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
© Mike Cox - "Texas Tales"
October 4, 2007 column
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