No one knew better
gruesome tales of the hangings at Gladeville than the late Charles
whom the writer interviewed.
Charles Renfro said:
"When I was made a member of the Wise
Vigilantes back there in 1892, I little dreamed that I was to become
scaffold maker or noose knot tier for all the six men who were to die
the gallows in my country. But it was that way.
The Vigilantes had
organized in Big Stone Gap, Virginia by Josh Bullitt as a protection
the bad men of the hills when the first coal boom came. John Fox, Jr.,
the author of the Trail of the Lonesome Pine, was a member of the
The Hanging of Talt Hall
And when it
norated* around that the desperado Talt Hall, a native Kentuckian, who
had been committing crime on the Virginia side of the line for some
had been jailed for the wanton killing of Enos Hylton, Chief of Police
of Norton, and that his buddies in Kentucky were going to storm the
and remove him, the volunteer county guard was increased to more than
Josh Bullitt came up
Big Stone Gap and drilled us fellows at the county seat every day. A
would stand guard while the others were drilling. I was made a member
the guard although I was then in my teens.
Talt Hall was tried
sentenced to hang by the neck until he was dead. Then it was that a
came from Kentucky to the effect that some of Talt's friends intended
storm the jail and take him out.
The old jail was
too secure and the judge ordered that Hall be taken to Lynchburg for
keeping while the higher courts were examining the motion for a retrial
on the grounds of a writ of error.
But the higher
sustained the county court and Hall was sent back to be hanged. His
date was fixed to be September 2, 1892.
And what a day in
county seat town of Gladeville that was! In order to get the full color
the occasion afforded, we herewith leave the narrative of jailer Renfro
and switch to an account by John Fox, Jr. in his book "Bluegrass and
Fox wrote: "Through
and Valley, humanity had talked of nothing else for weeks, and before
of the fatal day, humanity started in converging lines from all other
for the county seat of Wise - from Scott and from Lee; from wild
and Buchanan, where one may find white men who have never looked upon a
white man's face; from the Pound which harbors the desperadoes of two
states whose skirts are there stitched together with pine and pin-oak
the crest of the Cumberland; and, further on, even from the faraway
hills, mountain humanity had started at dawn of the day before. A
would have thought that a county fair, a camp meeting, or a circus was
the goal. Men and women, boys and girls, children and babes in arms;
in his Sunday best - the men in jeans, slouch hats and high boots; the
women in gay ribbons and brilliant homespun; in wagons and on foot, on
horses and mules, carrying man and man, man and boy, lover and
or husband and wife and child - all moved through the crisp September
past woods of russet and crimson and along brown dirt roads to a little
straggling mountain town where midway of the one long street and shut
by a tall board fence was a courthouse, with the front door closed and
barred, and port holes cut through its brick walls and looking to the
and in the rear a jail; and to one side of the jail a tall wooden box
a projecting cross beam in full sight, from the center of which a rope
swung to and fro, when the wind moved.
Never had a criminal
death at the hands of the law in that region, and it was not sure that
the law was going to take its course now, for the condemned man was a
feudsman, and his clan was there to rescue him from the gallows, and
of his enemies were on hand to see that he died a just death by a
if he should escape the noose. And the guard, whose grim dream of law
order seemed to be coming true, was there from the Gap, twenty miles
to see that the noose did its ordained work.
of town, and along every road, boyish policemen were halting and
every man who carried a weapon in sight. At the back window of the
and at the threatening little port holes were more youngsters manning
At the windows of the jailer's house, which was of frame and which
and fronted the jail, were more still, on guard, and around the jail
a line of them, heavily armed to keep the crowd back on the other side
of the jail yard fence.
The crowd had been
for hours. The neighboring hills were blocked with people waiting. The
house tops were blocked with men and boys, waiting.
