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by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Six-foot, six-inch W.S.J. Sullivan made an excellent choice as the man to spend the night with the Rev. George E. Morrison.

For sure, the tall ex-Ranger and the preacher would have plenty to talk about. Sullivan believed in God and knew the scriptures. But newly elected Wilbarger County Sheriff J.T. Williams had a second consideration in mind when he asked for Sullivan's help: Having the big lawman in Morrison's cell would prevent any further trouble prior to the disgraced cleric's scheduled execution.

Sullivan, who served as a Frontier Battalion Ranger variously from 1889 to 1896, arrived in Vernon by train the morning of Oct. 26, 1899. The following day, the sheriff intended to carry out the district court’s order that Morrison “hang by the neck until dead” for the murder of his wife.

Tried in Vernon on a change of venue from Carson County, the preacher had been convicted of poisoning his wife with strychnine on Oct. 10, 1897 so that he could take up with another woman. A few hours before killing his wife Morrison had delivered to his Panhandle City congregation an impassioned sermon based on the Biblical injunction that “the wages of sin is death.”

A few days before Sullivan arrived at the county seat, the condemned preacher -- who had steadfastly proclaimed his innocence -- tried with two other prisoners to break out of jail. As one of the would-be escapees struggled with the jailer, who had been attacked while serving the prisoners food, Morrison yelled: "Kill the jailer."

Unfortunately for the preacher, news of his violent attempted escape reached Austin just as Morrison's sister knelt before the governor begging for commutation of her brother's death sentence. Sayers believed that a man of the cloth capable of suggesting the breaking of the most important of the 10 Commandments stood beyond redemption. Sheriff Williams soon received a telegram directing him to proceed with the execution.

Sullivan stood in the cell with Morrison when the sheriff read the prisoner the message from Austin. When Williams finished the telegram, Morrison accepted that "all had been done that was possible" and said he "guessed" he "would have to take it."

The condemned preacher had taken a liking to the lanky former Ranger. He told Sullivan he could have his suspenders and a matchbox as keepsakes. Also, at Sullivan's request, Morrison wrote him a letter.

Admitting he did not know quite what to say, Morrison nevertheless endeavored to be accommodating. He wrote out a four-paragraph letter, expressing his belief in an after-life and noting that while "men are punished for the sins of this life" they "are rewarded for the good things." The preacher's second major point was that "though God allow man's law to take my life yet he saves me, and of the future I have no fears whatever."

Though comfortable he had made his peace with God, the next morning Morrison requested something he felt would make the transition to his "future life" a bit easier: A quart of whiskey.

At noon, with a prayer on his lips and liquor on his breath, Morrison stood on the trapdoor of the scaffold erected outside the county jail for the occasion and addressed the large crowd which had come from miles around to see him hang. Sullivan stood near by, looking on approvingly.

"A few minutes later his body dropped through the trapdoor and his neck was broken," Sullivan later wrote.

A doctor pronounced Morrison dead at 1:08 p.m. His body was cut down six minutes later and buried at the expense of the county. Though the preacher went to an unmarked grave, he had the distinction of being the first and last man ever legally hanged in Wilbarger County.

Sullivan had left the Rangers shortly before the Panhandle murder, but he knew the details well. "The world is full of tragedies," the former Ranger philosophized. "Having been a state officer for over twelve years, I have witnessed many of them myself."

Actually, Sullivan's state service did not quite add up to twelve years, but he also served as a deputy under various sheriffs.

After leaving the Rangers, Sullivan worked as a deputy under various sheriffs. Using his political connections, he eventually got a job as a Capitol door keeper. He spent the last few years of his life living with his nephew, Will Warren, and his family in Round Rock. On May 21, 1911 they found him dead in his room, apparently of a heart attack.

The Austin Statesman noted Sullivan's death in a two-paragraph page one story. "His death removes a familiar figure in the Legislature for the past several sessions," the story said. "He had many stirring adventures during his long service with the State Rangers."

The Warrens and Sullivan's old friends gathered in the Old Round Rock Cemetery for his burial, but no one ever got around to putting up a tombstone.

© Mike Cox - "Texas Tales"

October 4, 2007 column

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