McDade Lynchings Fifty Years Ago Remembered

By Jeptha Billingsley

Elgin Courier, May 21, 1936

(Mr. Billingsley was assisted by Mrs. Emma S. Webb of Elgin, who helped him gather, as nearly first-hand as possible, and arrange the material used here. The facts were carefully and finally checked by H. N. (Mann) Bell, former Sheriff of Bastrop County)

There have been so many tales told about the McDade Christmas Killings, as for instance "Eleven lynched men seen lying on McDade Depot platform Christmas morning," which appeared in an Austin paper some time ago, that I'd like to have the truth of the matter given, if possible. Of course, those of us who were living in McDade that Christmas of 1883 perhaps don't remember all the details, but we do have a pretty fair recollection of the main points connected with the same.

At that time McDade was a thriving little city -- it was the loading and unloading point for all the cotton and freight that went to and from Smithville and Bastrop, as the Katy track through Elgin did not operate until 1886. For many years, too, McDade was the terminus of the Central Railroad while that line was being connected to Austin. Great freight wagons drawn by as many as six or seven yokes of oxen often made the overland trips adjoining cities, and a stage-coach was run regularly between McDade and connecting points. As the town was such a commercial center, much money was spent in McDade. Some five or six stores, two drug stores and a blacksmith shop or two, one meat market, two or three saloons, two hotels and other several other business houses did a thriving business. Flour could be bought a dollar a barrel cheaper in McDade than in Bastrop, where the freight charges had to be added. Saloons did a big business and gambling was wide open. Many tricksters and desperados naturally drifted in and made this vicinity their headquarters. The dense post oaks sections and big Yegua bottoms in this neighborhood were further conducive to secretive conduct. Thieving, stealing and shooting were almost weekly occurances, and the better element in the community seemed powerless at times to remedy the solution.

The anti-climax to all this developed about a year or so before the so-called Christmas Hanging. It was in this wise: Allen Wynn, a well-known and highly respected citizen living near the Knobbs, had brought some cotton to town and did not return home until that evening. After he had gone about four or five miles out and had crossed the Yegua and had come to the far edge of the dense wooded bottom, he heard two men climbing up into the back end of his wagon. In a moment they had caught hold of his shoulders, pulled him backward from his seat, beat him in the face and taken his money away. Allen recognized the men, and gave the information to a Vigilance Committee that had been formed.

The men who had attacked and robbed him were occasional visitors at the home of Pat Erhart who lived near the Blue community, so it was agreed that Pat, who was a fiddler and frequently gave dances in his home, should announce that he'd have a dance. The Committee were confident that "their men" would be present. The dance took place as planned and while Pat was swinging the bow of the favored tunes, some member of the Committee quietly put in his appearance and called out the desired men one at a time. Five of them were spotted, but one of them managed to make his escape unseen and was not present when his final summons came. It was not long before the dancers became conscious that muffled proceedings were going on, and gradually some of the more curious men excused themselves and went out doors to investigate, and it wasn't long before the news was received that four of the community undesirables had been hung on a tree. That naturally put an early stop to the dancing, and much excitement and feeling of fear took place in everyone's heart -- no one knew just when the confederates of these men would put in their appearance and have their revenge -- perhaps, even on innocent persons.

These four hangings at the Erhart dance in Blue, which is some fifteen miles or more from McDade, was the beginning of the "McDade Christmas Killings," and took place many months before the Christmas hanging in the town of McDade proper. There were a good many folks in town that Christmas Eve, doing their last minute trading, drinking, etc. As I was going home that night, a little past sundown, two men invited me to go with them to the Christmas Tree at Oak Hill, but I declined, saying I would have my Christmas at home. The men evidently didn't get off as early as they planned because one of these men was among those hanged that night. Next day when I got to town I was told that a "Committee" of some 80 men or more had gone to Oscar Nash's Saloon and had called out the three men they wanted. … victims and had trooped out of town with them to about a mile away; they stopped near a branch under a big tree -- I believe it was a blackjack -- and in a short time the lives of these three marked men were snuffed out. As seems to happen to all trees on which men are hanged, it wasn't long before the tree died. It was not until this Christmas Eve hanging that the Vigilance Committee finally "got" one of the men who had participated in the previously mentioned attack on Allen Wynn.

McDade, on that Christmas morning, presented a group of people with set faces. The action of the committee on the previous night began to be broadcast, and those who would dare arrived and came in to get particulars. The bodies were still hanging from the tree where they had been strung -- waiting for the Sheriff from Bastrop to come and handle the matter. About the middle of the morning, Deputy Sheriff Sid Jenkins, Will Bell, and H. N. Bell arrived, and a large crowd of us went along to witness the proceedings, Sheriff Bill Jenkins arrived later in the day. I was in the crowd and helped cut the ropes the men were hung by -- I knew all three of these men pretty well and the sight of them with their twisted faces and the nooses hanging at different angles about the victims' necks was about the most gruesome thing I have ever witnessed -- I don't ever want to see anything like that again.