Now the fatal noon
hardly an hour away, and a big man with a red face appeared at one of
jailer's windows; and then the sheriff, who began to take out a sash.
once a hush came over the crowd and then a rustling and a murmur. It
the prisoner's lawyer and something was going to happen. Faces and gun
muzzles thickened at the port holes an the courthouse windows. The line
of guards in the jail yard wheeled and stood with their faces upturned
to the windows.
There in the
window stood a man with black hair - Talton Hall.
He was going to
- that was the rumor. His lawyers wanted him to confess. The preacher
had been singing hymns with him wanted him to confess. The man himself
wanted to confess, and how he was going to confess.
he might clear up if he would. His best friends put the list of his
no lower than thirteen - his enemies no lower than thirty. And there
up at him, were three women who he had widowed or orphaned, and one
of the jail yard still another, a little woman in black - the widow of
the Norton Constable whom Hall had shot to death only a year before.
Now Hall's lips
and closed, and opened and closed again. Then he took hold of the site
of the window and looked behind him. The sheriff brought him a chair
he sat down.
At last Hall asked
he might give his sister a secret message. The Judge who was also on
felt obliged to deny the request and then Hall haltingly asked aloud
his sister bring a white handkerchief and tie it around his throat -
- to hide the red mark of the rope. Tears welled in the Judge's eyes.
pulled out his own handkerchief and pressed it into the woman's hands.
But would Talt
to all the murders he had committed? He had shot Harry Maggard, an
He had killed two brothers-in-law. He had killed Henry Monk, Mack Hall.
Through cunning he had escaped punishment. Now he could clear up these
cases and many more, if he would.
But he didn't admit
of his crimes. He rose and went out with a firm step. I was one of
assigned to do duty inside the hanging box.
Hall stood as
as the trunk of an oak. The sheriff was a very tenderhearted man and a
very nervous one, and the arrangements for the execution were awkward.
Two upright beams had to be knocked from under the trap door, so that
would rest on the short rope noose that had to be cut before the door
fall. As each of these was knocked out the door sank an inch, and the
was horrible. The poor wretch must have thought that each stroke was
one that was to send him to eternity but not a muscle moved. All was
at last and the sheriff cried in aloud voice, 'May God have mercy on
poor man's soul!" and struck the rope with a hatchet. The black-capped
apparition shot down, and the sheriff ran, weeping, out of the door of
Now let's go back to
Renfro's few last words about Talt Hall. He said, 'I put the black hood
over Talt's head, and dropped the noose over his head. After he was
I felt terrible although I knew Talt was a bad man. I sort of hoped I
have to help hang another one. But destiny didn't let me escape.
The Red Fox Said He Would Rise on
The second man to be
at Wise courthouse while I was yet a member of the court guard,"
Renfro continued, "was Dr. M. B. Taylor, better known as the Red Fox.
was Doctor Taylor, officiating as U. S. Marshal along with his work as
doctor and minister, who trailed Talt Hall from Wise County to Memphis,
Tennessee and helped bring him back to justice.
While Hall was yet
guarded in the little jail house Dr. Taylor stole away into the
and massacred five people out of a crowd of seven who were crossing the
Pine Mountain at Pound Gap."
John Fox, Jr.,
wrote about Dr. Taylor called him the Red Fox, and here's what he said
about him in Bluegrass and Rhododendron: "The Red Fox of the mountains
was going to be hanged. Being a preacher, a herb doctor, revenue
detective, crook, and assassin, he was going to preach his own funeral
sermon on the Sunday before the day set for his passing, which was
27, 1893. He was going to wear a suit of white and a death cap of
both made by his little old wife. Moreover, he would have his body kept
unburied for three days, saying that, on the third day, he would arise
and go about preaching.
On Sundays the Red
preached the Word; on other days he was a walking arsenal, with a huge
50x75 Winchester over one shoulder, two belts of gleaming cartridges
his waist, and a great pistol swung to either hip. In the woods he'd
moccasins with the heels forward, so that no man could tell which way
Sometimes he would
a huge spy-glass, five feet long, with which he watched his enemies
the mountain tops.
