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Disappearing Black Denton

Lynchings in Denton County (1860-1880)

From its founding in 1857 through the present, there have been four known lynching events in Denton County with white victims. The first occurred in early 1863, less than a year after the establishment of the Confederate draft and during the height of the Civil War. Following the Great Hanging in Gainesville, the largest mass hanging in United States history, “home guards” -- comprised of men who could not be conscripted into Confederate service (primarily those who were over sixty or under twenty) were organized to protect the home front from threats within and outside the county. The home guard in Denton County lynched three white men “in a grove between Panther Creek and Doe Branch in the eastern part of the county,” rumored to have stolen horses. In History and Reminiscences of Denton County, Ed Bates writes: “It was secretly done. The bodies were cut down and buried under the tree, and old saddles which had belonged to the dead men were left setting close by.” Bates goes further to tell the story of another man lynched in 1863 who was “found hanging on a tree in the public square of Denton, on the west side.” A note had been fastened to the man’s shirt reading “Caught riding a horse not his own.” These were not the only lynchings committed by the home guard during the Civil War, Bates explains, and the remainder of the lynchings were of a similar “mysterious character.”

         In October 1869, five men and one boy were lynched for horse theft. Two of the men were hanged from a tree, then, a pole was hammered into the tree, extending out from the split. The three remaining men and the boy were hanged from the pole. In its report on the incident, The Washington Reporter in Washington, Pennsylvania, entitled their article on the lynching “A Good Deal of Such Fruit Is Raised in Texas,” and concluded that “...one can get away with murder in Texas, but not horse theft.” In May 1880, Matt Henderson, son of a wealthy farmer in Tarrant County, and Charles Gray were also lynched for horse theft. Their bodies were found on the “Grapevine Prairie,” hanging from a tree and their bodies bore signs which clearly stated their alleged crime. The editorial staff of the Denton Monitor found this lynching to be outside the range of acceptability and wrote of the lynchers, “They should be hunted down and punished for seeking to stain the good name of Denton County with the blame of a deed belonging to Tarrant. We believe our sheriff, Capt. R. H. Hopkins, will so move in the matter as to bring these shirking lynchers to the responsibility of their own affair, and relieve Denton of a stigma which does not belong to her.” The only cause of white lynching in Denton County was horse theft.

         Unlike the lynchings of white men in Denton County, vigilante violence against Black men was based upon racially stereotyped fears. These alleged crimes often spoke to power and were the result of collective hysteria. In every case of white lynching in the county, the victims were hanged to death -- a method which mirrored official executions at the hands of the justice system -- while the execution method of, and subsequent care for, the body of Black men varied. The first lynching of white men in 1863 underscores this key difference. The bodies of white men were hanged unmutilated and this method of killing left the remains intact for identification and subsequent burial in a marked grave. To be hanged to death without disfigurement or torture highlighted the mob’s acknowledgement of the victim’s humanity in spite of their alleged criminality. Saddles which belonged to the men were not stolen or taken as tokens in memory of the ritual killing; rather, they were carefully placed alongside the bodies. This attention to the condition of the body postmortem is a privilege of white lynching victims. On the contrary, Black victims were gunned down, unnamed, and buried in unmarked graves.

Another feature of white lynching in Denton County is the location chosen for execution. White victims were found hanged from trees in groves, prairies, and in the town square -- each area with high visibility and therefore a high likelihood of the body being found and buried. Black victims were chased down haphazardly, peppered with bullets, hanged on private property the next county over, or found at the bottom of a creek. In other white lynchings in the county, notes were left which identified the crime and pinned to the clothing of the deceased. No such record was left for Black victims.

Between 1860 and 1870 there were four lynching events with six Black victims, and, with the exception ofexcept for the earliest lynching, each man was taken to a hasty form of court with no real jurisdiction over the alleged crime and “sentenced” to death. This disparity in lynching method between white and Black victims underscores the faith each mob had in their trial officiant to rule against a Black suspect and conversely the doubt they had that a similarly comprised makeshift trial would result in conviction and execution for a white man accused of stealing horses.

