RECOLLECTION OF AN EARLY PERIOD
THE MURDER OF THE CROCKER FAMILY
IN THE HISTORY OF WHARTON COUNTY,TEXAS
(EDITORS NOTE: Elo Shilling of Garwood has written an interesting and graphic account of "The Murder of the Crocker Family"ť, one of the most gruesome murders in the history of Wharton County, which occurred in 1895, and in which his father, F.W. Schilling, now living in Winslow, Ark., assisted materially in solving. Old Timers, to this day, still talk of "The Murder of the Crocker Family."ť
THE MURDER OF THE CROCKER FAMILY
By: Elo Shilling
Professor Fredrick Turner has well said that American history must be interrupted from the standpoint of the frontier. Prior to the year 1860, American historians interpreted our history from the viewpoint of Europe. They attempted to point out that diplomacy of Europe resulted in the colonization of American, and wrote of American history through the eyes of the Europeans. It is needless to say that they had a modicum of evidence to sustain their actions. But Americans history has resulted from the interplay of those forces which met on the frontiers of our nation. It is on the frontiers that we find the typical Americans who have molded and forged our people into a mighty republic.
It is with these thoughts in mind, and with the hope that my experiences will prove interesting to the people of this section, that I write of events which occurred in an earlier period of the history of Wharton County.
In the year 1889, my father, F. W, Shilling, moved from Hackberry in Lavaca County, Texas, to the present site of El Campo. The town at that time had a large platform with a little shanty in the center,adorned the town site.
The annual â€śroundupâ€ť on the cattle ranches was in progress when we arrived at our new home. The swoop of the cowboys, accompanied by the howls of these grim marauders of the prairies, the coyotes, could be heard until a late hour at night. Ducks, geese and game of all kind were plentiful. Large herds of semi-wild cattle roamed the prairies. These were mostly the property of the A. H. Pierce and Kuntz brothers ranches.
Early settlers, who had never witnesses the loading of cattle on trains, traveled long distances to gather at the old stock pen, during the shipping time, cattle, were loaded day and night. A Mayor McReynold had charge of all loading.
When we arrived in El Campo, land was selling from 3 to 7 dollars per acre. A.H. Pierce tried on several occasions to sell my father rich land near El Campo for $3.00 per acre.
Mr. E. Bauch opened the first store in El Campo. This store was managed by John Engholm . He later sold his business to the Nathe brothers. Abe Beakes was one of the first barbers in town. It was here that I attended my first school which was taught by Miss Gertrude Mertzentine. Later, Prof. J.R. Joynes taught the school. Miss Mertzetine and Prof. Joynes will live long in the memories of those who attended school under them. My father was one of the first, if not the first, constables elected at El Campo.
In the year 1894, we moved to the west corner of Wharton County, then known as the Sandies, but later as the Colburn community. With us was an elderly man named Tom Batkins, a carpenter by trade, who built the house that was to be our new home. Mr. Batkins had known this section of the county many years, had been there during the early Stafford reign of the prairies, and knew all the different places and points of interest. Father filed on Section 8 which was located on Middle Turkey Creek. This land was seven miles north of what was known as The Devils Pocket. The Devils Pocket was located below where the Pin Oak empties into the Sandies, on the west side.
Mr. Batkins told us of an old slave farm at the place where Pin Oak empties into the Sandies. This we knew as the old Carr Field. We visited this place frequently, as it was a great place for hunting and fishing. The land is now occupied by a Mr. Means.
Then east of our place, about three miles, was a Negro settlement. Among the Negroes was an old man who,we called Uncle Tom Derwin. Uncle Tom had operated a horse power gin prior to our moving there.
Then west and across the Sandies Creek lay a picturesque and beautiful Long Prong and Goldenrod prairie. That section of the country was beautiful. Large herds of the Stafford Circle S and J. Cross cattle were still on the prairies. Game of all kinds was plentiful. It was truly a hunterâ€™s paradise. Judge J. G. Barbee killed several bear and a good many deer while we were living there.
Soon after moving to this section of the county, my father became a deputy sheriff under Sheriff R. A. Rich. Our neighbors came from various sections of our country. All came to file on school land or pre-emptions. As a whole we were sociable, and, although poor, enjoyed life to the full. As there were no public buildings, brush arbors were erected, and under these, religious services were conducted. Among the early settlers were the Martins, Colburns, Simmons, Scoggins, Lockers, Rickards and Dodds.
Among our neighbors was one named E. C. Crocker, who had filed on a pre-emption located near the Sandies. Emmett Colburn, Sr., who lived about one half mile distance, was the nearest neighbor. Mr. Crocker, we were informed, was a minister. He, like the majority of us, was poor; and, since his land was not adapted to farming, it was necessary for him and his family to go out and pick cotton in some other locality in order to meet the necessary expense of living.
