TREE' OF ORANGE, TEXAS: CROSS-CUT SAW THWARTED JUDGE LYNCH By
W. T. Block
the afternoon of July 7, 1892, two men wielding a cross-cut saw hurried to fell
the mighty pin oak tree which shaded the front entrance of D. Call and Sons Grocery
at Fourth and Front Streets, on the waterfront at Orange,
Texas. The opprobriously-heralded "Hanging Tree," as it was widely renowned,
was not diseased or in anyone's way. No tree worms or borers had weakened its
trunk or limbs, nor was it bound for the sawmill or fireplace. In fact, as far
as pin oaks go, it stood as healthy, stately, and proud as any, its myriad of
mighty branches and green leaves crowfooting out in all directions.
disease was in the minds of men, and Orange
was announcing to the world that it no longer needed a monument of derision, commemorating
that frontier era of justice, or injustice would be more fitting, that for so
long had been dispensed by "Judge Lynch."
During the decade of the 1880s
alone, the citizens along the Sabine River ignored the same laws they had helped
enact, and the lives of three men were snuffed out on the "Hanging Tree." And
some claimed that the "Gibbet Limb," that giant branch which projected its greenery
in the general direction of the store, was purposely endowed by nature to become
a "trail's end" for murderers.
At that moment, Orange's first convicted
murderer was awaiting legal execution at the county jail, and even the sight of
the gibbet limb by some inflamed mob might be a sufficient catalyst to incite
a lynch party into action.
The tree's notoriety had already spread far
and wide. Visitors from Houston and New Orleans came to see it, and others pointed
to it as the eventual reward for wayward sons who refused to obey their parents,
or who flouted the laws of the land. Often rail passengers expressed their anger
upon learning that the Southern Pacific passenger trains would not stop anywhere
near the tree. And sightseers visiting Front Street were sometimes disappointed
when no pair of limp legs were dangling from the pin oak's greenery.
times had changed, indeed, and Orange,
bursting at the seams with new industry, population, and pride, felt its earlier
penchant for frontier justice had changed as well. For the first time, the citizens
of the town seemed content to let the laws of Texas prevail. Archie Washington,
the condemned axe murderer of his wife, had just been refused a stay of execution
by the governor, and nowhere in the streets or saloons, not even in the Casino
Saloon frequented by the border rowdies, was there any clamor for a "necktie party."
From the beginning, Southeast Texas and the "Neutral Strip," principally
Calcasieu Parish, in Southwest Louisiana were collecting points for the killers,
brigands, social outcasts, and outlaws of every hue in the export-import trade
in human garbage. And Orange became the crossing point for the nefarious traffic
in undesirables. Under the Texas Republic, murderers fleeing American justice
crossed the Sabine River, whereas other, running from Texas murder warrants, fled
eastward. In 1856, Jack Cross was one Texas killer in that category, fleeing eastward
from the Bexar County sheriff, proud to stop at Orange and 'fan' his gun, as a
member of a Moderator mob, on the side of 'law and order' for a change. But just
retribution sometimes lurks stealthily in waiting, and after gunning down another
man at Lake Charles, Cross eventually 'stretched hemp' in 1857 from a cypress
tree on the bank of the Calcasieu River.
Whenever law enforcement broke
down or ceased to function on the frontier, it seemed an inevitable or unwritten
law of nature that "justice" would then be meted out by vigilante groups, who
often called themselves 'Regulators" or "Moderators." And although a sizeable
percentage of 'Judge Lynch's' victims were white, the inequity of lynch law, inflamed
as it usually was by racial overtones, fell most heavily upon Negroes.
first record of vigilante action in Jefferson and Orange counties occurred in
Sept., 1841, when Regulators broke up the infamous Yocum's
Inn murder ring near Pine Island Bayou, northwest of Beaumont. Forewarned
of their advance, Thomas D. Yocum, the alleged killer of twenty men, escaped to
Spring Creek, Montgomery County, where the vigilantes eventually captured him.
