A Terror to Evildoers of All Kinds: More Bryan Lynchings from 1874

“The true cowboy is a terror to evildoers of all kinds.”

John Henry Sullivan, Life and Adventures of the Genuine Cowboy (1896)

I trust that we all recognize the defects of vigilante justice. Vigilantes have poor standards of evidence, make little effort to curb their passions and prejudices, and urge rather than condemn a rush to judgment.  Vigilante justice is therefore liable to errors of indictment and excesses of brutality.  But none of this means it is incapable of exacting justice, or that the slow and deliberate procedures of the judicial system are in every way superior.  Indeed, as a thoughtful vigilante would explain, slow and deliberate procedures are defective insofar as they drain from justice the valuable elements of righteous wrath and chastening terror.

If violation of a law does not arouse righteous wrath in law-abiding citizens, we must wonder if they truly see that law as righteous.  And if they do not truly see that law as righteous, we must wonder why they abide it.  A thoughtful vigilante therefore argues that wrath cannot be separated from righteousness.   Excessive repression of the punitive impulse will, over time, stunt and pervert the moral sense of the community, and one cannot expect a people to maintain their capacity for outrage if they are not sometimes allowed to exercise their righteous wrath.  As Machiavelli put it,

“It is necessary . . . that where men dwell together in a regulated society, they be often reminded of those ordinances in conformity with which they ought to live.”*

And nothing so effectively reminds men of the ordinances in conformity with which they ought to live as the swift and shocking punishment of a man who has violated those ordinances.

A thoughtful vigilante will also argue that, in the war with evildoers, it is sometimes necessary to administer a dramatic shock of deterrent terror to those evildoers.  The political philosopher Hobbes said that “the aim of punishment is not a revenge, but terror,” to which assertion the thoughtful vigilante replies: “the aim of punishment is both revenge and terror.”**  Revenge strengthens the moral sense of the just, while terror weakens the felonious impulse of the unjust.  One thoughtful vigilante writing in defense of what he called “popular justice” had this to say.

“Men of criminal instincts were cowed before the majesty of an outraged people’s wrath, and the very thought of crime became a terror to them.  Young men who had learned to believe that the roughs were destined to rule, and who, under the influence of that guilty faith, were fast drifting into crime, shrunk appalled before the through work of the Vigilantes.”***

This is, I believe, the thoughtful case for vigilante justice.  Vigilante justice is meant to exercise the righteous wrath of law-abiding citizens, while it at the same time plants a chastening terror in the hearts of evildoers.  Thus, vigilante justice is a swift and shocking spectacle by design.

* * * * *

Last year, I wrote a long post about a triple lynching in Bryan, Texas, in 1894.  I made no attempt to downplay the horror of the lynching itself, but also attempted to show that this act of vigilante justice was one link in a chain of horrors.  This chain began with a brutal rape, and then took in the attempted drugging and rape of a young girl.  Many citizens of Bryan felt that these outrages went beyond the capacity of the slow and deliberate judicial system, and that they demanded a swift and shocking spectacle of righteous wrath.

That is why they hung those three men from the tree by the bridge over Carter Creek.

In September, I wrote a shorter post about a double lynching, also in Bryan, that took place twenty years earlier, in 1874.  This began with the shooting and rape of a country storekeeper and his wife, and it ended with two men hung from a tree near the courthouse square.  All five men who were hung were black.  All the women who were raped, or very nearly raped, were white.

Today I will relate a story of two more lynchings that took place in in Bryan, later in that same year of 1874.  In this case there were no rapes, but there was a gruesome murder, and one of the hung men was white.

* * * * *

It was the middle of June, 1874, and the town of Bryan was not quite seven years old.  It sprang into being in 1867, and was for nearly four years the only railhead in the interior of the state.  As such, Bryan was a rough and rowdy place, its streets and saloons teaming with drifters, grifters, teamsters, and painted ladies of the night.  Emancipated slaves constituted a little less than half of the 3,500 souls that called it home.

For the story that follows to make perfect sense, you must bear in mind that June in Texas is very warm, and that owing to high humidity, nights are only somewhat cooler than the days.  One frequently wakes at 5:00 a.m. on a June morning to find the thermometer at eighty degrees.  Thus everyone in June, 1874, was sleeping with their unscreened windows wide open, and many had dragged their beds and pallets onto porches and into yards.†

Those open and unscreened windows meant that sleeping householders were not secure in their persons or their property, and that the threat of nocturnal intruders caused many to sleep uneasily and with a loaded gun.  On Saturday the thirteenth, a Galveston newspaper  printed this notice from Bryan.