Taking only necessary articles, the Crockers locked their cabin, and went out to hunt for work. When they returned, they found that their humble home had been destroyed by fire. So the family, Mr. Crocker, wife and three children camped under a tree near the site of their home. Winter came on and the children became ill. Mr. Crocker then moved them several miles south, near where the Bear Sand crosses the Sandies. There two of the children died. Their remains rest in unmarked graves, not far from the site of their former home.
Spring came on again. Their supplies and money being exhausted, it was necessary for the Crocker family to again seek work. Lack of money and time precluded this rebuilding on the pre-emption which he had settled. When the family returned later in the summer, they found that a Mr. Day had built a one room cabin and had filed on their land. The law required one to be an actual settler.
At that time, Mr. Day was near El Campo putting up prairie hay for the market. The Crockers lost no time in building a log shanty which formed a T to the one built by Day. So when Day returned late in the winter months, he found Mr. Crocker in charge of the place which he considered his own. When Day reached his cabin, Crocker was away from home. Mrs. Crocker tried in vain to keep Day from entering the house which she claimed.
Mr. Crocker returned later in the night. The next morning, when day was standing on the steps of the room which he had constructed, he received in his chest two loads of buckshot from a shotgun, the barrel of which had been thrust the racks of the logs of the room occupied by the Crockers.
The temperature was near the freezing point that morning. A heavy blanket of snow had fallen during the night. A short time after we had finished breakfast, father and Mr. Batkins saw a man riding toward our home. They wondered what had brought him out in weather so inclement.
As he came nearer, they recognized the rider as Mr. Crocker. He dismounted from his horse, came in and said he had come to surrender for killing Mr. Day. Father went to the Crocker place to make an investigation, and found that Mr. Day had been killed as described by Crocker. Judge Gus Seydler, then justice of the peace at El Campo came out and held an inquest.
As there had been no site for a cemetery selected, Day was buried at the west section of our land, on the banks of the West Turkey Creek.
Mr. and Mrs. Crocker, each claiming to be the one who fired the fatal shot, were placed in jail at Wharton. Both remained there for a few weeks when they were released under bail.
The murder of Day aroused the anger of the Martins, Williamsons, and others, as they were friends of the deceased. However, the people of our community seemed to take murder for granted, and it was not long until everything resumed normal relations.
On May 10, 1895, the day being Sunday, my sister and I attended song services under a brush arbor on West Turkey Creek. Among those attending were the Martin brothers, Jim and Frank Williamson. These men had carbines in their saddles. Since this was nothing unusual in those days, we gave them no special attention.
When we returned home that evening, we found father making preparations for an early start to town the next morning. When we awakened the nest morning, it was raining. Some one had left the lot gate open, and the horses were gone. Father dismissed the thought of going to town. As we were eating breakfast, we heard a â€śHelloâ€ť coming from the yard gate. Father went out and recognized the man as Emmett Colburn, Jr. Colburn stated that he had come to report that the Crockers were killed, that his, Colburnâ€™s house was full of blood and bullet holes. Father asked him how he knew it was the Crockers that were killed, as the bodied were not there. Colburn replied that he thought it was the Crockers because they were missing.
Father hastily got ready to go out and investigate. At the same time he asked me to go over to Mr. Doddâ€™s house and ask him to come over. I saddled a gray pony we called Dexter, and rode over to Mr. Doddâ€™s place. Mr. Dodd, an elderly gentleman, had not eaten breakfast. While he was eating, I caught and saddled his horse.
While traveling back toward our home, we saw father coming toward us. As he approached us, I could tell by the expression on his face that something terrible had happened. He greeted us by saying: â€śDodd, things look bad this morning. The house of Emmett Colburn is the most gruesome sight I have ever seen. It looks like a veritable slaughter house.â€ť (Colburnâ€™s house, like nearly all of the early settlers, was a one-room log cabin, with a shed room built of planks for a kitchen. The kitchen had a dirt floor. The rear kitchen wall contained many shelves which were filled with canned fruits and berries.) These, father told us, were all shot to pieces. The glass and contents of the jars were scattered over the kitchen floor. The front room, he said, was covered with blood and blood soaked clothing. A small piece of the front door which was of soft pine, containing about two square feet, had 14 bullet holes in it.
At the close of fathersâ€™ recital, it was evident that the Crockers had been killed. They could not be found anywhere. Father directed me to write a telegram to Sheriff Rich. I worded the message as follows: â€śMr. Rich, please come at once â€“ somebody killed - body gone.â€ť
I left my father and Mr. Dodd who returned to the scene of the killing. On my way to El Campo, my pony, Dexter, fell flat, throwing me into a puddle of mud and water. I remounted and resumed my trip. I arrived in El Campo about 2 oâ€™clock, gave my message to Mr. A. R. Hilliyer who sent the wire to Mr. Rich.