After giving him 30 minutes to "square accounts with his Maker," they then shot
him five times through the heart.
son, Chris Yocum, was an honorably-discharged Texas veteran from Capt. Franklin
Hardin's company and was described by Frank Paxton in 1853 as being "the best
of the Yocums." Some believed that he had not been implicated in the murders at
all. But bearing the Yocum name and aware of the public lust for retribution,
he fled from Beaumont anyway. After a four-months absence and possessing a false
belief that the vigilantes' clamor for revenge had subsided, Chris Yocum returned
to Beaumont on January 15, 1842, to visit his young wife.
That night Sheriff
West locked up young Yocum for his own protection in the county's log house jail.
The next morning, West found him swinging from an oak limb on the courthouse lawn,
with a 10-penny nail driven into the base of his skull.
in 1841, vigilante justice struck most heavily in neighboring Shelby County, where
several persons were killed by vigilantes. The details of that Regulator-Moderator
war would fill a book, brought stringent denunciations from President Sam
Houston, and lack of space will allow no greater elaboration of it.
June, 1856, law enforcement not only broke down completely in Orange County, but
was indeed a part of that county's crime-ridden element. The sheriff, Edward Glover,
and his uncle, John Moore, were perhaps the most notorious counterfeiters in frontier
Texas history, and the violence ended when the Moderators, by self-election the
side of 'law and order,' captured and executed them. In addition to the criminal
sheriff, the six weeks' reign of terror featured the notorious killer, Cross,
who was fighting with the Moderators, and a number of wealthy Mulatto cattlemen,
who were allied with their white neighbors through marriage.
At the end,
twelve people, most of them innocent victims, were gunned down; free black families
were stripped of their land and cattle; and thirty Mulatto families were driven
permanently from the state. Jack Cross gunned down one man on the streets of Orange,
and when a young doctor knelt to treat the wound, Cross held his gun to the doctor's
head and killed him. Underlying causes of the violence were deeply rooted in racism,
jealousies, and economics, but the immediate cause of the conflict was to account
for the only legal execution in either Orange or Jefferson Counties prior to 1886.
Late in May, 1856, Jack Bunch and Sam Ashworth, members of the Mulatto families,
collaborated in the murder of Dep. Sheriff Samuel Deputy as he rowed a boat on
the Sabine River. Ashworth escaped capture for five years, and was subsequently
killed at the Battle of Shiloh while he was in the Confederate Army. Bunch was
captured and on a change of venue, was convicted and hanged at Beaumont in Nov.,
1856, in an execution so barbarous that the 18-year-old youth was strangled after
mounting a ladder which was then twisted and pulled out from under him.
In the fall of 1861, Tom Magnes and G. H. Willis, both of them white men, were
lynched at Old Hardin, then the county set of Hardin County, for the robbery of
Major Joe Dark of Batson's Prairie and for the wounding of Dark's wife.-
post-Civil War letters from this area were any indicator, the Reconstruction years
saw no improvement, and if anything a worsening, in the volume of lawlessness
and the general laxity of law enforcement. For ten years, Beaumont,
Sabine Pass, and Orange
were under Federal troop occupation, and the "Ironclad Oath" requirement, forbidding
public office to those who had served or sworn allegiance to the Confederacy,
proscribed nearly all adult males from any law enforcement assignments.
In 1866, one letter, signed by 36 Beaumonters, warned all potential malefactors
that any acts of resistance or violence against the U. S. Government or its officers
would not be countenanced, nor remain hidden, by the civilian populace. In May,
1869, a letter, signed by 33 Orange County citizens, read as follows:
|"We the undersigned
citizens of Orange County, feeling that our community and our laws have been outraged
by the late cruel murders of Newton and Erastus Stephenson at the jands of --
Gill, -- Wilson, and 'Yellow Bill,' . . . do agree and form the following resolution,
|"RESOLVED, . . . that
we are determined to look to the safety of our neighbors during the absence of
officers in the county; and for the aforementioned purposes, we agree and bind
ourselves together in making the following declaration to all the parties concerned,
to wit:" |
|"If any further violence
is committed in our midst, we will take the matter into our own hands and visit
merited vengeance on all who may be guilty, and hereby warn all aiders, abettors,
and coadjutors to look well to their own skirts for they shall not go unscathed
. . ." |
|Only the Orange County
district court minutes for 1869 might reveal if any of the Stephenson murderers
were ever caught, for most area newspapers, including those of Galveston and Houston,
did not survive for that year.|
On April 8, 1874, Turner Ardasal, who was
alleged to have been an Italian ship captain, raped and murdered Mrs. John Jett
and her two children who lived near Orange.