The earliest recorded lynching in Denton County occurred in May 1860 in response to widespread fears of a slave insurrection in North Texas. In early May, an enslaved youthboy in neighboring Collin County brutally murdered his master and the master’s family. He was lynched on May 18, 1860 for his crimes, but within a few days, three additional Black men were detained for an unclear role in the death of the Kincaid family. The men were held and summarily executed by the people of Pilot Point for an accessory role in the plot to kill the Kincaid family in nearby Kentuckytown, Texas. The death of these three men, according to the diary of C.B. Moore, constituted the earliest recorded lynching in Denton County.

         Three years later in 1863, thirty-year-old Pess White was accused of the attempted rape of a “war widow,” a woman whose husband was away in service to the Confederacy. White was immediately detained by the home guard and taken to the Justice of the Peace in Little Elm where he was “given a speedy trial” and quickly “condemned to death.” The lynching occurred at sunset, just across the county line in Collin County in a pasture belonging to Lighter Hoffman. White was given fifteen minutes to pray prior to his execution and his hands and feet were tied in a prayer-like position for that purpose. While White prayed, he was shot in the chest by the “executioner.” During the same year, Nelse Dougherty, a Black man enslaved by the Dougherty brothers, was similarly “charged” by the home guard with attempting to poison a “war widow” and convicted by the Justice of the Peace in Little Elm. Nelse was hanged from a tree in Denton for his alleged crime.

         On March 17, 1869, a freedman named George Crawford was accused of “outraging” a socialite in Denton named Sarah Newland. After the incident, Crawford fled and was tracked down by a group of men in a cabin in the woods. There the men voted to “lynch him on the spot” but they were eventually convinced that this would result in reprisal by the federal military presence in Texas. The mob took Crawford to a lawyer named John McCombs who had a trial outside of the judicial system. Because Crawford was not in police custody, he had to be transported to sympathizer homes for meals. On the morning after his extrajudicial trial, on the way to the home of Mrs. Lauderdal for breakfast, Crawford escaped. The mob shot at their prisonerprisoner, but he escaped and was found in the Elm Bottoms where he either died of gunshot wounds from the escape, orescape or died of lynching by gunshot upon his discovery. In his 1918 reflection upon the lynching of Black men across the history of Denton County, Ed Bates writes,

“The execution of these…[N]egroes may seem unauthorized and barbarous, but when compared to the lynchings and the use of the torch of this age, which took place in our adjoining counties, we can but commend the wisdom, patience, and mercy of the home guards of 1861-65 in their effort to protect the women and children of Denton County. Fifty-two years have passed and...The people have made rapid progress in every other line but the [N]egro question is still unsettled in the matter of crimes against white women. Lynchings are of frequent occurrence, and the wild passions of men seemingly cannot be controlled...when these horrible crimes are committed. Denton County has never yet burned a man at the stake.”

 

Through this excerpt, Bates acknowledged in 1918 what few acknowledged in 2018 -- lynchings have been a frequent occurrence in Denton County. While several white men were lynched for horse theft prior to 1880, the practice of extralegal violence was utilized against Black men for a cluster of crimes directly related to their position in society.

The lynching of Black men between 1860 and 1870 occurred as retribution for an alleged intimate crime -- a crime in which the perpetrator violates private spaces while simultaneously disregarding emotionally based norms such as interpersonal trust or the protected status of women and children. Intimate crimes are unique in a racial caste system, as the commission of an intimate crime threatens the positional power of white men. This concept could be further applied to studies of masculinity and crimes which violate masculine power. In comparison with the crimes for which white men were lynched (horse theft), allegations of Black criminality spoke directly to the fears of Southern reconstruction society. The commission of intimate crimes fomented hysteria about rising Black power and increased concerns about whether legal equality would result in the Black invasion of white spaces, namely its power preeminence.