One of his enemies
Ira Mullins, a paralytic who lived at Pound. Ira made moonshine liquor
and peddled it from a two-horse wagon bed filled with straw. The Red
while a U. S. Marshal, had engaged Ira in a gun battle. Soon afterwards
the word got around that Ira would kill the Red Fox on sight.
So, the crafty Red
decided to beat him to it. While guarding Talt Hall, he had heard that
on May 14, 1892, Old Ira would bring a load of liquor from Kentucky
Henan and Cal Fleming, the Ref Fox lay in wait at a small cliff beside
the road just south of the Gap.
Ere long the wagon
into sight. A man by the name of John Chappel was in the driver's seat
an beside him sat Ira's wife, Louranza. On a pile of straw lay Old Man
Mullins, partially propped up. Behind the wagon walked Ira's 14 year
son, John, and a boy named Greenberry Harris. Mrs. Jane Mullins rode
Her husband, Wilson Mullins, walked in front of the wagon. (1)
When the wagon
within close range of the small cliff, the Red Fox and his confederates
opened fire, killing all in the caravan except Jane Mullins, riding
and Ira's son John who was walking beside her. (2)
The assassins fled
the woods. Mrs. Jane Mullins rode on into Wise, some 18 miles distant,
and reported the massacre to Sheriff John Miller. (3) The Sheriff
a posse of 22 men and a manhunt was begun that lasted several days and
nights. The Flemings fled to West Virginia and were not apprehended
two years later. (4) the Red Fox returned to his own home in Wise and
in his attic. Then one night his son Sylvan, a respected businessman
surveyor living in Norton, five miles from Wise, took his father to his
home. (5) The son insisted his father leave the mountains and go to
although the son testified in court that his father wanted to stay and
The Red Fox decided
take his son's advice and, outfitted in new clothes, mounted an empty
standing in the yard at Norton and rode to Bluefield, West Virginia,
which place he intended to hobo another train going south. But somehow
the Wise County Commonwealth Attorney, Robert Bruce, heard the Red
being in a boxcar bound for Bluefield and wired the Baldwin Detective
to apprehend him when he left the train. They did an the fugitive was
to Wise for trial.
in the trial concerned the Red Fox's Winchester. It had been known that
his rifle used rim-fire cartridges. Rim-fire shells had been found at
murder scene. But when the jury examined the gun they found it to be a
center-fire. However, upon close scrutiny they saw that the plunger had
been cleverly changed to strike the center of a cartridge instead of
rim. They then decided this clever man had tampered with the firing
Now let's go back to
Fox, Jr.'s account of the Red Fox's last hours on earth.
"The Red Fox
his own funeral sermon on a Sunday before the day set for execution and
a curious crowd gathered to hear him. He was led from the jail. He
on the jailer's porch with a little table in front of him; on it lay a
Bible. On the other side of the table sat a little palefaced old woman
in black, with a black sunbonnet drawn close to her face. By the side
the Bible lay a few pieces of bread. It was the Fox's last communion -
a communion which he administered to himself and in which there was no
other soul on earth to join him, except the little old woman in black.
It was pathetic
words when the old fellow lifted the bread and asked the crowd to come
forward to partake with him in the last sacrament. Not a soul moved,
the little old woman who had been ill-treated, deserted by the old
for many years; only she of all the crowd gave any answer, and she
her face for an instant timidly toward him. With a churlish gesture the
old man pushed the bread over toward her, and with hesitating,
fingers she reached for it.
The sermon that
was rambling, denunciatory, and unforgiving. Never did he admit guilt.
On the last day the
Fox appeared in his white suit. The little old woman in black had even
made the cap which was to be drawn over his face at the last moment -
she had made that white too.
He walked firmly to
scaffold steps, and stood there for one moment blinking in the
his head just visible above the rude box."
