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A Hanging in Nacogdoches

[ Regional/Texas ]

A Hanging in Nacogdoches

Murder, Race, Politics, and Polemics in Texas's Oldest Town, 1870-1916

By Gary B. Borders

The story of a legal lynching in the heart of East Texas.

2006

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 239 pp. | 35 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-71299-7

On October 17, 1902, in Nacogdoches, Texas, a black man named James Buchanan was tried without representation, condemned, and executed for the murder of a white family—all in the course of three hours. Two white men played pivotal roles in these events: Bill Haltom, a leading local Democrat and the editor of the Nacogdoches Sentinel, who condemned lynching but defended lynch mobs, and A. J. Spradley, a Populist sheriff who, with the aid of hundreds of state militiamen, barely managed to keep the mob from burning Buchanan alive, only to escort him to the gallows following his abbreviated trial. Each man's story serves to illuminate a part of the path that led to the terrible parody of justice which lies at the heart of A Hanging in Nacogdoches.

The turn of the twentieth century was a time of dramatic change for the people of East Texas. Frightened by the Populist Party's attempts to unite poor blacks and whites in a struggle for economic justice, white Democrats defended their power base by exploiting racial tensions in a battle that ultimately resulted in the complete disenfranchisement of the black population of East Texas. In telling the story of a single lynching, Gary Borders dramatically illustrates the way politics and race combined to bring horrific violence to small southern towns like Nacogdoches.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I: A Murder, a Manhunt, a Trial, and an Execution
    • Chapter One. Three Killed in Black Jack
    • Chapter Two. A City with a Long Past
    • Chapter Three. A Texas Sheriff
    • Chapter Four. A Suspect and a Possible Motive
    • Chapter Five. Nacogdoches in 1902
    • Chapter Six. A Suspect Is Caught
    • Chapter Seven. Lynchings: A Grim Fact of Life
    • Chapter Eight. Populism and Race: An Incendiary Mix
    • Chapter Nine. The Spradley-Haltom Feud
    • Chapter Ten. Buchanan Confesses in Shreveport
    • Chapter Eleven. A Desperate Journey across East Texas
    • Chapter Twelve. Preparations Made for Buchanan's Trial
    • Chapter Thirteen. Buchanan Returns for Trial
    • Chapter Fourteen. A Hanging in Nacogdoches
  • Part II: Aftermath
    • Chapter Fifteen. Quick Hanging Sparks Criticism and Praise
    • Chapter Sixteen. Wettermark, Whitecapping, and a Whipping
    • Chapter Seventeen. Conclusion
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

October 11, 1902

Finally, the heat of summer was gone.

In Deep East Texas, summer is the longest season. From May until early October the hot air hovers, thick with humidity and mosquitoes. This year had been no exception, though in late June a freak storm had dropped fourteen inches of rain in twenty hours, causing a flood that washed out all the bridges over the Attoyac River, which divides Nacogdoches and San Augustine counties, and wreaking widespread damage in the old Spanish town of Nacogdoches, the county seat.

By October the leaves were just starting to turn in the thick woods that ran along the rivers and creeks, although it would be November before the crescendo of color was at its peak. Eight days earlier a thunderstorm had swept through, dropping more than four inches of rain in a twelve-hour period, causing more flooding, and slowing efforts to rebuild the bridges across the Attoyac. Once again, the red-dirt streets of Nacogdoches turned into an ochre slop that clung to everything. Since then, the weather had been sunny and the mercury moderate, with highs in the upper 70s and lows dropping into the 50s at night.

It is likely that Duncan Hicks, his wife, Nerva, and their daughter, Allie, had spent the previous evening enjoying the cool air on the front porch. Before air conditioning, families tended to gather on the porch as the sun began to set, the day's work done. Hicks, forty-eight, was a farmer, as were most folks living in Black Jack, a small community four miles west of the Attoyac and an equal distance north of Chireno, the closest town of any size. The Hicks family farm was no more than a few hundred yards east of the river. Duncan likely grew cotton and vegetables, maybe some tobacco—a crop the county's boosters hoped would help fuel a cigar-making factory recently established in Nacogdoches, twenty-four miles to the west.

