In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Tarrant County executed condemned prisoners by hanging. This two-part post looks at some of those hangings and the crimes that led ten prisoners from the outside world to a jail cell to the gallows.
Ten prisoners: all men; three white, seven black. Nine guilty of murder, one of sexual assault. Eleven victims: ten men, one woman; ten white, one black. Eight hangings took place indoors and were not open to the public; two took place outdoors and were public spectacles.
The first legal hanging in Tarrant County, according to the Fort Worth Telegram, took place in 1874.
Sol Bragg, about forty-two, described as six feet tall, 185-190 pounds, “well-proportioned, strong and athletic,” had been convicted in 1872 of murdering Matthew Green, a “white chicken peddler,” while Green was asleep in his camp on Mustang Creek southwest of town. The motive was robbery.
His appeals exhausted, “the negro, Sol Bragg” in May 1874 sat in his cell, leg irons around his ankles.
Two blacksmiths, the Fort Worth Democrat reported, were admitted to his cell to remove “the heavy irons with which he was manacled.” Then Bragg was “dressed in a suit of new clothes, over which was put his shroud.”
“His photograph was taken by Prof. N. G. Fowler, after which he took his seat on his coffin and was driven to the scaffold” in a horse-drawn wagon.
Four thousand people witnessed the execution, the Democrat wrote in 1874.
The Telegram wrote in 1906: “People from all over Tarrant County and adjoining counties came to Fort Worth to witness the execution, many of them arriving the day before and camping near the gallows.”
Standing on the gallows, the Democrat in 1874 wrote, Bragg addressed the crowd for about thirty minutes, professing his innocence and claiming that his accomplice, Baz Moulden, had shot Matthew Green during the robbery. Bragg urged young men in the crowd to avoid “bad associates” and “not to try to live by gambling, horse-racing and stealing, as he had done.”
(However, in 1906 the Telegram wrote that on the gallows Bragg had confessed to the murder.)
The Democrat in 1874 wrote of Bragg on the gallows: “His coolness . . . under the circumstances . . . was a matter of surprise and comment by all.” The Telegram in 1906 wrote that Bragg had invited those witnessing his death “to meet him in the better life beyond the grave.”
“The rope was adjusted,” the Democrat wrote, “the hood drawn down, and at twenty-five minutes past two o’clock, the axe descended, the drop fell, and Sol Bragg was ushered into eternity.”
Dr. Julian Theodore Feild declared Bragg dead about 2:35. The body remained on the gallows another twenty minutes and then was removed and buried.
Green’s widow, the Telegram wrote in 1906, stood near the gallows to witness the execution. She asked for and was given the noose used in the hanging and still had it in her possession in 1906.
On the night of September 4, 1879, Drew Sanders writes in The Garden of Eden: The Story of a Freedmen’s Community in Texas, a white woman named “Bowman” was sleeping in her house on Jones Street between 5th and 6th streets when a man entered her bedroom through an open window and raped her. Mrs. Bowman later told police officer Walter P. Thomas that she thought the rapist was an African-American laborer she had seen doing some work next door. Mrs. Bowman’s description of the man, officer Thomas thought, matched that of Rush Loyd. Rush Loyd was born a slave of the family of Captain Martin Bottom Loyd in Mississippi and probably was given the Loyd surname.
Officer Thomas immediately arrested Rush Loyd. Loyd was held in the county jail.
Outraged by the crime, a mob of about fifty white men, several with guns, marched to the jail to get at Rush Loyd. As the mob approached the jail building on Belknap Street, Sheriff Joe Henderson, backed by deputies who were all former Confederate soldiers, confronted the mob.
“Gentlemen, this is the dead line, and if you cross it, the leaders will certainly be shot down.”
The mob retreated.
Nonetheless, Rush Loyd was moved to the Dallas County jail—a common precaution when lynching was feared.
The Star-Telegram in 1909 wrote that a jury almost convicted an innocent man. At Rush Loyd’s trial the jury deadlocked eleven to one for conviction. The sole holdout for acquittal was R. H. Tucker, later an alderman from the Fifth Ward.
While Loyd was awaiting his retrial, Isom (or Isham) Capps, a black man about thirty years old, was arrested on another charge. While in jail Capps confessed to both crimes, clearing Loyd, the Telegram wrote in 1906.
Rush Loyd would become one of the largest landowners in Tarrant County’s early African-American community.
