Thursday, February 18, 2010
Dead Man’s Hole: Civil War And Reconstruction Violence In The Texas Hill Country
When the guns of the American Civil War finally fell silent in 1865, the violence in the South did not end.
Reconstruction brought about its own form of cruelty and bloodshed as the South sought to redefine itself, after having its institutions, economy, and the traditional lifestyle of its people destroyed. Many Southerners, resentful and bitter about the conditions which the war, and its conclusion, had brought about, lashed out.
Nowhere was this violent passion more evident than in Texas. The target of this violence was most often those Texans who had not supported the Confederate cause, occupying federal soldiers enforcing military rule, and the newly enfranchised freedmen. In Texas, during the Civil War and its aftermath, intimidation, fear, physical assaults, murder, and blood-feuds were common, and many famous killers and gunmen, like John Wesley Hardin, were able to ply their murderous trade against the backdrop of a sympathetic or intimidated local populace. In many cases, crimes against those who had not supported secession, federal soldiers, and freedmen were not taken seriously and were hidden, covered-up, ignored, or produced “Not Guilty” verdicts in counties throughout Texas.
Burnet County, in the Texas Hill Country, was no exception. But, extreme partisans of the South in this county had their own unique way of disposing of those with whom they disagreed. A few miles south of Marble Falls, on Shovel Mountain Road, is an opening in the earth’s surface. The hole, first discovered in 1821, has a depth of at least 155 feet.
During the Civil War, John R. Scott, Burnet County’s Chief Justice, and a Union supporter, was murdered and thrown into the hole. Before the war’s end, others accused of not being sympathetic to the Confederacy met the same fate, including a young worker named Adolph Hoppe. After the war, the hole continued filling up with bodies, as local government officials responsible for administering Reconstruction policies were targeted. One of the last men to enter the hole was a man named Ben McKeever. After a dispute with some freedmen, he was murdered and then dumped into the hole. It is thought that about 17 men ended up in the hole before the violence came to an end. At one time, an oak tree grew next to the opening, and its limbs were scarred with rope marks from hangings.
Exploration of the hole did not begin in any substantive way until the 1950’s, because of noxious gases found inside. The hole was later sealed with a grate, and in 1999, the land around it was given to the county by its owner for use as an historical park. The hole, located at the very end of a dirt road, is identified by a Texas Historical Commission marker. Not surprisingly, given the violent events which took place at the hole, it remains an eerie and haunting place, even in the daylight. It is also a grim reminder of a tragic and bloody time in the history of Texas.