Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tragedy at a Texas Courthouse

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College (www.panola.edu) in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce.

The old cemetery lies three blocks south of the Carthage town square. A weathered headstone reads:

DENNIS C. HILL

Panola’s murdered TREASURER
BORN July 17, 1833
Robbed of his life for the County’s money
Feb. 10, 1888
Hill’s murderer, Deputy Sheriff Tom Forsyth, is buried just 80 feet to the north. The murder and robbery of the Panola County Treasurer provided front-page headlines across Texas in February 1888. Carthage, the Panola County seat, was a quiet farming community of 400 which seemed an unlikely locale for a spectacular murder and lynching. Law and order was enforced by a thrice-wounded Civil War captain, Sheriff James P. Forsyth. When the war ended, Forsyth returned to his Panola County farm. He married and began to raise a family. His oldest son, Tom, was born in 1866, and another son and daughter soon followed.

J.P Forsyth in later years
In 1880 Forsyth was elected county sheriff. Popular and efficient, Sheriff Forsyth was re-elected in 1882, 1884, and 1886. When Tom Forsyth came of age at 21 in 1887, the sheriff gave him a deputy’s commission. But Sheriff Forsyth took a calculated risk when he pinned a badge on his son. Tom was chronically short of money. Although the young bachelor had no family responsibilities, he drank and gambled and sank into debt. Sheriff Forsyth apparently hoped that the responsibilities of enforcing the law would mature his son.

1886 Courthouse
On Friday, February 10, 1888, court was in session at Panola County’s two-year-old courthouse. At noon court adjourned, and the building rapidly emptied. Longtime County Treasurer Dennis Hill continued to work in his ground-floor office. He was 55, a solid family man. There were no banks in Carthage, and the only safe in the county stood in Hill’s office. His reputation was so trustworthy that local businessmen frequently entrusted cash to him for safekeeping. Therefore, on February 10 nearly $1,500 in private funds rested in his safe, along with almost $5,000 in county monies. 

 Deputy Sheriff Tom Forsyth strolled into Hill’s office and asked the treasurer to change a $20 bill. Hill amiably agreed, turned toward the open safe and began counting out change. Dazzled by the stacks of currency, Forsyth experienced an overwhelming surge of agreed. Impulsively he seized an axe, kept in the office to split wood for the fireplace. Forsyth launched a powerful blow at the back of Hill’s head. Hill was sent sprawling by the unexpected impact. As Hill writhed on the floor, Deputy Forsyth viciously struck him twice more with the axe. To make certain he was dead, Forsyth opened his pocket knife and slit Hill’s throat. Stepping over the bloody body, Forsyth looted the safe of more than $6,000, then locked the door behind him. 


The blood-soaked corpse was not found until Saturday. There was no telephone or telegraph connection to Carthage in 1888 (the first railroad into the county was still several miles from Carthage). News of the brutal robbery-murder did not reach the outside world until Sunday night, when Sheriff Forsyth traveled to Longview to seek help with the investigation. The story was flashed to Dallas, and the next day the News spread the sensational story statewide. “MURDERED AND PLUNDERED,” proclaimed a front-page headline. “Awful Fate of a Co. Treasurer/His Head Severed From His Body and His Safe Robbed.”

Sheriff Forsyth was no sleuth, and the services of a railroad detective, one-armed H.E. Parker, were engaged.  Parker soon built a case against Deputy Sheriff Forsyth. Almost as though he wanted to be caught, Tom began a spend money freely. In Beckville he changed a $50 bill that was stained with blood. Within a week he loaned more than $200 to railroad construction workers. He drank heavily and gambled recklessly, paying off one gambling debt with another blood-stained bill. 


Parker took note of Tom’s bizarre behavior, and when his evidence list seemed long enough he obtained a warrant for Tom Forsyth’s arrest. On Monday afternoon, February 27, Tom was forcefully seized in a Carthage saloon. Tom soon revealed where he had hidden the money, and told Parker that if he would prevent a lynching that he would make a full confession the next day in court. His mother fainted in the street. The money was quickly recovered, except for more than $600 that Tom had already spent. That night a lynch mob approached the courthouse, where the murderer was incarcerated, but they dispersed when told that Tom intended to confess in court.

On Tuesday morning Tom was brought into the courtroom. Radiating arrogance, he refused to remove his hat or stand before the judge. Leaning back in a chair, Tom dangled his legs over the table in front of him, lit a cigar, then told the story of the robbery and murder in grisly detail. When he finished, Tom asked the mercy of the court and citizens, and pleaded that he not be burned. 


J.P. Forsyth was buried in his Confederate uniform.
That night a dozen guards were on duty. Sheriff Forsyth, told at his home that a lynch mob was forming, sadly stated that justice must be done. Soon more than 400 men marched to the courthouse jail. The vastly outnumbered guards offered no resistance. Tom Forsyth was hustled outside to a tree near the courthouse. A noose was placed around his neck and the rope was tossed over a limb. Rather than be hoisted up and strangled, Tom persuaded the mob to let him climb a ladder – with his hands tied behind his back – and jump off. His neck was broken at 10:10, Tuesday night, February 28, 1888. Eighteen days had passed since the murder and robbery at the nearby courthouse.


The mob cut down Tom and carried his body to the county treasurer’s office. The murderer’s corpse was deposited atop the bloodstains of his victim, and the mob dispersed. Later that night friends of the Forsyth family carried Tom to a hotel, where the remains were prepared for burial.

After the lynching a more secure jail was built
half a block north of the square. Opened in
1891, today it houses an excellent museum
and genealogy library.
Sickened by the tragedy, Sheriff Forsyth never again carried a gun. His legion of friends persuaded him to run for re-election in the fall of 1888, and he won by a larger margin than in his previous four victories. In 1890 he refused another term, but in 1892 supporters prevailed upon him to run again, and he was re-elected in 1894. After withdrawing from public life for six years, he again was re-elected sheriff in 1902 and 1904. By 1906, now 66, Sheriff Forsyth apparently felt that he had restored honor to the family name, and he retired permanently from public service. Forsyth served as Captain of the Carthage Camp of United Confederate Veterans until his death in 1928. He was buried in his Confederate uniform, beside the grave of his disgraced son.

The brick courthouse, site of the murder of Denis Hill, was razed six decades ago. The hanging tree and other foliage around the square long have been displaced by permanent curbing. Today the only tangible reminders of the tragedy of 1888 are the peaceful graves of villain and victim. 

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