The Telegram wrote in 1906 that in May 1880 a gallows was erected near where the Santa Fe railroad trestle would later cross Ham Branch creek in the Third Ward east of downtown.
The trestle (T), which I calculate to have been northwest of the 35W-Spur 280 interchange, is gone, but Ham Branch (H) still flows south into Chambers Creek (C) near Chambers Street just west of the river, although all three streams have been rerouted, widened, channeled underground etc. to provide flood control and to make way for freeways, railroads, and other development.
On May 7 Isom Capps, like Sol Bragg, was driven to the gallows in a wagon. He sat in the back of the wagon. On his coffin.
The execution drew thousands of spectators. Farmers left their fields to witness the hanging; shops closed. The Galveston News wrote that Isom Capps was hanged with a noose fashioned by the father of the rape victim.
James Darlington (alias James Garlington) was born in 1873 in Louisiana. By 1877 his family was living in Navarro County, Texas. As a teenager Jim farmed a while and then attended college in Lampasas. In 1895 he was licensed to preach by the First Baptist Church of El Paso and in 1896 toured Louisiana, doing “evangelistic work,” the Fort Worth Register wrote. In 1897 Darlington and a friend, W. L. Burris, started a general merchandise business but were accused of swindling. They moved to Colorado and worked on a ranch at Trinidad. Then the pair picked cotton in Oklahoma and Texas.
Hard work, low wages.
Perhaps the Reverend Darlington remembered Matthew 6:28 and the lilies of the field that “neither toil nor spin.”
Jim Darlington was tired of toiling.
On the night of July 21, 1898 two masked men—James Darlington and W. L. Burris (by then going by the alias “Charlie Ellis”)—boarded the coal tender of a Santa Fe passenger train as it sat at the station at Saginaw. Darlington and Ellis were armed with pistols. After the train left the station, southbound for Fort Worth, Darlington and Ellis crawled over the coal to the engine, where Darlington shot and killed the engineer and fireman and pushed them from the train. Darlington and Ellis knew enough about a locomotive to keep the train moving, although by “jerks and jars,” express car messenger P. Cliff Howard would recall. The two men stopped the train near the Union Stockyards north of Fort Worth and were joined by W. R. Petty and George Moore. Petty and Moore had Winchester rifles. The four men fired several gunshots to intimidate the surviving members of the train crew and the passengers. One of the gang members fired gunshots through the wall of the express car and ordered Howard to open the door. Howard—a Bartleby the scrivener on wheels—preferred not to.
The four men then fastened a rag to four sticks of dynamite, placed the dynamite on the front of the express car, lit the rag, and retreated to the embankment to await the explosion.
It never came.
What did come was
- A fusillade of bullets
Fort Worth police had been tipped—by gang member Petty—about when and where Darlington and associates would rob the train. Thus, four officers on horseback had been waiting near where Darlington and Ellis stopped the train and were joined by Petty and Moore. Upon hearing gunshots at the train, the officers approached and fired on the gang. The Dallas Morning News reported that the gang and police exchanged about seventy-five gunshots (during which time informer Petty was probably wishing he had stayed home with a good book). The would-be robbers escaped but empty-handed.
The Dallas Morning News pointed out that in less than one year five trains serving Fort Worth had been robbed.
Lawmen with bloodhounds searched for the fugitives in Denton and Tarrant counties.
By the end of August, three of the four gang members were in the Tarrant County jail: George Moore was arrested in Ardmore, W. R. Petty in Fort Worth, and Darlington on a farm near Corsicana.
Darlington was tried for the murder of the locomotive fireman. At Darlington’s trial gang member and informer W. R. Petty told all: about how Darlington and the others had met in Fort Worth to plan the robbery, secured weapons and dynamite, selected the location to stop the train to blow up the express car. Petty also testified about how Darlington and Ellis had brought the train south after killing the engineer and fireman. He said that when he agreed to tell police about the planned robbery he expected to receive half of any reward offered.
James Darlington was found guilty of the murder of Santa Fe fireman Watson Whitaker and sentenced to death.
On July 28, 1899 about two hundred people, including a young niece of the murder victim, were allowed into the county jail to witness the execution of James Darlington. The condemned prisoner, twenty-six years old, was allowed to invite five guests.
Outside his death cell Darlington sat in a chair, “puffing a cigar,” leaning back slightly, his legs crossed, as he listened to Sheriff Sterling Clark read the lengthy death warrant before Darlington was marched to the gallows.
