Waco's claim to last hanging stretches truth
By Kent Biffle / The Dallas Morning News
MINEOLA, Texas - Bill Gensler was a shirttail kid when he witnessed the hanging of Roy Mitchell in Waco almost 75 years ago. It gave him bad dreams.
His Uncle Will Brown took him to see the hanging, expounding a belief that the gallows spectacle would impart a lasting, salutary lesson.
Predictably, when the 10-year-old boy's mother got word of it, Uncle Will had much to answer for.
But, be it noted - for Uncle Will's sake - octogenarian Gensler's record remains spotlessly crime free to this day.
A Dallas real estate appraiser who retired to hilly Wood County nearly a decade ago, he wrote me not long ago:
"Your article entitled 'Wrong Man Hanged for 1880 Murder' (Dec. 7) reminded me that I witnessed the last legal hanging in Texas."
Mr. Gensler, who grew up in McLennan County, saw the hanging of serial killer Mitchell in Waco on July 30, 1923. Like many Texans, he reckoned the Mitchell hanging ended use of the legal noose in Texas.
Close - but no Travis Club cigar.
The last legal hanging in Texas, in fact, came a full month later. It was the execution of murderer Nathan Lee in the Brazoria courthouse town of Angleton on Aug. 31, 1923. And I'll get to that.
Mr. Gensler and thousands of others will be forgiven for accepting as fact a fiction fed them for so long by so many Waco historians.
In this pulpit, we began urging historians a dozen years ago to see the error of their ways. Correcting printed history is near impossible.
'Blow the whistle'
Three years ago, Thomas E. Turner, a favorite Waco journalist-historian, wrote:
"It is, methinks, about time to blow the whistle on one of Waco's many historical records. It was a sort of left-handed brag - that business about Waco having had the state's last legal hanging."
(I don't recall Tommy Turner's using the term methinks when he wrote for The Dallas Morning News in the late Jurassic.)
Until 1923, Texas sheriffs hanged condemned criminals in counties where they were convicted. Executions sometimes took on a midway atmosphere. Texans finally reached, if you will, the end of their rope.
Lawmakers reacted by closeting executions behind Huntsville's prison walls and by trading in the old rope for a newfangled electric chair.
But the Waco error lingers on the record like a permanent ink blot. Texans consult popular Waco history books that perpetuate the fiction.
Blame the press
Blame the press. Rummaging through old newspapers, I find in each report on the Mitchell hanging a paragraph that goes like this:
"This hanging, the first for Sheriff [Leslie] Stegall, was probably the last legal execution by hanging in Texas because the law for electrocution of persons convicted and given the death sentence becomes operative on Aug. 14."
Brazoria County's Nathan Lee was grandfathered, as they say. Doomed men given a choice during the changeover were usually quick to opt for electricity as the modern way to go. Old Sparky was still New Sparky.
Let's return to Waco's Mitchell. An African-American in his 30s, he was billed before capture as the Phantom Killer of the Brazos.
His confessions indicated that he haunted lovers' lanes, preying on couples black and white. He dumped one dead or dying victim over a cliff that towers over the Brazos at Lovers Leap. The victim's female companion jumped from the 100-foot cliff, landed in a tree and escaped.
The News reported on the Mitchell hanging:
"Roy Mitchell was charged with and convicted of more murders perhaps than any other one man in the history of Texas.
"He was tried for the murder of four white men and two white women, being found guilty, with the death penalty imposed in each case."
Bill Gensler was about 50 feet from the killer as he mounted the scaffold. He remembers all principals were calm during the proceedings.
The scaffold abutted the county jail in back of the courthouse. Lawmen, physicians, reporters and official witnesses crowded close.
Sheriff Stegall ordered a tarp raised curtainlike about the scaffold to hide the fatal activities from public view. Mr. Gensler said: "Someone had bribed a kid - I think a Western Union boy - to cut the rope that held up the tarp. It fell and everybody saw everything."
Mr. Gensler was among 5,000 or so who watched the killer take the drop. He remembered how the falling trap thunked when Sheriff Stegall pulled the lever. Roy Mitchell's neck snapped. He died quickly.
Murders, rapes and robberies aside, the condemned man was a strange case. Unlike many deprived blacks of his time, he was literate. He read his own death warrant aloud. During his trials, he filed motions for rehearing and the like.
Bill Cannon of Dallas (Texas Trivia, Republic of Texas Press) sent me info on the Phantom Killer of the Brazos several months ago. He wrote, "Not only was Mr. Mitchell an untidy housekeeper, leaving so much evidence of his deeds, he was also an ingrate, refusing the new suit bought for him."
Mr. Cannon's right. Belongings of victims were uncovered in a search by lawmen of the Mitchell house.
Sheriff Stegall showed up on hanging day with a new dark suit purchased by McLennan County for the jail's star boarder. New shoes, too. Roy Mitchell declined, facing death in old clothes and barefoot.
In contrast with the man hanged in Waco, Angleton's doomed prisoner couldn't read or write. He signed his confession statement with an X. A black man in his 40s, he admitted that he fatally shotgunned his white boss in a dispute over cotton and money.
On the scaffold, he preached, urging the crowd to take his case as an example. He said: "I did it. I am to blame, and no one else."
In Waco, a month earlier, Roy Mitchell wasn't talkative. "Goodbye, everybody," he said as he stepped onto the trap. As they pulled the black hood over his face, he mumbled, "Take me home."
Records leave little doubt that the condemned blacks were guilty, although racism was rife seven decades ago. Sheriff Stegall had first locked his suspect in the Hill County jail in Hillsboro to protect him from mobs. Indeed, an earlier black suspect in one of the Waco murders was lynched before Roy Mitchell was nabbed.
In Angleton, the Ku Klux Klan sent flowers to the funeral of the black sharecropper's victim, his white boss.
A few weeks after Nathan Lee was strung up in Angleton, the KKK crowded the State Fair of Texas on - believe it or else - Klan Day. More than 5,000 new Klansmen took oaths in a nighttime ceremony at the fair.
Ted Peters, executive director of Plano's Heritage Farmstead Museum (972-881-0140) sent me a copy of the 72-page Klan souvenir program.
He wrote, "Our museum was recently given a copy of the 'Official Souvenir of the Klan Day' at the State Fair of Texas on Oct. 24, 1923."
The program will wrinkle brows. For example, it notes the State Fair rodeo bull-riding champ appeared in Klan robes and paraphernalia. It doesn't flatly state that he rode a bull in his robes. That's scary.
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