Now, for the ending
this gruesome story we switch back to Charles Renfro, who said, "For a
moment he stood viewing the rude gallows, and, seeming to believe it
do the job, he suffered his hands to be tied behind his him with a
handkerchief. One of the guards spread newspapers on the gallows steps
and platform so that not a speck of dirt might touch his shoes.
Once on the
the doctor requested the privilege of reading a passage of scripture
praying. Down on his knees he prayed in a voice so soft and low that
those very close to him could understand.
Sheriff Charles L.
slipped the white hood over his head and the noose was adjusted about
neck. Jeff Hunsucker, a deputy sheriff, excited because of the crucial
moment, jolted the trap in a clumsy effort to cut the trap rope and the
doctor crumpled to the floor.
The deputy waited
the doomed man could straighten up again and then he tried his ax a
The trap dropped and
doctor went down with it, a mass of white whirling around and around.
rope twisted tight and then unwound, which kept the struggling man
for some time.
When the twisting of
rope stopped the body was left to hang for 19 minutes when Dr. H. M.
and Dr. T. M. Cherry examined the body, pronounced it dead, and ordered
it delivered to the family.
As was his request,
body was kept up for three days. Some people believed that the doctor
rise again; but on the third day all hopes vanished and the body was
on a hill above the courthouse square where it now lies without
First Black Man Hanged
"The first black
be hanged here was Bob Foy, who killed a commissary clerk at Toms
Foy's wife was away from home and Foy, wanting her to return, borrowed
enough money from the clerk to purchase train tickets.
The wife, however,
not to come home and then Foy asked the store clerk to take the tickets
as pay for the loan of money. The clerk refused. A fight ensued. The
men tangled on the floor and while they were down Foy shot the clerk.
A speedy trial
and Foy was sentenced to be hanged July 1, 1902. But before the day of
execution arrived Foy broke jail. He'd been kept in the new jail. (Now
in 1971 being razed).
Along about this
we had a terrible time at the jail because of an epidemic of smallpox.
I was by this time jailer. I was appointed when the regular jailer died
of smallpox. It was very much up to me to decide what ought to be done.
I had Foy to hunt
I had to wrestle with the epidemic. We had thirty cases of the disease
among the inmates. These we got away to a temporary building some three
miles out of town. The rest we moved to the Scott County jail.
Now Foy, although at
didn't go far. We found him one day down Indian Creek sitting under a
waiting for someone to bring him back to jail.
He said he wasn't
of smallpox; and he'd rather be hanged than sleep out at night with
crawling around. He escaped smallpox but he didn't escape the noose. It
caught him July 1, 1902. And he seemed to be glad to get it over with."
George Robinson Hanged Twice
Exactly one month
Foy's execution, George Robinson, another black man, was to meet his
by the noose. His execution was set to take place between ten and three
o'clock August 1, 1902.
"I was still
Renfro went on, "It was again my job to inspect the gallows and get the
rope ready. Wib didn't like to release the trap but the job had to be
and he did it."
That big Negro, as
as a prize fighter, calmly stood and without protest allowed the hood
be put over his head and the noose to be drawn about his neck.
But when the trap
Robinson went all the way down to the ground. His neck was so tough
the rope broke instead, and the doomed man crumpled upon the ground and
still showed no sign of emotion.
The sheriff said
get a stronger rope and while he went to get it Robinson walked back up
the steps and waited for the second tieing.
By that time all of
officials were more nervous about the gruesome affair than the victim,
it seemed. It was a terrible thing to go through with to tie another
and put it over the man's head and fix the trap again and make another
cut of the rope. But we had to do it. When the victim fell he swung
and forth like a pendulum until he was pronounced dead by the jail
Now that I was
and since it seemed that hangings were getting more and more frequent,
I decided to visit other county seats and see what sort of gallows they
had. I found a goo done at Whitesburg, Kentucky and I brought a pattern
So, I tore the old
down and with new lumber and bolts made one which would not depend upon
the cutting of a rope to drop the trap but one whose trap would drop by
pulling a lever."
