1878: John Speer

Add comment September 20th, 2019 Headsman

From the Galveston (Texas) News, September 24, 1878:


Execution of Speer.

The First White Man Hanged is in McLennan County.

A Solemn and Impressive Scene — Speer’s Letter to his Friends in Arkansas and Texas — History of the Murder and Prosecution.

WACO, Sept. 20. — John W. Speer born in Arkansas in 1852, whose execution took place here to-day for the murder of the Rev. J.S. Pledger, came to Texas in 1874 on account of bad health, and remained with his brother-in-law until July, 1875, when he was arrested, being charged with the murder. His father die when he was 16 years of age, and his mother died July 6, 1877, the day after being notified of his second conviction. In early life he was of lively disposition, fond of excitement, but not such as would indicate anything of malice or violence toward any one, even an enemy. A fair education was acquired before his father’s death, but from that time it was necessary for him to make every effort for his own support, and to accomplish this he rented a piece of land in this county and commenced farming, his land adjoining that of Mr. Pledger. Ill will existed between the two for some time, and a double fence had been constructed in consequence.

On the 13th day of July, 1875, Rev. J.S. Pledger, while plowing in his field, was shot down by some one concealed in the weeds between the fences, and a man plowing with Mr. Pledger recognized J.W. Speer as the one who fired the fatal shot. He was arrested shortly after and remained in prison until May, 1876, when his trial took place. Messrs. Herring, Anderson & Kelly were retained for his defense, and did all in their power to save him, but the jury returned a verdict of murder in the first degree, assessing the death penalty. An appeal was taken, and the case remanded. In July, 1877, a new trial was had before Judge L.C Alexander, resulting in a verdict the same as the former one. Again his counsel appealed to the higher tribunal, when in due time the judgement was affirmed, and on July 6, 1878, Judge Alexander sentenced him to be hung on August 28. Gov. Hubbard granted a respite until September 20, after declining any commutation of punishment, though earnestly petitioned to do so by many citizens of this county, for the following reasons, addressed to Col. Parrott:

[some boilerplate omitted -ed.] … No newly discovered proofs tending to show the innocence of the defendant have been presented to the executive. No proofs tending to mitigate or palliate the crime, or bring it under the denomination of murder in the second degree, or manslaughter, have been presented. The statement of facts, certified by the district judge as being the only evidence on the final trial, has alone governed the executive in determining his decision in this case. From a most earnest review of this evidence, he arrives at the conclusion that the defendant was guilty of murder, as charged. A credible witness swears positively to seeing the defendant kill the deceased by a gun, which he saw defendant hold in his hands, and di[s]charge at the body of the deceased; and that from the wounds then received did die. Other witnesses testify to a chain of circumstances establishing the guilt of the defendant as clearly as the positive evidence. Add to all which the defendant, when not under duress, and when not under threats, or under promises of liberty or life, confessed to having killed the deceased … The crime is not relieved by any mitigating circumstances. If the facts as sworn to are true, it was an assassination of an old and unarmed citizen, who had no opportunity of defense, or even notice of the fate which awaited him. With such convictions, formed upon the evidence presented, the executive can not interfere with the judgment of the court.

R.B. HUBBARD, Governor.

Your correspondent visited him on yesterday in company with his spiritual adviser, Rev. M.H. Wells, and found him in good health, and quite cheerful, considering his approaching doom.

In response to questions asked him he declines to make any confession, as it would do him no good, but only bring trouble upon others. In a letter to his friends he says: “I will leave no statement of my case. You will judge me as leniently as possible. I will make my confession to God alone, not to man.” He appears quite reconciled to his fate, and claims every reason to hope for the pardon of his sins, and acceptance at the throne of grace. In his will made on the 17th inst. he bequeathed the remaining estate to his sister, now twelve years of age, sent his trunk by express to his brother, and placed papers and other valuables in the hands of Rev. M.H. Wells to be disposed of as directed. He renders grateful thanks to sheriff Ross and John Magee, the jailer, and other officers and many friends for constant and uniform kindness to him during his long imprisonment. The members of the young men’s christian association have done much to encourage him by their kind words and earnest prayers. His great regret is that he has not yet been able fully to forgive those who were instrumental in bringing upon him this great trouble, and not coming to his rescue as they promised.

