by Luther F. AddingtonNo one knew better the gruesome tales of the hangings at Gladeville than the late Charles Renfro, whom the writer interviewed.
Charles Renfro said:
"When I was made a member of the Wise County Vigilantes back there in 1892, I little dreamed that I was to become the scaffold maker or noose knot tier for all the six men who were to die on the gallows in my country. But it was that way.
The Vigilantes had been organized in Big Stone Gap, Virginia by Josh Bullitt as a protection against the bad men of the hills when the first coal boom came. John Fox, Jr., the author of the Trail of the Lonesome Pine, was a member of the guard, I recollect.
The Hanging of Talt HallAnd when it was norated* around that the desperado Talt Hall, a native Kentuckian, who had been committing crime on the Virginia side of the line for some time, had been jailed for the wanton killing of Enos Hylton, Chief of Police of Norton, and that his buddies in Kentucky were going to storm the jail and remove him, the volunteer county guard was increased to more than one hundred members.
Josh Bullitt came up from Big Stone Gap and drilled us fellows at the county seat every day. A part would stand guard while the others were drilling. I was made a member of the guard although I was then in my teens.
Talt Hall was tried and sentenced to hang by the neck until he was dead. Then it was that a message came from Kentucky to the effect that some of Talt's friends intended to storm the jail and take him out.
The old jail was none too secure and the judge ordered that Hall be taken to Lynchburg for safe keeping while the higher courts were examining the motion for a retrial on the grounds of a writ of error.
But the higher courts sustained the county court and Hall was sent back to be hanged. His execution date was fixed to be September 2, 1892.
And what a day in the county seat town of Gladeville that was! In order to get the full color the occasion afforded, we herewith leave the narrative of jailer Renfro and switch to an account by John Fox, Jr. in his book "Bluegrass and Rhododendron", page 239.
Fox wrote: "Through mountain and Valley, humanity had talked of nothing else for weeks, and before dawn of the fatal day, humanity started in converging lines from all other counties for the county seat of Wise - from Scott and from Lee; from wild Dickenson and Buchanan, where one may find white men who have never looked upon a white man's face; from the Pound which harbors the desperadoes of two sister states whose skirts are there stitched together with pine and pin-oak along the crest of the Cumberland; and, further on, even from the faraway Kentucky hills, mountain humanity had started at dawn of the day before. A stranger would have thought that a county fair, a camp meeting, or a circus was the goal.
Men and women, boys and girls, children and babes in arms; each in his Sunday best - the men in jeans, slouch hats and high boots; the women in gay ribbons and brilliant homespun; in wagons and on foot, on horses and mules, carrying man and man, man and boy, lover and sweetheart, or husband and wife and child - all moved through the crisp September air, past woods of russet and crimson and along brown dirt roads to a little straggling mountain town where midway of the one long street and shut in by a tall board fence was a courthouse, with the front door closed and barred, and port holes cut through its brick walls and looking to the rear; and in the rear a jail; and to one side of the jail a tall wooden box with a projecting cross beam in full sight, from the center of which a rope swung to and fro, when the wind moved.
Never had a criminal met death at the hands of the law in that region, and it was not sure that the law was going to take its course now, for the condemned man was a Kentucky feudsman, and his clan was there to rescue him from the gallows, and some of his enemies were on hand to see that he died a just death by a bullet, if he should escape the noose. And the guard, whose grim dream of law and order seemed to be coming true, was there from the Gap, twenty miles away, to see that the noose did its ordained work.
On the outskirts of town, and along every road, boyish policemen were halting and disarming every man who carried a weapon in sight. At the back window of the courthouse and at the threatening little port holes were more youngsters manning Winchesters. At the windows of the jailer's house, which was of frame and which joined and fronted the jail, were more still, on guard, and around the jail was a line of them, heavily armed to keep the crowd back on the other side of the jail yard fence.
The crowd had been waiting for hours. The neighboring hills were blocked with people waiting. The house tops were blocked with men and boys, waiting.
Now the fatal noon was hardly an hour away, and a big man with a red face appeared at one of the jailer's windows; and then the sheriff, who began to take out a sash. At once a hush came over the crowd and then a rustling and a murmur. It was the prisoner's lawyer and something was going to happen. Faces and gun muzzles thickened at the port holes an the courthouse windows. The line of guards in the jail yard wheeled and stood with their faces upturned to the windows.
There in the sashless window stood a man with black hair - Talton Hall.
