Cooke County historians have planned special commentorative events this month to mark the 150th anniversary of Gainesville’s Great Hanging, which was Monday.
Observances began with Saturday’s presentation of “October Morning,” a play reading in which local participants re-enacted key elements of the October 1862 incident through narration.
Another key tribute is set for 9 a.m. Oct. 13, at Gainesville Civic Center. Organized by descendants of the hanged Nathaniel Clark, the event is called “Remembering Our Past, Embracing Our Future” and will feature speakers, a catered luncheon and a Color Guard ceremony.
Saturday’s show, presented by Morton Museum of Cooke County, was written by Dr. Pat Ledbetter and selected from existing historical documents.
Morton Museum President Steve Gordon said such presentations are important to maintain annually in Gainesville, since the Great Hanging is the area’s single notable Civil War-era incident.
“Because there are no transcripts, nobody knows exactly what happened,” Gordon said Monday. “The jurors? They all went to their graves keeping their mouths shut. Fifteen jurors went to the grave and wouldn’t talk. I don’t know if their consciences bothered them, or what. But there’s good people and bad people in this mess.”
The hanging occurred after the Texas Militia arrested more than 200 suspected Unionists in late 1862. On Oct. 1, vigilantes in Gainesville executed 42 of these men, following convictions on charges of conspiracy to commit treason against the Confederacy and fomenting an insurrection. Research suggests few of the hanged men had actually plotted to insurrect against the Confederacy; many of them were apparently innocent of the charges. But this mattered little to their captors, whose allies also conducted lynchings in nearby counties.
Stories of the Great Hanging inched through the following decades in a low key, since little documentation could be found.
Extensive details didn’t proliferate locally until the late 1980s, when University of Texas scholar Richard McCaslin created a 625-page book intended as a dissertation.
And Gordon added that during the past decade, commemorations of the Great Hanging have been an annual fixture but have been difficult to mount.
In late August, organizers were forced to cancel an elaborate two-day event set for October, due to lack of support.
The Civic Center ceremony on Oct. 13 is intended as a substitute, but Gordon said civic interest in the Great Hanging is apparently waning.
“I’ve been pushing this for years, but I’ve been getting my head beaten in about it,” he said Monday.
“The town does not want to know about it. The connotation of hanging sounds terrible. ... Gainesville wants to gloss it over. But it’s a Civil War-era event and we just can’t overlook that.”
The museum president added that Gainesville has received national notoriety for more positive reasons, such as the “Most Patriotic City” award received in July, and these are to the city’s credit.
But historians continue to feel that the legacy of the Great Hanging, however troublesome, is fascinating local history that merits attention from new audiences.
“We need something to get people off the highway,” he said. “Gainesville should take advantage of that event.”
For more information about the ceremony on Oct. 13, you may e-mail NathanielClarkfamilyreunion@gmail.com or call (817) 999-9551. Registration for participants of the event is open through Friday.