Early this morning crowds of people from the surrounding country gathered around the jail. The trees and housetops and every available window were filled with anxious spectators, awaiting the hour of execution, and not less than 3000 persons were on the ground.

At half past 2 o’clock Mr. Wells and other ministers of the methodist church, members of the young men’s christian association and representatives of the press were admitted into the jail, when Speer was brought into the room outside the cage, where religious services were conducted by Mr. Wells, in the following order: Singing first, “Jesus, lover of my soul,” reading the fifty-first psalm; second, hymn, “There is a fountain filled with blood;” prayer by Mr. Wells; after which the sacrament of the Lord’s supper was administered. Prayer by the Rev. W.R.D. Stockton, followed by singing “What a friend we have in Jesus,” and “Shall We Meet Beyond the River,” the latter at the request of the prisoner, and during the singing he shook hands with all in the room; then turning to his companions in prison, bade them good-by, expressing the hope they should meet in heaven. The services and leave-taking were one of the most solemn and impressive scenes it has ever been my lot to witness. Deputy sheriff J.S. Moore then came forward and read the death warrant, the prisoner listening attentively and without any apparent emotion.

The door being thrown open, he took the arms of his spiritual adviser and A.R. McCollum, of the Telephone, who was a friend of his youth, and walked with a firm step around the building, and up the steps to the platform of the gallows, where he stood alone and unmoved during a short and fervent prayer. The rope was then adjusted, his arms and feet pinioned, during which there was no perceptible emotion, but a smile lit up his countenance, which continued until the black cap was drawn over the face. The officers and friends descended from the platform, and at 4.05 the wedge was knocked away, and J.W. Speer was suspended between earth and heaven. The rope having slipped his neck was not broken, but he strangled. At 4.17 the physicians pronounced him dead, and at 4.22 he was cut down and placed in his coffin. Mr. A.R. McCollum took charge of the corpse, and had it buried in the Waco cemetery, Rev. M.H. Wells conducting the burial services.

Just before ascending the scaffold, Speer gave to McCollum, to whom I am indebted for a copy, the following statement in his own handwriting:

WACO, TEXAS, Sept. 18, 1878.

To my friends in Arkansas and elsewhere:

I adopt the present mode of returning thanks to you for your sympathy and assistance during my late trouble. Though all your efforts have been of no avail toward prolonging my life, yet I duly appreciate the endeavors you have made in my behalf, and thank you as freely and heartily as if your wishes had been accomplished. I have been often asked for a written statement of the case against me, with the names of all persons concerned in the murder, but I have, and must still, decline to give such a statement. But for the gratification of my friends, I will give the names of all the parties that I know of, commencing with myself. To a certain extent I am particepts criminis with W.S. Nolan and J.W. Wilson, though I myself never had a cross word with Mr. Pledger in my life. There may be others who are morally guilty, whom I do not know of. More than this I do not wish to say, but leave those who hav eknown me best to judge for themselves. A lady friend once asked me why I did not tell all that I knew of the case and try to save my own life. In answer to her, I will say I have been as she thinks much wronged by W.S. Nolan, J.M. Nolan and J.W. Wilson, and it was my intention at one time to try to do so, but I listened to the persuasions and promise of assistance from J.M. Nolan and W.S. Nolan until it was too late for me to do anything but await my fate and meet it as best I could.

I have been informed that J.M. Nolan has been recently working against me, and my reasons are good for believing the report to be true. Prejudice at one time was very strong against me here, but since my last trial public opinion seems to have changed to some extent, and I now believe that I have the sympathy of all good citizens. Though the change has come too late to do me any good, yet I am grateful to the people, and thank them from my heart for their sympathy and kind appeal to the governor asking executive clemency in my behalf. I know that my friends have thought it very strange that Gov. Hubbard did not commute my sentence to imprisonment for life. But I can only say that it was my misfortune that the case of Emil Houillion was presented and acted on before mine. Had my case been first of the two before his excellency, I think his decision, would have been different.

