General Histories of Coleman County, Texas

The Trial and Hanging of John Pearl

John Pearl was the only person legally hanged in Coleman, as far as we know.  As no local newspapers from that time period are known to exist, we had only later articles about this trial.  In April 2007, Ed Walker of the Brownwood area, located several newspaper accounts that appeared in the Dallas Morning News at the time of the trial and hanging.  These accounts give us more detailed information than previously known.
Ralph Terry                                             


  Technical Error Said to Have Been
Found in the Indictment.
(Dallas Morning News) Special to the News.  Brownwood, Tex., Jan. 14  --- The case of the State against John Pearl, charged with the murder of Ed Tusker, was called this morning but had to be postponed until next Monday on account of a technical error in the indictment.  The killing occurred on Clear Creek, a few miles from Brownwood, last December.  Tusker, a farmer, suddenly disappeared.  A search was made and the body of Tusker was found in a tank fifteen feet deep, about one-half  mile from Tusker's home.  When the body was found a large rock weighed it down.  A bullet hole was in the head and other marks of violence were on the body.  Tusker was a German bachelor.  He had no relatives in the country.

Under Death Sentence Charged with
Killing Ed Tusker.
(Dallas Morning News) Special to the News.  Austin, Tex., June 12 – In the Court of Criminal Appeals today the death penalty in the case of John Pearl, on appeal from Coleman County, was affirmed.  The opinion sets forth that Pearl was indicted by the Grand Jury of Brown County on Dec. 12, 1900, for the murder of Ed Tusker.  He was tried and given the death penalty.  He was granted a new trial and a change of venue taken to Coleman County.  On second trial he was again found guilty of murder in the first degree and his punishment assessed at death.

The murdered man was a small farmer, and, according to the statement of facts, when he disappeared from home on Dec. 5, defendant Pearl asserted that he had taken him to Brownwood and that he had left for Germany.  On Dec. 11 the dead body of Tusker was found in a tank near his home.  Pearl claimed previously to the finding of Tusker's dead body that he had bought out the latter.  The body had a gunshot wound in the head which caused his death.

Denied Guilt of a Crime for Which
He Was Hanged at Coleman
(Dallas Morning News) Special to the News.  Coleman, Tex., Oct. 22 – John Pearl Paid the extreme penalty of the law here today in the county jail for killing Ed Tusker of Brown County, the 5th day of December last.  The drop fell at 2:46 p.m. and life was pronounced extinct after fourteen minutes by County Physician Pope.  The body was taken down at 3:15.
Pearl spoke for one hour and fifteen minutes to fully 2000 people who had gathered in the jailyard to hear him make his last talk.  He gave a brief account of the killing of Tusker, but said to the last that he was innocent of the killing, but that he had helped to secrete the body.  After a prayer for the public and himself he bade all good-by and walked back from the jail window with a firm step.  He ascended the gallows and after shaking hands with the guard and witnesses called all to kneel and pray.  He then prayed earnestly to God for forgiveness and called on Rev. Birdwell to lead in prayer for him.  With a firm stand he again bade all good-by, when the black cap was adjusted and with a prayer on his lips he was launched into eternity.
On or about the 8th of last December John Pearl drove into Brownwood with a load of cottonseed.  Sheriff Denman recognized the team as one belonging to a friend of his, Ed Tusker by name, who was a renter and had been for several years on a farm belonging to Mr. Howard.  Denman asked Pearl some questions about Tusker, Pearl said that he had bought Tusker’s crop, that Tusker had gone to Germany to visit for a while, that he (Pearl) had brought Tusker to Brownwood and that Tusker had gone by Fort Worth or Galveston, he did not know which.  After further questions Denman was convinced that there was some foul play.  Denman related to Pearl the story of a man who had killed another and threw the body in a tank, and as he related this circumstance to Pearl he watched him closely.  Pearl showed great agitation.  Denman was so thoroughly convinced that after investigation he took deputies to Tusker’s residence, where he found evidence of a crime.  He found a drag trail from the front gate to a tank of water some 600 yards away where after a short search the body of Ed Tusker was found entirely naked except for a shirt tied about his head.  There was a bullet hole in the back of his head.  To the feet was a rope some twenty or thirty feet long, which was identified to be Pearl’s rope, one that he had bought a few days before.
This, with other circumstantial evidence, convicted Pearl of murder in the first degree in Brown County.  A new trial was granted and a change of venue to Coleman County, and on first trial he was found guilty of murder in the first degree.  The Appellate Court sustained the findings of the lower courts and the Governor refused executive clemency.


Pays Penalty of the Law at
  Coleman For Murder.

Convicted for Killing Ed. Tusker by
Whom He Was Employed.  Makes a
Speech Before Death in Which
He Asserts His Innocence.
(From The Daily Express)  Coleman, Tex., Oct. 22 – (Special) -- John Pearl was hung here this afternoon at 2:45 o'clock.  In his talk to the crowd and upon the scaffold he displayed wonderful courage.  He spoke from a jail window and delivered a rambling address to several hundred men, women and children.  He reiterated a statement made on another occasion that the fatal shot was fired by another person, but confessed that he helped in the attempt to conceal the crime.  He opened and concluded his address with prayer.

