The Great Hanging

How Do You Memorialize a Mob?

Gainesville, Texas, is a patriotic small town. It's also the site of one of the nation's worst acts of mob violence—a history some citizens would like to forget.


A version of this story ran in the November 2014 issue.

Above: Two years after the incident, news of the Great Hanging made its way east. This depiction, from the Feb. 20, 1864, issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, is apocryphal—the victims were actually hanged one or two at a time.

On the gray, rainy morning
of Oct. 1, 1862, about 70 men were roused from their homes in Gainesville and corralled inside a vacant store, under arrest on suspicion of treason. Within 13 days, approximately 80 more men had been captured.  The town’s citizen’s court, made up of prominent community leaders, immediately found seven men guilty by majority vote and promptly hanged them from an old tree. As tensions mounted, a mob grew angrier outside the store, worried that the remaining men were not just seditious but bandits, John Brown supporters, or friendly to the Indian tribes that frequently attacked the area.

Within a little over a week, 40 men had been hanged and another two shot trying to escape the rope. The Great Hanging of Gainesville entered history as the largest act of mob violence in American history.

Memories of the event almost immediately began to fade. Families of the men who’d been hanged moved away or stopped talking about it. Newcomers flooded the town, which grew from 250 residents during the Civil War to more than 12,000 by the turn of the century.  While two men—one a member of the jury and the other with full access to court records—wrote accounts of the hanging in the 1870s and 1880s, neither account was publicly available until the 1960s. Court records of the trial were lost by the 1920s. Around the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, in 1964, the Texas Historical Commission erected a pink granite marker conveying an account sympathetic to the mob, based on what is now known to be incomplete information. Over time the marker has become largely illegible. 

Nathaniel Clark, killed in the Great Hanging
Nathaniel Clark, one of the men killed in the Great Hanging, is buried in Gainesville’s Clark Cemetery. His tombstone notes that he was “murdered by a mob.”  Colleen Carri

Gainesville, meanwhile, has chugged along as a charming small Texas town. In 2012 Rand McNally named Gainesville the “Most Patriotic Small Town in America.” Each year the town invites some 30 Medal of Honor recipients on an expense-paid trip to Gainesville, allowing the town to call itself the nation’s only Medal of Honor Host City. There’s a historical marker to honor the pioneers who first brought cattle to the area and established the town, and the old State Theater movie house still stands on East California Street, though it no longer shows movies. Leonard Park features baseball diamonds, a pool with water slides and a small zoo that grew out of a volunteer community circus. A Confederate memorial greets visitors at the entrance. Downtown, the Cooke County Courthouse boasts memorials to Confederate soldiers and to veterans of World War II.

On Oct. 18 this year, 152 years after the Great Hanging, a new memorial was dedicated just a few feet from where the original incident took place: two gray granite slabs, each 5 feet high and 6 feet wide. One slab offers a new account of the Great Hanging. The other shows the names of the 42 men who died. Unveiling day began with a luncheon at North Central Texas College and included a performance by actors playing the men involved in the hanging. Finally, at 3 p.m., everyone arrived at the new memorial for the dedication.

As imposing as the memorial looks, it’s impossible to miss the shabbiness of the park’s surroundings. The tree where 40 men met their deaths has long since been cut down or burned down (accounts differ). The parcel borders an auto repair shop, and when facing the memorial, you also face the shop’s aluminum sheds with “Eddie Dulock Paint and Body Shop” painted in red. The few trees fail to block the sight of traffic traversing one of Gainesville’s pretty new yellow-and-brick-red bridges. There’s no designated parking, no fence, and just the memorial to distinguish the park from a vacant lot.

Among the crowd were descendants of eight men who died in Gainesville’s Great Hanging, as well as descendants of the earliest advocates for memorializing them. To them, this park marks the end of a long struggle and, if not closure exactly, at least a promise finally kept.

Gainesville hadn’t been around
long when the Civil War came to Texas. The area had initially been a pit stop for travelers on their way to California, and by 1850 it boasted a smattering of homes, a dry goods store and a saloon. In 1858, the Butterfield Overland Mail, a semi-weekly service for passenger stagecoaches and mail, arrived. Immigrants began flooding the area (and the state). By 1860, two-thirds of Texans had been born in another state. In North Texas, near Gainesville, most immigrants came from “Upper South” states including Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky and “Deep South” states including Mississippi and Georgia. Only about 11 percent of the area’s households owned slaves, according to Richard McCaslin, chair of the history department at the University of North Texas and author of 1994’s Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas, 1862, the first comprehensive study of the incident. 

