SOMEWHERE ON WINDING, tree-lined Texas Highway 21 near San Augustine, I noted with some trepidation that oncoming drivers were no longer returning my one-finger salutes. I pressed on though, eventually crossing at the Sabine County line the pine curtain separating deep East Texas from the rest of the world. In the twenty years I’d spent in Texas, I had never before ventured into territory this far east. I was startled by the rolling hills and the lush green forests splashed white and pink with blooming dogwoods and carpeted with wild plum and bursts of purple azaleas—and by the fact that there’s not a single traffic light anywhere in the county’s 643 square miles. My destination was Hemphill (population: 1,353), a remote town summed up by The Roads of Texas in one intriguingly ominous sentence: “A gallows still in place in the Sabine County jail here serves as a reminder of the era when executions were carried out at the local level.”
Riding shotgun on the last leg of the trip was my mother, a retired secretary from Houston who had recently moved with her fisherman husband to a nearby acre of lakefront property from which you can look across Toledo Bend into the wilds of Louisiana. One reason for my visit was to see firsthand why my mother, like so many Texans these days, would trade life in the city for a secluded place in the country. “When we first moved in, there was a mama and three baby red foxes under the porch,” she had written me in one letter. “There aren’t many humans here, but the few that are tend to be pretty colorful.” Admittedly, that was another reason for my visit: Having just read John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, I was curious to see the eccentricities of a town where everyone knows everyone else—and everyone else’s business.
My purple rental car drew sideways stares as we crept into Hemphill past Benny’s Saw Supplies, Praises and Promises Christian supply shop, and a grocery surrounded by so many pickups it looked like a Ford dealership. As we parked the car, a musty smell from Fuller’s Feed and Dry Goods wafted over us. Three old men in sweat-stained cowboy hats exited K-C’s Drug sucking on toothpicks. When I peered into the two trucks on either side of us, I saw that both had keys in the ignition. “Folks here figure if you need it, you’ll use it and then bring it back,” my stepfather later told me.
Then I fixed my eyes on the heart of the tiny downtown square, and there it was, just a stone’s throw from the county courthouse: the infamous two-story brick jailhouse with its wrought-iron window guards and forbidding hanging tower. I looked up at the tower and scratched my head: What kind of town would have a gallows as its public centerpiece?
We wandered inside. Moments later, I looked down at my boots as Mrs. Blanche Toole, the white-haired 83-year-old curator of the jailhouse museum, informed me that I was standing on the gallows’ trapdoor. “That there is where they stood them,” she explained, pointing a diminutive finger at the hangman’s noose dangling several feet overhead. “The fall had to be great enough to break the neck.”
“How far did they fall?” I asked, squinting at the cracks of light coming up through the floor.
Mrs. Toole smiled mischievously. “Depends how tall they were.”
We walked along the narrow, steel-reinforced hallway to a cell that was the size of an outhouse—certainly too small for a conventional bed. “This is our solitary,” Mrs. Toole said. “It’s a very pretty little room. They probably put drunks and lunatics in here.” She then gestured toward a hallway display of nineteenth-century artifacts—an 1840 waffle iron, a Civil War cannonball—and showed us a sepia-toned photo collage of Sabine County sheriffs. “The jail was built in nineteen and three,” she said. “The gallows was last used in nineteen and twenty-two, two years before Texas outlawed hanging.” I pointed to a photo of a sheriff brandishing a six-shooter. “That’s Edward W. Nations, my husband’s great-uncle,” Mrs. Toole replied. “Mr. Nations got sent to the penitentiary. He killed several people.”
We stared up into the dusty light of the empty hanging tower. “Two hangings actually happened,” she told us. “For the one in nineteen and nine they built a scaffolding on the town square because people wanted to see it. They brought their kids to see the hangings in the old days. It was the night the courthouse burned. The sheriff had his brother-in-law watch from a courthouse window so that nobody got to the prisoner. But the brother-in-law got into a fight during a poker game and threw a lighted lamp at somebody and burned down the top two floors of the courthouse. It’s a fantastic tale, but it’s true.” Mrs. Toole paused darkly. “The second hanging, in nineteen and twenty-two, was for a man convicted of cutting his stepdaughter’s throat with a razor.”
Though she didn’t mention it, an old edition of the San Francisco Call details a third hanging in Hemphill: According to a front-page article headlined 9 Negroes Lynched by Texas Mob, a crowd overpowered the Hemphill jailer in the summer of 1908 and grabbed six black prisoners held for the murder of a white man. Five were hanged from the same tree; the sixth tried to escape and was shot to death. Later that night another black man was shot and killed, and the next morning the bodies of two more black men were found in the creek bottom.
The closer I looked, the more abstruse this 138-year-old hamlet became, though snooping around there for a few days certainly proved the old maxim about Texas towns: Entertainment value is inversely proportional to population size. I spoke with the mayor, Robert Hamilton, who greeted me in his city hall office wearing jeans, an untucked khaki hunting shirt, and a red “Re-elect Robert Hamilton”