James W. Swayne: Derricks and Gallows

He was among the first oil speculators to bank black gold at Spindletop. He was the last judge in Tarrant County to sentence men to hang.

In between he just missed being a millionaire and just missed being murdered in his own courtroom.

James W. Swayne was born in Lexington, Tennessee in 1855. He and his older brother John F. Swayne grew up in the household of their maternal grandparents. James attended Kentucky Military Institute and Lebanon Law School. He was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1877.

But in January 1878 James moved to Fort Worth, where brother John had been selling land since at least 1873.

According to the Star-Telegram, the brothers opened Fort Worth’s first insurance company in the late 1870s.

James also opened a law office in the courthouse. Note that he also roomed in the courthouse.

Swayne was elected city attorney in 1883, defeating Robert McCart.

In 1890 he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, defeating Michael C. Hurley and Isaac Duke Parker.

Swayne represented Tarrant County in the House of Representatives 1891-1893. He then represented Tarrant County in the Texas Senate 1893-1895. As a state senator he was Governor James Hogg’s “floorman” and cast the deciding vote for the bill that created the Texas Railroad Commission. (Photo from Texas State Preservation Board.)

It was during Swayne’s tenure as a state senator that he was engaged in one of Fort Worth’s most sensational cases of the 1890s.

One night in 1892 African-American gambler Jim Toots killed white police officer C. L. Waller as Waller was walking his beat in Hell’s Half Acre. There was talk of lynching. Toots fled the county, was captured, brought back to stand trial.

On March 25, 1893 Toots was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang.

At this point Toots, who had been given court-appointed attorneys, was given a self-appointed angel: James Swayne. Swayne, by then a state senator, had been following the Toots murder case. Swayne took the Toots conviction to the appellate court.

But in October 1895 the appellate court upheld the conviction and sentence of Jim Toots. Undaunted, Swayne vowed to seek a commutation. Swayne said: “The hanging of Jim Toots will be nothing less than legalized murder. I am as thoroughly convinced that he acted in self-defense as I am in my own existence.” Swayne said he had found a witness who would swear that he had heard officer Waller vow to kill Toots.

In Austin Swayne pleaded with the state pardons board. Among those Fort Worth citizens who wrote letters to the governor on behalf of Toots were K. M. Van ZandtJ. C. TerrellMartin Bottom LoydWilliam Pinckney McLean, the law firm of Capps and Cantey, and, perhaps most interesting, Ephraim Beck “Bud” Daggett, father of Jeff Daggett.

On December 21, 1895, with Toots scheduled to hang before Christmas, Governor Charles Allen Culberson played Santa, commuting Toots’s death sentence to a life sentence.

Toots was later granted a pardon.

Swayne after leaving the state Senate served as county judge 1896-1900.

In 1900 Swayne built this house on El Paso Street on Quality Hill.

By 1901 both Swayne and James Hogg were out of politics. But their relationship continued.

The two men formed the Hogg-Swayne Syndicate to invest in land, especially land that might yield oil.

Just as they were about to commit to investing $30,000 ($950,000 today) in land in Brazoria County, one hundred miles northeast of Brazoria County, on January 10, 1901 Croatian-born oil explorer Anthony F. Lucas brought in the first gusher at Spindletop south of Beaumont.

The Lucas gusher blew for nine days at a rate estimated at 100,000 barrels of oil a day—the largest gusher the world had seen. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

The Lucas gusher triggered an oil boom that sent the United States slipping and sliding into the petroleum age. Before Spindletop, oil had primarily been used for lighting and lubrication. Because of the profound quantity of oil discovered at Spindletop, refining petroleum as a fuel suddenly became economically feasible.

The United States soon became the world’s leading oil producer.

Oil companies were chartered by the dozens. Derricks sprang up like mushrooms.

Hearing the news from Spindletop, Hogg and Swayne forsook Brazoria County and bought twenty acres near the Lucas well. They began selling land to wildcatters. One drill site measuring two feet by two feet reportedly sold for $10,000 ($315,000 today). Another site measuring sixty by seventy-two feet sold for $50,000 ($1.5 million today).

Parcels of Hogg-Swayne land totaling two and one-half acres sold for a total of $200,000 ($6.3 million today).