The gallows had been built in 1891 for J. W. Davis, the slayer of merchant B. C. Evans, but Davis had died in his cell thirteen days before his scheduled execution.
The Register wrote of Darlington as if describing a fashion show: He was dressed “in a neat fitting black suit, sack cut, wearing white gloves, a broad brimmed black hat, and in the left lapel of his coat was pinned a bunch of white flowers with a green leaf back.”
On the scaffold Darlington expressed his appreciation to his jailers, his ministers, his attorneys, the sheriff, those who had signed an appeal to the governor on his behalf, and the people of Tarrant County.
Also, “I’d like to express my thanks to the prisoners here; and I would advise them, if they ever get out, that they should not obey the Evil Spirit any more, but should become good citizens and obey the laws.”
“As to the man [who] turned state’s evidence, I have no wish to upbraid him but will leave him to his God.”
Some men from the YMCA “sang two or three hymns,” including “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.”
As Darlington stood on the gallows, the Register wrote, “a handkerchief was bound over his eyes,” and a black hood “was drawn over his head.”
At 1:49 p.m. Sheriff Clark sprang the trapdoor of the gallows.
Darlington’s body was placed in a coffin, and the coffin was carried downstairs to the main corridor of the jail, where the “throng” that had gathered outside the jail was allowed, “under guidance of officers,” “to file past and take a look at the remains.”
The Register reported that 1,075 people viewed the body in thirty minutes.
Of Darlington’s three accomplices, George Moore was convicted and sentenced to prison, informer W. R. Petty was released, and in 1902 the Register reported that the third accomplice, W. L. Burris (alias Charlie Ellis), going by still a different name, was believed to be in prison for another crime.
The Register wrote in 1902 that James Darlington, preacher-turned-train robber, was the only man in Texas history to be executed for a train robbery.
On October 28 Swackhammer went to Arlington by wagon to sell some cotton, telling his children that he would bring them some candy. After Swackhammer sold the cotton, he met Rufus Martin and Jordan Thompson at Culp’s store east of the Swackhammer farm. Martin and Jordan worked for Swackhammer as cottonpickers. Swackhammer paid Martin and Thompson their wages—fifty-five cents to Martin and ten cents to Thompson. Swackhammer, twenty-nine, and Martin, also about twenty-nine, were seen leaving the store in Swackhammer’s wagon. A short while later residents of the area heard three gunshots.
When Swackhammer’s team of horses and wagon reached his farm that night, a small boy who was visiting the Swackhammers ran out into the yard to see if Swackhammer had indeed brought back some candy. Instead the boy found Swackhammer’s body in the wagon bed. He had been shot three times. Swackhammer had been paid $40 for the cotton, but only $5 was found on his body.
That night, the Telegram wrote, Rufus Martin was drinking at the Shamrock saloon in Fort Worth. He told the proprietor that he had “plenty of money” and that he “got hold of the money after dark.”
When Sheriff John T. Honea arrested Martin the next day, Martin had in his possession $23.45, a Colt pistol, a new holster, and a belt full of cartridges. Witnesses said that when Martin had left Culp’s store with Swackhammer Martin had only $1.
Sheriff Honea examined Martin’s pistol and concluded that it had recently been fired three times. A .44-caliber bullet found in Swackhammer’s clothing matched the bullets in Martin’s pistol.
Jordan Thompson was arrested at the home of “an aged negro” who lived on “the Tandy place,” but investigators soon concluded that Thompson was innocent.
Rufus Martin was convicted in December 1903 and sentenced to death. An appeals court confirmed the conviction. The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court on a writ of error. The high court upheld the rulings of the lower courts.
On July 12, 1906 a crowd gathered outside the county jail. The Telegram wrote that people stood on the sidewalk, “perched like chickens” on top of the iron fence that surrounded the jail, sat in wagons on the street. Others climbed the walls, “peeking through the grated windows” of the jail building hoping to catch a glimpse of the execution of Rufus Martin.
People also stood on the north gallery and at the north windows of the courthouse watching the jailhouse across Belknap Street.
Among those gathered inside the jail to witness the execution were the widow and four children of Charles Swackhammer.
Two ministers led the witnesses in singing hymns. Rufus Martin sang along.
“On the scaffold just before being hung,” the Telegram wrote, Rufus Martin preached a short sermon, taking as his text Romans XIV 11: ‘For it is written, as I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess God.’”
Martin urged the witnesses to pray: “Please let everybody kneel—if you’ve never knelt to God, please do it once for the sake of a dying man’s wish.”
