most elected officials, Brewster County Sheriff E.E. Townsend received a fair
amount of correspondence, from postcards bearing descriptions of wanted felons
to legal papers to magazines, but the package that arrived from San
Antonio that day in March 1923 ranked as the most unusual piece of mail he
Though he knew what it contained, the lawman couldn’t help
but open the box right away. Inside, coiled like a skinny, hairy rattlesnake lay
a length of rope. Townsend could have gone to any of several stores in town and
used county funds to buy a rope, but in this case he preferred woven hemp that
had seen some use.
When it came time for his prisoner to hang, the former
Texas Ranger wanted the young man in his custody to die quickly. To that end,
his friend Bexar County Sheriff John W. Tobin had assured him that this rope had
done its work of breaking the neck of the late Clemente Apolinar, a convicted
killer, quite effectively. Tobin didn’t even want the rope returned, since a law
would soon go into effect transferring the responsbility of capital punishment
to the Texas prison system, where future executions would be in an electric chair.
Being on the mainline of the Southern Pacific Railroad assured modest growth and
prosperity for Alpine,
but sometimes it brought trouble, which is why Townsend needed the rope.
a long west-bound freight train rumbled to a stop at Alpine
on the night of January 24, 1922, a brakeman heard what sounded like groaning
coming from one of the box cars. Calling for help, he slid open the door and shined
his lantern inside. The light revealed the prostrate form of a semiconscience
man with a handkerchief tied over his mouth as a gag.
With help from local
law enforcement officers, the brakeman got the man out of the freight car and
laid him on a cot in a nearby worktrain. The doctor summoned to examine the man
found that he had been shot in the back, the projectile having pierced his liver
and lungs. On top of that, he had been beaten.
Lucid for a time, before
he died the young man described the person he had been traveling with and summarized
what had happened to him by declaring it was “hell to feed a man and then have
him shoot you in the back for $20.”
that morning, six miles west of Alpine,
a sheriff’s deputy found a transient matching the description the victim had given.
Identified as Harvey Hughes, the 21-year-old also had property believed to have
belonged to the victim – a fountain pen, watch and some money.
the criminal justice system moved quickly. Not even a month after the murder,
a Brewster County jury found Hughes guilty and assessed his punishment as death.
Hughes’s attorney then asked for a sanity hearing for his client. On March 3,
1923, a jury found Hughes sane on the same day the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
turned down a motion for a new trial.
“A scaffold is being erected on
the north side of the courthouse
from which the unfortunate young man will be hanged,” the Alpine Avalanche reported.
“The hanging will be private….The execution will take place Saturday—the first
vindication of the law against murder in Brewster County.”
That was a
polite way of saying that Hughes execution would be the first ever legal hanging
in Texas’ largest political subdivision. In fact,
it would be the only official execution anywhere in the Big Bend and one of the
last legal hangings in the state’s history.
that it seemed certain he would die, Hughes began a late-in-life literary career,
writing a surprisingly cogent mini-memoir. He said it was the first thing he had
“I have been what you might call an habitual criminal,”
he wrote. “And I thought I was getting happiness and everything that goes with
it, but was very badly mistaken. I have known about every type of crook on the
face of the earth, and I am sorry to say it…I can not begin to say how sorry I
am, for taking a human life, a very much valued human treasure.”
April 7, as Hughes stood on the gallows listening to the preacher’s prayer, he
received a final courtesy from Sheriff Townsend. To spare his prisoner from having
to know the exact moment of his death, the sheriff sprang the trap in mid-prayer
before the young man expected it.
The previously used rope did its work,
snapping Hughes’ neck. Later that afternoon, as workmen tore down the gallows,
a county crew buried Hughes in Alpine’s
Cox - September
8, 2011 column
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