Spooky Places: The Legend of Hangman's Grove

Abandoned church near Valley View, Texas

Located in north Texas, not far from the Oklahoma border, is the tiny rural village of Valley View. The village was born in the early 1870s when eighteen families decided to settle there, and eventually blossomed into a town complete with a post office, a couple of gristmills and churches, a hotel, and a connection to the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway. By the close of the 19th century Valley View boasted five hundred inhabitants. Although the village and the surrounding environs might have appeared quaint and charming to visitors, this sparsely-populated part of Cooke County also harbored a dark secret and a ghastly history.

About three miles west of the village stands a grove once known to the locals as Hangman's Grove. In spite of its name, the location doesn't appear as dreary as one might imagine; birds flitter cheerfully among the branches of stunted elm and walnut trees, while the soothing babbling of Indian Creek evokes a sense of serenity as it meanders toward Spring Creek.

The trees found in this grove are of an unusually low height, but the branches are just the right height for hanging a man. A rancher named Samp Holder learned this the hard way in 1873. His would be the last of many hangings to take place in the grove.

The Mystery of Samp Holder

Samp lived in the town of Era, just a few miles west of Valley View. A good-natured fellow, Samp was well-liked by his neighbors, until their cows began disappearing. While it was never proven that Samp had stolen the cattle, he was widely believed to be the culprit. One winter night he was at home, sitting in front of the fireplace with his wife and their newborn baby, when a stranger knocked on Samp's door. "I'll be back in a minute," the rancher said to his wife before stepping outside. He never would return; the following morning his body was found hanging cold and rigid from a tree in Hangman's Grove.

As in most cases of vigilante justice and Wild West lynch mobs, the person or persons who hanged Samp Holder were never identified, though the mob was probably comprised of neighbors and former friends who knew Samp and his wife quite well. Nobody in the lynch mob ever talked about what they did, and the lynching was never discussed in polite society. It was soon forgotten.

But the hanging of Samp Holder was just one in a long series of hangings in the grove. From 1865 to 1874 there was no formal body of law enforcement in that part of Texas, nor was there a court, and justice was thus left in the hands of vigilante committees. These self-appointed guardians of order turned a blind eye to most offenses, but when it came to the stealing of horses and cattle, the punishment was swift and certain. Rape and murder, by comparison, were dealt with less harshly by the vigilante committee-- and for a very Texas-like reason: It was widely accepted that folks were capable of fixing their own problems. If a girl was raped, for instance, the victim's relatives were free to go hunting for the perpetrator.

If a man with a shady reputation went missing in the vicinity, the first place to look for him was Hangman's Grove. It is said that, even now, it is still possible to find worn spots on just about any study branch of an old tree, at least seven feet above the ground, from where a hangman's rope had rubbed against the wood. The motto of the Cooke County vigilance committee at the time was, "It is better for one innocent man to hang than for 99 guilty men to escape."

A deserted mill in Valley View

The Hanging Spree of 1868 

The year 1868 was a banner year for this spooky nook. During the fall of that year a wave of horse theft spread throughout Cooke County. Strangers were seen coming in and out of Valley View and surrounding towns regularly and while nobody knew who these men were or where they had come from, residents believed that they were up to no good. In October, six of these out-of-towners were hanged in the grove by persons unknown.

Something about one of these victims attracted attention, however. Unlike the others who were lynched, this one victim has a young, beardless face and bore not the agonized expression of a man departing from this earthly realm, but an expression of serenity and calmness. It was later discovered that this nameless victim was not a man at all but a young woman. Advertisements were placed in local newspapers in a fruitless attempt to ascertain her identity. Of the six suspected horse thieves put to death at Hangman's Grove in October of 1868, she was the only one given a decent burial. While her name and history may never be known, her bones still slumber in an unmarked grave on the banks of Indian Creek.

Valley View, after the fire of 1924 destroyed much of the downtown

A Deadly Campsite and a Child Victim

The spooky reputation of Hangman's Grove comes not just from the scores of vigilante executions that took place there, but from other dark deeds as well. One such incident took place in 1870 after two prospectors from Missouri arrived in Valley View, stopping at the general store and asking about good placed to set up camp. They were directed to the grove.

The two men, one of whom is identified in historical records only as "Kirk" (whether this was the man's first or last name is unclear), set up camp in the grove and sometime during the night, as the prospectors were cooking their supper, an argument must have broken out. Their bodies were discovered the next morning and two bloodied axes were found on the ground, indicating a fierce hand-to-hand fight to the death.

"Next day when they were found their horses were still tethered and their coffee-pot was still sitting on the cold, dead embers of their fire. From the number of footprints found around the fallen bodies the battle must have been a most desperate one, and the awful manner in which the bodies were bruised and hacked and gashed would lead to the same conclusion... Anyone who feels an interest in the matter might do well to drop a line to the Sheriff of Cooke county, at Gainesville."-- St. Louis Republic, August 6, 1893 

History also records at least one child victim of vigilante justice at Hangman's Grove. This boy, Rufus Johnson, was hanged in 1872 after being accused of stealing horses. An official investigation into the affair later revealed that Johnson had nothing at all to do with the alleged crime.

By the early 20th century the area known as Hangman's Grove was widely rumored to be haunted by the spirits of the unfortunate men-- along with one woman and child-- who were brutally executed there. But as the decades passed and the landscape changed, stories of spooks and phantoms began to dwindle. Today, only the oldest residents of Cooke County recall the ghost stories associated with the dark and disturbing history of Hangman's Grove.