All posts by E.R. Bills

Dull in the Heart

When I was growing up, folks sometimes referred to the intellectually disabled as “dull in the head.” I think about that today as I contemplate a terrible anniversary for the state of Texas. An instance of that the state of Texas and Hill County pretend has no meaning and no place in contemporary discourse. A day that the city of Hillsboro gets away with every January 20.

One hundred years ago today, an African American man named Bragg Williams was burned at the stake in Hillsboro, Texas.

On December 2, 1918, a white woman named Annie Wells and her five-year-old son Curtis were beaten to death outside their home near Itasca. Their murderer utilized a blunt object to dispatch them and then carried their bodies into the house, setting it aflame to destroy any evidence. Neighbors saw smoke from the fire and retrieved the mother and son’s remains before they were too badly burned.

A young African American man named Bragg Williams, described as “tall and ungainly, and seemingly of low mentality,” was discovered less than three miles from the Wells residence and immediately accused of the crime. His accusers subsequently attempted to lynch him, so Williams was transferred to Waco. Later, a group of Texas Rangers transported him to Dallas and he would remain there until his trial date.

On January 16, Williams was escorted back to Hillsboro by the Texas Rangers and his trial began. Two well-regarded Hill County attorneys—Walter Collins and A. M. Frazier—were appointed to defend Williams and did so under protest. As attorneys for the prosecution and defense seated a jury, Williams sat in the courtroom under the constant guard of six Texas Rangers.

Collins and Frazier entered a “not guilty” plea for Williams, by reason of insanity. Williams was obviously mentally handicapped, but the prosecutors—well aware of Williams’s “low mentality”—anticipated the defense team’s plea and brought in Dr. W. L. Allison, a Fort Worth “alienist” (the contemporary term for a psychiatrist or psychologist in those days). Dr. Allison undermined the defense team’s plea, insisting Williams was sane or at least not insane.

Williams never testified, but he did return to Hillsboro in the same yellow coveralls he had apparently left in, and the prosecution subsequently produced two white female witnesses who said they saw a black man in yellow coveralls heading in the direction of the Wells residence before the murder, and a young black girl (named Smithy McDuffy) who claimed she saw a black man in yellow coveralls running from the direction of the residence after she had heard the screams of Annie Wells. Then, a white jailer named Jess Vanoy and Bragg’s brother Natural were summoned and testified that Bragg had had blood on his shoes the day he was captured.

On Friday, January 17, Williams was convicted of murder and, quite possibly (if not quite clearly) unaware of what had just transpired or psychologically distraught, he began to laugh. And the Texas Rangers promptly departed.

Now: ignoring the fact that (a) it was obviously improbable that a man who was wearing yellow coveralls when he brutally beat a woman and her son to death with a blunt object would have noticeable blood on what were probably dark shoes and none on his light yellow coveralls and (b) the murder weapon was never produced and it arguably might have been difficult for an intellectually disabled person to successfully conceal or dispose of such a weapon—the case against Williams was strong—and that makes what happened after a guilty verdict was handed down exceedingly curious.

On the morning of Monday, January 20, the court reconvened for sentencing and Judge Horton B. Porter condemned Williams to be hanged by the neck until dead on February 21. His defense team, attorneys Collins and Frazier, had defended him under protest and his guilty verdict was hardly an unpopular result; but once it was handed down and the death sentence imposed, Collins and Frazier surprisingly and quite unexpectedly requested a new trial. And when their petition for a retrial was denied, they filed a notice of appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals.

At approximately 11:45 a.m., a mob—likely upset by the appeal and no longer in the mood for due process—assembled at the Hill County jail and demanded Williams be handed over. When the jailers refused, the mob stormed the facility and seized Williams from his cell. The lynch-mob dragged Williams to the courthouse square and tied him to a concrete “safety first” post at the corner of Elm Street and Covington Street.

Members of the mob quickly collected hay, wood and coal and piled them around Williams, dousing the combustibles in coal oil. A match was then applied and the conflagration killed Williams in a matter of minutes. He put up no resistance, but was heard to exclaim “Help me, Cap” three times before the flames consumed him.

On January 21, Texas Governor William P. Hobby denounced the lynching and initiated steps to investigate it. On January 22, Governor Hobby sent a message to the Texas Legislature requesting legislation which would put an end to mob violence and correct the assumption that members of white lynch-mobs are not prosecutable. On January 23, Governor Hobby instructed Attorney General Calvin M. Cureton, First Assistant Attorney General W. A. Keeling and E. A. Berry, Assistant Attorney General to the Court of Criminal Appeals to begin investigations of the lynching of Williams.

