MANY OF US believe that too much emphasis is placed on the technical aspects of the criminal justice system and that far too often, those who commit crimes go unpunished. But then we encounter a case like Lenell Geter’s, and we take a second, sobering look at the system and wonder if maybe, just maybe, it could happen to us.
There was a time in Dallas when a person accused of a crime had no rights at all. So before we decide to push back the pendulum-to do away with all the “technicalities’- let’s take a close look at the case of the State of Texas vs. Allen Brooks.
The year was 1910. The population of Dallas had more than doubled to nearly 100,000 since the last census at the turn of the 20th century. The progressive, ambitious city had made a clean break from its rural past and was calling itself “the Queen City of the Southwest.” It had sophisticated retailers and fine business colleges-even its own opera house. The city’s new “skyscraper,” the 15-story Praetorian Building, was the tallest building west of the Mississippi.
The most fashionable addresses in the city were along Ross Avenue, where a string of residential palaces had earned the thoroughfare the nickname of the “Fifth Avenue of the South.” The Buvens family, who lived at the corner of Ross and Pearl (across the street from the Belo mansion), was not as rich as some of the families on Ross, but they lived comfortably. Buvens, a bookkeeper, had moved from Shreveport to Dallas four years earlier to take a position as cashier for a local wholesaling firm. His wife, Marie, supplemented the family’s income by renting furnished rooms in their spacious Ross Avenue residence.
The family was assisted by Flora Dainger-field, a black maid, and Allen Brooks, a free-lance furnace-tender and handyman who worked for several families along Ross Avenue. Buvens would later describe the 58-year-old Brooks as “a pretty good old Negro, except when he’d been drinking.”
On the afternoon of February 23, 1910, it was noticed that Mary Ellen Buvens, Henry and Marie’s 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, was not in the front yard where her parents had left her. After a frantic search, Dainger-field reported that she had seen Allen Brooks leading Mary Ellen out of the barn behind the house. Brooks was immediately arrested and taken to the city jail.
Dr. W.W. Brandau, the Buvens’ family physician, was summoned to examine the little girl. He later said that he found “evidence of brutal treatment, though the perpetrator had not been entirely successful.” Brandau then went to the city jail, where he examined Brooks, finding “evidence which confirmed the opinion he had formed when he attended the child.” According to Brandau, there was blood on the girl’s clothes and on Brooks’ clothes. Brooks was charged with attempted rape and was transferred to the county jail.
By noon the next day, Brooks had been indicted by the Dallas County grand jury for criminal assault. By that afternoon, the whole town was abuzz over the incident; by nightfall, an angry crowd had gathered outside the jail. For several hours, the crowd clustered in small groups discussing the matter, but about an hour before midnight, the people began to move en masse toward the front of the jail.
Upon seeing this development, Sheriff Arthur Ledbetter sent a deputy to fetch help from John Ryan, the chief of police. Ledbetter, Ryan and a dozen armed officers stationed themselves on the steps of the jail.
“Give us Brooks!” the mob yelled.
“He’s not here,” the sheriff proclaimed. To prove his point, Ledbetter invited Bu-vens, who was in the gathering, to come in and see for himself. After a tour of the jail, Buvens reported to the crowd that Brooks was nowhere to be found. But the crowd feared that Buvens had been duped, and it insisted on better evidence, proposing that a committee of six representatives be permitted to search the jail.
As the sheriff contemplated the proposal, the mob began to bang on the front door of the jail with a 14-foot length of railroad iron. Ledbetter hastily agreed to the inspection. An ex-inmate, who said that he knew every trap door and hiding place in the jail, was selected to head the committee.
While the committee searched the jail, the crowd was entertained by one member, who played Oh, Susannah and Dixie on a tin flute. At 2:30 a.m., the committee announced to the gathering that Brooks was not in the jail. They didn’t know that Ledbetter, anticipating just such a turn of events, had hidden Brooks in the county jail in Fort Worth, then had transferred him to Denton.
On Friday, County Attorney Dwight Lew-elling issued a public statement: “There is no necessity for any demonstration such as occurred here last night. The juries of Dallas County seldom fail to convict.” The Friday issue of The Dallas Morning News featured a story on Thad Brown, a black defendant in a murder trial in Idabell, Oklahoma. Brown had been found guilty of killing a white fanner and had been sentenced to life in prison, but as he was being taken from the courtroom, he was shot and killed.
