|The murder of Bessie Caldwell occurred in 1901 in the Sanborn Ranch community between Whitesboro and Southmayd in Grayson County.
(1910 US Soil Map)
Murder outside of town
The Sanborn Ranch community in Grayson County, east of Whitesboro, was made up of a loose conglomeration of houses that were
situated near the headquarters of Henry Sanborn's ranch. Sanborn, originally from Illinois, was Texas's first distributor of barbed wire. In
late August of 1901, a young woman named Bessie Bullard Caldwell, a newly-wed who lived between the Sanborn Ranch Community and
Southmayd, was found raped and murdered in her own home, in broad daylight. According to her husband, he had left for Whitesboro and
discovered his wife's body in the root cellar when he returned two hours later.
The husband pointed suspicion onto Abe Wildner, a black man who, according to the husband, had eaten a lunch made by Ms. Caldwell
earlier that day. Wildner had a previous robbery conviction, which the newspapers ensured readers knew. Within a few days, the county
constable, Ben Davenport, traced Abe Widener into Indian Territory, where he was arrested near Mud Creek in the Chickasaw Nation.
Within hours after the murder, a white mob had formed - and this mob's numbers kept growing. The men weren't just agitated about the
murder, but also because the Texas governor had called out state militias (Denison Rifles, Denton Light Guard, and Company K, Fourth
Infantry) to prevent a lynching and ensure that laws be obeyed. Posses had fanned out all over North Texas and southern Indian Territory,
arresting and hounding several black men as they searched for Wildner before the militias took him into custody. When word spread that
Constable Ben Davenport had captured Abe Wildner, the mob, instead of waiting for the Constable to return to Whitesboro with the
accused man, drove out to Dexter in Cooke County to meet the Constable and Wildner.
The lynching of Wildner was apparently a foregone conclusion - the mob that drove to Dexter had chains and barbed wire ready. According
to the Sunday Gazetteer (Denison, August 25, 1901), the mob in Whitesboro was comprised of "several thousand people... eager for the
sacrifice." Led by J. M. Caldwell, the murdered woman's husband, this large group of men overpowered Constable Davenport and
grabbed Wildner. They tied him to an elm tree "on Bill Nelson's ranch" and lit a fire beneath him. While partially on fire, Wildner stated he
was willing to confess. According to Davenport, when the fire was pushed away, Wildner "closed his mouth like a clam and would not utter
a word." The fire was re-lit and Wildner slowly roasted to death. It took almost an hour for him to die. Afterwards, a resident of Dexter took
Wildner's heart as a souvenier; his burned eye was sent to a McKinney council member as a "joke," and his ears were cut off to be kept as
According to the Sunday Gazetteer, "two or three accounts of the confession of Wildner" were given, but the one that the newspaper
decided to print was from Snyder Omohundro, "reputable citizen" whose account was "probably correct." Omohundro claimed that Wildner
struggled with Mrs. Caldwell, then hit her, raped her, and slashed her throat with an axe in the root cellar. This, of course, was the official
recounting of the crime scene as well, although the Bastrop Advertiser (August 24, 1901) stated that Mrs. Caldwell was found in a room
inside the house, not the cellar. The Bastrop Advertiser also related that Wildner confessed to other assaults in Whitesboro, but these
crimes were recounted by the Sunday Gazetteer, which only linked the crimes to Wildner as a possiblity. It is interesting and a bit
disconcerting that Davenport's account of the events differs from Omohundro - Omohundro claimed that Wildner "confessed fully at
Dexter" but Davenport said that Wildner confessed only briefly along Mud Creek in Indian Territory.
White men like Caldwell, the victim's husband, were spared any scrutiny. His statement of the events was apparently taken at face value.
Perhaps he was the perpetrator, and his accusation against Abe Wildner was a convenient way to alleviate suspicion? With the lynching of
Wildner, which Caldwell led, no investigations took place afterwards, and no trial for Bessie Caldwell's murder was held.
The posse left Wildner's boy hanging on the elm tree for two days. Every newspaper that recounted the story showed itself sympathetic to
the mob - "Justice is Done" (Honey Grove Signal), "Burned the Black: Food for the fiery flames" (Decatur News). The Weekly Herald
(Weatherford) added that "All negroes who do not own property or have a good, established character, have been warned to leave
Whitesboro." According to the Brenham Daily Banner, "not less than 15,000 visited the scene of the torture." The crime against Bessie
Caldwell was brutal, but so was the crime against Abe Wildner. He was not afforded a trial, and his murderers, whose names were known to
all in the community and even appeared in the newspapers, were never brought to justice. District Judge Sam Bell Maxey ordered a grand
jury investigation, but it went no where. The murders of both Caldwell and Wildner prove that in the early 20th century, a white man's word
superseded any other authority.