While the sheriff was putting the finishing touches on preparations for the first-ever hanging in Maverick County on Sept. 18, 1891, four devious schoolboys came up with a clever plan to watch the private execution in person. W
Two years earlier on a crisp winter morning in 1889, three miners took the short walk down to the Rio Grande to just look around. From a bluff high above the waterway that separates Texas and Mexico, one of them saw a partially submerged human form.
Such unsettling sights were quite common. At the turn of the 20th century, the river was a popular dumping ground for border bandits, as it is today for the drug cartels. What made this particular discovery stand out was that the body was not Mexican but that of a middle-aged Anglo woman.
A miner went for the sheriff 6 miles upriver in Eagle Pass. The lawman soon returned with his deputies, pulled the corpse from the water and examined the remains.
The cause of death was clear—a crushed skull. The likely weapon of choice was one of the two 50-pound stone blocks used in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the bloated body from bobbing to the surface.
Over the next three days, the river yielded three more victims: a man and a woman both in their 20s and a younger female in her teens, each with the same fatal injuries. All were strangers to the sheriff, who knew everybody in the county on sight.
The bodies were transported to Eagle Pass and laid out on the courthouse lawn in the hope that someone might recognize them. Hundreds of people came by for a look at the gruesome attraction, but not a single person was able to offer so much as an educated guess as to the identities of the dead.
By the time the quartet was buried, the murders were front-page news in practically every paper in the state. With no leads nor any idea who the victims were or where they came from, the sheriff was at a loss what to do next.
He wisely turned to Texas Ranger Frank Jones, captain of the Frontier Battalion, who assigned the investigation to Ira Aten. For the 27-year-old sergeant, the case was the chance to get out of Jones’ doghouse after taking the extreme step of booby-trapping fences with dynamite to deter wire-cutters.
Weeks later and 250 miles to the north at San Saba, Aten finally caught a break. A farmer told him about the night his neighbors, the widow Williamson and her three grown children, had up and moved in the middle of night after selling their spread to a local character named Dick Duncan.
Asking around town for any information on the missing family, the Ranger hit the jackpot at the hardware store. The owner remembered selling a brandnew wagon to Duncan, who told him he needed it to take the Williamsons to Mexico.
Aten’s next stop was the sheriff ’s office, where he learned none other than Duncan was under lock and key for a petty crime. Granted permission to interrogate the suspect, the Ranger merely let him talk himself into four counts of first-degree murder.
Disavowing any knowledge of the Williamsons’ whereabouts or fate, Duncan speculated they were probably murdered by Mexican bandits for their money. Aten smiled to himself because he had not said a word about the killings, and the apparent fact they were carrying a large amount of cash was news to him.
Convincing the sheriff to keep Duncan behind bars until he came for him, Aten returned to Eagle Pass as fast as his horse could carry him. He secured the obliging prosecutor’s cooperation in going forward with the case and arranged for the inquest that produced a bombshell revelation.
While in San Saba, Aten had tracked down the dentist who tended to the teeth of the entire Williamson family. Removing a plate from the mouth of the exhumed body of the widow, he declared in open court, “This is my work.” He went on to positively identify the three other members of the close-knit clan as well.
The only card Dick Duncan’s attorney had to play at the July 1889 trial was the weak alibi supplied by the defendant’s father and brother, who asked the jury to believe he was with them south of the border at thetime of the heinous crime. Their statement carried no weight with the 12-man panel, which promptly convicted the accused and sentenced him to death.
To avoid the bloodthirsty spectacle of a public execution, the sheriff built the gallows inside the jail and limited attendance to 25 spectators who had to show their printed invitations. That was why the four schoolboys, who escaped their classroom by stabbing a teacher in her ankle with a hatpin, never got inside.
The disappointed delinquents did receive a consolation prize compliments of an understanding deputy. He presented each boy with a piece of the rope as a souvenir of the first and last hanging in Maverick County.