My treatment here has been very good. Col. Ross, sheriff, and Mr. McGee, jailer, and Mr. McGee’s family have been very kind to me. I have no irons of any sort on me, and have been allowed all the liberties and favors that a person could ask — more, in fact, than one in my condition could expect. To you, my friends, I would respectfully remember his excellency Gov. Miller, of Arkansas, United States senator A.H. Garland, of that state and Col. A.B. Williams, who have indeed tried to befriend me in this trouble; and should it ever be in your power to assist either of these gentlemen, then think of me, who will remember them and you when with my Father in heaven. There are many others, both in this country and there, whose memory and friendship are very dear to me, but their names are too numerous to mention in this statement. It is indeed a priceless pleasure to me to know that I have so many friends and few enemies; and I hope my friends will remember me in after years with pleasure, and not let my memory die entirely out of their hearts. One of my earliest friends, who knew me when I was a little boy in Camden, Arkansas — Mr. McCollum, editor of the Telephone — will kindly take charge of my remains and see that everything is properly attended to, and should any of my friends ever come to Waco and wish to see the last resting-place allotted me here, Mr. McCollum will no doubt cheerfully show them my grave. I would have much preferred that my death could have been a natural one; but, as it is, I feel prepared to go, as a christian should, with hopes of a happy home in heaven. And I shall hope, sooner or later, to meet you all there, where pain and grief have no part, but all is joy and peace. I have one great consolation — that my mother is not here to suffer with my sisters. But I soon will be with her, and await them there. As my time is short, I will bring this letter to a close. May God, in his infinite love and mercy, ever bless and protect you while on earth, and finally reunited us in His upper and better kingdoms, is my daily prayer. In life and in death I remain, with love and well wishes, your true and much wronged friend, formerly of Antoine, Arkansas,

JOHN SPEER

A detachment of the Waco Greys, under command of Capt. Robinson, and of the Central City Guards, under command of Lieut. M.V. Fort, were detailed as guard during the day. Doctors Hamlet, Willis, Holbert, Park, Campbell and Tollivero were announced by the sheriff to be in attendance. The reporter of the News and other representatives of the press, together with some seventy-five others, were admitted into the jail yard, amongst whom were a daughter of Mr. Pledger, the murdered man, and her four children.

The above is the record of the first execution of a white man in McLennan county, and may we not hope that few such scenes will occur in future! -R.G.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Texas,USA

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1923: Nathan Lee, the last public hanging in Texas

5 comments August 31st, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1923 was the passing of an era: the last legal public hanging in Texas.

The Texas of legend — the rough and vast frontier — fits the public hanging tableau (and its dark cousin, the lynching) like a hemp necktie.

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.

Grandfather Clause

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.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,USA

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1916: Jesse Washington lynched after conviction

95 comments May 15th, 2008 dogboy

Lynching is such a vile word. Likely taken from the name of Captain William Lynch of Virginia (circa 1780), the term for administering justice while dispensing with a trial had, by 1916, long since taken on its more common meaning of a white-on-black public killing.

But Jesse Washington‘s case defies this simple definition, straddling the line between state execution and an unrestrained populace. Washington’s brutal lynching at the hands of a white mob in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916, clearly fits the definition, and the particularly grisly details of his demise conjure all-too-familiar images of violent racism in the pre-Civil Rights South; but in another more disturbing way, Washington was effectively executed, his punishment carried out not by the state of Texas, but by the people themselves.

Jesse Washington’s charred corpse after the lynching.

Washington was born in 1899, a black farmhand who may or may not have been mentally retarded.* While his life is not well-documented, his death most certainly is. Washington was arrested on May 8 of that year for the rape and murder of Lucy Fryer, the 53-year old wife of a well-to-do cotton farmer. Fryer was found bludgeoned to death. Washington was spared for a week by the Waco sheriff, who successfully took him into custody before a pre-trial mob got their hands on him; Washington was then sent to Dallas for holding to prevent a local incident. To appease the mob, he was transferred back to Waco and tried for the crime just one week later.

