A small Texas town with a disputed history

A small Texas town with a disputed history

A small Texas town with a disputed history
October 21
00:00 2014

Dalton LaFerney / Senior Staff Writer

In 2012, Gainesville, Texas, won the title of “Most Patriotic Small Town in America” from the USA Today and Rand McNally “Best of the Road” competition.

And in 1862, 42 suspected Union sympathizers were killed and the city joined the ranks of towns across the nation that would have uncomfortable Civil War tales.

When questioned about the Great Hanging, one employee at the Morton Museum in Gainesville immediately declared she wasn’t allowed to take sides on the issue. For 152 years, residents on either side have disputed the facts involving the hangings.

On, Oct. 18, residents of Gainesville, joined by curious travelers, honored those killed 152 years ago by dedicating a city memorial with their names on it. The Great Hanging Memorial Committee led the event and Mayor Jim Goldsworthy said a few words on what was seen by many as a day of peace and closure.

152 years later

The new memorial cost about $35,000 and was privately funded by the committee. It stands in Georgia Davis Bass Park.

However, the movement for closure was hard-fought.

“Two years ago, I tried to host an event here,” Gordon said. “I put a big sign out on I-35 because it was selling tickets. It didn’t go over very well. It got taken down within a few days.”

There were other efforts to create a memorial, but those faded away.

UNT history professor Richard McCaslin authored “Tainted Breeze,” a book about the hangings. It was his dissertation in 1988 at the University of Texas and later published in 1994.

Last year, North Central Texas College held a reading of October Mourning, a play about the hangings written by NCTC history professor Pat Ledbetter.

“About 10 years ago, I learned about the Great Hanging,” he said. “There was a book signing and Rick [McCaslin] was coming to town. I bought the book so he could sign it. I told him I knew where some of the jurors and victims were buried. He showed up at my house a week or two later, and we hopped some fences and I showed him the graves.”

Since then, Gordon and McCaslin have worked together on the memorial project. Gordon calls McCaslin the brains of the operation. Gordon and his wife hosted many committee planning and business meetings. The group is made up of several locals and descendants of those involved in the hangings.

Those heritages created a fault line within the city on the topic.

20_hanging_web2

Citizens of Gainesville gather in Georgia Davis Bass Park in downtown Gainesville to watch the unveiling of the new monument on Saturday afternoon.

Will Reynolds, who teaches Texas history at Gainesville Junior High School, said he plans to cover the Great Hanging in his class. He said his students would enjoy a bit of local history.

“I have a friend who moved here in the second grade,” Gordon said. “He used to walk by the hanging park on the way to school, and he’d never heard anything about it.”

Revisiting the Past

During the dedication ceremony, Goldsworthy recalled the details of the past that brought about the memorial.

In 1862, a group of men spoke in codes of the Peace party, a network of Union loyalists who hoped to capture Texas. Henry Chiles used encrypted signals to introduce Jonas McCurley to the party. Chiles didn’t realize that the man he just shared those secrets with was a loyal Confederate.

McCurley delivered the news to James G. Bourland, the county’s provost marshal. Bourland used the information for an investigation, and on Oct. 1, he called upon militia because the Union Army had been pushed into Native American territory just north of Gainesville. Those who didn’t show up were the enemy.

“Some were Unionists probably, some had wives and kids to take care of,” McCaslin said. “Why would they go off to this war and fight? The need to raise crops, tend to cattle and feed the wife and kids. Some were afraid that if they left, Indians might attack. There was a whole mix of reasons that they didn’t want to go.”

Bourland and the Confederate militias hunted down more than 150 ex-militiamen. They were captured and taken back to Gainesville to be tried and executed.

“They dodged the draft. They were refusing to pay their taxes and they held a meeting to protest the draft law,” McCaslin said. “The trigger was very simple: they called out the militia to fight, and most guys didn’t show up.”

The men were captured and taken back to a store on the town square to be tried by a jury of 12. Seven of the 12 jurors convicted seven to hang first.

“Of the 40 hanged, only seven were tried by majority jury rule,” said Steve Gordon, president of the Great Hanging Memorial Committee. “They were considered the ringleaders. There was not a lot of sympathy for those guys.”

After the first seven men were hanged, some members of the jury wanted out of the situation. But with the townspeople wanting convictions, the jury members were replaced, and a two-thirds majority was required for conviction.

When the eighth man was executed, the court took a weeklong recess. But two men lynched 14 acquitted prisoners without a trial by jury. Days later, the jury reconvened and tried 19 of the prisoners. On Oct. 19, 1862, the last of the men were killed. Two other men were shot trying to escape.

Saturday’s ceremony marked the end of the struggle for a memorial and the beginning of a unified peace for all those who care about Gainesville’s history.

“It was a real tribute to those men who died,” said Colleen Clark, a descendent of Nathaniel Clark, who was hanged. “Now they can be remembered as patriots. It was a perfect day. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

Featured Image: Chair of the University of North Texas History Department Dr. Richard McCaslin speaks during The Great Hanging Memorial Dedication in Gainsville on Saturday afternoon. The memorial consisted of a luncheon, a theatrical reading and the monument dedication. Photos by Devin Dakota

About Author

Dalton LaFerney

Dalton LaFerney

Dalton is the editor of the Daily.

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1 Comment

  1. Doyle McCurley
    Doyle McCurley August 26, 12:59

    My great, great, great, great, great uncle Jonas….brother of my great, great, great, grandfather George Washington McCurley was the mail delivery man from Denton to Gainsville. This is fascinating to read.

    Reply to this comment

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