The building at left is the Old Rock Front Saloon in McDade, Texas, in Bastrop County. Once a stage stop, it is now a sometime museum of the town’s past. It was the last place my great-grandfather ever saw alive.
On Christmas Eve 1883, angry men dragged my great-grandfather, one Thaddeus Kosciuszko McLemore (and how we come up with these names, I’ll never know), from the holiday warmth of the old saloon, rode him a few miles north and hanged him, along with his older brother and a friend who happened to be at the wrong place.
On the next day – Christmas – three Beatty brothers, Asa, Jack, and Haywood, kin to McLemores by marriage, rode into to town. Perhaps they heard then of the lynching, perhaps they already knew. But they stormed to George Milton’s store at the opposite end of the block of buildings connected to the saloon, to settle scores. Milton was known as a vigilante leader, as was his friend, Tom Bishop, who watched the Beattys approach as he rested on the porch outside Milton’s. Hot words were exchanged and men reached for pistols and shotguns. Asa who was shot by Milton, stumbled outside to die in the street. Jack also died, while Haywood, 19, stood in the street, returning fire as he was hit again and again by buckshot and pistol slugs. Badly wounded, he rode away, after gunning down a young man who ran into the street to see what all the commotion was about.
Happy holidays, indeed.
I never heard this family story until around 1979, when my father called, his voice rushed with excitement. “My grandfather was lynched,” he said. “There’s a whole chapter on it.” He learned the story through a book, a history of violent Texas by C.L. Sonnichsen titled ‘I’ll Die Before I Run.’ The family never talked about the killings in McDade. It was, he said, like learning a secret part of your life.
That grim Christmas pretty much changed my family’s destiny, though just how and whether for good or ill is a little hard to define precisely. The facts of what exactly brought my kin to a grisly end of a rope on the Eve of Jesus’ birthday, is not exactly clear. There are many stories surrounding it, and the interpretations of the few facts agreed upon are many.
For instance, Thad was, according to some, under charges of burglary. The McLemores dispute the claim while the forces of decency in McDade insist it was one more indication that Thad, his family and extended kin were lawbreakers and scofflaws. The Truth, however, remains elusive.
Historians simply record it as one more bloody event in a very bloody time in Texas.
Even nearly 20 years after the Civil War, Texas still roiled in the bitterness of defeat and lawlessness. The line between law and the outlaw was often non-existent. The state police were creatures of the governor’s office and beholden more to politics than equal enforcement of the law. County sheriffs preferred to stay near the county seat and let the citizens in the outer areas enforce their own justice. Local vigilante groups sprang up to fill the void, with the burden of proof more heavily weighted to supposition and rumor than facts or evidence.
The victors get to write the history, so we’ll start there. The lynching of Great-Granddad Thad came at the end of a vicious run of robberies and killings and counter-lynching by vigilantes in Bastrop County Much of McDade’s anger and resulting suspicion was directed at an area northeast of McDade known as The Knobs – three low hills which housed poor farmers and ex-rebels.
This was also the suspected home base of The Notch Cutters – a band of lawless bandits who notched their pistol grips with each kill. Or so people said.
In 1875, vigilantes hanged two suspected thieves, prompting retaliation by the Notch Cutters, who killed two vigilantes. The vigilantes countered with another hanging.
A year later, rancher Print Olive found two men skinning a cow marked with his brand. Olive, an unforgiving man, hat the two men shot, then wrapped in the still-wet hide and left on the grazing lands as a warning to others. Friends of the alleged smuggler fought back a month later, riding up to the Olive ranch, burning down the house and killing two hands.
Then things got nasty.
On June 27, 1877, during a country dance in Lee County several miles north of McDade, a large group of vigilantes showed up, masked, and pulled out four men suspected of horse stealing. They left the bodies on a tree limb, which killed the party mood.
In 1883, Bose Heffington, a deputy sheriff, came up into the county to investigate the murder of two men and the beating of a third man during a robbery. Unknown gunmen came upon Heffington at night and killed him.
Citizens of McDade were outraged, the story goes. The met in a local church and formed The League of Law and Order. Enter Thad McLemore.
There was a warrant for his arrest on burglary charges, though I’ve never found a record of one. On Christmas Eve, Thad, about 38, and his older brother Wright, crippled by arthritis, were in McDade, stopping by the saloon for a drink. Another man, Henry Pfeiffer, joined them.
Before dark, masked vigilantes pulled the three out of the saloon at gunpoint, and rode them a few miles north of town and hanged them on one limb, the story goes. Their bodies were cut down on Christmas morning and taken into McDade.
In 1936, Jeptha Billingsley recounted his account of the McDade lynchings and subsequent shootout for the Elgin Courier.
A young man in his 20s then, Billingsley had come into town early Christmas Day, learning about the lynchings. And was volunteered to ride out and retrieve the bodies.
“The bodies were still hanging from the tree where they had been strung…” Billingsley told the Courier. “I knew all three of these men pretty well and the sight of them with their twisted faces and the nooses hanging at different angles about the victims’ necks was about the most gruesome thing I ever witnesses – I don’t ever want to see anything like it again.”
Billingsley and the others tending to the bodies of the hanged missed the excitement underway in town. But they heard about the shootout at Milton’s store and its outcome.
Billingsley recalled that the bodies of the two Beattys were picked up and placed in one of the store fronts by Milton’s store.
“They lay for some little time awaiting the arrival of relatives to claim their bodies,” he said. They were joined by the bodies of my great-grandfather and the other hanged men. The curious – and who wouldn’t be? – gathered to see the bodies and discuss the violent events marring this holy day.
“Nobody was anxious to have more killings, innocent or otherwise, in the little town when the friends of the deceased would come for their dead ones,” Billingsley remembered. The five bodies were moved away from the store to a place where the relatives could come to claim the remains.
“I happened to be present when the wife of one of the brothers arrived,” Billingsley said. “They lived quite a piece out in the country, and it was some little time before she came. She knelt down sobbing beside the dead form of her husband and prayed one of the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard.”
It may have been my great-grandmother, Texana Baker McLemore. The daughter of a Methodist minister, she had married Thad in December 1870 in McDade. Her father performed the ceremony. Now, widowed at age 30 with six children – including my grandfather, Thaddeus Romeo McLemore – her life had been cut adrift.
Thad was buried at the Baker place outside McDade. Texana and kids – including my then-3-year-old grandfather Thaddeus Romeo McLemore – moved to Ellis County near Fort Worth. I don’t know that she ever returned to McDade. She did remarry and after her second husband’s death – natural, this time – she reclaimed the McLemore name. From then on, she lived with her children, mainly by grandfather or an older brother. She died in February 1928 in Ellis County, when my father was two years old. She is buried in the family plot at Newberry Cemetery near Millsap. The graves of my mother and father are only a few yards away.