Meanwhile, Corsicana oilman Joseph S. Cullinan also had heard about Spindletop. On January 11, 1901—the day after the Lucas gusher came in—Cullinan showed up at Spindletop. A year later he formed Texas Fuel Company, an oil storage and pipeline company.

The Hogg-Swayne Syndicate bought into Cullinan’s new company by contributing the syndicate’s pipeline assets and a refinery site at Port Arthur.

In April 1902 Cullihan chartered the Texas Company, which soon took over Texas Fuel Company.

You might know the Texas Company by another name: “Texaco.”

Being at Spindletop in 1901 was being in the right place at the right time. But then at the right place and the right time Hogg and Swayne made the wrong decision: They sold their interests in Texaco just before the value of the company shot skyward like the Lucas gusher. In 1919 Swayne would estimate that had he kept his initial 1901 Hogg-Swayne Syndicate investment of $37,500 ($1.2 million today) in Texaco, by 1919 that $37,500 would have ballooned to $571,000 ($23 million today).

James Swayne did not cry long over spilt oil. Soon after pulling out of Texaco, Swayne in 1909 was appointed judge of Fort Worth’s Seventeenth District Court by Governor Thomas M. Campbell.

Over the next eight years Judge Swayne would preside over some of Fort Worth’s highest-profile cases, from murders to divorces.

Swayne had been on the bench only a month when he displayed his judiciousness in a setting far from the courtroom.

During a July 4th weekend celebration in 1909 a “riot” broke out at Lake Como trolley park. “Four Hurt in Fourth of July Riot at Lake Como!” the Star-Telegram shouted across the top of page 1 on July 6.

As at Spindletop, Judge Swayne was in the right place at the right time. The Fort Worth Record wrote: “Judge James W. Swayne of the Seventeenth district court also took part in quieting the crowd. Standing upon the cigar case [?], he told the people there was no trouble to amount to anything and for them to be quiet and orderly. He also deputized every private citizen in the crowd to see that the law was not violated.”

Four people were injured in the “riot.”

When Swayne took the bench in April 1909 his criminal docket had eighteen murder cases on it. One of those cases involved the killing of Mexican-born baseball player Dan Gallegos by Palmer Maddox in 1908. Maddox, who was a nephew of the chief of police, claimed self-defense, saying he shot Gallegos after Gallegos threatened him with a knife. But the case dragged through the legal system so long that witnesses for the prosecution had disappeared, and the case was dismissed.

Also in 1909, after police officer Addison Campbell was gunned down in Hell’s Half Acre by saloon owner Robert P. Hammond (who was a candidate for sheriff), Judge Swayne vowed that a grand jury would investigate the “assassination.” Swayne predicted that the “foul murder” would be the “death knell of the ‘acre.’”

It wasn’t.

Fast-forward two years. In 1911 Judge Swayne had the dubious distinction of being the first of many judges to adjudicate a member of the Ma Beland gang. Charles Beland was only ten years old when he stabbed a playmate. Charles was charged with assault to murder. Swayne gave the boy a lecture and placed him on probation. Charles Beland, like most of his family, would spend much of the rest of his life in prison.

Into Judge Swayne’s courtroom in 1912 came the first murder case in the Byzantine Boyce-Sneed feud, which would include six shootings—four of them fatal—and no convictions.

John Beal Sneed was charged with murdering Albert Gallatin Boyce Sr. as Boyce sat in the lobby of the Metropolitan Hotel. Boyce was the father of the man with whom Sneed’s wife had eloped.

The Sneed trial was sensational news, the Cullen Davis trial of its day. A married woman confined to a sanitarium by her husband to keep her from the man she loved! An elopement! Pursuit to Canada! A sanity hearing for the woman. The woman found sane. And then the murder of Boyce Sr. by Sneed. And then the murder of Boyce Jr. by Sneed. And we’re still in just September!

Look at this front page of coverage of the Sneed trial. It’s a surreal three-ring circus.

In addition to the melodrama of the trial itself, look at the headline “S. S. Morris Is Shot to Death.” Morris, a grocer, was shot to death by a Fort Worth police detective on a streetcar after the two men disagreed while discussing the Sneed trial. Morris punched the detective and pulled a knife. The detective pulled a pistol, the two men grappled, the gun discharged.

