Murder in Montague; Frontier Justice and Retribution in Texas, Glen Sample Ely, University of Oklahoma Press, $21.95, Paper. 166 pages, Photos, Map, Notes, Index. This is the true story of an Old West massacre that occurred in August, 1876 on a farm near Montague, Texas. Murdered on a hot summer night was the Methodist minister William England, his wife Selena, and two of her children. Three killers slipped into the house after dark, and when the brutality ended three family members were dead while Selena lived long enough to identify the killers. But was she mistaken? In the dark, in the confusion amid gunfire and slashing knives, Selena England ran across the yard and collapsed, only to recover long enough to return to the house where she witnessed her husband’s brutal murder. Mortally wounded, she staggered to a neighbor’s for help where she died.
Three men were eventually identified as the killers and arrested. Thus began a long and difficult series of trials, newspaper stories, threats of vigilante justice, and a long list of judges and Governors who hashed and re-hashed the trial results. The three men who stood trial were sentenced to death, then later sentenced were changed to life in prison at hard labor. The youngest died after two years in prison of consumption.
The author tells about the Texas prison system as it was during that time, a dismal and terrifying place to be in. One chapter is spent exploring this situation at Huntsville Prison and Rusk Penitentiary. Some bleak photos are included.
It had always been suspected the men identified by Selena English were not the real killers. Many neighbors lived close to the English farm and some had been in dispute with the family for a variety of reasons including land ownership and loose hogs getting into neighbor’s gardens. Some clues and facts in the case were not well understood, plus the three accused men adamantly denied having anything to do with the murders. They stuck to their stories for as long as they lived.
The book gives all the intricate details about the trials, the attorneys, the judges and what politics had to do with it. One man died in prison, while two spent many years incarcerated until finally let go by a judge agreeing they had been wrongly accused. The families were nearly destitute, having lost everything in legal battles trying to free their fathers and husbands.
Meanwhile, three other men living near the Englands the night of the murders slipped quietly away. Years later they were identified as the real culprits. However, people fearing vigilante justice in those days kept their mouths shut.
The book tells of a cruel world where hard-working people survived hard times. Photos show lean, tough pioneers who tackled life as circumstances were doted out, asking for no special favors, and taking each day as it came.
The author has delved into all the details carefully exposing many truths here. Sometimes the criminal justice system and all its intricacies are hard for us to understand. Readers turn the last page with empathy for these men who were quite likely wrongly accused.
Editor’s Note – The Reviewer, Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of numerous books about the Old West, including the novel Lost Roundup published by Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 399, Unionville, New York, 10988. www.Sitktabetbooks.com