The Trans-Cedar lynching is an infamous tale buried deep in the subconscious of rural Texas history—although it made front-page headlines in the Dallas Morning News and even in national newspapers from May through November of 1899. This horrifying event is at the center of a compelling novel by author Mark Busby. He has not only researched original documents but has used family oral histories to probe the mysteries that still shroud a lynching that is as horrifying and baffling now as it must have been over a hundred years ago. The "War of Northern Aggression" was still fresh in the memory of those who lived through it; hog-stealing, moonshine, secret meetings, and the lore of the Texas Rangers were part of the fabric of country life, and there were many who refused to believe the war was really over. Against this backdrop, a running feud between the Humphries and the Wilkinsons exploded into a triple murder.
When young Jefferson Bowie Adams II is given an assignment for a college course in 1964, President Kennedy has just been assassinated, the movement for civil rights is beginning to stir, and developments in Vietnam barely make the back pages of the newspaper. Setting out to record a story from his family's history, Jeff discovers—sitting in his grandfather's hideout while Pampaw smokes a forbidden cigar--a story that is as mesmerizing as it is shocking: the tale of a triple lynching in Henderson County in the late spring of 1899, an event Pampaw himself witnessed. Even as the scene of the crime is slowly being submerged by the filling of the Cedar Creek Reservoir, Jeff struggles to uncover the truths of what really happened that fateful night in 1899. Through the various recollections of his aging kin, Adams begins to uncover a web of relationships and a love story that ultimately leads him to a missing girl, a country graveyard, and a realization that he and his family are part and parcel of the stained history of the South.
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About the Author
MARK BUSBY is the author or editor of eleven books and is well-known for his writings on the American West. Busby is a professor of English at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. His first novel, Fort Benning Blues, was published by TCU Press in 2001.
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By Mark Busby
TCU PressCopyright © 2013 Mark Busby
All rights reserved.
Texas. Spring. 1964. I guess you could designate any time a momentous point in human history, but for me Texas in the spring of 1964 is one of those instances where you can almost hear huge, shifting tectonic plates—geologic structures crushing as they slide by one another—or the Titanic making contact with that first iceberg or the first plane crashing into the twin towers. You wonder how people could know just then that they've wandered into a whirlwind, especially when it just sounds like a spring breeze. I wish I understood then what I think I know now. But in spring semester 1964, I was like most nineteen-year-olds—looking at the world through a narrow prism, while around me, the world flamed. Kennedy had been assassinated that fall in Dallas, near my hometown, Mariposa. Then, the world began to look upon us as crazed hatemongers. I started telling people who asked where I was from that I came from a small town a hundred and ninety miles north of Houston instead of twenty miles south of Dallas. I wish I could say it was out of an inner outrage at the horror, but mainly it was just reactive and self-protective. The long view comes late, if it comes at all.
I had things to do, deadlines, assignments. I was in college and already thinking about finishing this just-beginning spring semester, which actually started in late January and deep in winter. That's why I was driving east from Mariposa to Kaufman, crossing the Trinity River, marking the end of the West, and traveling back into East Texas, more primordial, lush, and ancient than the spare, dry edge of the Texas plains west of Mariposa. Mariposa was a railroad town just east of where the Chisholm Trail passed, headed north. Kaufman was the county seat of the county with the same name, taken from an early settler and Indian fighter, a place that billed itself as the gateway to East Texas's Piney Woods. Around downtown Mariposa, you saw a mix of jeans and overalls, since the West and the South had equal claim, but around the Kaufman County courthouse, it was mainly overalls and brogans as the South still held sway.