“There have been various robberies committed here in the last few days.  Dr. Downard’s residence was robbed of two watches and all the provisions they could find, and several other private houses have been entered, it is supposed, by negroes, as the town is full of the black loafers.”††

This notice included a more detailed description of one particular loafer who had been arrested on Friday evening and placed in the calaboose.  We may surmise that he had come to Texas from Louisiana, and had been rambling around the state as an itinerant burglar.

“A negro, who gave his name as John Somerville, alias French John, was arrested here last night as a suspicious character.  His valise was found to contain various articles which one of his kind would not be likely to carry about him, viz: a solid silver spring lancet case, engraved . . . a complimentary pass of the Central Railroad issued to Col. Ashbel Smith, for 1874; also, a set each of plated table and teaspoons, forks and one butter knife.”††

Ashbel Smith was a distinguished Houston physician who had served the Republic of Texas as chargé d’affaires to England and France, and we may suppose French John obtained his railroad pass when he  burgled Dr. Smith’s plantation on Galveston bay.  The lancet case also likely belonged to Dr. Smith, as did one other item that was disquieting to anyone who slept with open windows or on the porch.

 “On his person was also found a long, keen, very sharp knife, the kind generally used by surgeons for amputating limbs.  He was lodged in the city jail, and on the same night taken out by an unknown party and hanged on the same tree where two negroes were hung some time ago.”†††

The reporter is referring to the lynching that took place earlier that year, on April 1, and that I wrote about last September.  And it appears that this amputation knife was a fearsome weapon in the hand of a strong and vicious man.

“We went out next morning and saw the victim still hanging on the tree.  He was a very black negro, about five feet ten inches high, weighing about 180 pounds, and of great muscular power.  We learn since that he confessed to having killed several men, and stated that he had been inside the house when Mr. Burt, (the proprietor of the last house he was detected in robbing,) snapped at him, he would have cut him in two before he could have fired the other barrel.”†††

Mr. Burt’s “snap” was, no doubt, the misfire of one chamber in the double-barreled gun with which he retired to bed.  It was enough to send French John scampering for an open window, but not quickly enough to dodge injury by the second shot.  It does seem French John was an experienced burglar, and that he had been putting Dr. Smith’s railroad pass to good use.

“A telegram was received here from Houston, calling for Jno. Sommerville for burglaries committed in that city, and we are informed that one was also received from Austin, stating that he had committed the same offense there.  From the facts above stated, it will readily be seen that he richly deserved the fate he met, although the precedent is a bad one, and one that should be discouraged by all law-abiding citizens.”†††

Vigilante justice was normally deplored in milquetoast lines like this last one.  Lynching a man like French John was deplored as gauche, but was not condemned as altogether wrong.  Then the Galveston newspaper adds this interesting detail.

“The policeman, James Farmer, who made the above arrest, was the same whose murder was reported in our special dispatch from Bryan . . . . It is the general belief that he came to his death in consequence of his well-tested efficiency as a police officer—for he was a terror to evil-doers.  He had been on active duty a short time before, and had made several arrests earlier in the night.”

Before looking into the murder of officer Farmer, here is one last detail about the lynching of the amputation-knife-wielding burglar French John.

“The following was pinned to his vest: ‘Midnight robbers! Beware, for this will be your fate’.”∞

The vigilantes left the body of French John hanging in the tree with this note pinned to his vest because they wished to send a shock of terror through the other burglarious loafers of Bryan.  It was only the middle of June, and no one could hope to close their unscreened windows until the tail end of October.

* * * * *

Here is what happened to the unfortunate officer Farmer on the Wednesday after he arrested “French John,” and “French John” was then lynched.  Once again, it was just past midnight and the windows were open.

“Last night at the hour of midnight, whilst three men were standing together in the railroad passenger depot, a shot was fired through the window by some unknown party, and killed a man by the name of J. P. Farmer, a policeman.  The ball took effect in the forehead, causing instant death . . . . At the present time this unfortunate affair is wrapped in mystery.”∞∞

Farmer was an energetic policeman, and we were told that he had just that evening lodged several roughs in the city jail.  As he was actually standing in the telegraph office of the railroad depot when he was shot, we may suppose he had sent the names of these miscreants over the wires in a search for outstanding warrants.  Far from being wrapped in mystery, the unfortunate affair was obviously the work of a nettled gang. And so it proved when the Coroner’s jury issued its report nine days later.

