Sallie Stephens’ Murder Changed Comanche County Forever

And We’ve Paid For It Ever Since

Sallie Hulsey Stephens

Sallie Hulsey Stephens

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…

Comanche Negro Ban 7-17-1936

Thanks to Myrlyn Williams Howell and family for Sallie’s photograph.

About Fredda Jones

Fredda Davis Jones was raised “in the country” in Comanche County and learned very early that creativity and innovation are traits that can flourish even in small-town Texas and that with enough effort, indeed nothing is impossible, including being married to the same man for over 40 years! Rickey and Fredda have 2 children, 5 grandchildren, and a crazy life that includes sitting in the bleachers several times a week. The rest of her time is spent creating great content for and marketing small-town Texas.
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21 Responses to Sallie Stephens’ Murder Changed Comanche County Forever

  1. Patsy Smart says:

    My Mom, Sarah Watson, told that a neighbor was a 12 year old at the time this occurred. He said that the black families put all they owned on mules, carts or whatever they had and started West along Indian Creek headed towards Brownwood.
    Enjoyed the “true” facts of the story.

  2. Carol marney says:

    It is hard for people today to realize how much of these things occurred into the 1950s. I remember in the late 50s some towns had signs at the city limits warning persons of color to be out of town before sunset. And something very similar happened inTulsa Oklahoma it is a fact of history. That many were killed and homes business, and even churches were destroyed.

  3. Gator says:

    A great read about the climate of vigilantism in Comanche county is “Strain of Violence : Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism” and can be read online by searching for “Committee of 100″ comanche.

  4. bill says:

    It’s good that you got the story straight on the Fleming oak not being a hanging tree, but from now on, people will still insist that it really is the hanging tree. You should also write an article and debunk the myths surrounding the “Weeping Oak” tree. There are people in Comanche county who still insist it was “featured in” Ripley’s Believe It Or Not as being the only oak tree with its branches pointing downward. This myth is actually repeated by people who should know better. Of course, what does “featured in” Ripley’s actually mean? Ripley’s consists of newsreels, several different TV series, a string of museums and books. Featured in what? No one can give an answer because it’s a myth and they get offended if you tell them so. It’s actually a very common post oak (Quercus stellata). Post oaks number in the thousands just in Comanche county alone and most of the older ones are identical to the “Weeping Oak” with their downward pointing limbs.

  5. Charlene (Warren) Rutherford says:

    I am now 86 yrs. of age and lived in and around Dublin until I was 24. I always knew no black person
    was allowed in Comanche County, but no one could not or would not tell me why. It seemed to be a
    secret they were hiding. After so many years, I finally found out. Thank you for the interesting

  6. Terry says:

    Just a comment on a typo in the article, it should read “Ben also was prone to bring…” instead of “Tom…”

  7. Karen Boatwright Stuart says:

    I’m wondering if these same things happened in Dublin? While not so sinister, my Grandfather Hap Tatum told me some vigilantly justice he remembered. ..

  8. milton l jensen says:

    I live in Avoca. My mother and her family lived in Stamford. They were not wealthy. They had several “black folks” that they spoke to often. I do not know the name of the people that this is about. In the m1930’s there was a black man and woman who made regular trips to east Texas to visit relatives. The told my mothers family that his wife would always get down in the floor board of the car when they went through Comanche Co.

  9. milton l jensen says:

    My great grand parents were from Denmark and Sweden. They got off the train in Avoca,TX Jan.1906. they settled in the community of Ericksdale. They were treated like the blacks in Stamford for several years. A little research on your part could show that racism was practiced even on “white people”.

  10. Kay Goodson Hall says:

    Little Joe and Fleet Nabors were my Great Grandmother Dora Greene’s little brothers. Seems like I’ve always heard it told that those that killed them were drug across burning coals.

  11. debewing says:

    I would love it if you could provide me with resources for the dates of these events. My family left Comanche in 1880, I believe, for Oklahoma. I had heard about these events and wondered if there was any correlation. I’m still trying to pin down resources on when my ancestors left, as well.

  12. Patricia Smith Foix says:

    Enjoyed reading this article. I heard about this growing up. This is family history, and I was really happy to see a picture of Sallie. My dad was Jack “Dub” Smith and I remember all the stories he shared with us growing up. Sallies son BJ was my great great uncle. He and my dad were very close. I can remember visiting BJ in Western Hill’s nursing home when I was very little. Just wondering if you researched the article in the Texas southwestern historical quarterly. I believe they published a story about this around 1952. I was able to purchase a new copy and gave it to dad on his 70th birthday. I cant wait to share this picture and story with mom.

  13. Barbara says:

    My dad, Jack “Dub” Smith spent much of his childhood living with his uncle / great uncle BJ Stevens – who I believe was Sallie’s son or her husbands son (I haven’t actually researched this, but it has always intrigued me). My dad also spent some of his adult life working with BJ on his ranch in Blanket. Our family always had a much different story of this event, and I wanted to share it with you as its really bothered me for years. The story as our family knows it is that the Stevens family loved and trusted this boy, and the shooting was an accident – that Sallie had seen a hawk after her chickens and called him to bring the gun to shoot it – as he was following the hawk with the gun, he swung it to follow the flying bird and accidentally shot Sallie. BJ always told my dad that their family never had anything against this boy or any family, despite race – but that there were certain ones in the community that were looking for a reason to act out against the slaves / African Americans and the family was not able to stop them from this terrible act. They disagreed with it and as I’ve been told, were heartbroken by it. My Uncle BJ was always quick to stop along the highway stretching between Comanche and Brownwood and give “colored folks” a ride, and my dad said that when they found out he was from Comanche, they would get real nervous. But he would tell them who he was, and reassure them he was a friend. It has been a strong attribute of our family for as far back as I can remember – and while I cannot verify the story, I have always known in my heart thanks must be true, as there would be no other explanation for the actions of my elderly uncle if not. It really is sad that our town suffered for so many decades under the beliefs of the vigilanties who spread rumors and falsely accused so many, despite the complete truths of the story. We may even have a photo of Sallie – I will check with mom and see. Thanks for writing about this story Fredda.

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