A Hill County grand jury subsequently examined charges against members of the lynch-mob and Judge Porter did his best to encourage impartiality. He sensed what the prosecution was up against and his instructions to the grand jury were specific and addressed the necessary integrity the jurors would have to uphold:

The statute of this State provides your duty, provides the penalty for those who participate in a riot or in a mob or in a lynching. . . As your oath has prescribed, it is not a matter of friendship, of love or affection or of feeling. It is a matter prescribed by statute—my cold duty and your cold duty under the law.

Despite Judge Porter’s charge, the grand jury adjourned without returning bills of indictment.

After a state investigation by First Attorney General Keeling, Attorney General Cureton and Assistant Attorney General Berry filed a motion to cite twelve members of the lynch-mob for contempt of court in regards to the Court of Criminal Appeals, because the vigilantes had lynched Williams after his appeal had been filed and was technically pending. In the absence of specific laws against lynching, it was a well-conceived attempt to prosecute members of the lynch-mob in a higher court, especially as it was obvious they wouldn’t face prosecution in Hill County.

The motion was described as the first of its kind in Texas, but it, too, fell short.

No action was taken on the motion in February or March and the effort eventually faded into obscurity.

Reviewing the details of the case today, it’s hard to determine if Bragg Williams was guilty or innocent. But no matter how you look at it, Williams was denied due process. His defense attorneys hadn’t just mailed it in in regards to his defense. It appears, at least, that they did the hard thing, the unpopular thing and, theoretically speaking, the appeal might have addressed the prosecution’s “alienist” surprise.

Guilty or innocent, mentally fit or unfit, what happened to Bragg Williams was a mockery of justice, an affront to human decency and a vile monstrosity. Whether or not he was “seemingly of low mentality” or dull in head, the community that roasted him alive was and is dull in the heart. And will remain so until they acknowledge their sins.

The Last Man Burned at the Stake in Texas

On Saturday, December 2, 1933, a 30-year-old white woman named Nellie Williams Brockman was murdered near Kountze, Texas. Brockman had headed to town to visit a department store and run into trouble along the way. She was shot to death and her body and vehicle were found partially burned. Some locals claimed they had seen a shotgun-wielding black man in the vicinity and law enforcement officials mounted an intense search for the culprit. But they turned up nothing.

A few days into the manhunt, the Kountze Police Department received a “secret” tip incriminating a young, African American ex-con named David Gregory. When Gregory, a preacher’s son, became aware of the police department’s suspicions, he fled to a nearby church. On December 7, Hardin County Sheriff Miles D. Jordan, and various other law enforcement personnel discovered Gregory hiding in the church’s belfry. When they ordered him to come down he refused and allegedly “flourished” a pistol (not a shotgun, the weapon the black suspect was reported carrying near the crime scene). Gregory was subsequently felled by a buckshot blast that rendered him unconscious.

Sheriff Jordan and his fellow officers transported Gregory to a Beaumont Hospital, but a portion of his neck and face were blown away. He was in critical condition and received emergency treatment, but the doctors indicated that he wouldn’t survive the night.

Sheriff Jordan hoped that Gregory would regain consciousness so testimony would confirm the secret tip, but less than two hours after their arrival at the hospital, word was received that a mob had formed in Kountze and was headed towards Beaumont. Hospital authorities expressed their discomfort with harboring a suspect that could put the facility at risk and Sheriff Jordan calculated that their chances at keeping Gregory from the mob were slim, in or outside the facility.

Sheriff Jordan snuck Gregory down a back elevator, placed him in his vehicle and drove towards Vidor (seven miles east of Beaumont), planning to double-back and take Gregory to a hospital in Port Arthur (thirty miles farther south). Gregory never regained consciousness and died not long after the sheriff’s car crossed into Orange County.

As the mob was still active, Sheriff Jordan was unsure of what he should do with Gregory’s body. He considered a return to Beaumont unwise, so he drove to Silsbee (twenty-three miles north/northwest). At Silsbee another mob assembled and the local undertaker, fearing trouble, refused to accept Gregory’s remains. With limited options and operating under the assumption that the Kountze mob was still in Beaumont, Sheriff Jordan headed back west. When he entered the Kountze community, hundreds of white men crowded in front of his vehicle. The mob seized Gregory’s corpse and tied it to the back of an automobile. A fifty-car parade then dragged the body around Kountze for close to an hour, so long that a large bonfire that had been built to incinerate Gregory had burned out.

