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” cap; he described his nineteen years raising and selling chickens in an exaggerated drawl that seemed almost a parody of itself, but the shrewdness in his eyes suggested he was in on the joke. I spoke with Audrey Dean Leighton, a long-haired, grizzly-bearded gentleman who resides in Hemphill’s only Victorian mansion; he wore a black T-shirt, red short-shorts, and knee-high motorcycle boots, had three silver batons tucked securely under his arm, and handed me a business card that read “International Male Twirler and Psychic Readings.” I spoke with a woman (who made me promise not to reveal her name or where she worked) about Boots and Jeans, until recently the only private club serving liquor in Hemphill (which is dry) and now little more than a pile of ashes. “They burned the place down three times,” she confided. “Same thing with the Border Connection club—they torched it two years back.” When I asked who “they” might be, the woman smiled and blew her cigarette smoke toward the clouds.
“The secret here of getting along is to mind your business and ride the fence rail and don’t take either side,” mused Grover Winslow—for most of the past 42 years Hemphill’s lone physician—as he lazily twirled his stethoscope. “People here are a different breed of people from any place you’ve ever been. This was no man’s land for years up and down the Sabine River. In fact, my father’s oldest brother’s wife’s brother killed a man back in Alabama and came over here. Then there was a fellow here by the name of Bill Stanley—his father was a federal judge in Mississippi. He killed a man and got off in this jungle where nobody would bother him.”
Will Smith, a Church of Christ pastor who is the county’s first black commissioner, made it clear that he had moved to Hemphill because of its balm-of-Gilead possibilities. “Most people have heard only the bad things. But those with positive minds are going to overcome those with negative minds. When you look at me, you can see the change. No one would ever expect a black man to become a commissioner. That’s hope. When you look at Willie, you look at hope. I’m here for good. I already have my grave site picked out. I’m leaving my body in Hemphill and trying my best to help my soul go off to heaven.”
Smith’s comments run counter to the commonly held idea, fueled by the trouble in Vidor a few years back, that blacks and whites cannot coexist comfortably in East Texas. Not that there haven’t been moments that make you wonder: In 1990 two Hemphill lawmen were convicted of beating to death a black Louisiana man in their custody. But most of the people I talked to suggested that race isn’t really an issue. Certainly that was the sense I got when my mother and I paid a surprise visit to Hivie and Leamon McCowan, an older black couple she had met at a Lion’s Club dinner. Mrs. McCowan gave me a hug as we were introduced and, within seconds of ushering me inside her house, a plate of cake still warm from the oven.
“Do you mind telling me how old you are?” I asked Mr. McCowan.
“I thank the good Lord for blessing me to get where I am,” he replied, looking content in his blue overalls. “I done passed four score by two years.”
“How do you like living in Hemphill?”
“I must like it pretty good,” Mr. McCowan said with a grin, “’cause I been here fifty-three years.”
“What kind of work did you do as a younger man?”
“You name it, I did it. I cut logs for twenty-three years. I used a six-foot crosscut saw, man on each end of it. I never cut less than one hundred and forty logs a day. One day I remember working with a white man, and we knocked down two hundred and ninety-three logs.” I glanced at his wife for confirmation. She nodded.
“Has living in Hemphill ever been tough for you?”
Mrs. McCowan spoke up first. “Kinda. There was a lot of prejudice here. I remember times when we had to go into the back of a cafe, and if we wanted to use the restroom, they would turn us down, you know, as blacks. But that was probably true of all the communities in East Texas. In the fifties I worked in the courthouse, and you know, they was nice to me.”
Mr. McCowan suddenly started in about local politics. “Best judge we had since I been here, and they got shed of him.” Mrs. McCowan frowned at her husband. “Why you looking at me?” he said. “That’s the truth.”
The dust kicked up from years of small-town politicking has apparently settled over just about everyone in Hemphill. When I went by the courthouse to see justice of the peace Thomas Hamilton—the mayor’s elder brother—he tucked his thumbs under his red suspenders and held forth on, among politically charged topics, a game warden whose “house burned up after he caught these old boys running deer with their dogs” and the “hatchet job” several city officials had received from a local newspaper. He then tore into his brother’s chief opponent in the upcoming mayoral race, 44-year-old Ed Farrell, a self-proclaimed “cardiac surgeon” turned newspaper publisher. Judge Hamilton pulled out a small black book from which he read a list of people who, he said, had won legal settlements against Farrell, though he didn’t specify for what.
In an office around the corner, Farrell paced behind his enormous desk looking a bit like a caricature of Huey Long: pear shaped, puffing a kielbasa-size El Rey Del Mundo cigar, dressed in an expensive-looking silver-gray suit. As he sermonized about civic responsibility, I held in my lap a copy of that week’s Sabine County Times, the weekly paper he founded in February, around the same time that he entered the mayor’s race. “I came back to Hemphill because what I was doing wasn’t a challenge,” he said. “When I started working in cardiac surgery, when I started training in cardiac surgery, it was extremely exciting. I did a good bit of medical writing, wrote some books and a good many articles. For a young fellow, it’s a real ego-building experience to stand in front of a thousand people and make a talk and have them all listen to you—it was a challenge.”
“Now, were you performing heart surgery?” I asked.
“The process of training—I mean, they don’t just cut you loose doing surgery until everybody feels secure on the notion that you know what you’re doing. That’s why it takes seven years. You go from being a guy that holds the retractors to a guy that holds the sutures to a guy that puts the sutures in. We’ve been training surgeons in the U.S. that way since the 1880’s. It’s a successful system. The capacity in which you participate in surgery changes as a function of how long you’ve been at it. Anyway, I enjoy a challenge.”
“So are you a cardiologist?”
He paused. “I was a cardiac surgeon.”
I wrote on my notepad and then read aloud, “An M.D. A cardiac surgeon.”
“You keep reiterating that,” he said. “Do you find that remarkable?”
My final morning in Hemphill I was awakened around seven (a fact even more remarkable than Mr. Farrell’s medical career) by my mother chatting with friends on the phone; in these parts, apparently, the day is well under way by sunrise. But what a lovely sunrise it proved to be: Hanging there above the Louisiana shoreline, the morning sun blossomed slowly across a bloodshot Texas sky as a cool breeze blew over the lake. I stood barefoot on the pier, thinking about the peculiarities of what I had observed, and I concluded that an accurate portrait of Hemphill—or probably any deep East Texas town—can’t be managed with simple black and white strokes. Who really knows whether the old jailhouse gallows is a metaphorical cross for the religion of punishment or just some strange beacon in the wilderness for outlaws, backwater politicians, and retired secretaries from Houston?
I glanced back at my mother’s home. A lone heron flew up to the boughs of one of the fifty-foot pines surrounding the shoreline. There was no noise from the lake. And—at least until I departed—not a neighbor in sight.