The Hanging of Bad Talt Hall
Doc M. B. Taylor, the Red Fox, was uncomfortable as the train he was riding in rumbled toward Bluefield, WV, in 1893. He was cramped inside a wooden nursery tree box, attempting to evade arrest and the hangman’s noose for the murder of Bad Ira Mullins and four others. Once in Bluefield he would be put on a train taking him to Florida where he hoped to start a new life.
Railroad workers were suspicious of the box and sent word to Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney R. P. Bruce and U.S. Marshal Big Ed Hall. Hall mounted his horse and galloped to the station in time to buy a ticket and board the train.
When the train pulled into the Bluefield station, Big Ed clambered down from his coach and walked directly to the boxcar before the luggage and boxes were unloaded. Hall, called a man among men and outlaws worst enemy, showed his credentials to authorities and when the fruit tree box was taken from the train, he directed the agent to open it. The box opened after a few whacks and there lay Old Doc dressed in a new suit.
“Ed, fancy meeting you here,” the Fox said snidely.
“This is government business Doc. I’m placing you under arrest,” the legendary man-hunter answered. Doc offered no resistance. He was returned to Wise, Virginia, to stand trial for murder on May 14, 1892.
Jane Mullins, widow of Wilson Mullins, was the chief witness against The Red Fox in the trial that followed. She told of the hatred between Doc and Ira Mullins and swore that she heard the Fox’s voice during the ambush. She thought the other two men were Cal and Heenan Fleming of Pound, VA., although their faces were partially covered during the ambush. The Fleming brothers remained at large at the time of Dr. Taylor’s trial.
Witnesses testified during the trial that Dr. Taylor was absent from his post of duty on the night prior to the murders and each day afterwards. They also pointed out that the doctor made every effort to evade the law following the murders.
The physical evidence was also damaging to the Fox. Numerous spent shell casings were found near the murder scene which has since become known as Killing Rock. Some of the cartridges were from a 50 x 75 Winchester. Only three guns of the kind were known to be in the area and the Fox owned one of them.
The Fox claimed that his Winchester was center-fire, with the hammering mechanism striking the center of the bullet. The shells found at the ambush scene were rim-fired, that is, struck on the rim of the cartridge. His defense was damaged during examination however when it was determined that his Winchester had been tinkered with. The Fox was found guilty of murder in the first degree and taken to Lynchburg, VA, for safekeeping.
When he was returned to Wise for his sentence hearing the Fox was put in a cell adjoining that of his old nemesis, Talton Hall, who was awaiting the hangman’s noose. The Fox offered to shake hands with Hall through his cell bars but Talt responded by cursing and striking at him with his manacles.
“I ain’t shakin’ hands with no one that kills women and children,” Talt blurted out with disgust.
Somehow while Talt Hall was at large in Memphis the Fox orchestrated his capture using the guise that Talt was wanted for a misdemeanor in that area. It was a decoy and when they told the outlaw he was under arrest for the murder of officer Enos Hylton back in Norton, VA, Hall fell to the floor in a cussing fit of rage. Doc returned to the Norton train station with his prisoner and several friends of Enos Hylton got wind of it and met them at the station. The Fox stood at Hall’s side with a huge pistol in each hand. Squire Salyers, the father-in-law of the murdered policeman, made a vicious cut at the prisoner with a clasp knife as he stepped off the train. Members of the volunteer guard grabbed and held the older gentleman and Hall was unhurt and whisked off to jail.
In ensuing days, the Fox whiled away his time lying on a hammock in his cell, singing hymns and reading his Bible. He gazed at his pocket watch, studying it closely, before putting it away and resuming a mournful hymn and more reading. The Fox told reporters that he had a vision of “crossing a river in a boat. The wind rose bringing a storm but I was finally able to get back to land.” He interpreted the wind and waves as his enemies, the storm as his trial and getting back to shore meant he would come out of it alright, that he expected to eventually be free again among the mountains he loved.
Meanwhile Talton Hall, whose gang members had not broken him out as promised, enjoyed pestering his old enemy in the adjoining cell.
“I know I’m bad but there’s many men worse than me in this world,” Hall, who had killed many men, said as he kicked the wall with his huge boot. “The Fox in there for instance. There ain’t nothing twixt the Fox and me except this iron wall between us.”
Hall stared coldly at Old Doc with his dark eyes making the red-haired, red-bearded man uneasy.
Heartbeats quickened a few nights later when a gunshot was heard near the jail. First thoughts were that Devil John Wright’s men were breaking Talt out of jail as they vowed to do. A guard shot into the air when he couldn’t get a response from what he thought was a horse and rider lurking in the darkness. He soon found that it was a cow that had wandered nearby.
The number of the police guard increased to a hundred on the eve of Hall’s execution and the arrival of Captain F. Josh Bullitt and members of the Big Stone Gap Police Guard bolstered that number the following day. Earlier there was a concern that Hall’s cronies may storm the jail in great numbers. The police protection and the professional tactics devised by Captain Bullitt made any attempt ill-advised and foolhardy.
“They’re not coming after me,” Hall spoke up, his hopes dashed. “No one’s coming for me.”
“This is the last day on earth for Talt Hall, the keen desperado, murderer of so many men and he is preparing to shuffle off in a gleeful manner,” a special news release from Norton, VA, read. “Liquor is constantly pouring down his throat. For two days he has been under its influence. Most any visitor to his cell is permitted to give him drink. He commented that he was keeping his spirits up by keeping the spirits down. Many are predicting that Hall will cheat the gallows by suicide.”