Ardasal was captured by neighbors as he attempted to burn the bodies of his victims.
While the offender was in jail that night, a lynch mob overpowered the guard and
riddled the prisoner's body with 100 bullets.
four decades of such unsettled social conditions, the "Hanging Tree" in Orange
was not used until Aug., 1881. The sheriff, George W. Michael, was a popular,
efficient, and brave officer, but he had acquired a few enemies as a result of
his upholding the law and corralling the saloon rowdies, one of whom was a white
man named Charles Delano.
In order to conceal his role in the sheriff's
attempted assassination, Delano paid two black men, Samuel and Robert Saxon, to
engage Michael in a saloon brawl and kill him. During the resulting affray, both
Sam Saxon and Michael were severely wounded, the latter with buck shot, but the
sheriff miraculously recovered.
A mob took Robert Saxon, who confessed
to the plot with Delano, to the "Hanging Tree" and lynched him. Delano was arrested
and released on $2,000 bond for his role in the crime, but no attempt was made
to lynch him, perhaps because he and other white families equally implicated had
already agreed to leave Orange and never return. On Aug. 26, 1881, the Galveston
"Daily News" reported:
|"He (Delano) is connected
by marriage and blood kin with several prominent families, strong numerically
and financially, and should the Citizens' Party lynch him, it is believed there
will be bloodshed."|
|For a week, the town
was under martial law, patrolled by Capt. B. H. Norsworthy and his militia company
of Orange Rifles, and several white and black families again deserted the county
In September, 1885, Sheriff J. C. Fennell of Orange was killed
while attempting to arrest a railroad transient, Dave Anderson, who was wanted
on a murder warrant from Tennessee. The city marshal and a posse tracked down
the killer and lodged him in the county jail. After dark, a torch-light mob of
masked men marched to the jail, and "at the point of 100 cocked revolvers," forcibly
removed the prisoner. He was quickly carried to the oak tree and hanged on Front
Street, after which the mob quickly dispersed, leaving Anderson's body "literally
riddled with bullets."
On August 14, 1889, Jim Brooks, a black man accused
of rape, was removed from the Orange County jail by a "masked mob, variously estimated
from 300 to 500 men," and was lynched on the same old pin oak. Again the Galveston
editor noted that, "at least 100 shots were fired at his body."
1892 and 1895, Orange County finally succeeded in executing on the gallows its
first two men convicted of murder and condemned to death. On January 15, 1886,
Jefferson County executed its second condemned man, Bill Madison, a young Negro
convicted of killing an elderly black logging contractor, Elbert Smith, during
a dispute over wages.
sawing-down of the "Hanging Tree" did not end lynch law in Southeast Texas, but
the infamous practice became much less frequent. In February, 1900, a Port Arthur
mob, supposedly friends of the victim, hanged Peter Sweeney, a white man, to a
telephone pole after the man had already been acquitted by a jury of his peers
in Beaumont. And well within the memories of many persons still alive, an incited
and vengeful mob at Honey Island, Hardin County, lynched a young black man about
Lynch law was a holdover from frontier days before state or territorial
governments were organized and no elected law enforcement officers existed. Unfortunately,
due to rural and racial attitudes, it lingered on in many areas for decades after
any need for it may have existed.
Perhaps it is too early to predict that
that unsavory institution is gone forever, particularly when some individuals
and vigilante-prone organizations seem to esteem vigilante misrule as preferable
to all constitutional avenues of justice. At any rate, the latter is the utopian
state of social justice that one must hope for and work for. Whatever one's race,
anyone who today conspires or reacts violently against the civil rights of another
can expect swift and stringent retribution for his crime.
W. T. Block, Jr.
19, 2006 column
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, May 30, 1978.
Texas Historic Trees