“J. P. Farmer came to his death while standing in the telegraph office . . . about fifteen minutes after 12 o’clock . . . by a leaden bullet discharged by a pistol, loaded with powder and ball, at the time held in the right hand of Henry Cook and J. A. Nelson, and shot off and discharged by them at and against the body of the said J. P. F., with the intent . . . to kill and murder, the said leaden bullet . . . striking, penetrating and wounding the said J. P. F . . .  penetrating the substance of the brain and shattering the skull . . . from the effect of which J. P. F. instantly died . . .”∞∞∞

The vigilantes of Bryan responded to this outrage with another swift and shocking spectacle of righteous wrath.  After reading the report of the Corroner’s jury, they waited until midnight and removed Harry Cook from the city jail.  I presume Cook was white, but the vigilantes handled him even less gently than they had handled “French John.”

“Last night at about 12 o’clock a large crowd of men took Harry Cook, the assassin of James P. Farmer, out of the jail and shot and hung him inside the prison yard.  J. A. Nelson, his accomplice, it is said, was told to leave the state at once.  The jail was guarded by 43 men, but they were powerless to prevent the hanging of Cook against the large number of about 200.”¡

* * * * *

I earlier said that vigilante justice is a swift and shocking spectacle by design.  It is meant to exercise the righteous wrath of law-abiding citizens, and to at the same time plant a chastening terror in the hearts of evildoers.  This is why we are, even today, shocked when we read accounts of vigilante justice.  It is terrible to think of the body of French John swinging in that tree with that ominous note pinned to his vest.  It is terrible to think even of the body of Harry Cook, likewise swinging, but also riddled with ragged bullet holes.

But we should, I think, look beyond the gruesome spectacle to what the vigilantes meant when they left these corpses to twist and swing in the breeze.  They meant, I submit, that terror belongs in the hearts of the evildoers, and not in the hearts of families who dare to sleep with their windows open.  They meant, I submit, that men who shoot cops through open windows are the men who should live in fear.  And these, I submit, are meanings that are not in the least bit terrible.

*) Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy (1531), 3.1
**) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), chap. 28.
***) Nathaniel Pitt Langford, Vigilante Days and Ways (1912)
†) Window screen was invented in 1869 and seems to have reached Texas around 1877.
††) Galveston Daily News (June 13, 1874), p. 1.
†††) Galveston Daily News (June 21, 1874), p. 2
) Daily Express [San Antonio] (June 17, 1874), p. 2.
∞∞) Galveston Daily News (June 18, 1874), p. 1.
∞∞∞) Galveston Daily News (June 26, 1874), p. 1.
¡) Galveston Daily News (June 27, 1874), p. 1.

16 thoughts on “A Terror to Evildoers of All Kinds: More Bryan Lynchings from 1874

    • Professor Murphey and I seem to be in agreement, and his argument is set on a much broader empirical foundation. I think our aims are somewhat different, though. He has a large concern with the corruption of legal institutions, which is indeed cause for large concern, whereas my concern is with the alien (and alienating) myths that have corrupted our public discourse. Thus the legacy of lynching has become one of the “trump cards” leftists can play to win any debate with a traditionalist. It was having the lynching card played against me that first aroused my interest in the topic. I do not mean to argue that French John deserved to be lynched for his multiple burglaries, but do mean to observe that very few people deserve to die in the way that they die, and that, compared to the human average, French John was relatively deserving of the death he got.

  1. Excellent post. You wrote:

    But none of this means it is incapable of exacting justice, or that the slow and deliberate procedures of the judicial system are in every way superior.

