Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Gainesville Hanging Memorial Service, October 2007

Last October (2007), an amazing man by the name of Leon Russell, organized a memorial service for all the men who were hanged in the Great Hanging. The memorial took place in the Georgia Davis Bass Park in Gainesville, Texas. Below is the newspaper article describing the memorial service.

Will there be future memorial services for the Great Hanging??
Perhaps this should be a yearly event.

Gainesville Register
October 22, 2007 12:31 pm
Descendants commemorate 'Great Hanging'
By ANDY HOGUE, Register Staff Writer

“To hear a Northern man crying out ‘Union, Union,
’Methinks I hear the bugle blast of the robber chief.
To hear a Southern man cry out ‘Union, Union,
’Methinks I snuff Treason on the tainted breeze.”
—Austin Southern-Intelligencer, July 13, 1859.

The first public commemoration of the Great Hanging of 1862 in modern Gainesville was organized within a matter of days. Then again, so was the Great Hanging.
In a ceremony at Georgia Davis Bass Park Friday afternoon, about 50 people from various walks of life came to remember the 42 men who were killed for suspected or actual support of the Union during the time when Texas was a part of the breakaway Confederate States of America.
Far from a celebration, the mood was somber and grateful — somber because of the generations of heartache inflicted on Gainesville families since the War Between the States and grateful because a man from Keller and a Denton college professor took the time to help remember one of the darkest chapters in local history.
“This is a memorial day — not a day of celebration,” said Leon Russell, the primary organizer of the event. “I’m very pleased with the interest — I don’t know how you got the word out we were even doing this.”
Sheila Cox, a member of the Cooke County Heritage Society, said after Russell, a Keller resident with a fascination for the Great Hanging, requested permission from the city of Gainesville early this week, organizers called together Morton Museum staff, author and University of North Texas Professor Richard B. McCaslin, veteran local newspaper reporter Kit Chase, local bookstore Dicho’s “and just plain ol’ citizens here who said we should have a reception at the museum.”
Russell approached the city of Gainesville Parks and Recreation Board Monday hoping to obtain permission to place 42 white crosses temporarily at a granite marker denoting the site of the Great Hanging in Bass Park, which is located between Main and California streets on the banks of Pecan Creek. The parks board did not make quorum, so the decision rested on the City Council. The Council voted unanimously to allow Russell to place the crosses and say a few words.
Those few words evolved into a full-afternoon event, beginning with a book signing at the Morton Museum at noon. McCaslin signed copies of his book “Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging of 1862” of which there were a few copies obtained by Dicho’s bookstore, and also signed cards to be pasted later into books on order.
A program took place at 3 p.m. at the site of the crosses, which each featured the name of one of the men executed above a red-white-and-blue ribbon. Russell’s wife Jean said she was up until late Thursday night painting and assembling the crosses with friend Andy Turek.
In opening comments, Russell, who was born in Woodbine, shared a bit about his connection to Gainesville and his failed attempt at joining the Texas Home Guard (a branch of the U.S. military) in 1942 at age 15. He noted the office was located above the Register.
A Friday Register article called the Great Hanging a day “many would prefer to forget,” and Russell said he agreed with the sentiment. But there is an important story to be learned from the hanging — primarily how a small frontier town such as Gainesville dealt with the stigma of being associated with lawlessness and violence and became a modern city, he said.“Time does not wait for a town to catch up, anymore,” he said, noting that progress was essential to Gainesville’s survival following the hanging. “Communities are like families — you can’t just walk away ... and if we can talk about this like a family, we can finally learn a lot from it.”
Russell said many miscalculations and mistakes were made in the hanging, and the rushed mock trial which took place to convict the 42 men of treason against the Confederacy — errors he believes the study of history may avoid in the future.He explained Texas was under a state of martial law in 1862, just three years before the end of what was then called the Great War and is now mostly referred to as the American Civil War. Military forces and citizen militias were in force and came to North Texas following reports of societal breakdown and conspiracy from pro-Union groups.