And look at the headline “Enraged Woman Threatens Judge.”

Among the spectators in Judge Swayne’s courtroom during the Sneed trial was Mrs. Mary Rea. She had been married to John Rea, a former police officer and a brother of Sheriff William M. Rea.

Mrs. Rea nursed grudges against Judge Swayne for several court rulings against her.

First Swayne had ruled against her when she sued her lodge for blackballing her.

Then Mary Rea’s husband John and son Roy wanted Roy’s sixth toe on one foot surgically removed. Mary Rea sued to prevent the surgery. Swayne, after being told by surgeons that the operation would not be injurious, ruled against Mrs. Rea.

John Rea then filed for divorce from Mary Rea, saying that after he had refused to join her suit against her lodge, life with her became unbearable. Mary Rea did not like the terms of the divorce settlement in Judge Swayne’s court and filed another suit. Swayne again ruled against her in that suit, in her suit to have the divorce set aside, and in her husband’s injunction to prevent her from interfering in his property.

Now, during the Sneed trial, on February 19, 1912 she sat in Judge Swayne’s courtroom and fumed. After a rumor spread that she had vowed to kill Swayne, she refused to be searched and was ejected from the courtroom. Then she waited outside the courtroom, still vowing to “get” Swayne and denouncing him, the Star-Telegram wrote, “in language neither gentle nor uncertain.”

She was taken to jail, where she was found to be in possession of an unloaded revolver.

Deputy Sheriff John Alderman filed a charge of lunacy against her.

Swayne fined her $100 and sentenced her to three days in jail.

Meanwhile back at the Sneed trial, Sneed’s defense, in part, was the “unwritten law,” which gave a husband great leeway in defending the honor of a female member of his family.

Sneed was acquitted.

“Whoa, Hometown,” I hear you say, “we wanna hear more about this Mary Rea character.”

Buckle up, dear readers.

Fast-forward two years. Mr. Rea had died in 1913, and Mrs. Rea had been appointed her son’s legal guardian.

Her son, now nineteen, protested his mother’s guardianship and sued her to have his “disabilities of minority” (restrictions on a minor’s legal capacity to enter into contracts and make educational, medical, and financial decisions) removed.

That suit put Mrs. Rea back in Judge Swayne’s courtroom, where lawyers for both sides agreed to a judgment favorable to the son.

On September 22, 1914 Mrs. Rea sat in the courtroom and listened as Swayne rendered his judgment.

From the bench Swayne heard Mrs. Rea mutter:

“Well, that settles you.”

She pulled a .38-caliber Colt revolver from her bosom and aimed at Swayne. Her attorney, sitting beside her, grabbed her arm just as she fired. The bullet whizzed over Swayne’s hand. As Mrs. Rea’s lawyer grappled with her for the gun, she continued to fire: Five bullets went into the courtroom ceiling.

She was charged with committing assault to murder and with carrying a pistol.

Fast-forward one year. For much of the year 1915 local newspapers were consumed with the mystery boy: In January a man, E. S. Carell, and a young boy, Roy, arrived in town on a freight train. Carell said Roy was his son. After Carell was jailed for vagrancy, the boy was placed in custodial care.

And that’s when Roy began to spout wild claims, including the claim that Carell was not his father. Roy—who said his real name was “Robert James”—said Carell had kidnapped him from the porch of his real parents. Roy claimed that Carell then went to prison and that “an old woman” cared for Roy until Carell, still in prison stripes, again kidnapped him and they began to roam around the country on freight trains.

Carell countered by claiming that Roy had an overactive imagination and was confusing movies he had seen with real life.

The mystery grew. Who was the boy? What was his real name? Was Carell really his father? Why did the boy sometimes insist that Carell was not his father? Why was Carell so inconsistent when detailing facts of his life?

Reading about the mystery boy in Fort Worth, heartbroken couples elsewhere who had lost a young son under mysterious circumstances hoped Roy might be their long-lost child.

Some parents even came to town to interview the boy—one couple from Canada. All were disappointed.

Social workers, custodians of the boy, and police were frustrated by the many contradictions told by both Carell and Roy.