Denied a fire, the mob mutilated Gregory’s body, cut out his heart and re-fastened his corpse to a car and “bounced” it through the African American section of Kountze, reportedly screaming “Nigger for breakfast!” Members of the throng then delivered the mangled corpse to the front doorstep of Gregory’s mother, whom they belligerently summoned. When Mrs. Gregory appeared, however, she succinctly denied them her anticipated hysterics. She glanced over what was left of her dead son and said “You’ve done it right, white folks,” and went back inside.

The stupefied white mob retrieved David Gregory’s hide-less remains and dragged them to a new bonfire that had been built in a vacant lot not far from his home. As Gregory’s body cooked, members of the mob drank coffee and ate sandwiches.

The next morning, African Americans who passed by the smoking embers were called over to “see what happened to David Gregory.” Newspapers later included a photo of Gregory and his smoldering remains in their reporting.

Several years after the Gregory burning, a local white man confessed to the murder of Nellie Williams Brockman on his deathbed.

Unpleasant as it is to admit, Texas has a history of this type of monstrosity. David Gregory—like so many persons of color in America today—was denied due process, found guilty in the eyes of the mob and gunned down in a shoot-first-ask-questions-later manner that we’re not unfamiliar with. He was the last known African American burned at the stake in the Lone Star state, but dozens preceded him. One in Belton, one in Temple, one in Rockwall, one in Hillsboro, one in Corsicana, one in Sherman, one in Greensville, two in Waco, two in Tyler, three in Sulphur Springs, three in Kirvin, four in the Paris, Texas area, etc. Gregory’s cruel, forgotten fate reminds us that denial and forgetfulness are staples of white primacy and elucidates why we bristle so at threats to our historical amnesia. We white folk like to think well of ourselves, but we haven’t behaved particularly well. And our shortcomings continue to prevail today.

Gun Truth

We have a gun lust. Guns make us (especially men) feel empowered, even when we are mostly weak. Guns make small men feel they are someone to be reckoned with — and I’m not referring to physical stature. Guns give impotent (sexually or existentially) men vitality and make them feel formidable.

Contemporary America makes legions of us feel inconsequential, insignificant and powerless; but we saw Dirty Harry, Lethal Weapon, Rambo, Die Hard, etc., back in the day. The big heroes with the big box office solved their problems and got the girl or righted the wrongs or avenged the injustices with guns — big guns. And this example still inspires us today. Even if we’re beset by nothing more than being asked to live up to our own ideals. We desperately want to be heroes — but how can we do that if others have suffered due to our sense of entitlement for decades?

YIPPIE KI YAY, MOTHER-F_CKER! Gun in hand, we’re suddenly fierce. WE’RE GONNA TAKE OUR COUNTRY BACK! Anybody who don’t look like us or believe like us is the disease and we’re the cure. Women who scorn us or insult us or reject us — they’re enemies, practically criminals, ’cause we’re good, god-fearin’ red-blooded American, billy-badasses—if they don’t want us, desire us, need us, there’s something wrong with them — not us. Right?!

Persons of color who don’t drop whatever they’re doing and grovel at our feet, obey our every command? THEY DIE and we face no consequences because WHO ARE THEY to question our authority, our badge, our flag, our anthem, our privilege?

People who protest against the ridiculous lies we hold dear, call out our hypocrisy, our inanity — GO AHEAD, MAKE OUR DAY. We’ll show up at voting booths with guns. We’ll show up at town halls with guns. We’ll show up at the Home Depot with guns. We’ll show up at schools with guns. We’ll show up at churches with guns.

It is intensely sad that we feel guns empower us. It is perversely sad that we think guns reinforce our manhood. But what’s really sad, really pathetic and really telling is that so many of us are really only dangerous with a gun.

We are intellectually meek. We are imaginatively bankrupt. We are inexcusably ignorant. We’re a sad, dangerous gaggle of spoiled, misinformed children. But give us the girl, the good jobs, the bigger houses, the golf course and the perpetual, unchallenged right to feel good about ourselves . . . and we’ll leave you alone.

The Lynching of Ted Smith

If you take a minute and study the turn-of-the-century image of the large, white crowd gathered around the smoldering remains of a young, black teenager named Ted Smith, a few things jump out at you.

First, most of the crowd is adult male, but there are also some young boys. Burning a black man at the stake was a big event in east Texas, so, of course, grown men would take their sons to witness it. It was still a bucket list spectacle in much of the South.

Second, there is a lone figure who doesn’t belong standing along the periphery.

It cowers in the lower left-hand corner of the image.

