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A Hanging in Nacogdoches

Murder, Race, Politics, and Polemics in Texas's Oldest Town, 1870-1916

By Gary B. Borders

Publication Year: 2006

“The contribution of A Hanging in Nacogdoches is not limited to that city, East Texas, or even the state. . . . The purpose of the author's presentation is to show life-race relations, politics, the economy-in a typical . . . Southern town at the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Borders argues, and demonstrates, that Nacogdoches was, indeed, typical for its time and place.” -Archie P. McDonald, Regent's Professor of History, Stephen F. Austin State University On October 17, 1902, in Nacogdoches, Texas, a black man named James Buchanan was tried without representation, condemned, and executed for the murder of a white family-all in the course of three hours. Two white men played pivotal roles in these events: Bill Haltom, a leading local Democrat and the editor of the Nacogdoches Sentinel, who condemned lynching but defended lynch mobs, and A. J. Spradley, a Populist sheriff who, with the aid of hundreds of state militiamen, barely managed to keep the mob from burning Buchanan alive, only to escort him to the gallows following his abbreviated trial. Each man's story serves to illuminate a part of the path that led to the terrible parody of justice which lies at the heart of A Hanging in Nacogdoches. The turn of the twentieth century was a time of dramatic change for the people of East Texas. Frightened by the Populist Party's attempts to unite poor blacks and whites in a struggle for economic justice, white Democrats defended their power base by exploiting racial tensions in a battle that ultimately resulted in the complete disenfranchisement of the black population of East Texas. In telling the story of a single lynching, Gary Borders dramatically illustrates the way politics and race combined to bring horrific violence to small southern towns like Nacogdoches.

Published by: University of Texas Press

Series: Clifton and Shirley Caldwell Texas Heritage Series

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

The genesis of this book came in early 1999 when the staff of the Daily Sentinel in Nacogdoches, Texas, began doing research for its centennial edition. I was editor and publisher of the newspaper at the time, and as we divided up the century among the dozen or so news-room employees, I volunteered to chronicle the first decade of the news-...

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pp. xi-xii

This is the story of the hanging of a black man in the South for a grisly crime that he almost certainly committed. Whether or not Jim Buchanan was guilty, his execution for the murders of three members of the same family was described many years later by the sheriff who brought him to justice as a “legal lynching.” Buchanan ...

PART I. A Murder, a Manhunt, a Trial, and an Execution

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Chapter One. Three Killed in Black Jack: October 11, 1902

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pp. 3-5

In Deep East Texas, summer is the longest season. From May until early October the hot air hovers, thick with humidity and mosquitoes. This year had been no exception, though in late June a freak storm had dropped fourteen inches of rain in twenty hours, causing a flood that washed out all the bridges over the Attoyac River, which divides Nacog-...

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Chapter Two. A City with a Long Past

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pp. 6-25

The name “nacogdoches” comes from the nacogdoche tribe of Hasinai Indians, who made their home on the present site of the city, between two creeks that run from north to south, the Banita and the Lanana. The tribe was one of eight in the Hasinai confederation of Caddoes, four of which lived in the area that became Nacogdoches County. Archaeological evidence, including a number of burial mounds, ...

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Chapter Three. A Texas Sheriff

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pp. 26-30

In 1902 Andrew Jackson Spradley was forty-nine, a year older than the slain Duncan Hicks. In a photo taken when Spradley was first elected sheriff, he bears a resemblance to Bat Masterson—the infamous occasional lawman, occasional gunslinger, part-time sportswriter, and full-time card shark—who was of the same era. Each had a thick moustache, wavy, dark hair, and piercing eyes. By 1902 Spradley’s hair was ...

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Chapter Four. A Suspect and a Possible Motive: October 12, 1902

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pp. 31-38

Spradley arrived at the hicks home in black jack at about daybreak on Sunday. The bodies still lay where J. W. Jernigan had found them the night before. Hicks and his wife were on the front porch, dead from shotgun blasts. Their daughter, Allie, was inside the house, her head bashed in. Judging from the state of decomposition of the bodies, Spradley de-...

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Chapter Five. Nacogdoches in 1902

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pp. 39-50

Nacogdoches in 1902 was a sleepy little place inhabited by a goodly number of trigger-happy citizens, who were called “gun toters” by the state’s newspaper writers. Local voters proved time and again unwilling to pay for public improvements, apparently satisfied with muddy streets, a porous jail, and raw sewage running down the ditches. They scrapped constantly over politics. Most folks barely scratched out a living ...

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Chapter Six. A Suspect Is Caught: October 13, 1902

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pp. 51-54

The night before, Spradley and Matthews had decided that Buchanan likely was headed toward the Pre-emption community, on the border between San Augustine and Shelby counties, where many blacks lived in relative isolation and peace. A significant number of blacks in San Augustine had retreated to this area after Reconstruction. When federal troops occupied much of the South—including San Augustine—...

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Chapter Seven. Lynchings: A Grim Fact of Life

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pp. 55-63

There is no doubt that the safety of Buchanan was in grave peril. Lynchings, mainly—but not exclusively—of black men, were a grim fact of life in the postbellum South, and the last decade of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century saw a marked increase in their number. ...