That little trip wrapped up a lot about me, my family, and my view of the world then too. I was going to Kaufman to talk to my maternal grandfather for a classroom assignment for school. At eighty years old, Pampaw Scott was still doing some barbering in Kaufman—the life he'd led there forever, as far as I knew. To the west of Mariposa was where my other grandfather, the one for whom I had been named, lived. The first Jefferson Bowie Adams wasn't really a cowboy rancher. Granddad had actually worked most of his life for the Southern Pacific Railroad up and down the line from Dallas to Houston, over to San Antonio and beyond. But after he retired, he became the rancher he'd always thought himself to be, and he lived the life of a small rancher. He had enough land for about fifty head of rangy cattle that he'd pick up at auctions in town and try to fatten and unload. He also had room out there for his old horse Chief Bowles. Over the years, I guess he'd had several Chief Bowleses, but he didn't name them anew, like Chief Bowles II, like I was Jefferson Bowie Adams II. Each one became Chief Bowles. So it was probably Chief Bowles V by then. I spent most of my time with Granddad, even though mother was naturally inclined for me to spend the time with her family. But I was drawn to the rancher side and the West more than to the farmer/shopkeeper Scotts and the East. Mother's people were quiet, religious. They went to church, went to work, paid the bills, rarely left home, were staid.
So if I'd had a choice, I'm sure I would have been interviewing Granddad instead of Pampaw for this assignment—an oral history from a specific family member about the most memorable event in the person's life. My teacher had handed out little slips of paper with the assignment, and mine read "maternal grandmother, grandfather, aunt." I think he was some kind of control freak, but that meant I went east to talk to Pampaw instead of west to talk to Granddad.
I liked Pampaw, but not in the same way I was drawn to Granddad. Partially it was that Granddad was there after my father died, while Pampaw was thirty miles away. And Pampaw always seemed too quiet for me—quiet and bald and always having to take care of Mammaw—while Granddad, burly and compact with a full head of steel-gray hair, always had a big grin and a slap on the back.
My grandmother, Mammaw, was the explosive one. She'd had a stroke in the 1950s and now talked with a strange, drawn-out, flattened screech. She kept her hair in tight curls, dyed that color everyone ascribed to blue-haired old ladies. She wore the same blue housecoat and fluffy slippers all the time except for church when she changed into a flowered dress with a belt, flat black shoes, and a tight black hat that sat on the back of her head—a look that emphasized the fact that she had no waist. She looked like a short, belted rain barrel with canes. I don't know if walkers were available then. If they were, she didn't use them, but when she walked (which was rare since she usually sat and got Pampaw to fetch what she wanted), she always tottered on two sturdy wooden canes with thick black rubber tips. I always thought of her as a tyrant. Perhaps because she'd been sick so long, she had to be demanding. Pampaw was her constant helper, and she seemed to screech at him continuously. It made him seem weak to me, and I was at an age where weakness in men was an abominable sin.
Pampaw's only indulgence was a cigar after a meal. But Mammaw hated cigars, hated Pampaw's smoking, so he had to sneak off and sit in a little chair just inside the garage to smoke his cigar. I knew that was where we'd have our talk today, as soon as the Sunday dinner after church was finished.
Dinners then were the noon meal, not in the evening when we'd have supper. Sunday dinner was always roast beef, green beans, spinach, and cornbread, and a few other things from Mammaw's garden. It wasn't really Mammaw's garden, because Pampaw did all the work, but he did it exactly as she told him to, following her instructions based on those years when she was young and capable and knew how to do the garden, I guess.
They were expecting me because I'd called to talk to Pampaw about the assignment and asked him if there were some special event that he could remember to talk to me about. Long pause. That wasn't unusual, really, because Pampaw was this quiet man. But it seemed longer than usual before he answered: "Yes, I think there's something I could maybe tell you about."
"That's good," I said, "because my prof says it's really important for us to try to capture a significant event. What will you tell me about?" Another pause, then he said: "Well, you come on over on Sunday and have dinner with me and Mammaw, and then we'll set down and talk about it."
Dinner was as usual, what now seems quaint and almost archaic to me since I don't eat like that anymore. There was no TV or radio, and we actually sat at the table, while Mammaw in her screechy voice directed Pampaw: "Now, Louis, say the blessing." And Pampaw always said the exact same thing in the exact same way: "Dear Father, we thank Thee for this food and for Thy blessings on this our house and we thank Thee in Jesus's name. Amen." It was a short prayer, but Pampaw always seemed to run out of breath about "Jesus's name," where he'd breathe in and finish on the inhale breath. At the end, Mammaw would screech "Amen," and we'd dig in. Eating with them was like everything else they did together—a constant series of orders delivered by my grandmother and orders faithfully executed by my grandfather: "Pass that cornbread. Hand that boy the beans. Cut me another piece of roast beef. Don't eat so fast, Louis."