Despite the boom, Gainesville was still close to the frontier during the Civil War, and fear for safety and security ran high. As McCaslin explains in Tainted Breeze, raids by nearby Comanche and Kiowa were frequent, and there was enormous fear of Kansas’ radical abolitionists, particularly John Brown, who infamously went on to attack Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.

“These are good people. They want their town to look good. You want to live in a town you’re proud of. That’s not a bad thing. Where does the Great Hanging fit into that? The town killed 42 people. It’s kind of a clunker.”

While there was widespread disagreement on the question of secession, most town leaders were slaveholders and residents generally had little regard for the anti-slavery movement. Those living in the area often relied on vigilantism to keep the peace and force out troublemakers and dissidents. Mob hangings became increasingly common as talk of war continued. A Northern Methodist Episcopal elder was lynched based on a forged pro-abolition letter in 1860, and a series of fires around the state over the summer had only ratcheted up anxieties, as many blamed abolitionists.

When Texas held a vote on the Ordinance of Secession in 1861, Cooke County, along with several nearby counties, voted against leaving the Union, though Gainesville’s slaveholding elite were divided.  James Bourland, a former state senator, was a proponent of secession, while the more conservative William C. Young, a former U.S. marshal and the largest slaveholder in the county, opposed it. (Together, Bourland and Young owned close to a quarter of the slaves in Cooke County.)

Once the state voted to secede, however, most citizens fell in line. Young and Bourland both took up military posts. Young carefully kept his recruits—mostly North Texas farmers who were ambivalent about the Confederate cause—focused on preventing Indian raids.

But when the Conscription Act was passed in 1862, anger began to swell among the farmers of Cooke County. The Confederate army’s fortunes had begun to decline and troops were desperately needed. The act authorized the drafting of white men age 18 to 35. There were new taxes and the threat of impressment.  Young’s troops, which had been fighting Native Americans close to home, were sent east to join other Confederate campaigns. Many simply went home instead.

McCaslin describes the situation as “a pressure cooker.”

“You’re scared of Indians, you’re scared of abolitionists, you’ve been attacked by Indians, you’ve had a big set of fires that summer that you’re convinced was John Brown and his buddies,” he says. “And suddenly someone says we’ve got a problem here amongst us.”

The formation of a Peace Party came at the same time that 30 men allegedly signed a petition against the Conscription Act. Bourland, a hotheaded leader, got word from a man who’d been approached by two brothers named Ephraim and Henry Chiles about efforts to attack militia arsenals. Bourland sent a spy to join the effort and learn more, and the two brothers opened up about plans to mount an armed insurrection.

Bourland organized mass arrests on Oct. 1, targeting not only the men implicated by the spy, but others who’d failed to respond to a call for Confederate troops to muster. While a few got away—two, notably, carrying mattresses on their backs, ostensibly to protect them from bullets—the rest prepared to stand trial. Neighboring counties sent similarly suspected men to Confederate courts, but Gainesville’s leadership, headed by Young, decided to form a citizen’s court. A majority of the jury was composed of slaveholders, and the citizen’s court required only a majority to convict. Outside, the mob was ready to hang all the prisoners.

After hearing evidence, the jury initially convicted seven men who were hanged over the course of the next week. To placate two of its members, the jury decided it would henceforth require a two-thirds majority to convict, and acquitted the rest of the group. But outside, tension was rising. Two leaders—one of whom McCaslin thinks was likely Bourland—demanded 20 more prisoners. A member of the jury handed over the list, from which 14 names were chosen. They, too, were hanged over the next two days.

The rest of the prisoners were to be confined for the week, with the jury hoping the mob might calm down in the meantime. A few days later, however, William C. Young was killed while investigating a murder. The culprits were likely deserters, but the mob worried they might be abolitionists. When the jury reconvened the following week, several members didn’t show up. The missing men were replaced with hardline Confederates. With no new evidence considered, 19 more men were hanged, one and two at a time. Two others were shot and killed trying to escape.

“I think where the story goes terribly wrong is the decision not to turn them over to the legal courts,” McCaslin says.

