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  • Murderous Heroes—
    or Heroic Murderers?

    by C. F. Eckhardt
    Indianola, Texas, county seat of Calhoun County, September, 1875. Most of the adult males in Calhoun County were at the Indianola courthouse, a jury panel for the trials of two suspected murderers. William Taylor was charged with the murder of Gabriel Slaughter aboard a steamship docked at Indianola. Joe Blackburn was charged with stagecoach robbery and first-degree murder. The cases the district attorney built were strong. There was little question both Taylor and Blackburn would be convicted—and, ultimately, hanged—for their crimes.

    That morning the wind began to blow and the sea began to rise. The first of the two massive hurricanes that would spell the end of Indianola as Texas’ primary seaport was blowing in. The second, in 1881, finished the town. As the water began to rise—it would ultimately crest at over ten feet—the jail, which stood on the courthouse square, was emptied. The prisoners, including Taylor and Blackburn, were brought to the second floor of the courthouse, along with the jury panelists—and three horses. One was the sheriff’s personal mount, the others were cart horses belonging to a couple of the panelists. They were the only three horses in the town to survive the storm.

    Apparently both Taylor and Blackburn were strong swimmers. As the waters rose, people in danger of drowning began to float by the courthouse. Both of the accused murderers stripped to their drawers, leaped into the raging water, and began pulling citizens to the courthouse’s second-floor windows, where jury panelists—and jailbirds—pulled them to safety. How many citizens of Indianola the two men rescued we don’t know for sure. The source says ‘scores.’ Twenty is a ‘score,’ so in order to reach ‘scores’ they had to pull at least forty people from the water.

    After the waters receded and everyone managed to get out of the courthouse, Sheriff Busch was addressing the crowd. Since Taylor and Blackburn had behaved so heroically during the storm, the deputies had dismissed all thought of guarding them. Blackburn got close enough to the sheriff to grab his revolver from the holster. He then ordered the deputies to disarm themselves, which they did. Taylor picked up one deputy’s gunbelt and strapped it on. Then, mounting the sheriff’s horse double, the two made their escape.

    A mile out of town the pair encountered Guy Michot, a Black man, and ‘persuaded’ him to give them his horse. Blackburn gave Michot a ten-dollar bill as a ‘rental’ for the horse. He was told to tell Sheriff Busch that the horses—and the guns—would be returned as soon as the pair had no further need for them. Sure enough, within a week both the sheriff’s horse and Michot’s, together with the sheriff’s and deputy’s revolvers, were returned to the Calhoun County courthouse—along with a substantial sum of money for Michot.

    What subsequently happened to William Taylor and Joe Blackburn? We don’t know. They were never recaptured and never tried. Of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who died in that hurricane, Taylor and Blackburn were able to rescue only a few. It is doubtful, however, that the potential jurors, having witnessed their heroism during the storm, would have been willing to send them to the gallows.


    © C. F. Eckhardt
    July 26, 2011 column
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