The Houston Chronicle published an article April 18, 2019 about a medal presented to a jailer regarding an 1892 execution. -Editor
A striking piece of Houston history sold earlier this week on eBay, a reminder of how criminal justice was once meted out in Harris County.
The medal, about the size of a quarter, depicts a hooded, suit-wearing figure hanging from the gallows. Inscribed on the front is the name Henry
McGee, his ethnicity is described as "colored" and the date of his execution is provided: Aug. 12, 1892.
Also inscribed is the name of McGee's victim, Houston police officer James Fenn.
The back of the medal reads, "Presented to R.E. Sutton by J. Warfel." A city directory from that period lists a Robert E. Sutton as
deputy sheriff and assistant jailer.
The medal, which came from a Houston-area estate sale, baffled some Texas historians.
"I never came across anything like that," said Mitchel P. Roth, professor of criminal justice and criminology at Sam Houston State
University and co-author of "Houston Blue: The Story of the Houston Police Department."
At the time of McGee's execution, the Houston Daily Post looked back on the case and noted "there was strong talk of lynching" after
he was jailed.
Patricia Bernstein, author of "The First Waco Horror: the Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP" said it was amazing
that McGee was not lynched and that he was tried twice for Fenn's death.
Bernstein found the medal appalling, even if it depicts a lawful execution.
"It's a medal that celebrates the murder of somebody," she said.
What a ghastly item. Is it real? One never knows about eBay purchases. Is it a fabrication? I reached out to one of our regulars for his thoughts.
John Kraljevich writes:
I don't think I can make any real statement upon its authenticity without seeing it. It's not just engraved but it is sort of assembled and
manufactured as well, so that complicates things a lot. The engraving on the back side looks period appropriate, but the front of it is less
straightforward. Nothing about it makes me outright condemn its authenticity though, either. As far as the subject matter, ghastly as it is, there is
nothing ahistorical about celebrating these sorts of events in the 1890s either. In terms of it being a medal, I think it's probably more likely it
was meant to serve as a watch fob. Interesting piece.
From the images, I tend to agree that it certainly COULD be a genuine contemporaneous item, but I'd like to see it in hand as well. I've
never seen or heard of anything quite like it. I know there exist souvenir postcards of lynchings and some medals depicting famous political hangings
(one is illustrated elsewhere in this issue), but I'm not aware of other medallic commemorations of routine public executions. -Editor
To read the complete article, see:
sale find shows how capital punishment was once carried out in Harris County
Wayne Homren, Editor
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