“There’s a national message to what happened here,” he says. “People need to know what the Civil War was really like. It wasn’t Gone with the Wind. We were just as ugly to each other as other countries that get pulled apart in civil wars. It’s part of us, it’s part of who we are, and we need to think about that and make damn sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The Great Hanging Memorial in Gainesville
The new Great Hanging memorial in Gainesville comprises two granite slabs. One is engraved with an account of the 1862 incident, the other with the names of the 42 victims.  Pamela Henderson

Lynette Pettigrew is a
Gainesville resident. Her family arrived in the 1880s and has been here ever since. “I just love this community,” she says. “I’m the sort of person that likes to go to the store and run into people I know. I like for people to honk and wave as they go by. … If you don’t want people to know your business, then you shouldn’t live in a small town.”

Pettigrew is the executive director of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, and spends her days trying to support local business and increase tourism.

She and her husband are most famous for spearheading Gainesville’s Medal of Honor program. It’s the only program of its kind in the country, and it generates enormous town pride. Businesses advertise the program in windows and on walls. “We’re very patriotic and we’re a very proud community. We take care of our own and we take care of our nation’s heroes,” Pettigrew says.

The Medal of Honor program helped Gainesville get nominated—and then win—Rand McNally’s 2012 competition for “Most Patriotic Small Town in America,” a designation the town’s mayor, Jim Goldsworthy, loves to mention.

Colleen Clark Carri was 15, playing the domino game Texas 42 in her grandparents’ old farmhouse with cousins, when someone mentioned that his great-great-grandfather had been hanged by a mob.

Around the time the town won the Rand McNally award, the Morton Museum of Cooke County leased a billboard to advertise a 150th anniversary: “October’s Reign of Terror, Commemorating the Great Hanging of 1862.” Within days, the city’s mayor pro tem, Ray Nichols, had voiced his disapproval. “Gainesville was voted most patriotic city in America this year, and we are very excited about it and our Medal of Honor Host City program. I think those are important. That other thing? I don’t think that’s important to anybody,” Nichols told the Austin American-Statesman at the time.

Though no explicit demands were made, the Cooke County Heritage Society pulled its sponsorship of the anniversary event, according to former Heritage Society President Steve Gordon, for fear that city officials’ anger might mean funding cuts to the town’s history museum. Gordon, an Oklahoma native and engineer who retired to Gainesville, was livid. “This story’s got to come up,” he says. “A lot of these people’s [families] weren’t even here in 1862. Why are they so upset?”

“These are good people,” McCaslin says. “They want their town to look good. You want to live in a town you’re proud of. That’s not a bad thing. Where does the Great Hanging fit into that? The town killed 42 people. It’s kind of a clunker.”

Goldsworthy and Pettigrew both say that while history is important, mass mob murder is not what they want their town to be known for. Neither sees the Great Hanging as a tourism opportunity. “We’re not running from our history, but I would rather Gainesville be portrayed in the light of the Medal of Honor city and most patriotic city, which are the accolades it deserves today in modern-day times,” Goldsworthy says. “The commercialization of a horrific wartime event is not one that I would want Gainesville to build tourism on.”

In fact there’s little around town to inform anyone of the Great Hanging. The town’s tourism brochures don’t mention the incident (though it does get a paragraph in the “History” section of the town’s website). If the history hasn’t been buried, exactly, it certainly isn’t shared broadly.

Leon Russell was in his mid-70s before he even heard about it. Russell grew up in Woodbine, an even smaller town close to Gainesville, and now lives in Keller, closer to Dallas. Russell first heard about the hangings from a Civil War buff friend in New York. “I felt like it had always been this really terrible injustice that the town had turned its back on. Forty-two widows and about 300 children,” he says. “I had wished that I could do something, at least letting it be known.”

In 2007, Russell and his family bought wooden stakes at Home Depot and set to creating 42 white crosses, one for each man killed. The City Council gave Russell permission to place the crosses in the park where the Great Hanging occurred. Working with the Heritage Society’s Steve Gordon and descendants of victims, Russell held a ceremony where all 42 names were read and a bell was rung.

It was the first public commemoration of the Great Hanging in modern times, and has been an annual occurrence since. “You could not have found three people in Gainesville who’d heard of [the Great Hanging] before we did that,” Russell says.

