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Dark days: October marks 155th anniversary of hanging

By Racey Burden | Published Saturday, October 21, 2017
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In October of 1862, Sheriff Robert Cates led three men to their death in a field outside of Decatur.

Robert Cates

The men, convicted of treason against the Confederate government of Texas, were forced to ride out of town sitting in their own coffins.

One of the convicted was a preacher and friendly with the sheriff, and after watching the other two hang by having a wagon pulled out from under their feet, slowly choking to death, he asked Cates if he could climb up on to the branch and jump off. He wanted to break his neck and get it over with quickly. Cates agreed.

“They were hanged in a deep hollow west of town. There was a huge post oak tree there,” Joe Cates, Cates’ son, would write in the Messenger in 1956, nearly 100 years later, recalling the story as told to him by his parents. “Ma said it was a sad night.”

Four men in total, perhaps five, were executed by hanging in Decatur following the Great Hanging in Gainesville. The exact date of their execution is unknown, though at least one source lists it as Oct. 18, 1862. Their names were John Conn, Ira Burdick, Jim McKinn and Parson Maples. The fifth and unverified man went by the surname of Ward, first name unknown. They were from Prairie Point, a community in the area now known as Rhome.

Joe Cates wrote that the men were convicted for their involvement with the Peace Party, a pro-Union group formed when Texas’ allegiance lay with the Confederacy.

“Many prominent men who had no intention of overthrowing the confederacy had joined this organization,” Joe Cates wrote, “believing its aims to be a peaceful ending of the Civil War.”

The Confederate government, however, saw the threat of an uprising or even an invasion by Northern troops, led by Union sympathizers.

The five men hanged in Decatur receive little recognition compared to the 42 men who were accused of being Unionists and were killed in Gainesville earlier that same month. More than 150 men in Cooke County were arrested by Col. James Bourland and Col. William Young of the Confederate Army Oct. 1, and tried before a jury composed mostly of slave owners. According to the Texas State Online Handbook, only seven men, known as influential Unionists, were initially convicted in Cooke County. But a mob took over the proceedings and lynched 14 men, and the court eventually retried 19 of the prisoners. They were also sentenced to death. Two men were later shot trying to escape.

The Great Hanging in Gainesville is commonly recognized as a mob mass killing, but the hangings in Decatur are considered legal executions. A citizen’s court, organized in Decatur by Captain John Hale, tried and convicted the men, according to the “Pioneer History of Wise County,” written by Cliff Donahue Cates and published in 1907.

Donahue Cates said the men arrested in midnight searches across the county were well-known, and the trials caused much excitement in the area. Many of those tried were found to not be true members of the Peace Party and were sent to the Confederate army as the price of their innocence. The five who were found guilty were taken to a field to hang.

“Thus ended a series of gruesome scenes and thus was exterminated the untimely propaganda of the Peace Party,” Donahue Cates wrote. “… the party vanished from the face of the earth and no further attempts were made to inculcate a hostile faith in this, a Confederate community.”

The exact site of the hangings is unknown, as are the ages and occupations of the men. Bell Ford, writing in the same October 1956 issue of the Messenger that Joe Cates’ account is in, said that the men were hanged on land owned by a Dr. Swan, behind where the Department of Public Safety office now sits.

No one seems to know where the men are buried, either. Rosalie Gregg, the former chair of the Wise County Historical Society, searched for the burial records for more than 30 years and found nothing.

“Our records show that they were placed on top of the caskets in the wagons, taken to the hanging site, then were carried away,” Gregg wrote in a letter to a woman who believed she might be a relative to one of the men. “That is where it seems to end.”

Susan Conn, the wife of John Conn, remarried after her husband’s execution. Her new husband, the Rev. Stephen Beebe of Denton, wrote a letter to a relative in New York in July of 1865, indicating the couple’s desire to leave Texas behind for the North. Beebe’s letter, sent to the Wise County Heritage Museum by a relative in ’80s, shed light on the side of the convicted men.

Beebe called Conn a “victim of the violence of the times during the late Rebellion and reign of terror in the Seceded States.” He explained that Conn had always been a Union man, and he joined the Peace Party because he wanted Texas to return to the Union. Beebe said the party in Wise County was betrayed by a member of the group who told the Confederate government the Peace Party was planning to rob and kill Southern advocates.

“Susan’s health is very good,” Beebe wrote toward the end of the letter. “She is … very much displeased with Texas. She never did like it, and now that she has suffered so much from the violence of the parties there she perfectly abhors it.”

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