On returning home the following day, I found that a number of men had gathered from Colorado, Jackson, and Lavaca Counties. Among these men were Sheriff Sam Reese of Colorado County, and several deputies from Jackson and Lavaca Counties. They resembled a small army. All boarded about our place.
Practically every man in the community met early every morning at the place of the killing. Most people did not care to take any part in the search for the bodies of the members of the Crocker family. Nearly all had different excuses for not helping. However, all the men were deputies and summoned under penalty of the law to appear every morning and aid in the search for the bodies. They were organized in small groups, and each group assigned a territory to search. Among the searchers were some who were later convicted of committing the crime. Te hunt continued throughout Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, but with no results.
From the beginning, father suspected several men living in our community. After talking the matter over with officers on Wednesday night, it was decided that arrests would be made the following day. Father filed the complaint which can be found on record at the District Clerkâ€™s office in Wharton. Those mentioned in the complaint were George Williamson, his son, Jim, Frank and Jim Martin, Gus Colburn and Bud Davis. Davis was under an alias.
After the arrests were decided upon, there was much discussion as to the best method of approaching the alleged murderers. It was realized that the Martins were desperate men who were quick on the draw. Different ideas of arresting the men prevailed among the officers. Sheriff Sam Reese of Colorado County suggested that they get the men as near together as possible, draw their guns, and command then to throw up their hands. This plan did not meet with the approval of the others. After different plans were discussed and rejected, an officer called my father in and said â€śSay, Fritz, you know these men. What plan do you suggest for arresting them?â€ť Father stated that he had been considering the matter and thought it would be best to station two men in the corn crib which stood about 150 yards from the house where the killings occurred. Two other officers were to be stationed midway between the crib and the house. The two men stationed between the house and the barn were to appear as being engaged in trivial conversation. Father stated that he would then tell the suspects, one by one, that the men between the house and the crib wanted to talk to him. Those men were to arrest each man, conduct him to the crib, where the men stationed there would guard them.
Fathers plan was adopted, and on Thursday morning, when everything had been arranged, father stepped up to Frank Martin and told him that the two men sitting between the house and barn wanted to talk to him. Martin never suspected the trap that had been laid for him. He approached the men without his gun. His brother, Jim, was sent next and so on, until all the suspects were disarmed and under guard. They were all loaded on a wagon which had been provided; and, under a strong guard, were driven to the jail in Wharton.
The evidence to convict these men however, was still lacking. The bodies had not been found. Among the men arrested was a Mr. Lockler, who, it was believed, had no part in the crime. However, he lived within one half mile of the Colburn residence, and it was thought that he knew something that would incriminate the suspects. Father returned from Wharton that evening and called on Mrs. Lockler. He told her that her husband had told all he knew about the crime, and sent word to her to tell all that she knew. Mr. Lockler, of course had told nothing, but Mrs. Lockler, not suspecting the ruse, said: Mr. Schilling, you havenâ€™t got all of them.â€ť She then implicated a Mr. John Rickard. She said that Mr. and Mrs. Rickard had been to her house that evening and begged that she remained silent. But that since her husband had talked; she would tell what she knew in order that her husband be freed as soon as possible. However, neither she nor her husband knew where the bodied were.
Father then went to see Mr. Rickard. Rickard was arrested and brought to our home. While returning home, rain fell upon them in torrents. Father had promised Rickard immunity if he would become a state witness. While they were changing clothes, father told him that the bodies had been found, and that a guard would be placed over them that night. Rickard appeared surprised, and seating himself on the bed next to my father, told the names of all those implicated in the crime. Rickardâ€™s confession can be found in the District Clerkâ€™s office in Wharton.
When father came out of the room, it was evident by his countenance that the mystery of the Crocker murder had been solved. A large group of men who were still at out house were informed of Rickardâ€™s confession.
Immediate plans were made for holding the inquest, and burial of the bodies. Justice Gus Seydler was notified and all arrangements were made. By daylight, men were on their way to the Seymour pasture, where, according to Rickardâ€™s confession, the bodies had been placed. The Seymour pasture was about five miles from where the family had been murdered. As the men approached the place, they noticed buzzards hovering over a dense thicket. The bodies, in a bad state of decomposition, were found there. The inquest was help; graves were dug beside the bodies, and long forked poles were used to push them into their final resting place. The bodies occupy unmarked graves. For many years a number of us knew their location, but because of the many changes in the country, it is doubtful if anyone can locate them today.
