How Should Gainesville Memorialize Killing 42 Men?

The city hasn't been eager to advertise this violent episode of its past.

The Texas Observer has a piece about the recent unveiling of a memorial in Gainesville — in Cooke County, on Interstate 35, just south of the Red River — to the deaths of 42 men killed by the town for alleged treasonous activities in the midst of the Civil War. What duty does the city have to recognize this horrific act of mob violence?

The Medal of Honor program helped Gainesville get nominated—and then win—Rand McNally’s 2012 competition for “Most Patriotic Small Town in America,” a designation the town’s mayor, Jim Goldsworthy, loves to mention.

Around the time the town won the Rand McNally award, the Morton Museum of Cooke County leased a billboard to advertise a 150th anniversary: “October’s Reign of Terror, Commemorating the Great Hanging of 1862.” Within days, the city’s mayor pro tem, Ray Nichols, had voiced his disapproval. “Gainesville was voted most patriotic city in America this year, and we are very excited about it and our Medal of Honor Host City program. I think those are important. That other thing? I don’t think that’s important to anybody,” Nichols told the Austin American-Statesman at the time.

Though no explicit demands were made, the Cooke County Heritage Society pulled its sponsorship of the anniversary event, according to former Heritage Society President Steve Gordon, for fear that city officials’ anger might mean funding cuts to the town’s history museum. Gordon, an Oklahoma native and engineer who retired to Gainesville, was livid. “This story’s got to come up,” he says. “A lot of these people’s [families] weren’t even here in 1862. Why are they so upset?”

“These are good people,” McCaslin says. “They want their town to look good. You want to live in a town you’re proud of. That’s not a bad thing. Where does the Great Hanging fit into that? The town killed 42 people. It’s kind of a clunker.”

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