The Hanging of Talton Hall

Image:Long Boone Cumberland--thin.jpg
Southwest Virginia Project
Return to Southwest Virginia Project Main Page

For additional background, see The Pound Gap Massacre

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 manage to 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. [1]


From Source:Fox, 1901:271-294
See also The Pound Gap Massacre
Lyrics to "Old Talt Hall"

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 Dickinson and Buchanan, where one may find white men who have never looked upon a black 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, farther on, even from the far away 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, 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 court-house, 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 plain sight, from the centre 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 manage to 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 the town, and along every road, boyish policemen were halting and disarming every man who carried a weapon in sight. At the back win- dows of the court-house and at the threatening little port-holes dows of the court-house and at the threatening little port-holes were more youngsters, maiming Winchesters and needle-guns ; 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 outer side of the jail-yard fence. The crowd had been waiting for hours. The neighboring hills were black with people, waiting; the house-tops were black with men and boys, waiting; the trees in the streets were bending under the weight of human bodies, and the jail-yard fence was full three deep with people hanging to the fence and hanging to one another's necks, 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 the 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 and the court-house windows; the line of guards in the jail-yard wheeled and stood with their faces upturned to the window; the crowd on the fence scuffled for better positions, and the people in the locust-trees craned their necks from the branches, or climbed higher, and there was a great scraping on all the roofs; even the black crowd out on the all the roofs; even the black crowd out on the hills seemed to catch the excitement and to sway, while spots of intense blue and vivid crimson came out here and there from the blackness when the women rose from their seats on the ground. Then — sharply — there was silence. The big man disappeared, and in his place and shut in by the sashless window, as by a picture-frame, and blinking in the strong light, stood a man with black hair, cropped close, beard gone, face pale and worn, and hands that looked thin — stood 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 all morning wanted him to confess; the man himself wanted to confess; and now he was going to confess. What deadly mysteries he might clear up if he would ! No wonder the crowd was still eager, for there was hardly a soul but knew his record — and what a record! 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 whom he had widowed or orphaned, and at one corner of the jail-yard still another, a little woman in black — the widow of the 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 side of the window and looked behind him. The sheriff brought him a chair and he sat down. Apparently he was weak and he was going to wait awhile; and so he sat, in full view, still blinking in the strong light, but nodding with a faint smile to some friend whom he could make out on the fence, or in a tree, or on a house-top, and waiting for strength to lay bare his wretched soul to man as he claimed to have laid it bare to God. ONE year before, at Norton, six miles away, when the constable turned on his heel, Hall, without warning, and with the malice of Satan, shot him, and he fell on the railroad track — dead. Norton is on the Virginia side of Black Mountain, and at once Hall struck off into the woods and climbed the rocky breast of the Cumberland, to make for his native Kentucky hills. " Somehow," he said to me, when he was in jail a year after, " I knowed right then that my name was Dennis " — a phrase of evil prophecy that he had picked up outside the mountains. He swore to me that, the night of the murder, when he lay down to sleep, high on the mountain-side and under some rhododendron-bushes, a flock of little birds flew in on him rhododendron-bushes, a flock of little birds flew in on him like a gust of rain and perched over and around him, twittering at him all night long. At daybreak they were gone, but now and then throughout the day, as he sat in the sun planning his escape, the birds would sweep chattering over his head, he said, and would sweep chattering back again. He swore to me further, on the day he was to go to the scaffold (I happened to be on the death-watch that morning), that at daybreak those birds had come again to his prison-window and had chirped «. through the bars. All this struck me as strange, for Hall's brain was, on all other points, as clear as rain, and, unlike " The Ked Fox of the Mountains," who occupied the other cell of his cage, was not mystical, and never claimed to have visions. Hall was a Kentucky feudsman — one of the mountain- border ruffians who do their deeds of deviltry on one side of the State-line that runs the crest of Black Mountain, and then step over to the other side to escape the lax arm of mountain-justice. He was little sorry for what he had done, except, doubtless, for the reason that the deed would hamper his freedom. He must move elsewhere, when a pair of hot black eyes were at that moment luring him back to Norton. Still, he could have the woman follow him, and his