He admitted that he had “the blood of my fellow man on me.”
Martin shook hands with everyone on the gallows and said, “God bless you all.”
The gallows was the same one built in 1891 for J. W. Davis and used for James Darlington in 1899.
“The whistles were blowing the hour of 1 o’clock Thursday afternoon,” the Telegram wrote, when a black hood “was fixed about the neck of Rufus Martin, and a few minutes later his body dropped the length of the rope.”
Sheriff Honea, before springing the trapdoor with his foot, said, “Good-bye, Rufus.”
On the night of July 1, 1912 Robert Knetsch was walking home on Kentucky Avenue southeast of downtown.
Suddenly Knetsch was confronted by “two negro highwaymen,” the Dallas Morning News wrote. The highwaymen demanded money. Knetsch resisted. He yelled for help.
The robbers shot him in the head.
Robert Knetsch had almost made it home: His wife Marion heard the gunshots from a bedroom of their home.
Knetsch died four hours later at the hospital of the medical college, which by 1912 was affiliated with TCU.
Knetsch was a German-born sculptor who owned a terra-cotta factory on Front (Lancaster) Street.
Because Knetsch had lived long enough to tell his wife at the hospital that he had been shot by two black men, police began rounding up suspects, looking for “two negroes—one tall and black and the other a short mulatto.”
Following a tip, police arrested Paul Fowler, nineteen. Fowler confessed, telling police how he and Ernest Harrison, seventeen, had held up Knetsch because they were “broke.”
“Knetsch tried to yell,” the Dallas Morning News wrote, “but couldn’t for fright and then managed to make a noise which called for the shots.” Each robber shot Knetsch once, then fled to the nearby home of Fowler’s grandmother. They hid their pistols.
Witnesses said they had seen Fowler and Harrison running from the scene of the crime.
Police found two pistols in trunks at the home of Fowler’s grandmother.
Fowler was charged with killing Knetsch and robbing four other persons on the same night.
Police began searching for Ernest Harrison, who had disappeared.
On July 6, in reaction to tips that Paul Fowler faced the threat of a lynch mob, the sheriff moved Fowler to the Dallas County jail.
Six days later Ernest Harrison was captured in Ellis County “after a chase of eight miles through Hill, Ellis and Navarro counties, through cornfields, bushes and shrubbery.” By the time Harrison was captured, the Star-Telegram wrote, “He had run through so many barbed wire fences that nearly all his clothing had been left behind.”
Fort Worth Police Chief J. William Renfro said he would leave Harrison in the Ellis County jail because of the risk of lynching in Tarrant County.
Harrison, like Fowler, was later moved to the Dallas County jail for safekeeping.
On August 4 Harrison and Fowler were returned to Tarrant County jail from Dallas and “lodged in the negro ward.”
On August 21 Paul Fowler was found guilty and given the death penalty. He said police had “abused” him to get a confession; he contended that Ernest Harrison had shot Knetsch when Harrison thought Knetsch was about to draw a weapon.
Two days later, on August 23, Ernest Harrison was found guilty and given the death penalty.
An appeals court upheld the convictions of Fowler and Harrison, and the governor declined to intervene in their executions.
Early on August 7, 1913—the day of execution—Joe Hentzen, mechanical superintendent of county buildings, oiled every hinge on the gallows.
Tarrant County Judge Jesse Brown received a letter that read, in part: “If you hang Ernest Harrison, your city shall be blowing from the face of earth within three days.” The letter was signed “Mutual Burden Message Bearer, sent from God.”
In the county jail one hundred men (mostly law enforcement) and two women (the victim’s widow and her sister) gathered to witness the two hangings.
The Star-Telegram quoted Mrs. Knetsch: “I would shoot them both full of holes right now if you would let me.”
Prisoners in the white men’s ward of the jail, the Star-Telegram wrote, sang “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”
Before Ernest Harrison went to the gallows, he was baptized in a bath tub placed under the gallows.
On the gallows Harrison said, “I am guilty of this crime I am charged with.”
Fowler and Harrison were dressed in “handsome blue serge suits” (given to them by former Sheriff Sterling Clark), white shirts, and black ties.
On the gallows both prisoners were fitted with the customary black hood.
Sheriff William Rea hanged Paul Fowler and Ernest Harrison thirty-five minutes apart.
Paul Fowler was hanged at 11:12 a.m.