He was going to confess - that was the rumor. His lawyers wanted him to confess. The preacher who had been singing hymns with him wanted him to confess. The man himself wanted to confess, and how he was going to confess.
What deadly mysteries he might clear up if he would. His best friends put the list of his victims no lower than thirteen - his enemies no lower than thirty. And there looking up at him, were three women who he had widowed or orphaned, and one corner of the jail yard still another, a little woman in black - the widow of the Norton Constable whom Hall had shot to death only a year before.
Now Hall's lips opened and closed, and opened and closed again. Then he took hold of the site of the window and looked behind him. The sheriff brought him a chair and he sat down.
At last Hall asked that he might give his sister a secret message. The Judge who was also on guard felt obliged to deny the request and then Hall haltingly asked aloud that his sister bring a white handkerchief and tie it around his throat - afterwards - to hide the red mark of the rope. Tears welled in the Judge's eyes. He pulled out his own handkerchief and pressed it into the woman's hands.
But would Talt confess to all the murders he had committed? He had shot Harry Maggard, an uncle. He had killed two brothers-in-law. He had killed Henry Monk, Mack Hall. Through cunning he had escaped punishment. Now he could clear up these cases and many more, if he would.
But he didn't admit any of his crimes. He rose and went out with a firm step. I was one of those assigned to do duty inside the hanging box.
Hall stood as motionless as the trunk of an oak. The sheriff was a very tenderhearted man and a very nervous one, and the arrangements for the execution were awkward. Two upright beams had to be knocked from under the trap door, so that it would rest on the short rope noose that had to be cut before the door would fall. As each of these was knocked out the door sank an inch, and the suspense was horrible. The poor wretch must have thought that each stroke was the one that was to send him to eternity but not a muscle moved. All was ready at last and the sheriff cried in aloud voice, 'May God have mercy on this poor man's soul!" and struck the rope with a hatchet. The black-capped apparition shot down, and the sheriff ran, weeping, out of the door of the box."
Now let's go back to Charles Renfro's few last words about Talt Hall. He said, 'I put the black hood over Talt's head, and dropped the noose over his head. After he was dead I felt terrible although I knew Talt was a bad man. I sort of hoped I wouldn't have to help hang another one. But destiny didn't let me escape.
The Red Fox Said He Would Rise on the Third Day
The second man to be hanged at Wise courthouse while I was yet a member of the court guard," Charles Renfro continued, "was Dr. M. B. Taylor, better known as the Red Fox. It was Doctor Taylor, officiating as U. S. Marshal along with his work as doctor and minister, who trailed Talt Hall from Wise County to Memphis, Tennessee and helped bring him back to justice.
While Hall was yet being guarded in the little jail house Dr. Taylor stole away into the mountains and massacred five people out of a crowd of seven who were crossing the Pine Mountain at Pound Gap."
John Fox, Jr., who wrote about Dr. Taylor called him the Red Fox, and here's what he said about him in Bluegrass and Rhododendron: "The Red Fox of the mountains was going to be hanged. Being a preacher, a herb doctor, revenue officer, detective, crook, and assassin, he was going to preach his own funeral sermon on the Sunday before the day set for his passing, which was October 27, 1893. He was going to wear a suit of white and a death cap of white, both made by his little old wife. Moreover, he would have his body kept unburied for three days, saying that, on the third day, he would arise and go about preaching.
On Sundays the Red Fox preached the Word; on other days he was a walking arsenal, with a huge 50x75 Winchester over one shoulder, two belts of gleaming cartridges about his waist, and a great pistol swung to either hip. In the woods he'd wear moccasins with the heels forward, so that no man could tell which way he had gone.
Sometimes he would carry a huge spy-glass, five feet long, with which he watched his enemies from the mountain tops.
One of his enemies was Ira Mullins, a paralytic who lived at Pound. Ira made moonshine liquor and peddled it from a two-horse wagon bed filled with straw. The Red Fox, while a U. S. Marshal, had engaged Ira in a gun battle. Soon afterwards the word got around that Ira would kill the Red Fox on sight.
So, the crafty Red Fox decided to beat him to it. While guarding Talt Hall, he had heard that on May 14, 1892, Old Ira would bring a load of liquor from Kentucky through Pound Gap.
With two confederates, Henan and Cal Fleming, the Ref Fox lay in wait at a small cliff beside the road just south of the Gap.
