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A Nation Torn Apart
"One of the foulest murders that ever stained the soil of Texas."
— Creed Taylor
AN HISTORIAN WITH A PESSIMISTIC outlook on life might be tempted to say that the only reason to remember Jack Helm is because — in popular memory — he was killed by the notorious gunfighter John Wesley Hardin sometime in the 1870s. To many that simple fact of life might be the only worthwhile reason to remember him, but that unfairly diminishes the man. He was much more than one of the many victims of the notorious man-killer; he was a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, but then changed allegiance to serve the victorious occupying Union army, answering to General Joseph Jones Reynolds during Reconstruction. He then became a notorious figure as a "Regulator," a county sheriff and vigilante — these reasons more than any other are why he deserves our recognition. He may not have earned the admiration of many, but he does deserve our respect. After all, those who become lawmen do deserve some degree of honor just because of the dangerous position they hold in society. Their name on a wall listing fallen lawmen should suffice as a memorial, although at the time of his death Helm was a disgraced State Police captain, but still the sheriff of DeWitt County, Texas. In recent years, long after his violent death, two modest ground-level headstones mark his grave in a lonely cemetery in rural Wilson County. His name, although misspelled as Helms, does appear on the wall of The Lost Lawman Memorial in Austin, Texas. He is not totally forgotten, although essentially Jack Helm is mostly remembered as just one of the many victims of John Wesley Hardin.
Helm acted as a vigilante during the Civil War as well as in the subsequent years during Reconstruction. As just one example of his vigilante activities, on one particular Saturday, February 15, 1862, he participated in the quasi-legal execution of five men sympathetic to the Union cause; there is evidence he was the hangman, rather than merely an observer, although the source is not the most solid evidence history can unearth.
It is horrendous to be placed on a six-or eight-inch board with hands and feet tied, with a noose around the neck, knowing that within moments that narrow wooden support will be kicked away, leaving you suspended. Will the fall break your neck? Or, even worse, will it not, leaving you to slowly strangle? Your hands are tied; your legs will kick as there is nothing left to do but pray to God for a merciful and quick death. What was happening did not occur to just one unfortunate man, but to five. What was their crime? This quintet paid the ultimate price for showing sympathy to the Union cause during the second year of the war in a seceded state — Texas. The wives and children of these five men witnessed their abrupt end of life on this earth. One of the men, Henry T. Howard, was a preacher, and his final words echoed appropriately an innocent man's final prayer from centuries before, "Lord forgive them; they know not what they do!" Then the executioner — Jack Helm — sprang the drop, or as evidence shows, kicked the board out from under them. That act "launched the souls of these brave, innocent men into eternity and this act closed the scene on one of the foulest murders that ever stained the soil of Texas." That quotation is from a memoir written by Creed Taylor years later, a man who had not only seen much violence but participated in violent action in Lone Star State history. He added this note regarding the action, which may be only coincidental to the hanging: "It is a fact that one of the trees, a thrifty young pecan, never put forth its leaves, again, but died."
Hanging a quintet certainly is not done by one individual but the action of a group, and Jack Helm did not act alone. How did they become prisoners? The five had earlier taken refuge in one of the vast areas that then were common in northeast Texas, Jernigan's Thicket, and as the expression was in those days, had "taken to the brush." To get them out of the thicket would be difficult and could be costly. Finally, with their food supply dwindling, John Marshal Jackson Helm, known to all simply as Jack, inveigled his way to them and convinced them that if they would come in and surrender they would receive a fair trial and probably be acquitted. As Helm had deserted from the Confederate army earlier, he now was acting to have that blight removed from his record. Finally, whether it was from Helm acting alone or with others, the five men, three Howards and two Hembys, surrendered and left their security for a meal and the promise of a fair trial. The "trial" was set for Friday, February 14. Again, we'll go to Texas pioneer Creed Taylor who experienced more than his fair share of conflict during Reconstruction, as he describes their fate:
It was well known that they were Union men, which they did not deny, and this served as a pretext for their destruction. Charges were trumped up against them, one or two were arrested while the others fled and found concealment in the Jearnagin [sic] Thicket. Efforts for their capture there having failed, resort to treachery [was] obtained. Word was sent to them if they would come home and surrender that they should have a fair and honorable trial and as the charges against them were not serious in their nature there could be no doubt of an honorable acquittal. These men accepted their offer came in and gave up.
As this was their crime, these five men would pay the price for sympathizing with the Union cause: in this instance a hanging offense. The question of secession had been foremost in everyone's mind for some time and some men gave speeches in support of it; others bravely spoke out against it. In Lamar County, Ebenezer Lafayette Dohoney and Micajah Lewis Armstrong spoke out against secession, and among the listeners was Henry T. Howard who took notes on the ideas expressed. Howard later prepared his own speech, which he gave back in his home county of Hopkins (present day Delta County). Howard's speech, according to historians David Pickering and Judy Falls, included "arguments followed closely on those of Dohoney and Armstrong." In essence Howard expressed his belief that the Confederacy could not survive a war against the Union due to the Union's superior numbers, a fact which then would draw soldiers from other countries which did not accept slavery. Howard's talk proved that free speech was not to be allowed. He and his closest followers were driven from their homes.