temporary denial bothered him but little. In reality, he had not been much afraid of arrest and trial, he had not been much afraid of arrest and trial, in spite of the birds and his premonition. He had come clear of the charge of murder many times before, but he claimed afterward that he was more uneasy than he had ever been; and with what good reason he little knew. Only a few miles below where he sat, and beyond the yawning mouth that spat the little branch trickling past his feet as a torrent through the Gap and into Powell's Valley, was come a new power to take his fate in hand. Down there — the Gap itself was a hell-hole then — a little band of,,f. u-iners " had come in from blue-grass Kentucky and tide-water Virginia to make their homes; young fellqvvs in whom pioneering was a birthright; who had taken matters into their own hands, had formed a volunteer police- guard, and were ready, if need be, to match Winchester with Winchester, pistol with pistol, but always for and in the name of the law. Talt had one enemy, too, to whom he gave little thought. This was old '* Doc " Taylor — a queer old fellow, who was preacher, mountain-doctor, revenue-officer; who preached Swedenborgianism — Heaven knows where he got it in those wilds — doctored with herbs night and day for charity, and chased criminals from vanity, or personal enmity, or for fun. He knew every by-path through the mountains, and he moved so swiftly that the superstitious credited him with superhuman powers of locomotion. Nobody the superstitious credited him with superhuman powers of locomotion. Nobody was surprised, walking some lonely path, to have old Doc step from the bushes at his side and as mysteriously slip away. He had a spy-glass fully five feet long with which to watch his quarry from the mountain-tops, and he wore moccasins with the heels forward so that nobody could tell which way he had gone. In time his cunning gave him the title of " The Ked Fox of the Mountains." It was the Red Fox who hated Hall and was to catch him; the " furriners from the Gap " were to guard him, see that he was tried by a fearless jury, and, if pronounced guilty, hanged. Hall knew Taylor's hatred, of course, but scorned him, and he had heard vaguely of the Gap. In prison, he alternately cursed his cell-mate, who, by a curious turn of fate, was none other than the Red Fox caught, at last, in his own toils, and wondered deeply, and with hearty oaths, " what in the hell " people at the Gap had against him that they should leave their business and risk their lives to see that he did not escape a death that was unmerited. The mountaineer finds abstract devotion to law and order a hard thing to understand. The Red Fox more than hated Hall — he feared him; and how Hall, after capture, hated him! No sooner was the feudsman's face turned southward than the Red Fox kept cunning guard over the black-eyed woman at Norton Fox kept cunning guard over the black-eyed woman at Norton and, through her, learned where his enemy was. More — he furnished money for two detectives to go after Hall and arrest him on a charge of which he was not guilty, and thus decoy him, without resistance, to jail, where they told him the real reason of the arrest. Hall fell to the floor in a cursing fit of rage. Then the Red Fox himself went south to help guard Hall back to the mountains. A mob of the dead constable's friends were waiting for him at Norton — for the murder was vicious and unprovoked — and old Doc stood by Hall's side, facing the infuriated crowd with a huge drawn pistol in each hand and a peculiar smile on his washed-out face. Old Squire Salyers, father-in-law to the constable, made a vicious cut at the prisoner with a clasp knife as he stepped from the train, but he was caught and held, and with the help of the volunteer guard from the Gap, Hall was got safely to jail at Gladeville, the county-seat of Wise. It was to protect Hall from his enemies that concerned Hall's Kentucky mountain-clan at first, for while trial for murder was not rare and conviction was quite possible, such a thing as a hanging had never been heard of in that part of the world. Why, then, the Red Fox was so eager to protect Hall for the law was a mystery to many, but the truth probably was a mystery to many, but the truth probably was that he had mischief of his own to conceal ; and, moreover, he knew about that guard at the Gap. So, during the trial, the old man headed the local guard that led Hall to and from jail to court-house, and stood by him in the court-room with one of the big pistols ever drawn and that uncanny smile on his uncanny face. For the Red Fox had a strange face. One side was calm, kindly, benevolent; on the other side a curious twitch of the muscles would now and then lift the corner of his mouth into a wolfish snarl. So that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in old Doc were separated only by the high bridge of his nose. Throughout the long trial, old Doc was at his post. Only one night was he gone, and the next morning an old moonshiner and four of his family were shot from ambush in the " Pound." As Doc was back at his post that afternoon, nobody thought of connecting the murder with him. Besides, everybody was concerned with the safety of Hall — his enemies and his friends: his friends for one reason, that eight of the jury were fearless citizens of the " Gap " who would give a verdict in accordance with the law and the evidence, in spite of the intimidation that, hitherto, had never failed to bring a desperado clear; and for another, that the coils were surely tightening; his enemies, for fear that Hall's friends would cheat the gallows by rescuing him from jail.

