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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

McDade Hanging

by Mike Cox

While not quite on the level of "A Christmas Carol," "The Miracle on 42nd Street," or "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," the story of the McDade Christmas clean up has become one of Texas' more frequently told Yuletide tales.

Mike Cox
The desire to tidy up your surroundings during the holidays is natural enough, but in 1883 the urge got a bit out of hand in one Central Texas railroad town.

'Twas the night before Christmas, but not everyone was nestled in bed with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. A group of concerned Bastrop County citizens, as it turned out, had been making a list and checking it twice.

When the sun rose in McDade that long-ago December 25, daylight revealed a tree adorned with something other than ornaments. Suspended from sturdy oak limbs, three dead men swung in the crisp morning air. And before the sun went down that Christmas, three more bodies cooled in a shed near the Houston and Central depot, awaiting the arrival of grieving relatives and the verdict of a coroner's jury.

While not quite on the level of "A Christmas Carol," "The Miracle on 42nd Street," or "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," the story of the McDade Christmas clean up has become one of Texas' more frequently told Yuletide tales. But for a long time in McDade, for obvious reasons, the story was about as popular as the rattling chains of the Ghost of Christmas Past. Only time and a lot of funerals transformed it into a tellable tale.

The day after, here's how a headline writer at the Houston Post summarized the events of that notable Christmas Eve and Christmas Day:

A BLOODY TIME.
JUDGE LYNCH HOLDS A MATINEE AT MCDADE.
THREE MEN SWUNG UP AND A COUPLE SHOT DEAD.
SEVERAL OTHERS WOUNDED AND THE END IS NOT YET.
GOVERNOR IRELAND HURRYING TROOPS TO THE SCENE AND MORE BLOODSHED IS ANTICIPATED.




McDade's holiday housecleaning, which made national headlines, had been a while in coming. Eight years earlier, in 1875, a group of residents dissatisfied with the level of local law enforcement lynched two suspected outlaws. That led to the killing of two of the vigilantes, which in turn resulted in the lynching of another outlaw.

In 1876, two cattle thieves caught in the act were shot and killed by cowboys working for Print Olive. Five months after that, 15 riders sympathetic to the dead rustlers attacked the Olive Ranch, killing two men.

The next outbreak of vigilantism came on the night of June 26, 1877. A party of masked men politely - but at gunpoint - interrupted a rollicking country dance, escorting four well-dressed young men from the house with stern instructions to the other revelers to just keep dancing if they knew what was good for them.

"I guess the law wants me in Giddings again," one of the men said as he was led away from the festivities. "You'll never see Giddings again," one of the party-crashers muttered.

Outside, while on the inside Irishman Pat Earhart sawed out "The Sunshine of Paradise Alley" on his fiddle, the four partygoers soon danced their last dance in the air.

The summer lynching bee settled things down for five years. But in November 1883, two men were shot to death in nearby Fedor, followed by the robbery and beating of a popular McDade-area resident. When someone killed the sheriff's deputy who was trying to get to the bottom of this latest outbreak of violence, the more law-abiding element decided enough was enough.

About 7:30 p.m. on that soon-to-be-notable Christmas Eve, a vigilante committee showed up at the Rock Saloon in McDade with a list of names. Finding three of the men they were looking for, the masked men, all of them armed, took the trio to a tree and did a little last-minute decorating.

Three "items" having been checked off their holiday to-do list, the committee members returned to home and hearth, though they may have stopped off for a shot or two or three of holiday cheer first.

When friends of the lately-departed showed up in town on Christmas Day, any remaining semblance of holiday tranquility was broken by gunfire. When the smoke cleared, three more coffins were needed.

The arrival of two state militia companies prevented any further violence, though hard feelings and occasional violent outbreaks continued off and on for years.

No matter the story's variations (the 1877 hangings are sometimes compressed into the 1883 lynchings) and differing perspectives, the periodic retelling of McDade's Christmas carol leads to an inescapable conclusion: Santa Claus is never the only person who knows whether you've been naughty or nice.


Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
December 17, 2003 Column


More Christmas in Texas | Small Town Sagas
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