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Thursday, September 11, 2008

NEWSPAPERS FEED THE FRENZY

I've been asked why Tom P Varnell stayed 'on the lam' rather than turn himself into the law so that he could clear his name. It's a good question but one only has to take a close look at the times to understand why he chose to fade into the countryside of Hill County.

Put simply, Tom P lived during times when Texans were not adverse to administering justice without worrying too much about rights or the niceties of the law. With district judges having to ride a circuit and visiting a county only twice a year, the frustration of pioneers while not condoned can be understood. The fallout is that when fever ran high against a murderer of a father supposedly defending the honor of his daughter, violence could be expected.

Fanning the flames of public indignation over what was perceived as a heinous affair, the newspapers were not shy in proclaiming Tom P guilty but also stating what they thought should happen to him. Here are a sampling of some quotes directed at Tom P from the newspapers of the time:

Waco Daily Examiner, March 7, 1883:

"Judge Lynch will be up to hold a special term of court if Varnell is caught. . . Hanging is too mild a punishment for such a villain..."


Fort Worth Daily Gazette, March 7, 1883:

HORRIBLE CRIME
~~~~~
A Texas Man Outrages a Beautiful Girl At The Point of a Pistol
~~~~~
And Then Brutally Murders Her Father by Shooting Him Through the Heart


Stephenville Empire, April 7, 1883:

". . . There can be no extenuating circumstances for the diabolical crime, and the minds of men who seek to defend such a beast have a moral obliquity that we shudder to contemplate. . . it would be a holy wisdom and precaution to hang the villain without recourse to the courts."


Waco Day, Sept. 29, 1884:

"The Governor should . . . send a detachment of the state rangers to Hill county and let them kill Varnell. . ."


Brenham Banner, June 27, 1885:

"Varnell by his own act has become an outlaw and is entitled to no more consideration than a wild beast or a mad dog."


Newspapers did not have to worry about how they worded articles about people accused of crimes. So Tom P had to deal with a press who gleefully tried to outdo each other with hyperbole. Even so, is this the only reason he stayed hidden?

Tom P quickly became concerned that even if he made it to trial that his chances of having a fair one were slim as his story had been spread far and wide. Already convicted in the newspapers and fearful of being lynched before going through a trial that could not possibly be filled with impartial jurors, Tom P chose what he thought was his only reasonable course of action. He went into hiding! With many friends, he managed to stay in Hill County and out of the clutches of the law for over a year.

But then Sheriff Tom Bell was elected!

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