And We’ve Paid For It Ever Since
Obviously, Texas was a part of the south, and slavery was legal in Texas pre-Civil War. After the war, freed blacks continued to live in Texas, and the little frontier town of Comanche was no different. It is impossible to understand the mindset of the people of those days and so I am going to only say that it could not have been easy for either race as people tried to coexist.
When Joe and Fleet Nabers boys, sons of John “Jack” and Lucy Nabers, were murdered in 1875 by an ex-slave named Moses, the town of Comanche responded as one might expect, and it was not long before the man was murdered himself by one of the members of the mob who sought him. Tempers rose to a fever pitch, of course, but then things settled back to normal, at least as normal as things could be in an outlaw infested, railroadless, frontier Texas town.
Because I do not want this article to become even longer than it will have to be, I will only say that these were not easy years to live in Comanche County. Murder and mob violence abounded in the county as citizens tried to pretend that their own kin was not involved. In fact, hiding the truth became as natural as breathing for a large part of the county, and even the Rangers who were brought in more than once to “settle things down” did little to actually change things.
And then, came politics…mean and nasty politics…the kind that men often feel they must settle with their fists as meetings were held to discuss breaking with the Democratic Party and moving into the Populist Party.
And finally, add the fact that a drought of the most intense nature began in 1885 and continued on into ’86. Men were forced to stand by and watch the fruits of their labor wither and die on the vine, forced to move herds that were too weak to move due to lack of water and yet herds that could not exist without moving.
Even in the best of families, tempers were just below the surface, just waiting for a reason to explode into violence. And when you add hunger into the mix, and with no water and no crops the hunger was severe…
It is into this setting that we move to the story of Ben and Sallie Stephens, who lived just west of Downing in 1886, the year that the Committee of 100, a vigilante group, was formed in Comanche County, spreading fear each time the members rode out to “take care of business” with some poor soul.
On July 24, 1886, Sallie Hulsey Stephens, wife of Ben Stephens, was expecting their fourth child while the couple’s other three children ranged in age from two to almost seven. Ben also was prone to bring young boys from an orphanage home with him to help with the farm work, and in 1886, he and Sallie had a black boy, seventeen-year-old Tom McNeel, working for them.
On this particular day, Sallie was at home with her children while Ben prepared to ride into Comanche for supplies. The young Tom asked to be allowed to go into town; however, Ben refused, sending him into the field instead. Sallie was apparently in the yard washing clothes when her husband rode out.
Accounts vary as to exactly what happened after Ben left for town. Some say that the young man was furious that he had not been allowed to go to town, others that Sallie gave him a severe scolding for his refusal to work. This far removed from the story, it is impossible to actually know exactly why Tom went into the house and took the gun.
Apparently, Sallie was in the hen house gathering eggs while Tom was getting the shotgun. He was waiting for her when she came toward him carrying the eggs. Seeing the boy with the gun aimed at her, Sallie turned to run as she was shot in the back, dying instantly.
Truthfully, I have always assumed that the murder of Sallie Stephens was a murder/rape scenario; however, I have no real knowledge of that, and it certainly would not have been spoken of at the time. I did, however, find accounts in both Waco and Dallas papers that claimed that Sallie had been “assaulted with the avowed intention of committing rape.”
From this point on, the story is sketchy as to when the body was found. Neighbor and friend, Sally McGinnis, may have been almost on the scene when the murder happened. If so, that might be the reason for the statement that Tom intended to rape Sallie. It is also possible that Sallie had been dead for some time before she was discovered by her friend.
However it happened, once Sally found the body, the alarm was sounded, and a neighbor took off for town (riding a mule) in search of Ben Stephens; he found him in Jeff Greene’s (former city marshal and brother of the murdered U.S. Deputy Marshal Boss Greene) mercantile.
As one would expect, word spread rapidly and the townspeople were livid, rabid, and out of control angry as the men formed themselves into posses at the direction of Sheriff Jim Cunningham and deputies, W.D. Cox and Joe Chilton. As we’ve said, mob mentality was nothing new to Comanche, Texas, and it wasn’t long before the men were off in search of Tom, most of them with no intention of turning him over to the sheriff so that due process could be served.
Tom was eventually captured; however, he was not killed immediately as Moses had been a decade sooner. According to an interview I conducted with Dr. Billy Bob Lightfoot on the subject, Jim Nabers signed a sworn statement that Tom was taken to the Green Saunders farm in Downing, where a crowd began to grow. It was decided that Sallie’s husband and father, Zach Hulsey, should decide the boy’s fate. The men chose to burn Tom at the stake…at least that was their first idea.
As people continued to arrive at the farm (about 800), Sallie’s father began to reconsider burning Tom, and it was eventually decided to hang him. Believe it or not, the first limb broke under the weight of the teen, and it and he fell to the ground. The second time, Tom was not so lucky.
Before he was hanged, Mr. Hulsey asked, “Tom, did Sallie mistreat you?”
“No sir. She’s the best kind to me.”
“Then what in the name of God did you kill her for?”
“Just for meanness.”
After the hanging, Green Saunders stood upon a stump, and began to work himself and the crowd into a fever with threats against all blacks living in the county. That night, working by twos, the men rode up and down the streets of black neighborhoods, threatening to kill any who remained in the county after ten days had passed.
Obviously, every man in the county was not involved in this behavior, and those published a signed ad in the Comanche Chief, saying in effect that this atrocity must not happen. Believe it or not, the first name on that list was that of John (Uncle Jack) Nabers whose own two sons had been murdered by Moses a decade before. None of the signatures really mattered, however, because long before those allotted ten days had passed, there was not a black person left in Comanche County.
Although the hanging of Tom took place in Downing, the town of Comanche has always taken the blame for it, the Fleming Oak often misidentified as the “hanging tree.” However, if there was ever a hanging in that particular tree’s branches, I have yet to find record of it.
Comanche has also borne the brunt of those awful words crudely printed on a sign…and yet that sign actually hung on the town well in De Leon, Texas, a sign and a sentiment long gone from Comanche County and yet one that continues to judge and classify 21st century residents to the outside world.
It would seem that the sins of the fathers truly are often heaped upon the heads of the sons…