In fact, there was a pro-Union group known as the “Peace Party” active in Cooke County. Opposition to the Confederacy in Cooke County began with military drafts in April 1862, according to McCaslin’s article on the Great Hanging in the “Handbook of Texas.” Thirty men signed a petition protesting the exemption of major slaveholders from the draft and sent it to the Congress at Richmond, Va. Brigadier Gen. William Hudson, commander of the militia district around Gainesville, exiled the leader of the petition drive, but others who remained used the petition to enlist a nucleus for a Union League in Cooke and nearby counties. The members were not highly unified, and their purposes differed with each clique, McCaslin wrote. Most joined to resist the draft and provide common defense against roving bands of Indians and scattered renegades. Rumors began to circulate of a membership of more than 1,700 and of plans for an assault when the group had recruited enough men, the article read. Fearing that the stories of Unionist plots to storm the militia arsenals at Gainesville and Sherman might prove to be true, Gen. Hudson activated the state troops in North Texas in late September 1862 and ordered the arrest of all able-bodied men who did not report for duty.
Reports of the lynching of a northern Methodist Episcopal Church minister and the call from a Sherman newspaper editor for North Texas to secede from the Confederacy — not to mention fear of alliances with Kansas abolitionists along the Red River — contributed to a response from Southern military leaders. Tempers flared, and the state militia began to search for anyone whom they considered to be traitors.
More than 150 men were arrested on the morning of Oct. 1, and a “citizens court” of 12 jurors was quickly comprised — seven of whom were slaveholders. An angry mob lynched 14 alleged Union sympathizers during the proceedings of the kangaroo court, and the violence in Gainesville and surrounding communities peaked the next week when unknown assassins killed two other men. “Turned out that Texas military authority was more of the problem than the cure,” Russell said. “And I hate to say that — I’m a tried and true Texan.”
After recognizing city and county officials present, including Parks Director Patrick McCage, 235th District Attorney Cindy Stormer and Chamber of Commerce executive John Broyles, Russell, with the help of his wife and his nurse, introduced Frank Lorne, pastor of Corinth Baptist Church in Gainesville.Lorne gave a few words before offering a prayer.
“No matter where you are in the nation, there is good and there is bad,” Lorne said. “But whether or not there is good or bad, there is history. And there’s nothing we can do about what’s gone by.”
Following the prayer, McCaslin said he was surprised by the turnout.“I never imagined this many people would come,” he said. McCaslin said some of his colleagues feared he would be met with skepticism and opposition for invoking the memory of the Great Hanging. Quite the contrary: McCaslin said he and Russell were greeted with courtesy and curiosity.
He defended the historicity of the event, and why it was included in the “Handbook of Texas.”He said in history there are two overarching themes — consensus and conflict. During times of consensus, he said, “we have our finest moments.”
Invoking wartime President Abraham Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature” did not prevail during the Great Hanging trials. By studying the dark periods of history, “we learn more about ourselves and who we are, and where we’re going into the future.”
Cox, speaking next, said 145 years ago at the park a different mindset was at work. But, she said, embracing all of history is crucial as “it is a mirror that reflects the image of who we are.”
Ron Melugin, North Central Texas College history professor, read the list of those tried and executed in October 1862, as Crystal Wright, also a history professor at NCTC, rang a low-pitched handbell after each name was recited.
Russell then had descendants of Great Hanging victims and participants stand and be recognized. Wright said her husband’s descendant was Col. William C. Young, who supervised the collection of jurors for the Citizens Court.
Richard Burch said his great-grandfather was a cousin to Barnibus Burch, who was hanged at age 70. “They just wanted to protect their homes — that’s all they were after,” Burch said.Colleen Clark Carey and Vicky Clark said they are descendants of Nathaniel Clark, a father of seven who was killed during the incident for little known reason, despite his prior opposition to Texas joining the South.
Carey said if there were more advance notice of the ceremony, more of her family would have attended. Clark said the Great Hanging is a story passed down by her family’s strong oral tradition. Melugin said he hopes the memorial will become an annual tradition for the community. Russell reiterated his surprise at the hospitality of the community and interest in the remembrance event — noting that the Great Hanging was a taboo topic for many generations.
“Honestly, I expected a lot of resentment and suspicion. I didn’t hear a bit of that,” he said. “After 150 years, it’s about time.”
Reporter Andy Hogue may be contacted at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wrote this article, and was excited to hear someone had blogged about it! I'm working in Austin, now, covering the capitol, and I can be reached at andyhogue[at]

Thanks for keeping this going, and give my regards to Mr. Russell.