Rumors of rescue thickened every day — Hall's Kentucky clan was coming over Black Mountain to take the prisoner from jail. Moreover, Hall's best friend — John Rawn — was the most influential man in the county — a shrewd, daring fellow who kept a band of armed retainers within call of his yard-fence. He, too, it was said, was going to help Hall to freedom. Accordingly the day before the verdict was brought in, twenty of the volunteer guard came up from the Gap, twenty miles away, to keep Hall's friends from saving him from the gallows, and his enemies from rescuing him for death by a Winchester; and to do this they gave it out that they would put him aboard at Norton; but, instead, they spirited him away across the hills to another railroad.

A few months later Hall was brought back for execution. He was placed in a cage that had two cells, and, as he passed the first cell an old freckled hand was thrust between the bars to greet him and a voice called him by name. Hall stopped in amazement; then he burst out laughing; then he struck at the pallid face through the bars with his manacles and cursed him bitterly; then he laughed again, horribly. It was the Red Fox behind the bars on charge of shooting the moonshiner's family from ambush — the Red Fox caught in his own toils; and there the two stayed in adjoining cells of the same cage. The Red Fox sang hymns by day, and had visions by night, which he told to the death-watch every morning. In one dream that he told me he said he was crossing a river in a boat. The wind rose, a storm came, and he barely got to land. Wind and wave were his enemies, he said; the storm was his trial, and getting to shore meant that he was coming out all right.

The Red Fox's terror of Hall was pathetic. Once he wrote to my brother, who was first in command in the absence of the captain of the guard: " This man iS a Devil and i am a fraid of him he is trying to burn the gail down and i wish you would take him away." But the two stayed together — the one waiting for trial, the other for his scaffold, which was building. The sound of saw and hammer could be plainly heard throughout the jail, but Hall said never a word about it.

He thought he was going to be pardoned, and if not pardoned — rescued, surely. He did get a stay of execution for a month, and then the rumors of rescue flew about in earnest, and the guard came up from the Gap in full force and cut port-holes in the court-house walls, and drilled twice a day and put out sentinels at night. The town was practically under military law, and the times were tender. By day we would see suspicious characters watching us from the spurs round about, and hear very queer noises at nigh't. The senses of the young guards got so acute because of the strain, that one swore that he heard a cat walking over the sand a hundred yards away. Another was backed into town one dark night by an old cow that refused to halt, when challenged. Another picket let off his gun by accident just before day, and the men sprang from their blankets on the court-house floor and were at the windows and port-holes like lightning. Two who waited to dress, were discharged next morning. One night there was a lively discussion when the captain gave strict orders that the pickets must fire as soon as they saw the mob, in order to alarm the guard in town, and not wait until they were personally safe.

This meant the sacrifice of that particular picket, and there was serious question as to the right of the captain to give orders like that. And that night as I passed through the room where the infant of the guard was waiting to go on picket duty on a lonely road at midnight, I heard him threshing around in his bed, and he called to me in the manner of a farewell: " I — I — I've made up my mind to shoot," he said; and so had everybody else. Whether a thing happens or not makes little difference as far as the interest of it is concerned, when one is convinced that it is going to happen and looking for it to take place any minute; at least, waiting out on a lonely road under the stars, alone, for a band of " wild jayhawkers from old Kane- tuck " to come sweeping down on the town was quite enough to keep the pickets awake and alert. One night we thought trouble was sure, and, indeed, serious trouble almost came, but not the trouble we were expecting.