It’s unclear whether Washington was guilty — evidence is scant and the trial lasted just one hour, but Washington appears to have had ample opportunity to perpetrate the act and is purported to have confessed — but his guilt or innocence in the matter was not on the mob’s mind. On May 15, the well-attended trial ended, and in four minutes, the jury reached its guilty verdict. Before the 17-year old could be sentenced, and with little or no resistance offered by any of the various legal entities in the courthouse, several hundred of the onlookers (some brandishing weapons) rushed Washington and carried him out the doors. Outside, a larger crowd waited to beat and castrate him. A chain was thrown around Washington’s neck, and he was dragged to the town square, where he met an immense crowd as well as the pile of dry goods boxes that was to be his end.

A Fred Gildersleeve image of the lynching of Jesse Washington.

By some estimates, up to 15,000 (mostly white, though not exclusively white) people watched the horrible events unfold; without question, Waco’s mayor as well as several other public officials watched from their second-story perch at town hall on one side of the square. Washington was tossed onto the boxes and coal oil was poured over him. The other end of the chain was thrown over what has become known as the Hanging Tree, and the fuel below Washington’s feet was set ablaze. Immersed in the flames, he attempted to climb the blisteringly hot chain multiple times, each time to be lowered back into the cauldron. It’s unclear how long Washington was alive, but the event lasted more than an hour, after which his fingers and teeth were claimed as souvenirs, his body parts were separated from the torso, and the remains of Washington were dumped in a bag so they might be dragged once more through the Waco streets.

Also watching from the mayor’s position was a cameraman who wanted to sell photographs of Washington’s charred corpse as postcards. Fred Gildersleeve snapped a series of images which would briefly make Waco the most shamefully famous city in the nation. Gildersleeve’s work paints a portrait of a town possessed by spite and uncontrolled rage: thousands of white spectators standing about the burning body of Washington from above, then hundreds of blacks gathered around his burned and brutalized remains from ground level. Others took pictures as well,
some more disturbing than others.

A complete and startlingly brutal account of this murder is given by Patricia Bernstein in her 2005 book The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP, which also tracks the increased viability of the NAACP in the wake of the slaying. What makes this case noteworthy for this column, though, is that Washington was found guilty prior to his lynching, and he would doubtless have received a state-supported death sentence. At the time, Texas law would have allowed for a public hanging; presumably, the spectacle surrounding Washington’s execution would have been just as significant (though not nearly as gruesome). Instead, vigilante justice was administered on the young farmhand, and his case because a linchpin for the Civil Rights movement. As with other lynchings of the time, no persons were charged in the incident, though it was obvious that there was significant planning involved and, from some of the images, that some form of self-appointed executioner actively participated in the deed.

Unlike a state-sponsored execution, though, Washington’s death raised the ire of the jury foreman, who harshly criticized the court for not protecting him. And because he was lynched, his cause was also taken up by several Northern papers, pushed into the national spotlight by NAACP secretary Royal Freeman Nash and Elisabeth Freeman.** Over 90 years later, the town of Waco is still dealing with the Waco Horror. The lynching has reared its head multiple times as many residents have pushed for a plaque to be erected on the site of the lynching, as one was for a distressingly large number of prior lynchings in Waco. Some in the town continue to resist, asserting that Washington’s guilt absolved the mob of responsibility for its act.

A postcard commemorating the lynching; written on the back: “This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe [Myers].”

Washington’s case raises two of the critical issues in the modern death penalty debate: culpability of the executioner (and witnesses), and cruelty of punishment. Nobody in the mob was prosecuted for the crime, and in the Waco of that day, it would have been unusual if someone had; today, we take little interest in the state executioner but would vociferously condemn such mob action. On a similar note, Washington’s death was barbaric and brutal, and few would argue that such an execution should be undertaken through legal channels, but recent Supreme Court cases have found it difficult to identify the meaning of “cruel and unusual punishment”. The debate continues in the United States, but these are two arguments, posed by Cesare Beccaria, that caused Leopold II to outlaw capital punishment in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1789, and cases like Washington’s suggest they should continue at the very least to give us pause today.

* Some accounts state simply that he was illiterate, and if this is the litmus test for mental retardation in the early 1900s, around 6 percent of the population fell into that category.

** Freeman worked tirelessly to drag information from Waco’s inhabitants, her actions likely sparking papers like the local Waco Times-Herald to quickly shut the door on the case; that paper officially apologized 90 years later for its and other newspapers’ roles in venerating the lynch mob.

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