His sister visited him and they had a long conversation.
“There are three men that you must have put out of the way even if you have to sell all the cattle and the feather bed,” he told her.
He would tell their names the following morning on the scaffold. It was commonly felt he was referring to Judge Skeen who sentenced him to hang; Detective Pride who tricked him into giving himself up in Memphis; and Doc Taylor (the Fox) who harassed him during his trial.
Later on the eve of his execution, Talt Hall started a fire in his cell, applying his lamp to his bedtick. His aim was to start a commotion that would lead to an escape opportunity. Smoke filled the jail and there was a general alarm but the guards doused it with water and dragged the bedtick to the jail yard.
“Don’t you know this is Bad Talt Hall? We need more guards in here,” the Fox implored everyone who would listen.
“Oh, I was just trying to smoke out the Fox,” Hall jested sarcastically to no one in particular.
There were no disturbances in Wise on the eve of Hall’s hanging but the police guard confiscated all concealed firearms and it resulted in a wagonload of pistols. There was also an unusually large number of moonshiners in town with their merchandise and some were arrested.
Talt Hall didn’t sleep well and would not eat breakfast on his hanging day. Father F.J. Luckold of the Catholic Church in Lynchburg, his spiritual adviser, arrived and spent most of the morning with him. Talt joined his church while being held in the Lynchburg Jail. Hall said he was certain he would meet his loved ones in Heaven.
Meanwhile noted writer of the period, John Fox Jr., a member of the Big Stone Gap Police Guard, notated thoughts he would include in his book Bluegrass and Rhododendron that was released several years later in 1901.
“Through mountain and valley, humanity had talked of nothing else for weeks, and before dawn of the fatal day, humanity started converging from all other counties for the county-seat of Wise – from Scott and from Lee; from wild Dickinson and Buchanan; from the “Pound” which harbors the desperadoes of two sister States whose skirts are there stitched together with pine and pin-oak along the crest of the Cumberland; and even from the far away Kentucky hills, mountain humanity had started at dawn of the day before.
“A stranger would have thought that a county-fair, a camp-meeting, or a circus was the goal. Men and women, boys and girls, children with babes in arm; each in its Sunday best – the men in jeans, slouch hats and high boots ; the women in gay ribbons and brilliant homespun; in wagons and on foot, on horses and on mules, carrying man and man, man and boy, lover and sweetheart, or husband and wife and child, all moved through the crisp September air to a little mountain town.
“Midway of a long street and shut in by a tall board fence was a courthouse with the front door closed and barred, and port-holes cut through its brick walls; and in the rear a jail; and to one side a tall wooden box of a building with a cross-beam in plain sight from which a rope swung to and fro, when the wind moved.
“(Hall’s) clan was there to rescue him from the gallows and his enemies were there to see that he died a just death by a bullet if he should escape the noose. The neighboring hills were black with people waiting; the housetops were covered with people waiting; the trees were bending under the weight of human bodies.”
Thousands of people…as many as 5,000 were in suspense as to how the events would play out. No one was admitted into the jail yard on this day except lawmen, preachers and Talt Hall’s family. As the guards led Hall from his cell to the gallows the doomed man paused as he passed in front of the Fox.
“Doc, I wancha to know that I ain’t got no hate left in me,” Talt Hall uttered. “I’m not taking that to the grave with me.” The Fox was taken aback by his words. He acknowledged him but remained a safe distance away from the bars.
The gallows were erected within a relatively small square building which would hold only fifty or so people such as family members, doctors, preachers, newsmen, guards and sheriff. There were as many as 5,000 who came to town and they wanted to see the man who was to be hanged. Just before noon he appeared in the upstairs window of the jail. He acknowledged a few with a smile but only spoke to one, a friend from Floyd County, KY. Within a short time he was taken into the barracks that housed the scaffold along with the doctors, his sister (Mrs. Bates), his cousin Allen Hall and several others.
“I’ve decided I don’t want anyone killed,” he told his sister, referring to a conversation they had the night before. “There’s been enough killing on my account. I don’t want no more lives lost. I want all of my matters to rest.”
“Talton, farewell to you in this world. I do hope to see you in Heaven,” she told him.
“Father O’Livier kissed the doomed man’s cheek and said a final prayer which was repeated slowly and audibly by the condemned man,” Roy L. Sturgill wrote in his booklet Crimes, Criminals and Characters of the Cumberlands. “Sheriff Halbrook adjusted the black cap and said ‘God have mercy on this unfortunate man.’ He cut the rope and Hall dropped six feet. His neck was broken. Within seventeen minutes Talt Hall was dead.”
Everyone who wanted to see the corpse of the dead man was able to do so. A huge line developed and several thousand walked past.
The Fox was lying on his hammock inside his cell and could hear the hanging of Talton Hall as the enclosed gallows was erected near the jail. He watched the clockface for two minutes following Hall’s fall through the trapdoor and the snap of the rope. He then breathed a sigh of relief before returning to his hammock and Bible. Both of his enemies were now dead.
Talton Hall’s body was taken by wagon to the small rural town of Dunham, Kentucky in Letcher County for burial.
Editor’s note: The Red Fox calls for a surprise witness at his sentencing hearing in Jadon’s next segment From the Mountains. Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read periodically at bereaonline.com Don’t miss a single issue.