Center Hanging Oak R.I.P.

Historical Period: 20th Century (1900 & Later)
Historical Topic: County Courthouses, Mob Justice
Species: Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata)
County: Shelby
Public Access: No longer applicable; tree is dead

Every Texas county has had its acts of violence, including the once popular “necktie parties,” and Shelby County is no exception. The county's last two hangings of record occurred in the 1920s and both were accomplished from the same limb of a giant southern red oak tree on the courthouse square in Center. Both victims were teenage Negro youths who were accused of murder.

In April 1920, Lige Daniels, age about 18, reportedly beat a 42-year-old white widow about the head with a hoe for no apparent reason. When a local doctor arrived, he had the dying woman taken to the local hospital and delivered Daniels to the sheriff in Center. Word of the incident spread rapidly, and a mob was soon demanding that the boy be hanged. The mob was talked out of the notion, only to reassemble later when the sheriff left town with the keys to his jail, presumably to discourage further attempts to get the accused.

During the sheriff's absence, the mob broke into the jail and dragged the prisoner to this big oak. While a young boy climbed the tree to assist in placing a rope over a stout limb, the men stood their noosed captive on a set of wooden steps. After the rope was tied-off and before the steps were removed, a court official mounted the scaffold to plead with the mob to stop. His plea was cut short when the makeshift scaffold collapsed and all on it but the youth landed on the ground.

As superstition would have it, the limb from which Daniels was hanged later died. The rope, which its donor recovered and displayed on his front porch, is said to have turned black.

The second hanging, in 1928, brought death to 18-year-old Eolis “Buddy” Evans. Evans presumably hit John T. Wheeler, a Center resident, on the head with a piece of lumber, and Wheeler died. After the youth was arrested and placed in the Shelby County jail, he escaped. Two days later he was captured and removed to the San Augustine County jail, from which he also escaped. Two days later Evans was shot in the leg during recapture and was returned to Center.

An angry mob met the sheriff at the jail and relieved him of his prisoner. Before a rope was passed over a limb on the hanging oak, a member of the mob suggested that they use the same limb as was used before. Since it was already dead, he reasoned, there was no need in killing another.

The dead limb was collected later by a Center craftsman, who made gavels of the wood, some of which are still in use. The tree itself died in 1990 and was removed.

The Center Hanging Oak was located on the south side of the Shelby County courthouse square, in Center.