1923, when the state began using the electric chair, a suspended sentence had
a whole different meaning in Texas – hanging by the
neck until dead.
Texas sheriffs once had
the responsibility of conducting executions at the county level. Legal hangings
didn’t happen every day, so when one came up, it usually made for big news.
years ago, the late Edmunds Travis of Austin
told me about a hanging he reluctantly covered for the Austin daily he edited
decades, Austin had a red-light district
where prostitution was tolerated literaly within limits. The zone extended from
Colorado Street on the east to San Antonio Street on the west, and from Second
Street on the south to the alley between Fourth and Fiftth Streets on the north.
In 1913, a well-known barkeep who worked in the district got “run in” for shooting
one of the damsels of the demimonde in the back of the head. The capital city
then being a small town, the killing made for big news.
Police said the
man had quarreled with one of the girls before shooting her. The bartender maintained
he and the “lady” had indeed argued, but the rest was just an accident. He had
merely meant to prod her in the back of his head with the barrel of his six-shooter.
Unfortunately it discharged.
jury bought the state’s version of the story and found the bartender guilty of
murder. The judge sentenced him to hang. As the condemned man’s last day approached,
the Travis County sheriff printed and distributed tickets to the event, which
would be tastefully conducted inside the jail out of view of those who didn’t
get official invites.
had two competiting dailies back then, the Statesman and the Tribune, a scrappy
afternoon paper edited by Travis, then a young man of 23. Travis had editorialized
in favor of the man’s hanging, an act he later came to regret. But he had not
planned to cover the hanging, preferring to leave that journalist chore to one
of his reporters.
The Tribune’s co-owner, however, wanted his best writer
there. That would be Travis.
Travis, with a young reporter in tow just
so he could show him the ropes (well, the rope), dutifully walked to the jail,
a castle-looking stone structure behind the courthouse at 11th and Congress. Before
the execution, Travis and the cub were allowed to talk with the condemned man
in his cell.
“I told him there was a lot of talk that he could clear up
several mysteries around town,” Travis recalled. “He said that was true, but he
wasn’t going to do it. It would handicap his children, he said, and for their
sake he was going to keep quiet. Well, that really touched me. And I told him
That, in turn, moved the barkeep.
“I’ll clear up one for
you,” he said, confessing to a killing of which no one had suspected him
Two men had been killed in a shootout in one of the saloons in the red-light district
and the bar tender had been the only witness. Police concluded that each man had
shot the other, but the barkeep told Travis that wasn’t how it had been. One of
the men had killed the other, but the bartender had risen from behind his bar
and killed the first shooter.
Soon after his confession, the condemned
man made his last walk.
As the barkeep faced his final moments, for Travis
another sort of deadline loomed. He was running out of time to get the story in
that afternoon’s edition of the Tribune.
The sheriff had thoughtfully set
Travis up in an empty cell affording him a view of the metal gallows. The young
editor sat at a small table, writing his story in longhand, sending out “takes”
a page at a time to be rushed to the newspaper office seven blocks away.
had the middle and the ending written, but he needed the beginning, the neck-breaking
act that would be the barkeep’s ending.
Meanwhile, back at the newspaper,
part-owner Glen Pricer started getting nervous. The hanging was running late,
but a p.m. paper couldn’t wait forever on a story, even a big one.
decided to come to the courthouse to see what was holding me up,” Travis said.
“About the time he got near the jail the condemned man came to the end of the
rope, and it made a crack you could hear outside. Pricer fainted and fell down.”
While helpful citizens carried the unconscious publisher into the courthouse,
Travis scribbled away on his story.
The barkeep had a black hood over
his head, but the killing jerk when the rope went taunt had nearly severed his
head. It was not a pleasant scene.
Travis wrote until he had said all
he needed to say and it all got in that day’s edition.
He covered two
more local legal hangings before the state switched to electrocution.
“I was invited to 45 executions down there [in Huntsville],
but I never went to one,” he said.
© Mike Cox
August 18, 2010 column