It was not Howard's first brush with dangerous talk. Earlier he had been arrested and placed on trial for his beliefs, tried before the most influential man in Lamar County — Hendley Stone Bennett. Bennett, if not the richest man in the area, was among the wealthiest. The census of 1860 shows his real estate valued at $50,000 and his personal worth at $85,000. This fifty-year-old Tennessee-born farmer had a wife and children who could have helped on his plantation, but they probably contributed little to the working of the soil: he owned a total of eighty-six slaves. "Judge" Bennett determined Howard's "crime" was not a hanging offense, although Howard was a Union man and "a damned Abolitionist."
In Hopkins County things were different when a vigilante group ordered men to leave their homes for their political views on the secessionist question. His influence crossed county lines, and H.S. Bennett was possibly the leader or at least the driving force behind this group. Among those who were deemed guilty of treason and sentenced to death was Howard, his two brothers, and two men named Hemby. Dohoney, whose account of the doings in Hopkins and Lamar Counties during this period does not identify the leader of the vigilantes that coaxed them out of hiding, states that the mob's driving force was "a prominent citizen and rabid secessionist." The mob was composed of men from Hopkins and Lamar County, Bennett's home county.
The secessionists were not content to let them survive, and having been found guilty as charged they were sentenced to death. The execution occurred at Oxford's Bridge, some three miles south of Charleston, the seat of Hopkins County. The court accused these men of favoring the Union cause. It further denied them the right to speak in their defense and threatened the witnesses who wished to speak in their defense. In addition, the men making up the kangaroo court stated that the five posed a danger to the community. The "trial" ended on Friday, February 14, 1862, the verdict a foregone conclusion. The five who died together the next day were James E. Hemby, Jonathan Hemby, Henry T. Howard, Thomas Howard, and James K. Howard.
The execution was carried out on schedule. The five were hanged in view of their families. Who were the executioners? Among the court's officers were Charles H. Southerland, George W. Helm and his son Jack Helm, David Simeon George, Thomas Rufus McGuire, Rice Warren, James McGlasson, and J.W. Stansbury. From what we know of Jack Helm's later conduct it is entirely possible that he was the one who kicked the plank out from under the five as they stood on the "gallows." Creed Taylor, who later became a bitter enemy of Helm, again described the scene:
A few steps South of the bridge, a large pole was erected between two large trees and this served as a gallows. Under this a rude platform was erected with a drop attachment. When the fatal hour arrived these innocent men were placed upon this platform and the noose put about their necks by executioner Jack Helms [sic]. When they mounted the scaffold, pinioned, their faces were turned northward and in the direction not five hundred yards away of the humble homes of the two Hembys.
Creed Taylor of course was not there as a witness to this vigilante action, but certainly learned of it from associates of Helm when he later became notorious in south Texas.
Five members of the group involved in the execution were arrested in August 1865 by soldiers under command of T.J. Mackey and placed in the Lamar County jail. Their charge: "mobbing and hanging" the Howards and Hembys at Charleston. The Paris Press identified them as George W. Cox, David Simeon George, J.W. Helms, Robert McFarland, and Charles H. Southerland. The "J.W. Helms" was an incorrect identification of George W. Helm, father of Jack Helm. A number of individuals who were actively involved in the trial — including Jack Helm himself — became alarmed that they too would be arrested and charged with the execution. The editor of the Paris Press, speaking for the military authorities, assured his readers that once all the facts of the case were established only those who instigated the hanging would be punished while those who were "led or dragged into the affair" would not be punished. Young Jack Helm — yet in his early twenties — was one of those latter individuals who were still concerned about what would happen to those who actually placed the ropes around the necks of the five men. The editor's assurances may or may not have calmed Jack's fears.
George W. Helm and his son Jack were both there at Oxford's Bridge, participants in what — in reality — was a lynching. The fate of father and son, even though both were now murderers, took different paths. George Washington Helm was born February 14, 1809, in Virginia, the son of Jacob Helm. George W. Helm lived down the incident at Oxford's Bridge and became a stalwart pillar of his community, living long enough to be included in a "vanity book" telling of his illustrious career. That life ended on October 15, 1904, in Delta County, Texas. He is buried in the rural Union Grove Cemetery near the Charleston community.
George Washington Helm, the father of the notorious Jack Helm, had continued as a farmer as his father had been back in Virginia. About this time the G.W. Helm family moved to western Missouri, settling near Kansas City in Jackson County. On September 10, 1829, George W. married Ruth Mayo Burnett; born about 1811 she was eighteen years of age, the daughter of Jeremiah and Martha Burnett of Patrick County. Where the two met is uncertain. In April 1837 George W. was among thirty-two men who purchased town lots in Harrisonville, Cass County, Missouri. Those individuals had the option of purchasing front or back lots — the former going for $20 and the latter for $10. The county at that time was named Van Buren, but citizens renamed it Cass County in 1849. Helm's choice of a home was just south of Kansas City, and it is reasonable to suspect that the next move to Texas was due to Helm's perception — like many other frontier figures — that the area was becoming too crowded.