A lawyer brought the news that two bands of Kentuckians had crossed Black Mountain that morning to fire the town at both ends and dynamite the court-house and the jail. As there were only fifteen of us on hand, we telegraphed speedily to the Gap for the rest of the guard, and an engine and a caboose were sent down for them from Norton, six miles away. The engineer was angry at having extra work to do, and when he started from the Gap with the guard, he pulled his throttle wide open. The road was new and rough, and the caboose ran off the track while going through a tunnel; ran along the ties for several hundred yards and ran across sixty feet of trestle, striking a girder of the bridge and splitting it for two yards or more. A guard managed to struggle out of the door and fire off his Winchester just there, and the engineer, hearing it, pulled up within ten yards of a sharp curve. The delay of ten seconds in the report of the gun, and the caboose, with the thirty-five occupants, would have been hurled down an embankment and into the river. The Kentuckians did not come in that night, and thereafter the guard stayed at the county-seat in full force until the day set for the execution.

Apparently the purpose of a rescue was given up, but we could not tell, and one morning there was considerable excitement when John Rawn, the strong friend of the condemned man, rode into town and up to the jail, and boldly asked permission to see Hall. Rawn was the man to whom Hall was looking for rescue. He was a tall, straight fellow with blond hair and keen blue eyes. The two had been comrades in the war, and Hall had been Rawn's faithful ally in his many private troubles. Two of us were detailed to be on hand at the meeting, and I was one of the two.

Hall came to the cell-door, and the men grasped hands and looked at each other for a full minute without saying a word. The eyes of both filled. "Of course, Talt," he said, finally, " I want the law to take its course. I don't want to do anything against the law and I know you don't want me to." I looked for a sly quiver of an eyelid after this speech, but Rawn seemed sincere, and Hall, I thought, dropped, as though some prop had suddenly been knocked from under him. He looked down quickly, but he mumbled Yes, of course, that's right, I reckon. We don't want to do nothing agin the law."

Still, he never believed he was going to hang, nor did he give up hope even on the morning of his execution when the last refusal to interfere came in from the Governor — the chance of rescue still was left. The preachers had been coming in to sing and pray with him, and a priest finally arrived; for, strange to say, Hall was a Catholic — the only one I ever saw in the mountains. Occasionally, too, there had come his sister, a tall, spare woman dressed in black; and she could hardly look at a member of the guard except with the bitterest open hatred. All these besought Hall to repent, and, in time, he did; but his sincerity was doubtful. Once, for instance, in a lull between the hymns, and after Hall had' forgiven his enemies, ' the infant, who was on the death-watch, passed near the prisoner's cell-door, and Hall's hand shot through the bars and the tips of his fingers brushed the butt of the boy's pistol, which protruded from a holster on his hip.

"Not this time, Tall," he said, springing away. " I was only foolin', " Talt said, but his eyes gleamed. Again, the night before, being on guard down behind the

jail, I heard Hall cursing because the guards 

would give him no whiskey. This was cruel, for the reason that they had been allowing him liquor until that night, when he was most in need of it. As soon as I was relieved, I got a bottle of whiskey and told the watch to let him have it. Hall was grateful, and next morning he called me by my first name. " I love you," he said, " but I've got you spotted." He had repeatedly sworn that he would have many of us ambushed, after his death, and his sister was supposed to have our names and descriptions of us, and an old Kentucky mountaineer told me that he would rather have the ten worst men in the mountains his deadly enemies than that one woman. Hall meant that he had me on his list. As ambush would be very easy on our trips to and from the county-seat, through thick laurel and rhododendron, I told the priest of Hall's threat and suggested that he might save us trouble by getting Hall to announce in his confession that he wanted nothing else done. The priest said he would try. But for a little while on the morning of the execution, Hall, for the first time, gave up and got very humble; and there was one pathetic incident. The sister was crouched at the cell-door, and Hall, too, was crouched on the floor, talking to her through the bars. They spoke in a low tone, but were not permitted to whisper. At last Hall asked that he might give his sister a secret message. It had nothing to do with the guard, or the law, or his escape, but he did not want it heard. The " Judge," who was on guard, was tenderhearted, but a martinet withal, and he felt obliged to deny the request. And then Hall haltingly asked aloud that his sister should bring a silk handkerchief and tie it around his throat — afterward — to hide the red mark of the rope. Tears sprang to the " Judge's " eyes, and he coughed quickly and pulled out his own handkerchief to blow his nose. It happened to be of silk, and, a moment later, I saw him pressing the handkerchief into the woman's hands. An hour later Hall said that he was ready to confess.

