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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"
PEARL

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The old tintype, the only known image of John Pearl, hangs in a small frame on the wall in the Coleman County Museum.

Considering why the picture is on display, this is altogether fitting. Pearl never got to know it, but he has the singular distinction of being the first and last man legally hanged in the county. (The number of cattle thieves who may have accidentally gotten tangled up in a rope suspended from a tree has not been reported.)

The jail in Coleman where Pearl was both incarcerated and executed was built in 1890 of limestone quarried from the nearby Santa Anna Mountains (not really mountains, but that's another story). Contracted for on Aug. 20, 1889, the new lockup set the county back nearly $16,000 - $9,975 for the building and $5,600 for the all-important ironwork.

The county dads accepted the turnkey job on April 26, 1890.

The lockup saw its share of miscreants and felons, but a decade went by before it held its first defendant in a capital case. Even then, the murder in question occurred in Brown County, not Coleman.

The victim was Ed Tusker, a cotton farmer who had a place south of Bangs. In December 1900, he disappeared. When his friends and neighbors began to wonder where he had gone - no one had seen him since Dec. 4 -- his hired hand said Tusker had decided to move to back to his native Germany.

That hired hand was Pearl, who sold some of Tusker's cotton and cottonseed in Brownwood. He said Tusker had left him his wagon and team, along with other equipment and a bill of sale for some property.

Tusker's friends and acquaintances, however, had heard nothing of any plans on his part to return to his native country. Within a week of his disappearance, people began searching for the farmer. Someone thought to check the tank on Tusker's place. On the second day of dragging operations, Tusker's body -- weighted down with a large rock -- was found.

Pearl was tried and convicted in Brown County. The jury's finding in regard to his punishment was easily written on a single piece of paper: Death by hanging.

But the defendant's defense attorneys succeeded in getting their client a new trial, this time in Coleman County on a change of venue. District Attorney J.H. Baker, with J.O. Woodward in the second chair, prosecuted the case.

Pearl's attorneys tried to save their client's life by proving he was insane, but the jury did not buy it. After hearing the prosecution's evidence, the jury found Pearl guilty and assessed his punishment as death.

Coleman County Sheriff Bob Goodfellow, a Dallas native who had attended Baylor University, was not particularly enthusiastic in the duty he faced. But the law was the law and he supervised the construction of a gallows inside the jail adjacent to the courthouse. Just as dutifully, he issued printed invitations to some 50 people to witness the event.

The sentence was carried out on Oct. 22, 1901. Goodfellow reluctantly sprung the trap. Dr. T.M. Hays of the nearby town of Santa Anna had been called on by the county to certify the condemned man's death. When he first put his stethoscope to the man's chest, the doctor recalled, "My heart was beating so hard that I couldn't be sure whether it was mine or his."

Even though he had no doubt that Pearl was guilty as charged, his role in springing the trap bothered Goodfellow, who served as sheriff until Nov. 6, 1906, for the rest of his life.

July 2003
Published with author's permission
 
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