On approximately February 17, 1877, two cowboys were
abducted, robbed and lynched in the
woods of Polk County, Texas. Some say that they were horse thieves; others say that they were
just passing through and were themselves waylaid by local criminals. In any event, four-maybe five-
locals were accused of the hanging and, after several delays and continuances, were brought to trial
in 1880, were convicted and sent to prison in Huntsville, Texas.
In the Fall,1981, I spent an entire day in the attic
of the Polk County, Texas courthouse pouring
over dusty criminal dockets and jacketed file folders. I had heard a story from Lubie Nichols and
Ena Miller Gatlin about a long-ago lynching that supposedly involved several of our relatives and,
with very little to go on other than the name of Morgan Rye, I made an appointment with the
District Clerk. Because she had known and admired my grandfather, R.E. Miller, for many years,
she was more than eager to help. She took me to the attic, turned on the single light bulb that
extended from the high ceiling, opened a few windows for air, and told me to help myself.
Taking her suggestion to look through the District
Court Criminal Dockets, Spring Term 1877
first, imagine my surprise when, after only a few minutes, I came across a single entry on page 185,
“The State of Texas vs. Morgan Rye Sr. Et al #1171/1172 Murder April 19, 1877” which
called for a special venir of fifty jurors. It listed the following potential witnesses:
L.P. Jordan, Ed Wiggins, Burgis Wiggins, Dock Cain, T. Cain, Russell Lilley, Geo. Hare,
George Wiggins, Henry Wiggins, R.A. Sumrall, Tom Moye.
Following the Clerk’s instructions further, I went
to the far corner of the room where I found,
built into the wall, slots for holding the case files. Each file was in a reddish brown folder, tied with
at string and numbered on the end by case number. I found files 1171 and 1172 and began reading.
The first documents were additional files for posting bonds and releasing
the accused under writs
of habeas corpus. They were as follows:
1185 Wm. Owens Habeas Corpus Bail
1186 Randolph Fields “ Bail $1300
1187 M. Rye, Jr. “ Bail $1000
1188 M. Rye, Sr. “ Bail $2000 (posted 4/28/1877)
1189 M. Rye, Jr. “ Bail $1000
1190 R. Fields “ Bail $1300
1191 M. Rye, Sr. “ Bail $2000
1192 Wm. Owens “ Bail $1000
On April 19, 1877, the Grand Jury, following the
results of a Jury of Inquest in February,
indicted Morgan Rye, Sr., Morgan Rye, Jr., Randolph Fields, Frank Snell and
William Owens for murder in the first degree. The Grand Jury consisted of D.P. Taylor,
Elijah Richardson, John Norris, J.W. Richardson, Jr., J.H. Johnson (foreman), and
Phillip Rhodes. Asa Emanuel had been called as a prospective Grand Juror but was not
selected. The District Judge was Edwin Hobby.
During the proceedings, the following witnesses were called:
W.W. Richardson, Wm. Claybrook, R.B. Nichols, Jas. Nichols, H.M. Sansom.
The following witnesses testified to the Jury of Inquest on July 22, 1877:
“No. 1. J.T. Cain sworn says that himself and Brother ware
hog hunting and found sign of where
horses had been tied and on examination found where some person had been hung found a peace
of rope with a hangmans knot – and upon further examination found the bodies of two men
unknown to witness. Said men had a peace of small rope tied round there necks. Sworn to and
subscribed before me this Feby 22 1877. L.P. Jordan, JP (Signed by an X) R Cain and J.T. Cain”
“Wit No.2 Frank Stutts sworn says that he saw one of the
deceasts talked with him some two
weeks past-and decast told witness his name but witness does not recollect his nam he told witness
that he had been out west running stock and that he was going to Vicksburg his people was there
decast was riding on horse and leading one and had a 16 shooting gun with him decast ast John
Wiggins if he saw a man or met one and Wiggins told decast that he did and that man ast if he saw
decast. Sworn to and subscribed before me this 22 day of Feby 1877. L.P. Jordan, JP
Frank Stutts (Signed by an X).”
“Witness No. 3 E.W. Wiggins sworn says that the decast that lies
before him et breakfast at his
house Friday the 16th of Feby this inst – the two decast was in the custody of Morgan Rye, Sr.,
Morgan Rye, Jr., Randolph Fields, Frank Snell and Wm Owens. One of said decast was locked
with chains the other handcuffed. The possy left witnesses house 9 or 10 oclok and one of the
decast said his name was Sam Black. Witness does not recollect what the other prisners called
himself. Witness knows nothing further. The above transaction taken … Polk County Texas.
Sworn and subscribed to before me this 22nd day of Feby 1877. L.P. Jordan, J.P.
E.W. Wiggins (Signed by an X).”
“Witness No. 4 Burges Wiggins sworn says that William Owens
said that they intended to put
the prisners to a line one of said …. Sworn to and subscribed before me this 22 day of Feby 1877.
L.P. Jordan, J.P. Burges Wiggins (Signed by an X).”
The case was then continued to October, 1877.
It was later continued again to April, 1878 and
to October 1878. At that time, attachments were ordered for Ed Wiggins, Burgess Wiggins, Henry
Wiggins and Tuk Cain. Also, in Liberty County, attachments were issued for Jesse Lunn and Chas
Staten as witnesses for the state. W.W. Hilliard was attached from Newton County. W.H. Nichols
posted an attachment bond on October 21, 1879.
Some of the documents were pure courthouse drivel.