Deputy Sheriff Sid Jenkins and Will Bell returned to McDade to get a wagon to take the bodies of the hung men, while constable Scruggs, Deputy Sheriff H. N. Bell and Joe Simms stayed with the dead bodies. The wagon to carry the dead bodies arrived in about one hour. The wagon belonged to Jack Nash and was driven by Pat Murphy. At the arrival of the wagon, Pat Murphy viewed the bodies, exclaimed, "Bejesus, if Thad had been one foot higher, he would have been a living man yet." The hands of the men hung were tied behind them, and a loop had been slipped around their necks -- they were strangled to death.

Before these bodies were brought to town, however, three brothers belonging to the notch cutters gang arrived from their home in the country and went to Milton's store. Tom Bishop sat on a bench outside on the store gallery, and one of the boys stopped to talk to him; the other two went inside where Milton was. The one outside said, "Some folks in this town are accusing some folks of things they didn't do," and kinda stepped closer to Bishop; the latter whipped out his gun, but the young man grabbed for it, and in the scuffle, the gun went off and struck him in the thigh of the leg. He ran; but in the meantime Milton had ordered the other two brothers out of the store because of remarks they made, and almost at the same time, the shot was heard outside. The boys rushed out to assist their brother, and Milton grabbed his ever-ready gun behind the door. Immediately, the bullets began to whiz, and shots were fired right and left. Two of the brothers were killed -- one had his head shot off --and the third, though wounded, made his escape but was later captured and was taken into custody and was placed in the county jail by Sheriff Jenkins when he returned to Bastrop that day.

A third man was shot and killed that day. His name was Griffin and he was a brother of Mrs. Black, who lived in McDade. When he heard the shots fired that morning, he ran out of Milton's saloon, and endeavoring to separate the combatants in the melee he was shot. He was immediately rushed to the home of Mrs. Black. His brother, upon hearing of the young man's death, came to town and brandished a pistol in the air, declaring he was going to kill everybody in sight for the foul murder of his brother, but somehow friends subdued him and no further killings took place at that time.

The shooting of these two gangmen took place right there by Milton's store, and after the smoke cleared the bodies were picked up and placed in one of the stores where they lay for some little time awaiting the arrival of relatives to claim their bodies. The bodies of the three hanged men were also later brought into town, and if I recollect correctly they were brought to the same store where the other two bodies were. I don't recall that they stayed there any length of time; but certainly they and none of the five dead men were "lying on the depot platform." The curious of course -- and most of us are, stood around and viewed the bodies and talked over the previous night's and the morning's happenings. Nobody was anxious to have more killings, innocent or otherwise, in the little town when the friends of the deceased would come for their dead ones, so the bodies, all five of them, were moved some distance away from the stores, and there they remained until the relatives came to take away the remains. Incidentally, I happened to be present when the wife of one of the brothers arrived. They lived quite a piece out in the country, and it was some little time before she came. She knelt down sobbing beside the dead form of her husband and prayed one of the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard.

For some days thereafter the residents of McDade lived in a tension. Parents would not let their children out of their sight, and some folks deliberately left town, to be gone until matters had been cleared up. Louis Bassist, who lived in Elgin, was one of the latter. He had been in this country only three months, and the gruseome tales and things he heard tell of, and the constant sight of quickly whipped out guns and pistols filled him with a feeling that is indescribable. Such wild and "uncivilized" life was so new and strange to him after being accustomed to the strict military conduct of the citizens in the city he had lived in while in germany, that he was at a loss as to what to do about it all. At any rate, he took the first train out of McDade that Christmas Day, and went to Elgin where he stayed a week before venturing back to resume his work in the P. Bassist Store.

People who were at all subject to superstition were sure a curse was on the town and its inhabitants, and that the ghosts of the dead men would be certain to put in their appearance. That night a lady living near the house in which the five dead bodies lay, became very sick, and her husband called to Sam Billingsley, who lived nearby and asked him to fetch the doctor -- folks had no telephones there at that time. Sam lived until recently in McDade, and was always a man who was willing to aid a friend or a neighbor; so with some trepidation he agreed to go. It was necessary to pass the "death house" on that cold bitter night, and Sam's heart involuntarily beat violently. Instinctively, he looked toward the house, and what should he see but a waith-like form enveloping the full height and width of the open doorway.

Needless to say, Sam's footsteps quickened and later when returning with the doctor, he kept as far away from that building as he could. He wasn't sure whether or not he had seen a departed spirit of any of the five desperados or the one innocent victim of the previous night-and-day's melange. Next day however, the ghost visit was explained. A huge dog with broad white chin and breast was observed in town, and he was recognized as the animal belonging to one of the slain brothers. It was this dog who was keeping vigil the night before beside his dead master's body.

The "necking party" quieted things down around McDade for several years and people could carry on business without fear of hold-ups.