But, back to the story of the murder. As the Martins and Williamsons were returning from the song services mentioned above, they encountered Crocker about a mile from his home. Crocker was driving his oxen to his lot. The men opened fire on Crocker. Crocker had an old Spencer rifle, while his enemies had carbines. Since Crocker had but little ammunition, he attempted to get to his home. He was cut off in the direction, and took refuge in the house of Emmett Colburn, a short distance from his own home. His enemies followed as close as the corn crib, and then from there poured volley after volley into the shed room of the Colburn home.
Mrs. Crocker and son Wesley, about 10 years of age, seeing the predicament of Mr. Crocker, grabbed two muzzle loading shotguns, and an old pistol, and rushed to his assistance. They arrived at the house a few minutes after Crocker got there.
The Martins and Williamsons continued firing. The Crockers, seeing that their ammunition was running low, decided to go for help. Mrs. Crocker slipped out and got about 300 yards from the house when she sank helplessly to the ground with a bullet through her body.
The murderers, thinking she was dead, gathered in front of the house to finish the husband and son. Crocker fired sparingly because of the lack of ammunition. The firing continued until 3 a.m. Crocker, his ammunition gone, had climbed onto a joist directly over a bed under which his son had taken refuge. Seeing that there was no more resistance, the front door was battered down by those outside. Spying Crocker, several bullets were fired into his body and he fell, crashing the bed. Locating the boy under the bed, they pulled him out by the heels. A charge from a shotgun literally tore away the upper portion of his skull.
Thinking they were all dead, the murderers procured a team and wagon. The bed of the wagon was removed and long poles from the garden were placed on the frame to form a bed for the bodies. Crocker and his son were loaded on the wagon. The men then drove to where Mrs. Crocker had fallen. She was still living, and begged the men not to kill her. A charge from a shotgun finished her, and her body was loaded beside her husband and son. The three bodies were then hauled a distance of about five miles, and placed in the dense thicket mentioned above.
From this terrible crime, George Williamson and his son Jim, Frank and Jim martin were to answer to the courts at Wharton, Texas. The grand jury, some months later, found true bills of murder against the four men. Gus Colburn and Bud Davis were finally acquitted. Bud Davis was later arrested by my father and placed in jail. He was wanted in another part of the state for stealing horses. He was tried and convicted, and given ten year in the penitentiary.
The Martins and Williamsons had no money, and the court appointed John E. Lynn and Guy Mitchell, a well known law firm at Wharton, to defend them. After the case lingered in the courts for a year, they were brought to trial. Frank Martin and Jim Williamson were sentenced to be hanged.
The writer was present at the execution of Jim Williamson who was about 23 years of age. Father and I had gone to Wharton the evening before the execution, and were early at the jail the next morning. We went to the cell occupied by Jim Williamson. He was pale and very nervous. A doctor was with him. His father, who has been permitted to spend the last night with his son, was being led away to his cell upstairs. As he left, he was heard to murmur something about a â€śmis-carriage of justiceâ€ť.
The gallows had been erected on the lawn in front of the jail. A large bag of attached to one end of the rope was being dropped through the trap door in order to take the â€śstretchâ€ť out of the rope. A wall constructed of boards, and about ten feet high, encircled the jail yard.
As one looked from the top of the gallows, a sea of faces could be seen. People thronged the streets. Large numbers were sitting on roofs and the adjacent houses and barns. A barn near the jail broke down with a number of people on it . A fight between a negro and a man whom we called Chinaman took place on the roof of a barn owned by the Negro. After exchanging a few blows, both men rolled to the ground. They were arrested by my father and Pete Bundick and placed in jail. Chinaman was assigned to the â€śrun-aroundâ€ť where he had a fair view of the execution.
At 9 oâ€™clock, Jim Williamson marched from his cell. A deputy was on either side of him, holding his arms, and supporting him on his last walk. He was led to the top of the gallows, a black cap drawn over his face, his hands and feet tied, and dropped through the trap door. His body fell with a heavy thud as the rope tightened. The only motion of the body was a slight twitching of one hand. After several minutes, two doctors, on examining him, pronounced him dead.
The rope was cut and the body lowered. The coffin was brought near. As the men prepared to place him in the coffin, Jim drew a deep breath. The doctors were called back, and again examined him. They pronounced him living. A man was sent to town for another rope. When the man appeared with the rope, Jimâ€™s breathing was much better and oftener. He was again carried to the top of the gallows, and again dropped through the trap door. After hanging a few minutes, he was again pronounced dead. Jim Williamson had at last paid the supreme penalty for helping to commit one of the most revolting crimes ever known in this section. Frank Martin was executed a year later.
George Williamson and Jim Martin were given life terms in the penitentiary. The sentencing of these men was the final act in one of the most gruesome murders ever committed in the history of Wharton County.
Re-type 8/5/98 rsb