James Wilkins, a Smith County historian from Tyler, found a dark footnote in Collin County’s past that has a lot to say about the present and our future.
“I do think it’s important that we learn these things,” McKinney’s historic preservation officer Guy Giersch said. “It’s going back to that old adage; those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
The book “A Civil War Tragedy, written by Wilkins and Bob and Doris Bowman of Lufkin, chronicles more than 30 years of Wilkins’ research into the mob style lynching of two Collin County men including Collin County Chief Justice James McReynolds, Collin County Sheriff James Read and Read’s brother-in-law James Holcomb of Van Zandt County who were executed in Tyler over the death of two confederate outlaws killed in a gun battle in Collin County.
Wilkins first heard of the execution in a Civil War era diary in Tyler that mentioned the hangings.
“[The diary] mentioned one of them was a sheriff and I thought it was the sheriff of Smith County and I tried to research it and figure out who was the sheriff in the 1860s,” Wilkins said. “Finally I found a newspaper article and other materials and realized although the hanging happened here, the people involved were not from Smith County."
The people who were hung were from Collin County and the people who brought them to Tyler were a hanging mob from Van Zandt County, he said.
The mob held a civilian execution of the three men, led by Chief Magistrate Issac Bolivar Hubbard, over two confederate soldiers Read shot and killed during a gun battle in Collin County. Wilkins said the two soldiers were part of General William Clark Quantrill’s “guerilla” squadron, a group of ruthless confederate soldiers who the Confederacy could not control.
“Quantrill’s men were settling in Collin County,” Wilkins said. “Quantrill came from Missouri to get out of the snow and ice with his guerilla fighters who were supposedly confederate troops. But the confederacy could not control them. They went where ever they wanted to and stole animals or killed people for money or just ill feelings.”
Two of Quantrill’s soldiers — known as the Calhoun Brothers — tortured and killed a farmer and beat his wife for their money in the town of Millwood. The wife went to McReynolds who happened to be her neighbor, and McReynolds had Read round up his men.
Read and his men and the Calhoun Brothers got into a gunfight and both of them were killed, Wilkins said.
“Quantrill was infuriated and sooner or later, he started to exact his revenge on Read and went into McKinney,” Wilkins said. “According to Read’s descendants, they had another gun battle and they burned the building down. [Read’s] wife and children and McReynolds fled to Kaufman County where Read’s mother-in-law had a big farm.”
McReynolds and Reads spent almost a month on the farm until they were picked up by local citizens looking for AWOL soldiers and even though they both had papers that verified they were exempt from military service, Hubbard’s mob formed and eventually took the men to Van Zandt where they hung all three men with the same rope and left their bodies lying under a tree.
Hubbard may have had more political motivations on his mind at the time. Wilkins said Hubbard was a “staunch” secessionist and Collin County had voted against secession.
“Hubbard was living in Van Zandt County and was very much for slavery and opposed anybody who had a hint of unionism,” Wilkins said. “You can be patriotic but weren’t for succeeding from the union. Those people were mistreated, threatened, run away and killed and hotheaded leaders like Hubbard and Quantrill would go to extremes, physical extremes.”
Hubbard went to trial for leading the mob but was acquitted for a lack of evidence. McReynolds’ and Read’s sons vowed and exacted their revenge soon after. They found Hubbard in Canton, killed him and tied him to a tree with a note pinned to his lifeless body. Revenge killings continued into the 1870s after McReynolds, Read and Holcomb’s deaths.
Giersch said historic footprints like this are just one of many dark moments in Texas history when leaders and mobs blurred the line between justice and punishment with loyalty and patriotism. He cited the Gainesville hangings of 1862 when 40 men suspected of being Union loyalists were prosecuted and executed by a civilian court.
“It points out it’s so easy for us to allow idealism to be confused with patriotism and being on the right side or wrong side and having excuses to really commit criminal acts and that can go both ways,” Giersch said. “It’s not limited to one side of that equation. It’s kind of an old idea that two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Contact Danny Gallagher at firstname.lastname@example.org.