A letter was published to Sheriff Ledbet-ter in the Saturday edition of the Daily Times Herald. “We as citizens hain’t going to stand it any longer,” the anonymous writer said. “The man that defends this niggrow will suddenly suffer death, and he will not know anything of it till it will be too late. I remain, Your Friend.” On the same day, the Herald also reported a hanging of two black men who had been convicted of murdering whites at Wharton, Texas. The hanging had been attended by 3,000 spectators. Consequently, Brooks was moved from Denton to Sherman.
The threat of death was not the only thing that local lawyers feared. Whoever defended Brooks could expect a significant loss of clientele. But the law required that a person accused of a capital crime be represented by counsel, and Judge Robert Seay was left with the task of appointing one. He selected Wilson A. Pace.
On Sunday, Pace issued a public statement: “I regret very much that Judge Seay appointed me. No one in Dallas condemns the crime of the Negro who committed it any more tnan I do. If I am forced to represent this Negro in court I will do so under protest, and I will see the law is complied within sofar as I am capable, and that is as far as I will go.” Brooks was transferred from Sherman to McKinney.
The trial was set for Thursday, March 3, exactly one week after the indictment. Race and his appointed co-counsel, J.E. Thomas, claimed that a conflict in their schedule prevented their service, so Judge Seay replaced them with a three-man team led by F.D. Cosby. Cosby said that he was too ill to serve and was replaced by George Clifton Edwards, who had little to lose in the way of a reputation. Edwards had been branded for life as a radical years earlier when he had suggested that 12 hours a day was too long for children to be working in the cotton gins.
On the morning of the trial, long before daybreak, Brooks left McKinney in an in-terurban car in the custody of Ledbetter and Ben Cabell, an ex-sheriff of Dallas County. Near the outskirts of Dallas, Brooks was transferred to an automobile and was taken to the courthouse where he was concealed in the jury room next to the Criminal District Court on the second floor.
There were many other arrivals on the early-morning trains. Farmers from Ellis, Hunt and Rockwall counties poured into the city, as did the “creek folks’-poor, illiterate settlers who eked out an existence in the backwoods and creek bottoms. These new arrivals joined the local citizens to form a crowd around the courthouse that was much larger and far more menacing than the gathering at the jail had been a few nights earlier.
At 9:30 a.m., Judge Seay announced that the trial would commence. The defense attorneys reminded the judge that they had yet to lay eyes on their client, so the judge allowed them 30 minutes for a conference. At 10 a.m., the defense attorneys requested more time. Judge Seay gave them an hour to put their request in the form of a written motion.
Meanwhile, the crowd was losing its patience. The sheriff’s deputies had tied ropes across the stairs to hold back the mob, but someone cut the ropes. Judge E.B. Muse of the 44th District Court attempted to reason with the crowd.
“I am appealing to every one of you who has got a home and who believes in upholding the law,” Muse said. “Let Judge Seay proceed with the law and give the Negro a speedy trial.”
“Give us the Negro, and we’ll help the law out,” a voice in the crowd said.
“Don’t let it go out to the world that the citizens of Dallas County gathered together to block the law,” the judge pleaded.
While this impassioned conversation was taking place, a small, dark-complexioned man staggered out of a nearby saloon and climbed atop an auto parked in front of the courthouse.
“What they need in there is a proper man to lead them,” he said. “Follow me!”
Led by the small man, a mob of more than 250 people attacked the double cordon of officers lined up to defend the stairs. The mob beat the officers with their fists, and one attacker pelted a deputy sheriff behind the ear with a projectile from a slingshot. The blow drew blood, which made the crowd all the more frenzied.
A group of onlookers, caught up in the excitement of the moment, placed a stepladder beside the second tier of stairs and mounted a separate assault. This diversion weakened the defense on the stairs, and the mob broke through the defenders and stormed into the courtroom.
Through all this, Brooks remained calm. It will never be known whether he had enough confidence in the American judicial system to believe that he was safe or he had already resigned himself to his inevitable fate. Hearing the struggle in the courtroom, Deputy R.S. Ellis, Brooks’ last line of defense, attempted to reassure the prisoner.
“Old nigger,” Ellis said, “we’ve got a hard proposition here, but we’re going to do the best we can to take care of you. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Brooks said, sitting quietly in a chair by the window. Those were his last words.
The mob crashed through the door. “Pitch him through the window,” the leader cried.
“I can’t!” came the reply. “The deputy’s got a hold of him.”
“Then pitch ’em both through.”
