Fear, Force, and Leather: The Texas Prison System's First Hundred Years 1848-1948
 

 

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The Death Penalty

Photo of Henry Helms on his way to the death chamber, September 6, 1929

In frontier Texas, hanging had been the ultimate punishment. From 1819 to 1923, 394 legal executions took place in Texas for crimes ranging from murder and rape to kidnapping, robbery, and arson. Local authorities carried out the hangings in the county in which the crime took place. About 60 percent of those executed were African-American.

But legal hangings were not the only executions that took place in Texas. Vigilante justice became commonplace during the Civil War and Reconstruction and continued well into the 20th century. During the period 1889-1918, Texas ranked third in the nation for lynchings, behind only Georgia and Mississippi. The Tuskegee Archives estimates that 493 people were lynched in Texas in the post-Civil War era, about 78 percent of them African-American.

In the early 20th century, vigilante episodes began to erupt on a larger and more violent scale. On a single day in June 1908, nine African-Americans were lynched in Hemphill. Eighteen blacks were killed in a 1911 Palestine riot. In 1916, a black teenager accused of murdering a white woman was dragged from his jail cell and subjected to a ghastly death that became known as the “Waco Horror.”

The summer of 1919 saw racial violence around the country. In Texas, there were riots in Texarkana and Port Arthur. In Walker County, six members of the same family were lynched. In Longview a black dentist was killed for associating with a white female colleague, and black homes and businesses were set ablaze. Governor William P. Hobby was forced to send in the National Guard and the Texas Rangers to restore order.

Another outbreak of violence in the summer of 1922 saw nine blacks murdered, three by burning. Prompted by this incident, state senator J.W. Thomas proposed an overhaul of the death penalty in Texas. Thomas argued that there seemed to be little difference in the public mind between a legal hanging and the carnival-like lynchings that had disgraced Texas in the eyes of the nation. In 1923, the legislature passed a law moving all executions to Huntsville, where the condemned would be put to death in an electric chair, a modern means of execution that had been adopted elsewhere, including the southern states of Virginia, Kentucky, and North and South Carolina.

Over the next months, prison workers at Huntsville built an electric chair (known as “Old Sparky”), a death chamber, and a death row with nine cells. Huntsville’s warden, R.F. Coleman, resigned in protest, telling reporters, “It just couldn’t be done, boys. A warden can’t be a warden and a killer too. The penitentiary is a place to reform a man, not to kill him.” New warden Walter Monroe Miller felt differently: “I have hanged several men while I was sheriff and to touch the button or pull the switch means no more to me than pulling the lever on the gallows. At any rate it’s more humane—the chair.”

The first executions at Huntsville took place on February 8, 1924, with the electrocution of five African-American men from East Texas. With the adoption of centralized execution, vigilante justice began a steep and steady decline in Texas. Though there were several dreadful incidents still to come, lynching had died out at last by the 1940s.

Between 1924 and 1964, 361 men were executed by the state of Texas. In 1964, executions were halted in every state pending a Supreme Court review of death penalty laws. These laws were overturned in 1972, and the sentences of all the men on death row were commuted to life in prison. Texas passed a revised death penalty law in 1973, and resumed executions in 1982 using the lethal injection method.

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Page last modified: August 23, 2011