“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.
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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.
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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.
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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.”¡
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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.