The Red Fox of the Mountains, part 6

Jadon Gibson
Jadon Gibson

Doctor M. B. Taylor, the Red Fox, was found guilty of the murder of Ira Mullins and members of the Mullins’ family by Judge Samuel W. Williams on December 10, 1892.

“Is there any reason why the sentence of death should not be pronounced on you,” an uneasy Judge H.S.K. Morrison, hearing his first capital case asked the famed Red Fox of the Mountains at his sanity and sentencing hearing. “Have you anything to say for yourself.”

The crowded courtroom hushed as the defendant rose unsteadily and grasped a banister for support. One side of the Fox’s face was a picture of kindness while a grimace appeared on the other. “No, but I have a friend here who will speak for me,” he finally responded.

“Of course, we will hear your witness. Who will it be?” the judge asked, probably expecting it to be the Fox’s wife who was sitting nearby.

“Jesus Christ,” the defendant answered sharply as murmurs throughout the courtroom rose to a crescendo before Judge Morrison called for “order in the court.” The judge , momentarily caught off guard, reverently bowed his head for an instant as the Fox added, “Will you hear Jesus Christ?”

“Yes,” the judge answered, not knowing what to expect.

A chill had fallen over the courtroom. The Fox took his Bible from his pocket and began reading. He interpreted several passages regarding false witnesses and said he was innocent of their claims. Doc said he was a manifestation from Heaven and had spiritual visitations. He read long extracts from the Bible and said he had revelations that he would rise from the dead and that Christ would punish his persecutors and those who participated in his execution.

Taylor’s attorneys tried to avert a harsh sentence with a plea of insanity but the judge did not accept it, indicating Doc had used judgment aforethought and proceeded to use judgment to evade arrest and prosecution after the killings.

“That’s enough Mr. Taylor,” Judge Morrison finally interrupted after determining that no further light was being shed on the case. “I’ll not allow you to use the sacred name of Christ for your own selfish purposes.”

Judge Morrison then announced the sentence of hanging to be carried out in Wise, VA, on October 27, 1893, between the hours of 10:00 A.M. and 4:00 P.M.

A sunny, bright day turned to rain on October 27, 1893, the day Dr. M. B. Taylor, the Red Fox, was hanged. He spoke to some folks from an upstairs window of the old Wise County VA Courthouse. His wife made the white suit which he wore, emblematic of the white he said he would wear in Heaven. Ordinarily black was worn in that era of public executions.
A sunny, bright day turned to rain on October 27, 1893, the day Dr. M. B. Taylor, the Red Fox, was hanged. He spoke to some folks from an upstairs window of the old Wise County VA Courthouse. His wife made the white suit which he wore, emblematic of the white he said he would wear in Heaven. Ordinarily black was worn in that era of public executions.

Dr. M. B. Taylor, the Red Fox of the Mountains, was doomed. Doctor Taylor asked that he be allowed to be dressed in white for hanging including the hood. It was customary for a black hood to be placed over the head of doomed prisoners prior to their hanging. His wish was granted. His wife, Nancy Booth Taylor, made him a complete suit of white linen, even to the cap and sash to tie his hands.

“White is a symbol of purity of course and it is a symbol of my innocence,” he answered when questioned about it. “It is also emblematic of the fine linen that I will wear in heaven.”

His lawyers tried every legal remedy to get a new trial after he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. His trial, like the trial and hanging of Talton Hall, received publicity in newspapers throughout a wide area and in major newspapers across the nation.

A news reporter interviewed the Fox and the story appeared in a Big Stone Gap, VA, newspaper although it is believed to have been written by a Lynchburg, VA, writer where it was printed initially.

“The most noted prisoner in the Wise County jail is none other than Doc M. B. Taylor of Wise County who is under sentence of death for the murder of the Mullins family a year or so ago,” the story reads. “The date for his execution has passed owing to the issue of a writ by the Supreme Court of Appeals. Taylor is very hopeful of getting a new trial. He claims he has excellent grounds for his appeal.

“He is a man of medium size, thin with rather stooped shoulders. He is 56 years of age and looks his age. He is quite bald on the crown of his head and has touches of gray appearing in the reddish brown hair that covers the side and back of his head. A fringe of red whiskers of a much deeper color extends down either cheek and under his chin. His upper lip is clean shaven. His countenance indicates an intelligence above the average.

“Taylor was a practicing physician in Wise County for a number of years before his arrest. It was from his profession that he got his soubriquet of Doc Taylor. His patients and friends all call him by that familiar abbreviation.

“A reporter called at the jail and talked about his prospects in a legal battle to save him from the gallows. Taylor asserted his innocence of the heinous crime of waylaying and murdering a family of five persons in cold blood with the assistance of two other men who are still at large.

“He attributed the crime laid at his door to the malice of his enemies in Wise and adjoining counties. Taylor was a deputy and U.S. Marshal and says his police work made it hot and uncomfortable for a gang of moonshiners who infested that region. He claims he has been the object of their hatred ever since.

“His theory is that the murder was carried out by a gang who plotted beforehand to cast suspicion upon him and carried out their plans accordingly. He said that a brother of Ira Mullins was killed previously by some of the same people and nobody had been brought to justice for the crime.

“Taylor talks quite calmly about his probable fate. He is a constant reader of the Bible and prays three times a day. He claims to have a close communion with God and His angels. Taylor is a member of what he calls the Church of the New Jerusalem, the doctrines of which, he explains, are a medley of the tenets of the Adventists and the spiritualists.”

Dr. Taylor said he is fully prepared to die if the court decides against him.

