This date in 1923 was the passing of an era: the last legal public hanging in Texas.
And up until 1922-23, Texas executions had indeed been hangings administered by county sheriffs. But that newfangled killing technology, the electric chair, beguiled the legislature here as elsewhere. Oil wells popping up all over the state were rewriting its economic future … so why not a futuristic way of killing wrongdoers, too?
A 1923 bill centralized future executions in Huntsville, where they still remain today.
Denouncing countyseat [sic] executions as a barbaric relic of the frontier past, L.K. Irwin launched a one-man campaign to bring Texas in tune with the times. The state legislator converted many to his cause with the argument that public hangings harmed society almost as much as the condemned.
Irwin insisted executions usually degenerated into bloodthirsty carnivals that did nothing to instill in spectators a respect for the law. All too often untrained local officials made the spectacle even more gruesome, when the drop failed to snap the victim’s neck. On those occasions, he slowly strangled in full view of females and impressionable children.
In the 1923 session of the Lone Star legislature, Irwin introduced the Electric Chair Bill. In addition to doing away with the gallows, the proposal relieved county sheriffs of the responsibility of the carrying out death sentences. Future executions would be held behind closed-doors inside the Texas Department of Corrections.
That law took effect on Aug. 14, even though the electric chair hadn’t even been built yet. The hanging of one Roy Mitchell in Waco on July 30 figured to be the last, and thousands packed the public square to witness it. It’s still sometimes cited as the Lone Star State’s last hanging.
But on that very same date in the Gulf town of Angleton, Nathan Lee, an illiterate middle-aged black sharecropper, was condemned to die for shooting his white employer dead in a dispute over money. (The Ku Klux Klan sent flowers to the funeral.)
A month later, he did so — albeit in an area whose public access had intentionally been curtailed, to chill out any potential carnival scene.
“I did it,” Lee said on the scaffold. “I am to blame, and no one else.”