No wonder the crowd was eager. Would he tell all? How, when he was only fourteen years old, he had shot Harry Maggard, his uncle, during the war — Hall denied this; how he had killed his two brothers-in-law — one was alive, Hall said, and he had been tried for killing the other and had come clear; how he had killed Henry Monk in the presence of Monk's wife at a wild-bee tree

— he claimed to have been cleared for that; 

how he had killed a Kentucky sheriff by dropping to the ground when the sheriff fired, in this way dodging the bullet and then shooting the officer from where he lay, supposedly dead — that, Hall said, was a lie; how he had taken Mack Hall's life in the Wright-Jones feud — Mack, he said, had waylaid and wounded him first; how he had thrown John Adams out of the courthouse window at Prestonburg, over in Kentucky, and broken his neck — Adams was drunk, Hall said, and fell out ; why he had killed Abe Little — because, said Hall, he resisted arrest; how and where he killed Rednecked Johnson, who was found out in the woods one morning a week after he had disappeared; whether he had killed Frank Salyers, whose wife he afterward married; and the many other mysteries that he might clear up if he would speak. Would he tell all? No wonder the crowd was still.

Hall stood motionless, and his eyes slowly wandered around at the waiting people — in the trees, on the roofs, and on the fence — and he sank slowly back to his chair again. Again a murmur rose. Maybe he was too weak to stand and talk — perhaps he was going to talk from his chair; yes, he was leaning forward now and his lips were opening. He was looking downward into the uplooking face of a big, red-cheeked fellow, and he was surely going to speak. The crowd became still again. And he did speak. " What's yo' name? " he asked. The fellow told him — he had been an unimportant witness in the trial — neither for nor against Hall.

"I thought so," said Hall, and of his own accord he turned away from the window and that was all that the man with the charge of two-score murders on his soul had to say to the world before he left it to be judged for them, as he firmly believed, by a living God. A little later the line of guards wheeled again to face the crowded fence, and Hall started for the scaffold. He kissed my brother's hand in the jail, and when old Doc came to his cell-door to tell him good-by, Hall put his face to the window and kissed his bitterest enemy — the man who had brought him to his death. Then he went out with a firm step; but his face was dispirited and hopeless at last; it looked the face of a man who has just been relieved from some long-endured physical pain that has left him weak in body and spirit. Twenty of us had been assigned by lot to duty as a special guard inside the box, and all of us, at his request, shook one of his helpless hands, which were tied behind his back. When he had mounted the scaffold, he called for his sister, and the tall, thin, black spectre came in and mounted the scaffold, too, stopping on the step below him. Hall did not call her by name — he hardly looked at her, nor did he tell her good-by again.

"Been enough killin' on my account," he said, abruptly; " I don't want nothin' more done about this. I don't want no more lives lost on account o' me. I want things to stop right here."

The woman waved a threatening hand over us, and her voice rose in a wail. " Oh, Talt, I can't let this rest here. You'd just as well take up one o' these men right here and hang 'em. I ain't goin' to let it stop here — no — no ! " And she began to cry and ran down the steps and out of the box.

Hall stood as motionless as the trunk of an oak. A man will show nervousness with a twitch of the lips, a roll of the eyes, or, if in no other way, with his hands; but I was just behind him, and not a finger of his bound hands moved. 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 a loud voice: "May God have mercy on this poor man's soul! " and struck the rope with a common hatchet. The black-capped apparition shot down, and the sheriff ran, weeping, out of the door of the box.

So far no revenge has been taken for the hanging of Talton Hall. The mountaineer never forgets, and he hates as long as he remembers, but it is probable that no trouble will ever come of it unless some prominent member of that guard should chance, some day, to wander carelessly into the little creek to which the rough two-horse wagon followed by relatives and friends, mounted and on foot, bore the remains of the first victim of law and order in the extreme southwest corner of the commonwealth of Virginia.


  1. This event occurred in 1891, and marks the establishment of the rule of law in the Mountains of Southwest Virginia.