    No it does not. In either case. Indeed, I personally know of several cases, and one in particular, in which vigilante justice would have been much superior to the 15 long years the Oklahoma judicial system dragged out the well-earned execution of Johnny Dale Black. (See here: http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/US/black1359.htm)
    (BTW, this murder occurred in Jefferson Co., not Stephens Co., which is wrongly stated in the initial paragraphs of the article.)
    I can assure you that one leading reason Black went into hiding and gave himself up so easily to law enforcement when they found him following his stabbing murder of Bill Pogue (one of the most respected men in our community back then) was to avoid the swift and exacting justice that most assuredly would have been meted out to him could a number of us have gotten our hands on him in the several days that followed the murder.
    I knew all of the persons involved in that incident more or less intimately. The would-be vigilantes were doing a lot of talking in the several days that followed the murder about what they planned to do with the perpetrators if in fact they should get their hands on them. I was only 33 years-old at the time, full of fire in the belly and righteous anger, and in fact was doing a lot of talking myself. It wasn’t idle talk. However, I was one of the few who also knew Robert Seales (who was fairly new to the community) intimately, and as such knew almost of a certainty that he was more than likely not involved in the murder, although he was there with the perps. At the end of the day the judicial system saved Robert’s life, which I’m grateful for; there are still those in the community who believe he helped in the murder, but it simply isn’t so. But it also save Cal Shankles’s life, who deserved the death penalty as much as Johnny Dale Black.

    • A wise reflection. The Anglo system of justice is a great blessing for us — one of many that contemporary men take for granted (when not outright deriding it). It is a sacrilege that political forces have done so much to undermine it in the last century. When people no longer trust the courts to maintain justice, they will take action themselves — and then we’re back to the primitive state wherein justice bows to passion. A terrible shame — our heritage is the work of millennia, and we’re so careless in guarding its treasures.

      • The great merit of Anglo Saxon justice is that it maintained legitimacy by respecting community sentiment. The jury system ensured that legal opinion could not be detached from popular opinion.

    • That is quite an anecdote. The article linked by commenter cameron 232 argues that vigilante justice is often (not always) based on community knowledge that a bad’un is a bad’un. To use a phrase from today’s college admissions office, it is based on a “holistic assessment.” It is obviously open to perversion by private vendettas, but also provides a backstop to the judicial system. Since writing my post on the 1894 lynching, for instance, I have found reason to believe that the only witnesses to the rape of Fanny Palazo, Fanny Palazo and her son, may have moved away, and that the court-ordered retrial of Jim Reddick was therefore bound to fail.

  2. “The true cowboy is a terror to evildoers of all kinds.”

    I suppose one could rightly argue that the cowboys of whom Mr. Tom Dorsett spoke in a 1938 interview were not “true cowboys” at all, but there is another side to the story in any case. Here is a relevant excerpt from the interview in question:

    In the winter the cattle would drift south, many would come to the ravines and down under the large bluffs close to the river at Courtney Flats; there would always be from fifty to seventy-five cowboys with the cattle and they would go to Spanish Fort and get several jugs of whiskey, then build up a fire and spread their blankets down on the ground, and there they would sleep.

    Old Doctor Scaggs, who lived at Courtney Flats, would give big dances in the winter, the girls would want to go home, and the cowboys would shoot the door steps and they had the girls so scared they were afraid to go outside so they would have to stay at the dance all night. The cowboys would rope the chimneys and tie the ropes to their saddles
    and pull the chimneys off from the house.

    Seems that lots of the cowboys Tom Dorsett knew and mingled with (he worked the local ranches and rode the lines as a young man) were not only a terror to evil doers. But maybe they were a terror to decent folk and young ladies only in the winter when they got liquored up.

    • My epigram from John Henry Sullivan comes from a book that helped to invent the modern cowboy myth. Sullivan had worked as a cowboy, but he went on to work in the “Wild West” shows of Buffalo Bill Cody. His acting name was “Bronco John.” You might say that he was the spiritual father of clean cut cowboys like Roy Rogers, Tom Mix and John Wayne. I understand that historical cowboys were just agricultural laborers with no particular moral character, and that many spent their free time like the proverbial sailor on shore leave, but I believe the modern cowboy myth was good and healthy. It taught ordinary young men that they could be good without being sissies, just as the chivalric myth taught then they could be holy without being sissies. This cowboy myth was destroyed by the “dark” westerns of the 1970s, with disastrous consequences for ordinary young men, morality and religion. A good myth directs the natural aggression of young men against proper objects (i.e. “evildoers”), and also shows him an honorable way to be “a man” without being a barbarian.

      • Yeah, I know what you mean. I believe Tom Dorsett was a “man’s man,” more than likely something of a terror to evildoers and an honorable man. There are numerous interviews of men like Mr. Dorsett that I’ve read. Their stories corroborate Mr. Dorsett’s in a number of ways. These were also decent and honorable men who were also cowboys; they just didn’t count themselves amongst the loose cannons who were apt to get liquored up, terrorize young women and pull down chimneys.

