A town first called Ann Eliza that is 25 years older than Whitewright and Tom Bean is the location of a crime in 1864 that this writer wasn’t aware of until this week. That community now is known as Kentucky Town, the townsite of which was laid out in 1852, six years after the founding of Sherman and 20 years before Denison was settled.
While attending a meeting, I was asked by a friend whether I had ever heard about a multiple hanging in Grayson County about the time of the “Great Hanging” in Gainesville. I had not, but promised to see what I could learn about it. I don’t know why it was new to me because I had looked at Joe W. Chumbley’s book, “Kentuckytown and its Baptist Church: or Ann Eliza and Pleasant Hill,” many times. I just had not read that chapter of the book that was published in 1975 and contains some information about persons on one of my family trees.
Checking the index, I found a listing about the middle of the book titled “The Year of 1865 — Hard Times according to G.W. Newcome, General Lee Surrenders, War Ends in Texas, Seven Hanged at Kentucky Town, Map of KY community.” There it was in black and white.
The story begins six miles southwest of Kentucky Town. Forty-two-year-old Steve and his wife, 35-year-old Polly were getting their five young children ready for bed. They were expecting no visitors, but were not alarmed when they heard a voice call, “Hello, Steve,” the customary greeting of a neighbor at night when he called for business or social purposes.
Steve opened the front door and stepped out to find himself confronted with six men with faces covered in a black substance and so many gun barrels. They demanded his money — his gold.
The couple had come to this area in the 1850s and had made no effort to hide the fact that he had spent some time in the California gold fields after gold was discovered there in 1849. Since coming to Texas, they had paid cash — gold — for 180 acres of land, then cash again for an additional 115 acres of adjoining land and $1,300 in cash for more land on which they built their two-story home of finished lumber hauled from Jefferson. That too was paid for in cash. Everyone who knew Steve knew that he had plenty of gold.
In the absence of banks at that time, Steve couldn’t convince his assailants that he did not have gold buried about his place. And he did have. While two of them forced him back into the house and watched over him and the children. The other four took Polly to the smokehouse to hold a lantern while they dug all along the four sides of the dirt floor. She stood in the center and held the lantern high as they dug. After an unproductive dig, they returned to the house, where they left Polly and the children under guard. They tied one end of a rope around Steve’s neck and the other end over a limb of a tree, pulled him upward and off the ground to a strangling position, but before he lost consciousness, lowered him to the ground. He still refused. Two more times they almost strangled him.
The story told by Chumbley is that as they were hanging him the third time, a meteor flashed across the dark sky, brilliantly lighting the heavens. That was too much for the hangmen who took it to mean an omen and displeasure from above. They all ran for their horses and galloped away.
Polly and the children cut the noose loose and poured water over Steve’s head until he could catch breath to survive.
A few days later, four strangers reined in their horses at the home of a widow less than two miles northwest of Cannon just past noon. The uninvited guests asked in cold, unfriendly tones if she would prepare them “dinner.” In those days, it wasn’t unusual for mounted strangers to stop at farm homes and ask for food. But at that time, residents of the area were a little nervous after the incident at the neighbor’s house a little more than two miles to the northwest.
She told the strangers she would have to send her “servant boy” to get a bucket of fresh water from the spring. They nodded agreement. She whispered to the boy to get the water, then hurry to George’s mill and notify the captain of the home guard to come fast.
Before the unsuspecting strangers finished their meal, the house was surrounded by members of the guard and the four men were taken to the guards’ campsite for questioning. They denied any knowledge of the attempted robbery and hanging. The denial came even after the couple’s spunky 5-year-old son recognized the robbers and yelled and lunged at them in anger.
Polly pointed a finger at one and suggested that their heads be inspected for tell-tale signs of the black substance. Sure enough a black streak was found on one behind his ear. Further inspection of their saddle bags turned up a box of black substance and some axle grease used to smear their faces as an underlay.
Confessions then began and included three residents of the county living no more than six miles from the family. One was a member of the home guard. The other two were a father and 17-year-old son.
Now that the story is getting interesting, I’m running out of space for “the rest of the story.” It will be continued in this column next week.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.