The Vicksburg Gallows

THE GALLOWS in Vicksburg in 1835 are depicted in the background at right and the graves of five gamblers in foreground. (Credit: “The Gamblers' Graves--Vicksburg, Mississippi,” Edward King, The Great South, 1875)

On the Fourth of July 1835, a Warren County militia group in Vicksburg, Miss., joined local citizens there in celebrating American independence. 

During the celebration, a drunken, confrontational gambler named Francis Cabler got into a fight with a militia officer in the Vicksburg Volunteers named Alexander Fisher. That was not necessarily an uncommon thing on a hot summer day on a holiday where alcohol was consumed freely. 

Vicksburg, like many of the river towns during that decade, had a problem with gamblers. Historian Dunbar Rowland, in his encyclopedia of Mississippi, called the gamblers “scurf and scum” who “had been driven from the haunts of vice in the larger and older cities of the land.” He said they had taken over the city to the point that it was “unsafe for a lady to go upon the streets unattended, for fear of insult.” 

The town then had a thriving business and professional community, all looking to capitalize on the growing cotton trade and the hundreds of thousands of acres recently made available by the removal of the Indians. 

The militia – taking justice into its own hands – tied Cabler to a tree and gave him 32 lashes. Later they tarred and feathered him and ran him out of town. 

In the hours to follow, five men were lynched. 

There was little law enforcement in the day. Militias commonly were called out to handle disputes. 

But sometimes militias and ordinary citizens with no authority would take justice into their own hands as well. Vigilante justice has never been a good idea. The Ku Klux Klan would one-day practice vigilantism on a daily basis. 

Northern newspapers editorialized against the Vicksburg system of justice in its fight against the gamblers. Southerners – by and large – defended the action. 

H. S. Fulkerson (Random Recollections of the Early Days in Mississippi) moved from Kentucky to Rodney, Miss. around the time of the Vicksburg affair. He later lived in Grand Gulf and Port Gibson where he worked as a U.S. Marshall and circuit court clerk in Claiborne County. In the late 19th century, he gave his version of events: 

GAMBLING ‘HELLS’ 

“This tragical incident—the hanging of the gamblers in the year 1835—serves to illustrate the desperate character of Vicksburg's population, in the period of 1830 to 1840. The dreadful vice of gambling, encouraged by some of the most prominent people, had taken a deep hold upon the community, and these dens or ‘hells’ as they were called, wherein the nefarious business was pursued, were numerous on every business thoroughfare of the city, conducted openly by day and night, and all day of Sundays. They were a shocking scandal and disgrace in the eyes of the better part of the people, but the gamblers and their patrons were so numerous, and were such reckless and desperate characters, that the better class stood in awe of them, much as they loathed and condemned the vice. 

“But submission in this case, like submission and intolerance in every case of outrage and wrong, only tended to stimulate the insolence of the offenders. The law was resorted to, but its ‘delay,’ together with the money of its violators, rendered it inoperative. The question—a grave one—of the right of any whole community, organized under the legal sanctions common to all civilized countries, to its life, when in peril, and to its preservation by taking the law into its own hands, began to move the people, and was decided in the affirmative. 

“Self-preservation is a law of God, a law of nature, and a law of man, and who shall say that a community, after exhausting all legal remedies, and failing of protection, from defects of law, or from its perversion to evil ends, by corruption or intimidation, may not resort to this higher law as a remedy? 

“Under these named circumstances, good ends are always the aim. And though it may be an evil, may not a community, under an inexorable necessity, make a choice of evils? Every community which holds this right in reserve, has served notice upon evil doers, and notice often acts as an ounce of prevention, and saves a resort to the pound of cure.” 

TARRED & FEATHERED 

Fulkerson describes the events leading up to the confrontation: 

“The trouble with the gamblers at Vicksburg culminated to the unendurable point, on the 4th of July, 1835, when one of their number {Cabler}, uninvited, in his insolence, disturbed the festivities of the day as they were being conducted by Capt. {George} Brungard's military company, in the Springfield portion of the city. His {Cabler’s} conduct was wholly that of a ruffian and blackguard, under the influence of strong drink. He was put under guard, but was released in the evening, when he made threats of dire vengeance. When the company returned to the Court House, he was there, heavily armed, prepared to execute his threats. 

“He was seized, disarmed, and carried to the outskirts of the town, where he was whipped, and a coat of tar and feathers applied, and was ordered to leave immediately, which he did, and has never been heard of since.” 

Other accounts indicate that while Cabler was tied to a tree when he was given 32 lashes from the whip, he had begged that the militia – which had taken on the form of a mob -- shoot him rather than tar and feather him. Instead they poured a bucket of tar over Cabler’s head and smeared some of it in his eye. 

LYNCHING OUTSIDE TOWN 

“Soon,” wrote Fulkerson, “it was seen that there was great ferment amongst the gamblers. They were loud in their denunciations and threats of revenge, for the treatment received by their comrade. At night a public meeting of citizens, largely attended, was held at the Court House. Resolutions were adopted ordering all gamblers to leave town in six hours, under penalty of being roughly handled, and notices to that effect were posted by 9 o'clock next morning. 

“At 9 o'clock the following morning, (Monday) the military and citizens to the number of four hundred, well armed, assembled on Main street, when committees were appointed to visit every gambling house, which was done, and all the furniture and implements used by the gamblers, were collected in the streets and burned 

“One of the houses was found to be fortified and barricaded, and armed men were in it. It was immediately surrounded by the angered citizens, when the door was broken in, and a gun was fired from within, whose contents, a load of buckshot, entered the breast of Dr. {Hugh} Bodley, a prominent and highly esteemed citizen, killing him almost instantly. Some dozen or more other shots were fired, from within and without, but without effect, when the besiegers made a rush, and getting inside, captured and bound the inmates. 

“Two escaped from the house, but were soon overtaken and brought back. All of the inmates, five in number, were then pinioned, and led out to execution in the eastern portion of the city, where a gallows had been speedily erected, and where they were as speedily launched into eternity.” 

One of the prisoners – seeing his end was near – asked a friend to care for his family. 

A few local officials attempted to intervene, but the mob threatened them and they backed away. Four of the men were dragged up to the gallows, noosed and soon left dangling in the air as the bottom of the platform was opened. The fifth prisoner – unconscious and blood soaked – was taken from a wagon, noosed and thrown into the hole beneath the other four men’s feet. 

The wife of one man pleaded for her husband’s body. Instead, the four were left hanging until the next day when all five were thrown into a hole and buried. 

NO MERCY, NO JUSTICE 

Wrote Fulkerson (without mentioning the details just mentioned): 

“Thus ended the short but long growing war with the gamblers, and the city ‘had rest’ from the fraternity … The names of the hung men, though of record, are not here given. It is enough to charge the memory and these pages with the sickening event. 

“Some of them may have borne honored names, and it is certain all of them had fathers and mothers who may have been as virtuous as yours or mine, reader. And rather than blazon their names to the world, let us remember that innocent tears were shed for them, and let us rather ourselves drop a tear over their wrecked lives, remembering that they were once as innocent as that natural depravity in which we are all involved, will allow.” 

The father of one of the gamblers was a preacher from the north whose pleas for justice afterward were unheeded. 

The Niles Weekly Register acknowledged that gamblers disrupted the peace of a town, but also felt the people of Vicksburg had acted on “the shrine of passion.” 

In conclusion, the paper editorialzed: “There is neither mercy nor justice in the decisions of a mob, and when mob-law is tolerated, statute and moral law will become a dead letter.” 

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.