“I aim to keep myself fully prepared,” he said. “All men must die sometime and my death upon the gallows would cut me out of only a few years of life anyway. It is probably as easy a death as a man can die. I have thought about it a good deal and I don’t think men who are hanged suffer much. I know it is a death that is looked down upon and is considered a disgrace but better men than I have gone to the gallows.

“Christ himself died an ignominious death but I don’t mean to compare myself to Him. I have always been regarded as a man blessed with peculiar gifts. I have perceptions and intuitions that give me a sort of insight into future things and I don’t fear the future. I can’t explain myself so that you can understand but I rest secure in my religious beliefs and have no fear of death.”

The reporter concluded with his impression of the prisoner. “If Dr. Taylor did commit the terrible crime of which he was convicted and the evidence, though largely circumstantial, brought it very close to him, there is little doubt that he is truly penitent and that he has received absolution. If he has to go to the gallows, the presumption is that he will go with a firm step and without a tremor.”

Doc Taylor let it be known that he would preach his own funeral and that anyone who cared could attend. The days that followed were uneventful as the Fox was a model prisoner doing little more than sleeping and reading his Bible. He filed for a stay of execution but it was refused.

He ate his supper heartily on the eve of his execution and slept well, not arising until after daybreak. He ate a light breakfast and then returned to his bed until mid morning. Twenty-five heavily armed men guarded the jail during his last night on earth.

Several thousand onlookers arrived early to see the hanging and to hear Doc M. B. Taylor, the Red Fox, preach his funeral. They wanted to get a glimpse of him as they lined the streets, climbed trees and clung atop buildings.

The sheriff escorted the prisoner from the jail at 10 a.m. The Fox looked old and beaten, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the mid-morning sun. They proceeded to the porch of the jailer’s house where he took a position standing behind a small table. His Bible lay on the table alongside several pieces of bread on a porcelain plate. The Fox was dressed in white except for his brown derby hat. His wife sat at the table, dressed in black with her black sunbonnet drawn close to her face. She appeared small and pale.

The Fox lifted the plate and asked if anyone would care to come forward and join him in his last communion. No one moved for several seconds. His wife waited for any others to step forward but then turned toward her husband and reached for a piece of bread.

He asked that his body not be buried for three days following the hanging, saying he would rise from the dead on the third day and walk again and preach “the Word” among the mountain people.

He selected Christ’s words from the 20th verse in the 3rd chapter of Revelations for his funeral. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”

He sobbed at times adding, “I have made a full confession to Christ. My salvation is assured. I beg each of you to shun evil in your lives. Be Christ-like and do the Master’s bidding.”

He asked that everyone join him in singing How Firm a Foundation.

“How firm a foundation you Saints of the Lord is laid for your faith in His excellent Word! What more can He say than to you, who for refuge to Jesus have fled? Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed, for I am your God, and will still give you aid; I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand, upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

“When through the deep waters I call you to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow, for I will be with you in trouble to bless, and sanctity to you your deepest distress.”

Taylor was taken back to the jail but at 2 o’clock he was brought out into the courtyard again. It was time. The sunshine was gone now, covered by clouds and replaced by a cool drizzling rain. As he walked toward the scaffold he noticed Cat Hall, the wife of Big Ed Hall. She was accompanied by her six-year old son, Milburn. Ed, who had pulled Doc from the fruit tree box in Bluefield, W. Va., was ill and told Cat to take young Milburn to the hanging.

“You’ve come here to see the result of Ed’s doings,” Doc muttered when he saw Cat. “You and the boy’ed been a lot better off staying home out of the rain.”

He looked toward the trees and then toward the sky in meditation before singing two verses of a hymn. Then Doc entered the enclosed gallows and, once inside the twenty-foot square structure, he knelt and prayed. When the Fox stood and started toward the scaffold he was accidentally jostled by a guard causing him to fall. The guard and jailer, Charles Hughes, politely assisted him to his feet. Once he arrived at the trapdoor he said a prayer and began shaking as if he had a chill, reeled and fell heavily to the floor. He was quickly raised up and the noose placed around his neck. Hughes placed the white death-cap over the Fox’s head and tied his hands behind his back with a white sash, both items were those fashioned by Doc’s wife.

Deputy Sheriff Jeff Hunsucker hatcheted the trapdoor rope at 2:20 p.m. and the Fox fell several feet before being stopped abruptly as the rope snapped with a whomp. Soon one of the most colorful men to ever live in the mountains was dead. His body was placed in a coffin and kept for three days at his home as he requested. The third day came and passed without incident. After his burial in the Wise Cemetery a lantern lit his grave for another week. It was said, should Doc arise at night, he would need to find his way.

Sometimes things are not how they seem. Was Doc Taylor truly hanged or was it made to appear that he was? An interesting sidelight to this story came from Dr. Cherry who was an attending physician at Dr. Taylor’s hanging. Doctor Cherry said that Doc Taylor was not hanged at all, saying a switch was made while they were in the enclosed gallows.

“Only a select group was allowed inside the enclosure and all were Freemasons,” Dr. Cherry said. “Dr. Taylor was a Freemason. They said a Mason had never been known to hang. A disguise was put on Dr. Taylor and he walked out with everyone who was inside. He went to Missouri and lived out his life there. They took the casket away, holding enough weight to simulate Taylor’s body being inside. There wasn’t a public viewing of the body and as far as is known his grave was never checked for Doc’s remains.”

Do Doc Taylor’s remains rest in an unmarked grave in the Wise Cemetery? I do not know but we do know that he left a monument. Atop Pine Mountain at Pound Gap lies Killing Rock, the site of the terrible assault…. the long remembered massacre. Copyright 2015 Jadon Gibson

Editor’s note: The law gets on the trail of Cal and Henan Fleming in Jadon’s From the Mountains in an upcoming segment of The Red Fox of 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 Don’t miss a single issue!

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