By 1841 the Helm family had moved to Lamar County, Texas, the northern border of which is the Red River separating Texas from what was then Indian Territory but now the state of Oklahoma. They were among the first settlers in Lamar County, George Helm receiving a class 4 certificate, which awarded him 640 acres of land. The record shows his date of emigration as October 1841. George W. and Ruth Burnett Helm gave eight children to the world, with Jack being the second born. Although born in Missouri, probably in 1837, son Jack did his growing up in Texas. There was nothing special about his childhood, with the occasional death of a newborn. But as we shall see in this book, he diverged from the path his father took in life and ended up shot dead by two vengeance-seeking feudists in 1873.
Ruth Mayo Burnett Helm, Jack's mother, died sometime in 1853 but the exact date remains unknown. She was laid to rest in Union Grove Cemetery where her husband would be later buried, but her grave is not marked with an informative stone. After his first wife passed, George W. Helm married a second time, on May 23, 1858, to Charlotte Madden Chapman, the widow of Isaac Chapman. Jack now had half-siblings but by the time of his father's second marriage he was an adult and would have hardly known these other half-brothers and half-sisters.
Not unusual in those days were extended families living in the same household, and such was the case of the Helm families. George Helm was head of household number 946 in the 1860 Hopkins County census: a crowded household with the thirteen adults and children. At household number 947, possibly just "next door" or maybe a few miles distant, the census taker visited the household of "John J. Helms" as the enumerator spelled his name, incorrectly as was his father's. Jack Helm is shown to be twenty-three years-of-age, Missouri-born, laboring on the farm with his real estate valued at $200 and personal estate valued at $250. His wife, Minerva McCown, whom he had married December 18, 1857, is shown as eighteen-year-old "Manerva" born in Texas; their two-year-old son George W. was also Texas born. This first child born to Jack and Minerva Helm was named George Washington after his grandfather but history knows him as "Pony" Helm for an unknown reason. Pony Helm later married Sarah E. Shepherd on January 7, 1875. Daughter Armittie Virginia, their second child, was born on September 2, 1860; she died May 23, 1937.
After visiting the Jack and Minerva Helm household, the enumerator Syl Walker next visited household number 948, that of Alonzo L. and Sarah A. Leech. He was a farm laborer, twenty-six years old and a native of Tennessee, living with his wife Sarah who was Jack Helm's eighteen-year-old sister. These eighteen individuals made up three neighboring households in Hopkins County in 1860.
Farming and stock-raising provided the family's essential needs. In 1860 George W. Helm held but few slaves; the slave census shows he owned an eighteen-year-old male and two females, sixteen and fourteen years of age. No names were given these three individuals, although from the ages shown one might suspect they were siblings who worked the land as well as helping as household servants. Head of household George W. Helm may have left the farm work to the slaves and older children, as he was also involved in politics. Jack's father earned respect in neighboring Lamar County, as several times he was elected to the position of Justice of the Peace. Concerns for adequate rain for the crops and care for the large household were not the only matters to worry about, as Indian raiding parties were an occasional problem for settlers in that period. George W. Helm also became active in the work of the Methodist Church. In October 1847 Pastor John Graham certified seven citizens of Paris, the county seat, as trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church, one of whom was George W. Helm. Certainly trustee Helm's wife and children were at least occasional if not regular attendees to church services. Whether son Jack had any experience fighting marauders, or regular attendance in the Methodist Church, is uncertain. But when the warcame in 1861 he did volunteer to fight for the Confederacy. In spite of the Christian work of George W. Helm, animosity with neighbors could not be avoided due to the erupting conflict over the issues of states' rights and slavery. The local conflict, tearing the county apart as well as the nation, would very soon become a part of the violent Helm legacy.
Excerpted from "Captain Jack Helm"
Copyright © 2018 Chuck Parsons.
Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents
LIST OF MAPS AND ILLUSTRATIONS,
FOREWORD BY KENNETH W. HOWELL,
1. A Nation Torn Apart,
2. Troubles on the DeWitt-Lavaca County Line,
3. The Choate Ranch Raid,
4. Action in Matagorda County,
5. Feuding Against the Taylors,
6. "Six Shooter Gentry",
7. Gunfire at the Billings Store,
8. "Attempting to Escape",
EPILOGUE: The Grave of John Jackson Helm,
APPENDIX A: Jack Helm, DeWitt County Captain Commanding,
APPENDIX B: Vigilantes in Goliad County,
APPENDIX C: 1870 State Police Roster of Capt. Jack Helm,
APPENDIX D: Regulators of Goliad County,