Others, such as this appeal from a potential
witness, were more entertaining:
|"Woodville. April 23rd 1879
Dist. Attorney Perryman, Livingston
Dear Sir – I sent a Physician’s certificate of my inability to attend this term of Dist Court suffering as
I do from severe Hemorrhoids – and inflation (sic) of the kidneys & bladder & general disibility-I
have not been able to scarcely sit stand or walk for six weeks – I do not know vut very little in
Morgan Rye case – only this and only what I can testify to – to wit – that M. Rye said to me in
conversation “would you be willing to help hang them” or are you willing to help hang them”-I said
I would not engage in any thing of this kind & that was all that I heard – I hope you will excuse me
from this term under the above stated circumstances & not put me and my sureties to any expense
or trouble. Your truly J W Busby"
In the Fall, 1879, the jury selection process took place with the following
citizens being called.
Here are the results:
|Mid Skinner||Wm Hendry||W.H. McDonald|
|B. Richardson||Fred Hill||Miley Peebles|
|Jesse Rhodan||J.P. Straughon||R. Swilling|
|John Chambers C for C||--- Hickman||Jno P Roth|
|W.D. Hood C for C||Joe Hagan||T.A. Hammond|
|Asa Emanuel C for C||M.A. Jones||Thos Leonard|
|A. Norts||John Morris||A.G. H---|
|M. Myers||S.E. Gressiatt||A.H. Victory|
|F. Brazzel||E.T. Harding||W.J. Kennedy|
|Sam Murphy C for C||J.R. Oats||M.W. McNeil|
|T. F. Hill||Rich Richardson||Wm Scurlock|
|D.P. Taylor Witness||Wm McDonald||W.H. Mathews|
|S.B. Jones||J.A. Nelson||R.H. Mills|
|J.W. Peters||W.W. Smith||H. Williams|
|H.C. Harding||James Mathews||J.--------|
|Hosey Gay Witness||Abe Peebles||G. Jennings|
|James H. Hutto||J.H. Grinnell||- P. Whisenhunt|
|D. Nichols||James Oats||Ralph Leggett|
|B.D. Hayes||Josh Abrams||G.W. Hendley|
|Robt McMichael||Edgar Walker||Jno B. Taylor|
|J.M. Nicholson||John Wald---||M. Dorish|
|G. Harding||.||James Thomas|
|John Hammond||.||Pierce Mills|
|John Towns||.||Wm. Kerr|
|A.J. Chandler||.||Robt. Kerr|
The jury was finally selected and empanelled on December 29, 1879:
Wm. Hinson, J.Y. Foster, E.T. Josey, John Ryan, G.T. Parish, John Walker, Sam Parish,
F.A. Butler, B.H. Glass, J.C. Fagins, G.K. Butler, T.J. Hilton.
Although my records do not indicate the date of the
actual trial and the intial verdict, the Polk
County District Court, on appeal dated March 3, 1880, affirmed the guilty verdict and set the
sentence at “imprisonment for life.” The Presiding Judge was John P. White and the Clerk was
Chas. S. Morse. The prevailing family story is that, several years after being convicted, a serious
fire broke out in the prison and many of the prisoners who helped fight the fire were paroled.
That group supposedly included the four from Polk County who, once released, returned to the
The amazing thing about all of this is that many
of the families involved -on both sides of the law-
were related to the defendants and are related to me! W.W. Richardson was my g.g.g.grandfather
and Morgan Rye, Jr. was his stepson. Richardson’s daughter, Ada Richardson, married both
William Claybrook and William Owen after the death of her first husband, William Nichols. Even
some of the witnesses and prospective jurors are family: Asa Emanuel was my g.g.grandmother
Miller’s brother; D.P. Taylor, my g.g.g.grandmother Miller/Musgrove’s brother.
As a follow-up, I have always heard that the four men were paroled some years later for helping
put out a prison fire. However, thanks to some research by the staff of the Texas State Library and
Archives Commission, I recently learned that the people of Polk County played a vital role in their
ultimate return to freedom!
Morgan Rye, Sr. was assigned prisoner number 8542 when he arrived
in Huntsville on April 1, 1880
with $2.00 in his pocket. Labeled as “intemperate” with a limited education, Rye was six feet tall and
weighed 190 lb., had fair complexion, hazel eyes and gray hair. He was 57 years old when pardoned
on February 25, 1884. He was pardoned “because of the recommendation of the County officials of
Liberty and Houston Counties, of two of the attorneys who prosecuted and of Honorable A.I. Watts
of the Court of Appeals, of a very large number of citizens of Liberty, Polk and adjoining Counties and
various parts of the State, and testimonials as to his previous good character, of the Superintendent and
Officials of the Penitentiary as to his prison life, conduct, together with the fact of the existing doubts
of his real guilt. The murdered party was caught with stolen property. The said convict now very old.”
Morgan Rye, Jr. was assigned prisoner number 8541 on April 1,
1880. He was 5’10”, weighed 165 lb.,
had fair complexion, hazel eyes and brown hair. When he was pardoned on January 30, 1885, he was
38 years old.
William Owens was assigned prisoner number 8540 on April 1, 1880.
He was pardoned on July 5, 1885
by Governor John Ireland. He was 27 years old.
Randolph Fields, prisoner number 8539, was 45 years old when
he began his four years of service to
the State. Tall – 6’2” and thin – 165 lb., he lost one arm at the elbow while in prison. He was pardoned
on February 7, 1884 because it appeared that, while he was one of the four involved in the hanging, he
was very drunk at the time and was not present at the site of the crime. He had also “given evidence
of complete reformation.”
All four returned to Polk and Liberty County where some remarried, including
William Owen(s) became the third husband of Morgan Rye, Jr’s. half-sister, Ada Richardson
Nichols Claybrook, my great-great-great grandmother. And so it goes….