BELTON - In the inky darkness of night the sound of hooves from more than a hundred horses clattered on the hardscrabble of Belton’s streets as mounted masked men made their way to the town’s jail. Dr. Taylor Hudson awakened at their sound as they galloped past his house in the wee hours of May 25, 1874. He was one of several men whose job it was to guard nine prisoners incarcerated in the Belton jail, wrote local historians Nancy and Michael Kelsey in their series titled “Notes on Bell County, Texas.” Eight were charged on various counts including murder, robbery and horse theft. A ninth was incarcerated for the axe murder of his wife, according to accounts of the day. Hudson hurriedly dressed and went to the jail at First Street and Pearl and was there when the nine prisoners were shot to death in their cell. Hudson recognized some of the masked men and one of the masked men knew him and called him by name, the Kelseys wrote. The following day their nine bodies were dragged to the jail’s backyard. Some accounts of the incident say the townspeople came to peek through cracks in a board fence to view the gory site. The next night the bodies were hauled to the South Belton Cemetery and buried in a common grave. When citizens complained, the county judge ordered them exhumed and given proper burial in separate graves - though none are marked today. The nine were William Henry Grumbles, John Alexander (also known as John Daily), Loyd Coleman, J.S. McDonald, Marion McDonald, William S. Smith and three men known only by their last names -Beckneal, Wingfield and Crow. Crow was the one charged with murdering his wife. Tyler’s history George W. Tyler in his “History of Bell County’ (1936) wrote that the vigilante incident shocked the community and the whole state. He said, however, that the massacre was a reaction to the times that followed the Civil War. It was a transition from political and moral chaos to more peaceful times, he wrote. But outlaw gangs of the day resisted the return to law and order. “Thieves, robbers, murderers and ex-convicts were holding high carnival all over the western frontier or border counties and the people were in awe of them,” Tyler wrote. A chain of outlaws operated from the Red River to the Rio Grande. They were harbored and protected by allies who would break them out of jails if captured. “Courthouses and jails seemed to be – and indeed were – impotent to bring these infamous rascals to the penalties of law,” wrote Tyler. Tyler said the wilderness of cedar break that extended along the western border of Bell and Coryell counties and on the Lampasas River and on the Salado, Cow House, Bear and Owl creeks offered a secure retreat. The limestone hills were filled with caves. Bell County Sheriff Robert Bonham Halley and his deputies had arrested and jailed the nine. Accounts were published that they were incarcerated at Belton. A vigilante party formed from all parts of Texas when it was learned that Halley was away from Bell County on official duties. “They came by tens and twenties from different directions,” wrote Tyler. “It was but the work of a few minutes to bind the jailer, who refused to surrender the keys, to batter down the doors and to riddle the nine of the choice specimens confined in the slatted iron cage with a fusillade of bullets.” Limmer’s anthology E.A. Limmer, editor of ‘The Story of Bell County Texas,’ included in his collection this account by H.J. Chamberlin. “On last Monday night, about 1 o’clock, a crowd of one hundred and three men, mounted and armed, approached the jail and demanded admission of the jailer, who, with four young men from the town constituted the guard; upon this being refused they proceeded to break in, and kill nine of the prisoners – those confined in the cage. “Wm. Henry Grumbles cursed the killing party considerable, and on being missed on the first fire invited them to try again, which they did, and Wm. Henry ‘grumbles’ [sic] no more either at being awaked [sic] at unreasonable hours or bad marksmanship.” Limmer included an account from the newspaper of the day, the Bell County Correspondent. “Then with axes, hatchets and crowbars, they then went through locks and doors in less time than it takes to write this paragraph. As soon as they were inside they began firing on the prisoners and within five minutes there was no living man inside the cage. They continued to fire as long as one moved a limb. They were a hard pack, but their fate was certainly a horrible one. God pity the poor wretches! When the doors were being cut down they were heard to rejoice, saying: ‘Our friends have come to release us.’” A large, heart shaped lock weighing 5 pounds is on display at the Bell County Museum today along with a 4-inch iron key. Reputedly both were used at the old jail although the key does not fit into that particular lock. Point of view of the day Stephanie Turnham, director of the Bell County Museum, said the vigilante massacre is one of the most famous stories to come out of Belton. “It must be viewed in the perspective and mood of the times,” she said. “Most of the men had left Bell County for the Civil War leaving the families relatively unprotected. The post Civil War period was a lawless time in Texas.” She said people felt that the Union-appointed government was not doing enough to protect their cause and their interests. “There were very hard feelings about the Civil War and the presence of Unionists and all that entailed - crooked bills, carpetbaggers, and shenanigans that would go on with the Freedmen’s Bureau.” Then there were the outlaws who rampaged unchecked, stealing horses, robbing, murdering and raping, said Ms. Turnham. “The feelings and sentiment were real high,” she said. “The attitude was, ‘Them boys have finally been caught and they are over in Belton. Let’s go get ’em.’” She said although the outlaws were terribly feared, the way it was handled can’t be condoned. “They decided to take the law into their own hands. That’s what a lynching is. The feeling was - we can end this now.” Tourist destination with a gripping past The building at 210 Pearl St. at the corner of First Street in downtown Belton has been used as a private residence since the late 19th century. Its current owner, Chita Welch, said she and her husband, Ron, have plans to convert the building into a bed and breakfast because of its architectural interest, gripping history and spectacular views on Nolan Creek. A plaque erected on the façade in 1967 by the Texas State Historical Survey Committee is the first such plaque erected in Bell County, said Mrs. Welch. The building, Belton’s second jail, shows the influence of many eras in its conversion to a home. Some walls are lathe and plaster covering native stone. Ceilings are beaded board. The wide warehouse planked floors of the jail have been covered with narrow hardwood pegged flooring. The exterior native stone was encased in plaster years ago and scoured to look like cement block - something Mrs. Welch said she intends to remove. Columns that support a second floor balcony grace the front porch. The north wall of the second floor inside shows evidence of what may be bullet holes and shotgun blasts. The native stone is pocked with deep indents. “I don’t know that these are bullet holes,” Ms. Welch said. “But could the rock naturally form that way? It doesn’t make sense.” What effect did the prisoner massacre have in 1874? Chronicles of the day question the use of vigilante justice as true justice. But many accounts concur with the dark conclusion etched in bronze today on the plaque on the front of the building. “This citizen’s attack was regarded as a major factor in ending lawlessness in Bell County during the 1870s.”