Black Jack in 1902 wasn't exactly booming. A correspondent for the Daily Sentinel in Nacogdoches earlier that year had described the community as having two mercantile stores; a doctor's office; a blacksmith and wood shop; a single church building, which looked "more like an old barn than a house of worship" and which was shared by the Baptists and the Methodists; and an "old eye sore of a school building." Careful not to be too critical, the anonymous correspondent praised the residents of Black Jack, saying that "all they need is a little hustling up."

The same correspondent complained that the condition of the "road leading out of this place towards Nacogdoches is almost impassible in wet weather." That road was El Camino Real, the King's Highway, hacked out of the forest in the seventeenth century all the way from Louisiana to San Antonio and from there down to Mexico.

Duncan Hicks was from Mississippi, and the red-dirt roads, rolling hills, cotton fields, and thick forests of East Texas no doubt reminded him of his birthplace. Nerva, fifty-eight, was a Texas native whose father was of German descent. They had been married nearly twenty-four years and had two children, one of whom, Lizzie, was married and lived in Hooker Bend, Louisiana, just across the Sabine River (completion of Toledo Bend Reservoir in 1969 would send Hooker Bend underwater). Allie, who had turned twenty-one in July, still lived with her parents.

Neighbors considered the Hicks family prosperous and respected. Sheriff A. J. Spradley, for two decades the chief lawman of Nacogdoches County, described them as "peaceable, quiet, unassuming citizens who attended to their own business and bothered nobody."

A modern invention, the telephone, had made its appearance in the city of Nacogdoches in the 1890s. The first daily newspaper in the county, the Daily Phone, was started in 1899. Readers were encouraged to phone in news items. The paper's name was changed a year later to the Daily Sentinel.

The news on October 10, a fine autumn day, was a bit slow for editor Bill Haltom's tastes. He published the Sentinel six afternoons a week, taking off Sunday.

Haltom wrote:

It is quite dull about the courthouse today. The grand jury has adjourned, the judge and all the visiting lawyers have gone home, and even the sheriff has gone off with a copy of yesterday's Sentinel to study the definition of a Nacogdoches county independent.

Haltom was referring to Spradley, who had run as a third-party candidate for the past decade. This fall the sheriff was running as an independent. Haltom, a yellow-dog Democrat, and Spradley were longtime political rivals.

It wouldn't be long before the crusty editor, with his drooping moustache and piercing eyes, would have plenty of material to fill the pages of his modest newspaper, which usually ran just four pages a day.

***

Out in the boondocks of Black Jack, news traveled mainly by word of mouth. Neighbors were accustomed to checking on one another, stopping by to pass along the latest tidbits of news or to discuss cotton prices and politics.

And that's likely why J. W. Jernigan, a longtime Black Jack resident, finally decided to stop by the Hicks home, two miles east of the community, on Saturday evening, October 11. He'd passed by several times earlier and not seen anyone outside—certainly unusual for a farming family on a pleasant autumn day.

As the sun was about to set, the temperature dropping nicely into the 60s, Jernigan pulled into the Hicks residence. What he discovered would horrify the community and make the front pages of newspapers across the South for the next seven days.

Duncan Hicks lay on his front porch, a blanket or sheet over his body, the top of his head blown off. Nerva Hicks was nearby, also dead of a shotgun blast to the head. Their daughter Allie was dead inside the house, her head beaten to a pulp. It was believed that she had been sexually assaulted.

Jernigan alerted neighbors, and someone left on horseback for Nacogdoches, traveling in the dark at a breakneck gallop along that red-clay ribbon of dirt, through the forest and the cotton fields.

Once the rider arrived in Nacogdoches with the news of the murders, Sheriff Spradley immediately set out for Black Jack in the darkness, hoping to arrive by early daylight Sunday.

It was now up to him to solve what would be called the most horrific crime in the county's history.

Gary Borders is a lifelong East Texas newspaperman who served as the publisher and editor of the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel from 1993 to 2003. He lives in Lufkin, Texas, where he is the publisher of the Lufkin Daily News.

"The contribution of A Hanging in Nacogdoches is not limited to that city, East Texas, or even the state.... The purpose of the author's presentation is to show life—race relations, politics, the economy—in a typical ...Southern town at the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Borders argues, and demonstrates, that Nacogdoches was, indeed, typical for its time and place."

—Archie P. McDonald, Regent's Professor of History, Stephen F. Austin State University