Innocent Man Hanged
And this new
not long standing in the back yard of the court until Eive Hopson was
to die upon it.
Eive's trouble had
over the theft of a hen from John Salyer's hen roost out at Glamorgan.
At the time two other men were with him. They were all drunk. Each was
brought to trial. Two got terms in the penitentiary and Eive got the
I told Wib that I'd
everything that was my duty to do. I'd made a gallows which was easy to
handle. All he'd have to do would be to spring the trap by pulling the
lever. It'd be easy.
'Easy!' Wib said to
'Charles, it's the hardest job I ever had to do. Listen to him! He
says he's innocent and I half way believe he is.'
I'd been good to
in jail. He'd wanted to be baptized and I'd got a minister and I'd
him out to Flanary Creek and the rites were performed in front of a
At that baptizing
John Salyers' boys. Eive vowed to them that he hadn't killed their
that night the hen roost was robbed. He said that he was drinking along
with the other boys, but that he didn't fire a shot, hope to die he
But, he said he'd
his gun to the other boys and then went up into the tree to get a
like the two other men had told him to do. While he was up there John
burst out of the house shooting and then somebody shot back and John
The two other men had
in court that Hopson had done the shooting and the jury had believed
There in the court
Hopson told the crowd that since Wib, the sheriff, had tended to him as
a baby and had almost raised him, he hoped somebody else would spring
Well, we went down
the gallows and I put the hood on Hopson's head and I tied his hands
him and I said that it was all I was going to do.
Then Wib took off
hat and he stood a moment in silence.
'May the Lord have mercy on your soul,
He pulled the level
the peg plopped out and down went the trap and Hopson's body dropped
the box I'd made around the posts of the scaffold. That was May 15,
The two other men
been indicted went to the State penitentiary. Later, after being
from prison, one of them on his death bed confessed to having fired the
shot that killed John Salyers.
Then it was that people knew an
man had been hanged.
They Hanged a Preacher
Just a little more
four months after Hopson's hanging the gallows felt the tread of
doomed man, Clifton Branham. Long before Hopson met his fate, Branham's
case was hanging in court.
Branham had grown up
the Pound River and he's been in plenty of meanness in Kentucky, where
he's served a term in prison. In fact it seemed that he crossed back
forth over the Kentucky border when the law got to trailing him.
He'd gone to the
penitentiary because of murder. But while he was in prison in that
he turned religious and began preaching and reading the Bible to his
inmates. The story of his preaching reached the governor who released
and told him to go home to his wife and children who lived in Virginia.
For a while he
over the hills, staying with relatives and friends. Finally he decided
to go back to Kentucky since he and his wife couldn't get along. But he
stopped short of the state line at his son-in-law's where his wife was
staying and while there he got into a quarrel with her, shot and killed
As was his custom he
to Kentucky. Soon after his return to that state he hired himself out
kill a man; and for the job he was to get as his wife the daughter of
man for whom he was doing murder.
His crimes, however,
up with him and he was lodged in a Kentucky jail. Virginia authorities
prevailed upon the governor of Kentucky for the right to bring him back
to Virginia and the Kentucky governor agreed, saying that his home
had a wide reputation for hanging men anyhow and since Branham needed
be hanged he should be brought back.
So he was tried at
and found guilty of murder in the first degree.
When Judge Matthews
sentence on Branham, he said: 'You're a mean man, Branham. You're
to society. You've killed three men and your wife. On next Friday,
25, 1903, you'll hang by the neck until you're dead, dead, dead.'
Branham was defiant
the very last. Hanging seemed to hold no worry for him. It was with a
and a hard face he went up onto the scaffold and stood for the black
It was the last I slipped over a human head and the last that anyone
over a head at the Wise courthouse for the Legislature of Virginia
a law putting an end to hangings.
(References 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are
court transcript of the Red Fox trial as published in Johnson's History
of Wise County.)
* Local Corruption of "Narrated."
Pages 35 to 44