of execution to the electric chair in 1923, and the responsibility of the execution was moved from county to state. But before the state plugged in “Sparky,” a lot of people met the county noose in Texas.
The death penalty in Texas was handed down to those found guilty of any of the following: murder, arson, rape, robbery, burglary, slave stealing, escape from confinement, counterfeiting money.
Prior to the Civil War, if an enslaved person was found guilty of assaulting or murdering their “owner” or sexually assaulting women, they were given the death penalty.
Once convicted, the prisoner had a 30-day stay to file an appeal, which was standard back then. However, in Texas, prisoners were allowed to waive that option and just “get her done.” Dick Garrett was tried and hanged in a span of four days.
122 counties, out of 254 in Texas, followed through with legal executions. According to West C. Gilbreath, in his book, Death on the Gallows: The Encyclopedia of Legal Hangings in Texas, 467 people were hanged in Texas, three were women accused of murder.
- Jane Elkins; Dallas; Hanged on May 27, 1853
- Lucy Dougherty; Galveston; Hanged on March 5, 1858
- Josefa “Chipita” Rodriguez; San Patricio; Hanged on November 13, 1863
Houston Riots: Camp Logan Mutiny
On August 23, 1917, thirteen United States soldiers from the 24th Infantry Division were hanged in Bexar County. They were charged with murder and mutiny; President Woodrow Wilson reviewed the case and approved the hanging of an additional six infantrymen.
They were members of the all-black 24th Infantry and were sent to Houston to guard Camp Logan in 1917. They had to deal with intolerable racism from civilians and law enforcement. It grew into what became known as the Houston Riot of 1917.
Sixty-four soldiers were tried for mutiny; 19 total were found guilty and hanged at Ft. Sam in San Antonio. The massive gallows were built in secret by the Army Corp of Engineers. The men were hanged as a single execution – all thirteen were hanged simultaneously.
This was the largest murder trial in American history. The riots resulted in the deaths of four black soldiers and 15 white civilians. It is the only race riot in U. S. history where more whites than blacks were killed.
Last Texan Executed In Public
Roy Mitchell was the last Texan to be legally hanged prior to the move to the electric chair. Mitchell was a Louisiana native that had made Waco, Texas his home. He was convicted of six murders. Today, Mitchell would be considered a serial killer.
Arrested on January 29, 1923, law enforcement found the belongings of several victims in Mitchell’s home. Mitchell began to confess almost immediately.
Mitchell confessed to eight murders; he was tried and found guilty for six of them. He also confessed to and was indicted on three separate counts of rape, two attempted rapes, and two counts of attempted murder.
- February 11, 1922; Mrs. W. H. Barker, Mr. W. H. Barker, and Homer Turk, Mrs. Barker’s thirteen-year-old son; Mrs. Barker and Homer were murdered with an axe, Mr. Barker was shot and killed – Mitchell charged only with the murder of Mrs. Barker
- May 7, 1922; W. F. Driskell; Mitchell struck Mr. Driskell in the head with an axe inside Mr. Driskell’s garage and stole his gun
- May 25, 1922; Harold Bolton; shot three times by Mitchell with Mr. Driskell’s stolen pistol
- November 20, 1922; Grady Skipworth; shot to death with a shotgun
- January 20, 1923; W. E. Holt and Ethel Denecamp; Mr. Holt was shot in the head, Ms. Denecamp was beaten to death, and her body dumped in a field
Mitchell was arrested on a gambling charge a week after he murdered Mr. Holt and Ms. Denecamp. Mitchell confessed to the murders after the evidence was found in his home, but recanted his statement before his trial.
He was convicted and hanged on July 30, 1923. His last words were, “Goodbye, everybody.” A crowd of 8,000 showed up at the gallows to witness the event.
Williamson County’s Hangings
Hangings weren’t a rarity in Williamson County. However, unlike other counties in Texas, by the late 1800s, Williamson County conducted their hangings away from the jail. The sheriff and his family had a residence on the grounds of the Old Williamson County Jail; the sheriff felt it was inappropriate for prisoners to hang in front of his family.
The gallows were erected about a mile from the Jail at the Poor Farm on Hutto Road, near the San Gabriel River. Prisoners were walked out of jail and into a horse-drawn carriage; then the procession was made to the site of their execution.
There are quite a few that met the noose in Williamson County, and some more interesting than others. Some men were convicted of crimes that would be considered graphically brutal, even by today’s standards. Others were questionable convictions.
Irvine Murray: Axe & Razor
Irvine suspected his wife, Molly, was having an affair. So, he killed her.
On December 10, 1885, in front of Irvine’s eleven-year-old stepson, Irvine picked up an axe and crushed Molly’d skull. Then he used a razor to slit Molly’s throat.
Irvine’s stepson testified against him at the trial. He was convicted of murder in the first degree, but he appealed the case. The Court of Criminal Appeals said, “nope,” and he was sentenced to die on September 10, 1886.
There was a crowd of thousands waiting at the gallows for his execution. Irvine stood on the scaffold with his arms tied behind his back and legs bound at the ankles. He faced the “audience” and stated, “Few people have gone up on such a place with a clear conscience as I have.”
Sheriff Olive put the black cap over Irvine’s face and cut the rope holding the trap with an axe at 1:43 PM. Irvine was dead twelve minutes later.
The Last Legal Hanging
1906 was the last legal hanging in Georgetown, Texas. The prize went to Tom Young. Tom was convicted of the rape and murder of his twelve-year-old niece, Alma.
Tom and his third wife took in Alma because of some difficulties at her home. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for Alma to face even greater challenges with her new guardians.
After repeated sexual and physical abuse, Alma finally told Tom’s wife what Tom had done to her. When Tom found out Alma told, he became enraged; he beat Alma with a club and whipped her for hours. Then, finally, he poured salt on her open wounds.
Men intervened in Tom’s rage, and Alma was taken to the hospital. She told authorities everything moments before she succumbed to her wounds and passed away.
Tom was convicted and hanged on March 30, 1906. Days before his execution, he found salvation. He was baptized two days before his hanging. He said God had forgiven him but still refused to confess the atrocities he put young Alma through.
Tom fell nine feet when the sheriff pulled the lever, snapping his neck. He was buried in Austin next to his mother.
Speaking Texas Friendly
Next time you’re visiting a small town in Texas, take the time to do a little research. You may be surprised to find the ugly secrets that live behind the walls of the historical buildings, like jails and courthouses. And if you’re ever in Georgetown, Texas, we’d love to share some of those dark secrets with you.
There’s much more to Tom’s story that you can read here.
Spell Caster also features him on our Ghosts of Old Georgetown Tour at 8:30 for Adults-Only.