        I might have told this before, so if so please overlook it. One of my great uncles owned a ranch that was passed down to his two daughters and their families after he and my great aunt passed away a few years back. The ranch is on the north side of Red River. At the bottom of one of the bluffs on the property is a large sandstone rock that is covered in foliage. In 1972 (I believe) my dad helped me carve my name into that rock. I have visited it once that I recall since, and that was when I was about 30 years old. I have the combination to the lock to get on the property anytime I like. There are a couple of great fishing ponds on the property that I keep promising to take the kids to, but haven’t done as yet. Anyway, I remember that on that rock are dozens of names, mainly of family members but others as well. Each name has a date carved next to it, and if memory serves they date way back to the late 1890s. That is one of things I am going to have to do sometime in the near future, is re-visit the place and take some photos.

      • I’m not sure any society has entirely answered the question of how to handle its young males. And I know that no society has answered the question of how to handle its young males when they are liquored up and showing off for one another. Well, in days of yore they told the young hot-heads to go and chastise the wicked tribe that lived on the other side of the hill, but it is not clear the modern army is suited to this purpose. So now we spike the cowboy’s coffee with Ritalin and then complain about their lack of initiative.

        The Red River is really the twin of the Brazos. Both once began in the Rockies, and were decapitated by the Pecos. Both rise in the permian red beds and were famous for their great rafts of driftwood. It seems very likely that the Brazos was first called the Colorado, and that the Spaniards then swapped the to rivers’ names by accident, so they also share a name. I take a lot of pleasure in contemplating the shapes of the soft sandstone beds that outcrop along the Brazos, although I have yet to find any names carved in them. The sandstone on your great uncle’s ranch must be older and harder. Hope you manage to get back there with a camera.

      • I’m not sure any society has entirely answered the question of how to handle its young males.

        Not a small part of the terror of modern society is the belief that this is principally a problem which can and should be “solved.”

        The sometimes terror of young males is much more akin to the terrible and unpredictible benevolence of God than the above-described predictable and administrated terror of prescription drugs.

      • I said “answered” rather than “solved” because young males are (a) a fact of nature, and (b) something we cannot do without. The aggressive energy of young males must be channeled to good ends, not stupefied by drugs or excised by castration (physical or spiritual). Having once been a young male myself, I understand why so many young males are angry, depressed and frightened. Society offers no good answers to their very real problems, but it has plenty of nasty solutions.

      • That’s quite all right. Direct honesty is always honorable. Honey-tongued prevarication is always deplorable. The young men of whom we are speaking can become shifty liars, but those who don’t are our only hope for a future in which there is direct and honest speech. What we seem to be producing in abundance nowadays are swaggering braggarts and simpering toadies, trash-talkers and sycophants. I know this sounds like a boomer-gripe, but we really need to restore the tradition of manliness.

  3. Re: “The great merit of Anglo Saxon justice is that it maintained legitimacy by respecting community sentiment. The jury system ensured that legal opinion could not be detached from popular opinion.”

    I’m not so sure I agree with this. Be careful what you wish for. In the present day, where news only reinforces the “Narrative”, we can get a news item where, overnight, the “community” becomes the entire nation at large. And the sentiment from such a community can be extremely irrational.

    Even Derek Chauvin deserves his day in Court. If he were left to the tender mercies of the community, he would already have been drawn and quartered. People who are supposed to be the responsible members of the community, e.g. Joe Biden, used the word “murder” when referring to Chauvin’s action.

    Certainly one of the merits of Anglo Saxon justice is the due process it entails, and that your life cannot not be disposed of on the say-so of the ruler or chieftain, or an irrational community. Biden’s administration will be a regression to that chieftaincy and an elevation of the irrational community.

    • I understand what you say with respect to the accused receiving a fair trial, but am here talking about the perceived legitimacy of the judicial system. Ideally these two things would be one in the same, but they are not. In fact, many of the precautions that are in place to prevent wrongful conviction nowadays reduce the legitimacy of the judicial system in the eyes of the general public. I believe a society works far better when the people think in terms of “our laws” rather than in terms of “their laws,” or of “our legal system” rather than “their legal system.” Of course, if it is in fact “their legal system,” it would be false consciousness to think otherwise; but this is a separate question.

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