Bob Weakley, another deputy, grabbed Ellis to keep the leaders of the mob from throwing him out the window. The end of a rope tossed from the crowd below was tied around Brooks’ neck, and he was jerked from the window ledge to the ground two stories below, landing headfirst. Brooks was mercilessly stabbed, beaten and kicked by the mob. He was then dragged by the rope around his neck to the Elks Arch at the corner of Main and Akard streets.
Chief of Police John Ryan had been at the courthouse earlier in the day. Incredibly, he had left the scene to go to Fair Park where an aerial exhibition was to take place. Upon hearing that the mob had taken Brooks, he returned to the scene just as the mob was about to throw the rope over a spike on a telephone pole near the arch. One man in the mob held a pistol to Ryan’s face to prevent him from interfering until after Brooks had been hanged. Souvenir hunters tore bits of clothing from Brooks’ body, and sections of the rope used to hang him sold for 25 cents an inch.
A man from Garland who had helped shove Brooks out the window at the courthouse wiped some blood from his hand where he had cut it on the broken glass, then suggested to the crowd that they line up about half a dozen of the local criminal attorneys and string them up alongside Brooks-“for their infernal smartness.”
“No!” came a cry from the crowd. “Let’s go get Bubber and Burrell!” Bubber Robin-son and Burrell Oates were black inmates of the Dallas County Jail who had been convicted of murder but were awaiting the results of their appeals. Robinson had been convicted of killing Frank Wolford, a white former; Oates, for the murder of Sol Ara-noff, a Dallas grocer.
The mob numbered at least 2,000 by the time it reached the jail. “Let us in and we’ll clean the place out for you,” one person said. “Give us Oates and Robinson,” said another.
The Rev. George W. Owens, an Oak Cliff preacher and lumber dealer, mounted the steps of the jail and began to plead for calm. “For God’s sake, wait a minute,” he said.
“Get out of here,” the mob yelled, pulling Owens down from the steps. “This is no place for a preacher. Bring the battering ram.” Owens was rudely escorted from the scene by several members of the mob. A spokesman for the sheriff went outside to negotiate, claiming that Oates and Robinson were no longer there. It was agreed, just as before, that a committee of six should investigate.
As the committee disappeared inside the jail, grumblings could be heard in the crowd to the effect that the selectees were deputy sheriffs in disguise. The report of the committee, which did not find its quarry, was received with jeers, and an assault with the battering ram commenced on the door of the jail. As the door was about to give, Ledbet-ter appeared and announced to the crowd that 20 of them could go inside to search. The battering stopped, and the small, dark-complexioned man supervised the selection of the 20 and led the committee inside.
Fifteen minutes later, the leader came out. “I regret to say,” came the announcement, “that the Negroes are not here. The sheriff has been too smooth for us. You have done the work of men today, and your deeds will resound in every state, village and hamlet where purity and innocence are cherished.”
Earlier, as soon as Brooks had been wrenched from their grasp at the courthouse, deputies Ellis and Weakley had headed straight for the jail. Five minutes before the mob arrived, Oates and Robinson were whisked away in a taxi. Three miles west of Grand Prairie, the taxi broke down. The deputies and their prisoners were picked up by other officers who had followed to help defend the prisoners in the event that the mob gave chase. The group continued westward in the deputies’ car. On the outskirts of Fort Worth, an emissary from the Tarrant County sheriff’s office advised the deputies that the prisoners would not be accepted in the Fort Worth jail because of the great peril from the Dallas mob. The deputies hid the prisoners in the stockyards until they were sure that the coast was clear, then took them to the jail in Cleburne.
The next day, the greatest controversy surrounding the events of the preceding day involved allegations that Ledbetter had struck an old Confederate veteran with his pistol. Most people agreed that this was just a political ploy and commended the sheriff for his handling of the emergency at the courthouse. Not a shot was fired in the effort to defend Brooks. The only deputy to draw a weapon had had it taken from him by the sheriff.
The Dallas Morning News, which would later display great courage in its battle with the Ku Klux Klan during the Twenties, had nothing to offer after the Brooks tragedy. The News merely gave the mob an editorial scolding, but admitted that it could not demand respect for a law that “is so often made the means of saving fiends from fair and prompt punishment.”
On Monday, March 7,1910, Judge RobertSeay charged the Dallas County grand jurywith the responsibility for investigating theincident and indicting any person found tobe responsible. Seay told the jurors, however, that he wanted them to understand thatBrooks “was guilty and deserved death.” Noindictment was ever returned; no arrest wasever made.