Ernest Harrison was hanged at 11:47 a.m.
One thousand people stood outside the jail building on Belknap Street.
On the morning of Sunday, June 3, 1917 the “terribly slashed and disfigured” body of Zella Faulk, nineteen, was discovered just west of Oakwood Cemetery.
Faulk had last been seen alive on Saturday night as she left a carnival at North Main Street and 20th streets in the company of Rufus Coates, nineteen. Witnesses told police that Faulk “appeared to be weeping.”
Coates lived with his father on Chestnut Avenue 1.8 miles north of the crime scene. Zella Faulk lived on Bryan Avenue south of downtown.
Mr. Coates told police that he feared that his son also had met with foul play because Mr. Coates had not seen his son since Saturday. In the beginning police theorized that Rufus Coates, too, had been killed and his body dumped in the nearby Trinity River.
A friend of Zella Faulk said Faulk and Coates “were not on particularly friendly terms.” Coates’s father said he had never heard his son mention Zella Faulk.
But the Star-Telegram wrote that Faulk “had a well-defined idea that her life was in danger.” On May 31, a Thursday, she had told a friend: “I won’t be living by Sunday; you watch and see.”
Police began a nationwide search for Coates, sending circulars all over the country, offering rewards, checking with Army recruitment centers. A month after the killing, Coates was located in Washington state with a companion, Clyde Tucker. Tucker, like Coates, had not been seen in Fort Worth since the night of the killing.
Coates confessed to the crime to lawmen in Spokane. He and Tucker were brought back to Fort Worth to be charged with murder.
In July 1917 America had just entered World War I. News of the war dominated the front page on July 25 along with a story reporting that Rufus Coates had “without the least show of remorse” led lawmen to the crime scene and reenacted the killing.
“Zella had been with another man that night, and that is what started me off, I reckon, and I had been drinking. I didn’t warn her I was taking her out to kill her. . . . I was engaged to her and expected to marry her as soon as I could pay up my debts.”
Coates confessed that after leading Faulk to a wooded area near the cemetery he hit her with “a club” and then left the scene to go tell Clyde Tucker what he had done. Tucker asked Coates to take him to the crime scene. They found that Faulk was still alive, but “we saw there was no chance of saving her.”
So, Coates said he used a knife to “finish the job.”
Coates and Clyde then fled town. A month later they were arrested in Spokane.
War again dominated the front page in August when Coates was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Camp Bowie had been in operation only a few weeks.
Coates “betrayed absolutely no emotion either before or after the verdict was read.”
Zella Faulk’s mother reacted to the death sentence: “There would have been no injustice in it if he had been burned. Of course, under the law, hanging was the worst punishment he could receive, and I think the punishment was right.”
In September Clyde Tucker had not yet been indicted for any crime but was still in jail. On September 3, as the Star-Telegram announced that Canadian and British cadets would soon be arriving at the three airfields of Camp Taliaferro, Tucker’s throat was slashed as he slept in his cell. Prior to the attack, Rufus Coates had been in Tucker’s cell as Tucker slept. Coates ran out of the cell when other prisoners gathered around the cell after Tucker was slashed and called for help. Tucker told jailers that Coates was his assailant. Coates denied the attack. Tucker had been cut with a knife that was in the cell to peel potatoes. Coates, the Star-Telegram reported, had earlier had charge of the knife.
A doctor said Tucker would recover.
Early on November 8, 1918, three days before World War I ended, Rufus Coates was fitted for his “death clothes.” He told a jailer: “I want a soft collar. I could never wear one of those stiff ones.”
At Coates’s request, he was visited in his cell by J. Frank Norris of First Baptist Church. Coates asked Norris to baptize him. Norris performed the ritual in “an old bath tub,” the Star-Telegram reported. “As John the Baptist baptized the Savior, I come to baptize you,” Norris proclaimed.
The crowd of witnesses sang a hymn: “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” Coates had requested that hymn. “His voice could be clearly heard.”
The Star-Telegram wrote that Coates “went to his death calmly.”
On the gallows Coates repeated his confession that he alone had killed Zella Faulk.
“There was not a movement of the body after the trap had sprung” by Sheriff Nace Mann, the Star-Telegram wrote. “The crowd filed out, Coates was placed in a casket,” and the black hood was removed.
The victim’s brother and two brothers-in-law witnessed the execution.
About fifteen hundred people gathered outside the jail to watch the coffin be taken from the jail to George Gause’s funeral parlor.