The push to commemorate the Great Hanging more permanently has been ongoing for more than two decades. In 1993, the estate of Georgia Davis Bass gifted the city the land where the Great Hanging had taken place. The city’s beloved mayor, Margaret Parx Hays, whose great-grandfather Wiley Jones had been on the citizen’s court jury, planned to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for a memorial, but passed away before the ambition could come to fruition. The effort stalled after her death, and at one point the city used the park to store construction supplies.

But after the 2012 billboard debacle, more information about the city’s obligations regarding the land came to light. When Gordon and others presented plans for the new memorial featuring a history-based account of what happened, with all funds raised privately, the City Council approved the effort unanimously.

Now, Gordon and other memorial advocates are looking toward next steps. Gordon imagines planting crape myrtles around the park, and money for a parking lot. But for now, he says, “You don’t know what a thrill it is to get those 42 names down there.”

McCaslin says with or without the memorial, memories of the Great Hanging would never fully disappear. He compares the incident to the massacre at Glen Coe in Scotland, or the massacre at the Rock of Cashel in Ireland. “Ask the Irish if they’ll ever forget who burned the Rock of Cashel. They’ll never rebuild that. The wind moans and you think, ‘This is a haunted place.’

“Grief fades,” he says. “Memory abides.”

Colleen Clark Carri still remembers when she first heard about the Great Hanging. She was 15, playing the domino game Texas 42 in her grandparents’ old farmhouse with cousins when someone mentioned that his great-great-grandfather had been hanged by a mob.

“I was like, ‘What are y’all talking about? We’ve never talked about that,’” Carri says. “People were always like, ‘Pappy still gets upset so let’s not talk about this right now.’”

Nathaniel Clark settled in Cooke County with his wife and sons around 1857. He came from Missouri, where support for secession was tepid at best, and never owned slaves. His eldest child, James Lemuel Clark, was 19 at the start of the war, and Clark hoped to keep him out of it. But aside from his opposition to secession, there’s nothing in the historical record to suggest that Clark was seditious. Nonetheless, he was one of the 14 men handed over to the mob.“It’s the way Nathaniel did not have a trial that has always been a burr under my saddle,” Carri says.

Unlike many families of the hanged men, Clark’s family stayed in Cooke County. Nathaniel’s portrait hangs in Carri’s home, which is on Clark Road, near the family cemetery where her great-great-grandfather is buried. According to his tombstone, his last words were, “Prepare yourself to live and die. I hope to meet you all in a future world. God bless you all.”

More is known about the Clark family than any other involved in the Great Hanging. James Lemuel Clark wrote his recollections, and his grandson L.D. Clark—Carri’s uncle—edited them. L.D., an English professor at the University of Arizona, also wrote a novel and a screenplay about Nathaniel Clark. Carri can recite from memory parts of the letter that James Lemuel wrote to his mother when he got word of his father’s death. “It begins, ‘Dearest mother, oh the horrors of my heart, no tongue can tell upon learning of my father’s death.’ It’s poetry. It’s just pure poetry,” she says.

Carri and her husband retired to Gainesville in 2008. In 2009 she moved L.D. to town to be closer. They both became outspoken advocates for a new memorial.

I felt like it had always been this really terrible injustice that the town had turned its back on. Forty-two widows and about 300 children.”

In 2012, when the Cooke County Heritage Society withdrew its sponsorship of the 150th anniversary event, it was the Clark family that came to the rescue, holding their family reunion at the same time and sponsoring a luncheon in remembrance of the Great Hanging. “I told the family at the family reunion, ‘All right, the last thing I’m going to ever beg you for is to attend this memorial,’” Carri says. “After this I’m just going to show up at the Clark reunions and bring a baked pie and sit my little bottom down.”

L.D. and Carri were sitting side by side in the audience when the City Council voted unanimously to approve the memorial on Dec. 3, 2013. Weeks later, L.D., who was 91 years old, fell, and his health declined quickly. He died in March.

“I’m just grateful he was with me on Dec. 3 at the City Council, and he knew it was going to happen,” Carri says, tearing up. “But oh my. Not to have him here in October.”

Carri misses her more distant ancestors almost as much as she misses her uncle. “They both had such amazing roles,” she says of James Lemuel and Nathaniel. “They were amazing men and they were patriots as far as I’m concerned.”

Supporters purchased paving stones for a path leading to the memorial, many with inscriptions.

My marker says ‘On Hallowed Ground,’” Carri says. “Because I feel that’s what this is. It’s almost like a cemetery to me.”