Judge Swayne was one of the judges who was called upon to possess the wisdom of Solomon in determining if Carell should be given custody of Roy. Swayne said he was almost sure that Carell really was the boy’s father. But Swayne also expressed the frustration of many. The Star-Telegram wrote: “Judge Swayne told Carell the only reason he saw to believe the boy was his son was his tendency to tell one story and then go back on it.”

It took a year, but the story did have a happy ending. E. S. Carell stopped roaming and settled in Fort Worth. He got a job at City-County Hospital. He got custody of Roy. And Roy got a new mother: Carell married Catherine McCollom, a nurse at All Saints.

But three cases that Swayne presided over did not have a happy ending.

On the night of May 14, 1913 Tom Lee was shooting craps with Walter Moore and Pete Soles in the African-American section of Hell’s Half Acre. Lee had lost $100 when he decided to get out while he was still behind. Stewing over his loss later, Lee decided that he had been cheated and set out to get $100 worth of revenge—with interest.

When his drunken rampage on the east side of downtown had ended, Lee had killed Walter Moore and police officer John Ogletree and had wounded Pete Soles and two others. He also had accidentally shot himself.

The killing of a white policeman by an African American triggered talk of a lynching. A white mob went to the county jail and demanded that Lee be handed over. Members of the mob, historian Dr. Richard Selcer writes in A History of Fort Worth in Black & White, “most of them well-lubricated,” were “spoiling for a necktie party.”

Denied access to Lee, the white mob went to the African-American section of Hell’s Half Acre and rampaged, damaging property.

The Star-Telegram wrote: “Judge Swayne sent the Seventeenth district grand jury to East Ninth street to view the wreck and ruin wrought on property by Thursday night’s mob and instructed them to indict every man in the mob.

“‘The negroes of Fort Worth and their property are entitled to as much protection as the white people and theirs,’ Judge Swayne told the members of the grand jury. ‘Thousands of dollars have been lost through the outrage and shame of last night, and I shall expect you to return, not a few, but hundreds of indictments.’”

A dozen or so rioters were charged with disturbing the peace, unlawful assembly, or public drunkenness, paid small fines, and were released. A few were charged with theft of whiskey.

But no one was convicted of a major crime, Selcer and retired police sergeant and historian Kevin Foster write in Written in Blood (Volume 2).

Meanwhile Tom Lee was found guilty of Walter Moore’s murder and sentenced to hang by a jury in Judge Swayne’s court.

On March 9, 1914 Tom Lee was hanged.

The year 1915 was another grim one in Judge Swayne’s Seventeenth District Court.

On December 13, 1914 the body of messenger boy Oscar Scroggins, seventeen, had been found in a well at a farm outside Fort Worth.

Two African-American teenagers, Clint Williams and Will B. Oliver, were arrested. Again, because of talk of lynching, both suspects were taken to the Dallas County jail for safekeeping.

Williams later confessed that he, acting alone, had killed Scroggins.

On January 12, 1915 a jury in Swayne’s court found Williams guilty and sentenced him to hang.

Clint Williams was hanged on August 5, 1915.

Shortly after 10 a.m. on January 20, 1915 in the T&P railyard disgruntled ex-employee C. A. Myers walked up to his former supervisor, A. W. Montague, and shot him to death.

A jury in Judge Swayne’s court found Myers guilty of murder and sentenced him to hang.

On the morning of November 10, 1915 C. A. Myers became only the third white man to ever be given the death penalty in Tarrant County and only the second white man to be legally hanged in Tarrant County.

He also was the last. In 1923 a new law mandated that all executions in the state be performed at the state penitentiary and that electrocution, not hanging, be the method.

In 1916 Judge Swayne ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress from the Twelfth District. He retired from the bench at the end of the year.

In 1925 Swayne was appointed chairman of the State Industrial Accident Board in Austin. Although the job required him to live in Austin, he still considered Fort Worth home and always came home to vote.

And to be buried. James W. Swayne died in Austin in 1929.

Honorary pallbearers included Governor Dan Moody, three former governors, Edwin E. Bewley, Julien C. Hyer, and Amon Carter.

James W. Swayne, whose road of life was lined with derricks and gallows, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

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