Ere long the wagon came into sight. A man by the name of John Chappel was in the driver's seat an beside him sat Ira's wife, Louranza. On a pile of straw lay Old Man Mullins, partially propped up. Behind the wagon walked Ira's 14 year old son, John, and a boy named Greenberry Harris. Mrs. Jane Mullins rode horseback. Her husband, Wilson Mullins, walked in front of the wagon. (1)
When the wagon rattled within close range of the small cliff, the Red Fox and his confederates opened fire, killing all in the caravan except Jane Mullins, riding horseback, and Ira's son John who was walking beside her. (2)
The assassins fled into the woods. Mrs. Jane Mullins rode on into Wise, some 18 miles distant, and reported the massacre to Sheriff John Miller. (3) The Sheriff organized a posse of 22 men and a manhunt was begun that lasted several days and nights. The Flemings fled to West Virginia and were not apprehended until two years later. (4) the Red Fox returned to his own home in Wise and hid in his attic. Then one night his son Sylvan, a respected businessman and surveyor living in Norton, five miles from Wise, took his father to his home. (5) The son insisted his father leave the mountains and go to Florida, although the son testified in court that his father wanted to stay and stand trial.
The Red Fox decided to take his son's advice and, outfitted in new clothes, mounted an empty boxcar standing in the yard at Norton and rode to Bluefield, West Virginia, from which place he intended to hobo another train going south. But somehow the Wise County Commonwealth Attorney, Robert Bruce, heard the Red Fox's being in a boxcar bound for Bluefield and wired the Baldwin Detective Agency to apprehend him when he left the train. They did an the fugitive was returned to Wise for trial.
Considerable evidence in the trial concerned the Red Fox's Winchester. It had been known that his rifle used rim-fire cartridges. Rim-fire shells had been found at the murder scene. But when the jury examined the gun they found it to be a center-fire. However, upon close scrutiny they saw that the plunger had been cleverly changed to strike the center of a cartridge instead of the rim. They then decided this clever man had tampered with the firing pin." (6)
Now let's go back to John Fox, Jr.'s account of the Red Fox's last hours on earth.
"The Red Fox preached his own funeral sermon on a Sunday before the day set for execution and a curious crowd gathered to hear him. He was led from the jail. He stood on the jailer's porch with a little table in front of him; on it lay a Bible. On the other side of the table sat a little palefaced old woman in black, with a black sunbonnet drawn close to her face. By the side of the Bible lay a few pieces of bread. It was the Fox's last communion - a communion which he administered to himself and in which there was no other soul on earth to join him, except the little old woman in black.
It was pathetic beyond words when the old fellow lifted the bread and asked the crowd to come forward to partake with him in the last sacrament. Not a soul moved, only the little old woman who had been ill-treated, deserted by the old fellow for many years; only she of all the crowd gave any answer, and she turned her face for an instant timidly toward him. With a churlish gesture the old man pushed the bread over toward her, and with hesitating, trembling fingers she reached for it.
The sermon that followed was rambling, denunciatory, and unforgiving. Never did he admit guilt.
On the last day the Red Fox appeared in his white suit. The little old woman in black had even made the cap which was to be drawn over his face at the last moment - and she had made that white too.
He walked firmly to the scaffold steps, and stood there for one moment blinking in the sunlight, his head just visible above the rude box."
Now, for the ending of this gruesome story we switch back to Charles Renfro, who said, "For a moment he stood viewing the rude gallows, and, seeming to believe it would do the job, he suffered his hands to be tied behind his him with a white handkerchief. One of the guards spread newspapers on the gallows steps and platform so that not a speck of dirt might touch his shoes.
Once on the platform, the doctor requested the privilege of reading a passage of scripture and praying. Down on his knees he prayed in a voice so soft and low that only those very close to him could understand.
Sheriff Charles L. Hughes slipped the white hood over his head and the noose was adjusted about his neck. Jeff Hunsucker, a deputy sheriff, excited because of the crucial moment, jolted the trap in a clumsy effort to cut the trap rope and the doctor crumpled to the floor.
The deputy waited until the doomed man could straighten up again and then he tried his ax a second time.
The trap dropped and the doctor went down with it, a mass of white whirling around and around. The rope twisted tight and then unwound, which kept the struggling man whirling for some time.
When the twisting of the rope stopped the body was left to hang for 19 minutes when Dr. H. M. Miles and Dr. T. M. Cherry examined the body, pronounced it dead, and ordered it delivered to the family.
As was his request, the body was kept up for three days. Some people believed that the doctor would rise again; but on the third day all hopes vanished and the body was interred on a hill above the courthouse square where it now lies without markers."