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Chapter Eight. Populism and Race: An Incendiary Mix

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pp. 64-76

By 1902 the populism movement that ten years earlier had nearly swept the entrenched Democratic Party out of power in Texas was on its last legs. But its effects were far reaching, and in Nacogdoches County the issue of populist versus Democrat still bitterly divided the citizenry. Populism began as a farmers’ alliance movement in the 1880s and was ...

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Chapter Nine. The Spradley-Haltom Feud

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pp. 77-87

Sheriff A. J. Spradley and editor Bill Haltom had been sniping at each other for at least a decade by the time of the Hicks murders in 1902. The differences between these two headstrong men stemmed primarily from their political rivalry. Spradley was a confirmed Populist and Haltom a staunch Democrat. But after Spradley established the Plaindealer ...

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Chapter Ten. Buchanan Confesses in Shreveport

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pp. 88-96

Unconfirmed reports ran rampant as to the whereabouts of Jim Buchanan, the accused killer of the Hicks family: he was in the Rusk prison, he had barely escaped a howling mob in Tenaha, he had been seen in Appleby. As it turned out, there was some truth to all of these reports. But Sheriff A. J. Spradley was nowhere to be found. ...

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Chapter Eleven. A Desperate Journey across East Texas: October 15, 1902

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pp. 97-107

Spradley returned to nacogdoches on wednesday morning, while lawmen Curg Border and A. Y. Matthews headed to East Texas with confessed murderer Jim Buchanan. Bill Haltom, probably to nobody’s surprise, didn’t get much information out of his longtime enemy. He had to rely heavily on the Shreveport ...

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Chapter Twelve. Preparations Made for Buchanan’s Trial: October 16, 1902

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pp. 108-111

Upon learning that Jim Buchanan was safely ensconced in the Rusk Penitentiary, Adjutant General Thomas Scurry phoned District Judge Tom C. Davis in Nacogdoches to let him know that the prisoner was secure. Scurry also wired Sheriff Reagan of Cherokee County, where Rusk is the county seat, and instructed him to have Spradley tell ...

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Chapter Thirteen. Buchanan Returns for Trial: October 17, 1902

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pp. 112-116

Under cover of darkness, a specially commissioned train left the Rusk railroad station at 3:00 a.m. on Friday. The autumn air was crisp, the temperature in the mid-forties.1 By road, it was only thirty-five miles from Rusk to Nacogdoches. The route was a bit more convoluted by rail because there was no direct connection between the two cities. The old Houston, East and West Texas ...

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Chapter Fourteen. A Hanging in Nacogdoches

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pp. 118-126

Word soon spread outside the courthouse that Buchanan had pleaded guilty and been sentenced to death, but that Judge Davis had given the condemned man the required thirty days to appeal the sentence. He ordered the prisoner returned to Rusk Penitentiary. It soon became obvious that Buchanan wasn’t going anywhere. As Fuller later wrote in Spradley’s biography: ...

Images. Photo section follows page 126

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PART II. Aftermath

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Chapter Fifteen. Quick Hanging Sparks Criticism and Praise

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pp. 129-140

It didn’t take long for the editorial writers across the South to weigh in on the hanging of Jim Buchanan. The day after Buchanan’s death, Bill Haltom of the Sentinel praised the quick dispensing of “justice”: Yesterday was a great day in the annals of Nacogdoches and is an example to all the South. We tried, convicted, sentenced and executed a ...

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Chapter Sixteen. Wettermark, Whitecapping, and a Whipping

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pp. 141-153

The year 1903 began inauspiciously. The violence of the previous decade or so continued unabated. The hanging of Jim Buchanan and the bitter election just a few weeks later seemed to contribute to an even more hostile atmosphere for black residents. And the economic doldrums that had enveloped the area since the Depression of 1893 worsened. ...

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Chapter Seventeen. Conclusion

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pp. 154-174

The political fortunes of Haltom and Spradley headed in opposite directions in 1904. At the urging of fellow Democrats, Haltom made his third try for the state legislature. He lost his first bid, in the 1898 Democratic primary, to J. B. Stripling, who narrowly defeated the Populist candidate, W. A. Skillern. Haltom managed to win ...

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pp. 175-178

Nacogdoches, from the period following reconstruction to the eve of World War I—where this story ends—arguably was no more violent or racist than any other small southern town of the time. Killings and cutting affrays were a fact of life in this violent time, and contemporary newspapers were filled with similar accounts of such crimes. ...


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pp. 179-198


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pp. 199-202


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pp. 203-209

E-ISBN-13: 9780292795983
E-ISBN-10: 029279598X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292702523
Print-ISBN-10: 0292702523

Page Count: 239
Illustrations: 35 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Clifton and Shirley Caldwell Texas Heritage Series

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Subject Headings

  • Lynching -- Texas -- Nacogdoches -- History -- 20th century.
  • Buchanan, Jim, d. 1902.
  • Nacogdoches (Tex.) -- Race relations -- History.
  • Vendetta -- Texas -- Nacogdoches -- History.
  • Populism -- Texas -- Nacogdoches -- History.
  • Populism -- Texas, East -- History.
  • Texas, East -- Race relations -- History.
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