On this date in 1922, George Hornsby was hanged in Belton, Texas.
We pick up the George Hornsby’s trail 18 months before his execution, when the bludgeoned body of car dealer J.N. Weatherby was discovered outside Brownwood, Texas, on October 19, 1920.
The mysterious crime was unlocked by 16-year-old Willie Carter, who told authorities that he was the accomplice of the murderer George F. Hornsby* — Carter’s sister’s lover. The motive, Carter said, was theft.
Hornsby was arrested some weeks later in Birmingham, Alabama. He would insist from that time until the trap dropped under his feet that he had already been en route to Birmingham when the crime was committed.
The warring eyewitness testimony** attempting to situate Hornsby’s whereabouts on the days surrounding Weatherby’s murder defined the case both within the courtroom and without. A jury in Belton — where the trial had been moved owing to prejudice against Hornsby in Brownwood — bought Willie Carter’s version.
This did not cinch the case in the court of public opinion, especially since Hornsby vociferously adhered to his original story.
In the weeks leading up to the execution, after Hornsby’s legal team had fought its corner and the matter was in the hands of Gov. (and pioneer tough-on-crime pol) Pat Neff, Carter recanted his testimony.†
Then, a few days later, Carter recanted his recantation.
With the evidence in such a muddle, 7,000 sympathetic Texans — heavily residents of the trial venue Bell county as against those of Brown county, where the murder occurred — petitioned Gov. Neff for Hornsby’s life. Neff ended up personally interviewing Carter to try to figure out what was what. In the end, Neff wasn’t buying what the clemency campaigners were selling, and took a lonely stand against mobs of vigilantes roaming the Lone Star state imposing summary mercy.
No finer example can be had of criminal hero-worship than when a few months ago seven thousand one hundred and twenty-eight persons in Bell County signed a petition that I either pardon or commute the death sentence adjuded by court and jury against one George Hornsby. Hornsby was a man 29 years of age, a deserter from the American army, went under an assumed name to avoid identity, a transient fellow without vocation, lived with a woman not his wife on a negro street in Brownwood, and for the purpose of robbery, murdered, if human testimony is to be believed, one of the substantial citizens of Brown County. That he might have an impartial trial, removed from local influence, the case was sent to Bell County. The jury assessed the death penalty, and from the evidence as I found it to be, any other verdict would have been a travesty on justice. No sooner was the verdict of guilty rendered than there was begun by men and women, among them the very best citizens of Bell County and the equal of those of any other county, a campaign closely resembling hero-worship of the convicted murderer. Eighty per cent of the voting strength of Bell County protested to me against the punishment assessed against him. Reports stated that admiring hands brought to his cell the delicacies of life, flowers were strewn for him to walk on to the scaffold and fair women coveted the privilege of holding his hands while the black cap was being adjusted.‡ By public contributions a costly casket was purchased and flowers were piled high above his grave, even as the grave of one who had fallen in defense of his country. The murderer was praised as a hero and the Governor who refused to set aside the verdict of the Court of Appeals, all declaring him guilty, was held up to scorn and ridicule.
To these more than seven thousand petitioners I made no apology then and I make none now. In the administration of the law, I am for the courthouse, its judgments and its decrees. It is the one tribunal whose sole function is to make life sacred and property secure. It is the outgrowth of the centuries, the ripened product of civilization. When people ignore the courthouse and defy the law, they are blasting with the dynamite of destruction at the very foundation of their government. Without the courthouse the weak would be made to surrender to the strong. I am for the courthouse and against the mob. If civilization is worth preserving on the battlefield when war shakes her bristling bayonets, it is worth maintaining in the courthouse, where justice, when properly supported, holds forth her delicately balanced scales. In this deluge of lawlessness and disrespect for governmental authority which has submerged the State, the courthouse will prove to be the Mount Ararat upon which the ark of the law must finally rest, to send forth the dove of peace and civilization.
Hornsby’s Ararat was the gallows. He went calmly, with a short address reiterating his innocence.
People, I don’t know many of you, but lots of you know me. People, I stand before you a saved man. I accepted Christ as my personal Savior. I am going to leave you people, but I am going to a better land. I am going to where we will all be treated alike. We will all be charged alike, and I want to tell you people I am going as an innocent man.
I have lived a sinful life, but I have not committed any murder, so help me God. (New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 15, 1922)
A crowd estimated at three to four thousand turned up for Hornsby’s funeral.
The next year, state Senator J.W. Thomas from the little Bell County town of Rogers sponsored the legislation that would centralize all Texas executions (formerly conducted, as was Hornsby’s, by local authorities) in Huntsville.
* Here are two interesting facts about George Hornsby: first, he went by “George Scott” in Brownwood before all the trouble, since he was trying to distance himself from a dishonorable army discharge; second, his search results are complicated by his case unfolding during the simultaneous emergence of baseball great Rogers Hornsby.
** Some of it is discussed in Hornsby’s (unfavorable) appellate ruling, here.
† Sign of the times: after Carter’s first recantation — before he recanted the recantation — Hornsby was moved from the Bell county jail as “a precautionary measure owing to reports that efforts to bring about a commutation of sentence were distasteful to friends of Weatherby.” (Wire report in the Portland (Ore.) Oregonian, Aprkl 2, 1922.)
The Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a major revival in Texas during the 1920s.
‡ Actually, a high wooden palisade shielded Hornsby from public view of the flower-strewing masses. A Mrs. Bennett Smith of Temple, Texas, who helped lead the clemency campaign did offer to stand on the scaffold with Hornsby, but Hornsby seems to have declined the favor.