They'd talk about church. Pampaw was an elder in the church, which meant he always had something to do with the service. He usually was one of the people who passed around communion, the Lord's Supper. The Church of Christ in Kaufman was small and orderly, and they passed around the crackers and then the grape juice in little glasses—the body and blood of Christ—and finally the collection plate, with one deacon or elder at one end of the pew and another at the other end. I'd long since given up my mother's religion, but for family peace I tried not to talk about it.
Desserts varied. Today was lemon meringue pie, one of my favorites, and I was sure they made it because I was coming. I helped Pampaw clear the table. Mammaw did little of the cooking or anything else for the meals since the stroke, but she always did the dishes. She had a high-legged stool to sit on in front of the sink, soap bubbling high, to wash the dishes, rinse them, and put them in the draining rack. So after dinner and dessert, with the plates cleared, Mammaw changed into that housecoat and sat down at the sink, as Pampaw and I slipped out to his cigar getaway.
* * *
I look back now to that moment and think about what I did: I asked an eighty-year-old man to tell me about the most significant event in his long life. I had no such events in my own life that I could identify. I was born, grew up in a small town, graduated from high school, went away to a small college, and got an assignment to do an oral history. I guess my daddy's dying when I was eleven was the most important thing that had happened to me by then. Now I know the importance of the Kennedy assassination and Jack Ruby's killing of Lee Harvey Oswald, LBJ's ascendance and upcoming election, the civil rights movement, Vietnam. Then, the only thing was finishing the semester.
We went out to the garage, an old wooden structure behind the house that looked like it was in a perpetual state of falling over. When I was younger and we would go to visit, I would spend a lot of time out beside the garage because there was always a hearty colony of doodle bugs there in the dirt. Those little insects (which some of my friends called antlions or toritos), would make inverted cones, and when you moved the dirt, you could see them urgently seeking stable shelter in the fine-grained soil after their quiet homes had been destroyed. If you picked up a handful of dirt and let it sift through your fingers, you found an insect that walked backward, as if it were moving with its eyes on the past. Pampaw had a chair at the back of the garage that he moved in close to an old church pew. And then he did something else that startled me. He opened a drawer, took out a gray, boxy-looking thing with a crank, and set it on the workbench. He cranked it, flipped a switch, twisted a dial on the front of the box, and crackling country music began to tinkle out of the speaker.
"This here is my little hideaway radio," he smiled. "You crank this thang up and it'll work for an hour or so. Short wave, too. I can pick up some good music here." I never knew that Pampaw had this radio. Mammaw hated country music as much as she hated Pampaw's cigars, and all these years Pampaw had been sneaking out here for a cigar and country music.
"That's Hank Williams, one of my favorites. Don't care for them Beatles who're all over the radio and gonna be on Ed Sullivan, I hear."
Pampaw took out a cigar, nothing special, a Roi-Tan, and I looked at him, seeing the same small, quiet, ordinary man I always had—an eighty-year-old man wearing the standard dark plastic glasses of the time on his very round face, made even rounder by his very bald head with a neatly-trimmed, reddish-gray band of hair beneath the round, bald top. He opened the cellophane wrapper, slipped off the band, licked the cigar carefully, took out a match, and lit the cigar without saying anything. He watched smoke swirl skyward before he finally looked at me.
"So, what do you want to talk about?"
I was in a hurry by then and exasperated, since we'd already gone over this, I thought. So I went through the assignment again. "You said the other night on the phone that you thought you had something you could tell me about," I said.
"You've heard of the Lincoln County Wars?" he asked.
"You mean the Billy the Kid stuff?"
"Yeah, that's the one."
"Sure, everybody's heard of Billy the Kid. Is that what you're going to tell me about?"