White men and boys are standing, watching and walking around the site of Smith’s grotesque execution. They don’t seem repulsed or appalled at all. They are enjoying themselves. But the lone figure in the lower left-hand corner of the image stands with its tail between its legs. A black herding dog, fretful, submissive.

Was its teenage master consumed in the flames? Or was it the odor of broiling human flesh that unsettled it?

A picture may not tell us a thousand words, but this lynching postcard image gives us one word to describe one thousand fathers and sons: Animals.

Except that nomenclature is obviously an insult to the dog.

On July 28, 1908, an eighteen-year-old African American man named Ted Smith was burned at the stake in Greenville, Texas.

Smith and his family worked as laborers for R. H. Delancey on his farm near Clinton, just eight miles southwest of Greenville, in Hunt County. According to oral accounts, a relationship sprang up between Smith and Delancey’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Viola, and they carried on in secret. When Viola’s parents discovered the courtship, they apparently pretended to be unaware until they could catch the two and cry foul.

On July 26, a circumstance presented itself and Mr. and Mrs. Delancey had Smith charged with criminal assault. Smith fled and law enforcement personnel and groups of enraged citizens set out in pursuit.

On July 27, Smith was spotted in the Caddo Creek bottoms near Clinton, but managed to escape. When Smith was later captured by two police officers at a nearby farm around dusk, he was quietly picking a banjo and insisted he had done nothing wrong.

Smith’s captors correctly assumed that their chances of avoiding the roving bands of would-be vigilantes while en route to the county jail would be slim. They decided to take Smith deeper into the backwoods and lay low. The decision was prescient. By 6:00 p.m. the returning search parties had formed a mob outside the county jail and were milling around the public square, eager for news.

Both Hunt County Sheriff David L. Hemsell and District Judge T. D. Montrose addressed the unruly crowd and eventually it dispersed. The two police captors and Smith eluded the mobs for several hours and Smith was delivered to the county jail in Greenville at approximately 3:30 am on July 28.

By 8:00 a.m. the mob had returned.

Sheriff Hemsell reappeared and explained to the mob that he had to convey the prisoner to the victim’s house so he could be identified. Spokespersons for the mob promised safe conduct for Sheriff Hemsell and Smith to the Delancey household and back, so the sheriff commandeered a buggy and headed towards Clinton with the suspect.

When Smith was presented to Viola for identification, she said “That is the nigger that did the deed.” Smith cried out in shock and Sheriff Hemsell turned the buggy back towards town.

Once back in Greenville, Sheriff Hemsell was set upon by the waiting mob and relieved of his suspect.

First the mob took Smith to the north corner of the public square, where members placed a rope around his neck and started to hang him. Then, as McKinney’s Weekly Democrat-Gazette put it, “other heads prevailed for a more impressive death, so it was decided to burn him.”

The crowd dragged Smith to the south side of the town square by the rope around his neck and placed him on a cord of wood. He was then doused with coal oil and incinerated in front of 1,000 people.

As Smith burned, an older African American in the crowd remarked that the whole ordeal was unfortunate—he was immediately horsewhipped.

When pressed for an official response to the broad daylight lynching of Ted Smith, Greenville Mayor Joseph F. Nichols relegated it to the ledger of business as usual:

There will be no action taken by the authorities of Greenville relative to the burning of the rapist this morning. The deed was committed by the negro and the penalty of death was administered by an orderly body of the citizens from the city and the country. The negro was properly identified and taken from the sheriff and the incident is closed as far as the city is concerned.

Mayor Nichols’ proclamation was popularly received, the West Texas News (out of Colorado, Texas) noting that “the signal revenge of the Greenville citizens has brought praise from every portion of the state and may furnish a good object lesson for other would be assaulters.”

The Democrat-Gazette’s conclusions were less complimentary, but granted Greenville an exception because there was “no parallel in the history of the state to this case, possibly, with the exception of the Paris case [the death of young Myrtle Vance].”

Viola Delancey later recanted and Sheriff Hemsell himself eventually admitted that he thought Smith had been innocent. No one involved in the lynching was ever charged or prosecuted, and two of the lynch-mob ringleaders later rose to the public offices of Hunt County sheriff and Greenville Fire Chief.

Not long after the Ted Smith burning, the town of Greenville would embrace another controversial civic act “administered by an orderly body” of its citizens. It adopted a new community slogan and celebrated it on a large banner that hung across main street. It proclaimed: “Welcome to Greenville: The Blackest Land and the Whitest People.”

It would greet Greenville visitors for decades.