Oct. 28—This past May marked the grim 110th anniversary of the horrific lynching of Gus Finley — a Black farmer who lived in Daingerfield, Texas.
The extrajudicial hanging of Finley by a mob of hooded white men and the shooting of his younger brother, George Finley, a week later led to his family's decision to move elsewhere, many of whom relocated to the Greenville area.
Recently, after about four years of diligently reading through old newspaper stories and court documents and collecting family stories and oral histories from Daingerfield residents and descendants of Finley in Greenville, Tom Collins published a book about the tragedy, titled "Justice Denied: The Cursed Destiny of Gus Finley."
Collins, who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, has lived in Daingerfield since 1979, and he recalls hearing vague references to a lynching almost immediately upon moving there.
"When I first moved there and told people where I lived, they didn't mention the name Gus Finley, but they'd say, 'Oh, you live out there by the hanging tree', " Collins said.
"It was about a quarter of a mile from my home. By the time I moved there, it had been struck by lightning and was dead," Collins added. "At some point, a botanist dated it at being about 170 years old, so it was old enough to have been the tree he was hung from and it wasn't until the 90's that the tree eventually collapsed in on itself."
While Collins continued to hear occasional mentions and fragments of stories about the lynching, it wasn't until he retired in 2017 that he started trying to dig deeper into what had happened in his adopted hometown a century ago.
"One day, I Googled 'lynchings in Northeast Texas' and that's when I first saw the name, Gus Finley, connected to Daingerfield and it said that he was lynched in 1913, so I started looking up newspaper reports and trial documents to learn more," Collins said. "Then, due to my name appearing in a few places online as someone who was interested in learning more about Gus Finley, Edwin Hawkins, a pastor in Greenville and descendant of his contacted me, asking me if I was also related to Gus Finley."
Through his reading of documents and conversations with people who had family or community connections with Finley, Collins learned that Finley was a prosperous farmer who owned about 2,000 acres of land, but that a major three-year drought wreaked havoc on his and other farmers' operations in Texas. During that time, Finley took out a loan to buy a mule but may have fallen behind on payments due to his financial situation.
Then, on the morning of Dec. 16, 1912 Morris County Constable George Tucker, accompanied by another man, arrived at Finley's farm before sunrise to repossess the animal, and Tucker was fatally shot by Finley.
At Finley's trial, prosecutors said that he had shot first when he killed Tucker, but court documents show that Finley argued that the two men — who he couldn't see clearly because it was still dark — had shot first and that he was defending himself.
"When Gus looked out that morning while it was still dark, especially if Tucker didn't identify himself, the two men could have been horse thieves for all he knew," Collins said.
However, with Finley being a Black man living in the South in 1912 and with his case being heard by an all-white jury, proving his innocence was an uphill battle from the start and he was found guilty and sentenced to death in March 1913.
Then, in a surprise turn of events, the governor of Texas at the time, Oscar B. Colquitt, granted Finley a 30-day reprieve on his execution to better ensure that Finley's case had been handled properly.
"When I learned that Colquitt had granted Gus Finley a 30-day reprieve, I wondered why a white governor in Texas during that time would have done such a thing for a Black farmer," Collins said. "Then I learned that the Colquitts came from wealth but that the Civil War decimated all that they'd had in Georgia, so they moved to Morris County, Texas (where Daingerfield is located), where (Oscar) Colquitt did a stint working as a tenant farmer while he was growing up, so I think Colquitt may have worked with Gus and that they knew each other."
While the Governor's order offered some amount of hope in Finley's situation, the delay of his execution enraged many in the white community of Morris County, and newspapers reported that the Finley family home and at least two Black churches were burned by a mob.
Eventually, in May 1913 a group of about 12-15 hooded white men broke into the jail and the cell where Finley was being held. According to newspaper reports, he fought off his attackers for almost an hour before they overpowered him and dragged him to a nearby tree, where he was hanged and shot more than 100 times.
"With the book, I decided to write it as historical fiction, because there are some gaps in the story and there is a lot of 'he said, she said' in what I've heard from different people, but the vast majority of the book is rooted on documented, researched facts," Collins said. "There are no claims (in the book), only facts, but I can only imagine how terrible it was."
The book, "Justice Denied: The Cursed Destiny of Gus Finley," can be purchased through Amazon, and Collins also plans to be at W. Walworth Harrison Public Library in Greenville on Nov. 4 where he will be selling and signing copies of the book.