"No, I just wanted to make a point. You're right. Everybody has heard about Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. There's all them movies about the Kid like The Left Handed Gun and a buncha others. Books about it. But I'm gonna tell you about another story that's got a lot of the same stuff in it, even somebody named Garrett, no kin to old Pat, and nobody's ever heard of it, but I know about it, lived through it."
* * *
"It was spring 1899," he began. "I was fifteen years old, and we was living in Aley, Texas. That place is just about no more, Aley. It's goin' under the waters of the Cedar Creek Reservoir they started fillin' not too long ago. But Aley was our town, just east of Tulosa over there in Henderson County. We thought it would last forever. My pap arranged for me to work for his brother, Uncle Fate Scott, who ran a little dry goods store there in Aley, and most of our people lived nearby. Your great uncle Elihu Garrett was a justice of the peace, and he's one of the important ones in this story I'm going to tell you, and that's the story of the Humphries lynching."
"Lynching? You mean they killed some black people?"
Pampaw stopped and looked at me for a moment, seemingly thinking about something. "Well, they lynched nigras back then, sure, but this here lynching don't really have to do with black folks," he said and stopped. "Well, it has to do with black folks in a kindly roundabout way, but this wasn't no lynching of black folks, but it was a helluva lynching."
Out in the garage, Pampaw could get away with saying "helluva," but it was conspiratorial. Mammaw would never let him get away with that language inside the house.
"I remember sitting in the store that afternoon. I was already beginning to learn how to cut hair. Uncle Fate had a little chair where he let old man Charlie Roosevelt cut some hair, and I would sit there and watch old man Charlie work and he would tell me what he was doing. I would keep his razors stropped sharp.
"Anyway, Cousin Hugh come runnin' in the store and yelled, 'There's been a lynching!' and asked for a few men to come out with him out to the hanging tree. Right then, I knew I had to go along. It was like a match was lit in my head at that instant. I tore my apron off and tossed it down and was out the door.
"I guess I should tell you that I was a willful boy. I had no desire to be a barber or to work in my uncle's shop. Almost anything could distract me from that work, and my daddy knew it. Every day, it seems like now, he would take me out behind the shop and strop me hard. But it done no good. I was a bad child, and it was like I was just waitin' for the right moment to set me off like a spark to gasoline. I guess you wouldn't know it, not many people do, but I was a heller.
"At first, I didn't even know who was involved in the lynchin', and still my brain went feverish. But when I found out who it was, it was like throwin' kerosene on the fire, because I knew each of the three men, and in fact, one of them was the pap of my best friend, Willy. You see, it was the three Humphries that was lynched that night—old man Jim Humphries and his two sons, John and George."
And so as Pampaw watched the cigar smoke fade into the midday sky, I learned what happened. On that spring night round about midnight, Joe Wilkinson, his son Walter, the Greenhaw brothers—John and Arthur, a guy named Sparks, "that worthless Poke Weeks," a fellow named Mahan, and several others rode out to the Humphries farm at the edge of the blackland prairie on the pretext of looking for a murderer. A fellow named Jack Patterson was accused of killing John Rhodes, a friend of this group of vigilantes. They claimed they had heard that the Humphries clan was harboring Patterson, and they wanted him.
Excerpted from Cedar Crossing by Mark Busby. Copyright © 2013 Mark Busby. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1: The Assignment,
2: The Backstory,
3: Finding Joe,
4: Aunt Mag,
5: Bill McDonald,
6: John McDonald,
7: The Clay-Liston Fight,
8: Cousin Elihu Garrett,
9: Mylene Garrett,
10: The Beatles, KLIF, and the Ledgers,
11: This Morning, Mark Twain,
12: Polk Weeks,
13: John Greenhaw,
14: Assistant Attorney General Ned Morris,
15: The Old Scotchman, Jack Ruby, Willy, and Boy,
16: John Howard Griffin,
18: Captain Bill's Letter,
20: Change Is Gonna Come,
Afterword: Words from the Grave,
List of Sources Consulted,