Pearl was charged with murdering Ed Tusker, an aged German, in Brown county last fall, and was tried in Brownwood in January and given the death penalty.  A new trial was granted him on account of the jury having discussed his failure to testify.  Immediately after granting the new trial Judge Goodwin, on his own motion, changed the venue to Coleman county, and within three weeks from the date of granting the new trial a jury in Coleman county returned a verdict of murder in the first degree, assessing the death penalty.  The case was then appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals at Austin, and was there affirmed on the last day of the session.  After the case was affirmed and upon the convening of the September term of the district court in the county, Judge Goodwin sentenced Pearl to be hanged on Tuesday, the 22nd day of October, 1901.  Just before sentence was passed, Pearl obtained permission from the court to address the crowd, which had filled the courthouse to its utmost capacity.

The evidence showed that Pearl killed Tusker, by whom he was employed, for his property, shooting him in the back of the head.  He dragged the body four or five hundred yards and threw it into a tank of water fifteen feet deep.  He then circulated the report that Tusker had returned to Germany.

Recently, I have been contacted by a great niece of John Pearl.  She says, "My family states John was innocent and that
another man confessed to the murder on his death bed.  That John was afraid of this other man and so he took the blame, and punishment.  My family also says that John's father would not pay for legal representation, and that caused a lot of bitterness in the family."

Ralph Terry, March 2006

John A. Pearl was the son of John W. Pearl (23 October 1848 in Kentucky - died 1 January 1929 in Texas) and  Sarah Rebecca Jane "Betty" Wolf (born in 1859 in Burnet County, Texas - died in 1949).  His siblings were Charlotte "Lottie" Pearl, born 12 November 1878;  Louis Pearl, born 3 March 1880; Aleck A. Pearl, born 3 February 1886; Mary Pearl, born 20 September 1887; George William Pearl, born 25 June 1898.  (Rootsweb Worldconnect genealogy files.)

supposed picture of

John Pearl
January 25, 1876 - October 22, 1901

This "tintype" (or ferrotype), labeled "John Pearl," has been on display in the Coleman Museum at the Coleman City Park since the 1960's, framed with the following 1960 Coleman newspaper clipping and a news picture of the jury that tried John Pearl in Coleman County.  I have lightened this image, as the original is very dark, with surface imperfections, which I have not retouched.  It appears that he has a mustache, but it is difficult to tell.

This picture appears to be of a man in his late 20's or early 30's.  John Pearl was only 25 years old when he died.  The man in the picture could have looked older than he was.  This image could have been made in Coleman, or before he was arrested.  But how did this image wind up in Coleman, if it was not made during the time he was in jail in Coleman?  If it was made in Coleman at the time John Pearl was in jail, the image was probably made by Jesse Moore, whose studio was across Live Oak Street, south of the courthouse, at the time.

As a photographic historian, I found it odd that a tintype, rather than a paper print, was made of him.  This photographic process was pretty much obsolete by 1900 in Texas.  I have seen a few tintypes made in the 1890's, but not in Coleman.  Both the crowd scene and the jury picture are paper prints.  Moore did photograph the crowd scene.

In other words, I do not believe this could be a picture of John Pearl, who was hung at Coleman.

In corresponding with another cousin of John Pearl's, she says, "I inherited my grandmother's old album of tintypes (actually it dates back to 1861 and first belonged to her brother-in-law, and then her mother (who died in 1916).  The picture of my great-grandfather, John A. Pearl (I am sure the "A" is for Aikman, for that was his mother's maiden name), born 1807, died 1878, is missing.  I feel almost certain the tintype from the Coleman Museum is of this John A. Pearl and not his grandson, another John A. Pearl, who met his unfortunate death on a gallows in Coleman County.  This picture doesn't resemble this latter John Pearl's father or mother,  but my grandmother and some of her siblings (one of her sisters, in particular) had features like those in the tintype picture.  In fact, my father had the same nose, mouth and other facial features.  Great-grandfather John would have had auburn hair, quite thick and naturally curly.  I am a bit perplexed about the rumpled look of the man's suit, as most of the Pearl family look quite neat in their pictures.  But, again, Great-grandfather Pearl lived in a difficult time in our history."

I question also that this is an image of John Pearl's grandfather.  He was born in 1807.  Tintypes were not commonly available until about 1860.  That would mean he would have been about 53 years old when tintypes first came on the scene.  This particular tintype is not the earliest type.  It is one of the later "thicker" tintypes, which means it was probably taken in the late 1860's, making John Pearl's grandfather about 60 years old.  In my opinion, this image does not show a man in his late 50's or early 60's.

The cousin replies, "The picture is definitely NOT John W. Pearl, the father of the John Pearl of Coleman County history.  I agree the picture is of a younger man than my great-grandfather, John A. Pearl."

So who is the man in the picture?  I feel it is the wrong type of photograph to be taken of John Pearl in his last days ... John Pearl’s says it is definitely not John W. Pearl, father of John Pearl, who was hung.  His grandfather would have been too old for a tintype.  So, is this John Pearl ... or someone whose pictures has been substituted for John Pearl?  Some of history's mysteries will never be solved.

(picture to be inserted)

Invitation to witness the hanging of John Pearl

Tombstone of John Pearl at the Coleman Cemetery
(Map Page 4 - Section II)

(Note incorrect deathdate on stone.)

This marker is the type of marker that was used in the late 1890's and early 1900's.  As the stone is period, rather than being placed her later, it is wondered if the stone was purchased and placed by the county or by the family?  As he was executed on October 22, 1901, either the stone cutter made an error in the month, or it was placed later and the date was not correctly remembered.

Originally, this tombstone had a base that the tombstone set in, but then we surveyed the Coleman Cemetery in the 1980's, it was held upright by rocks.  In taking with Thelbert Elkins of Coleman, he dug down a few years ago and found the original base about 8 inches underground, which was broken into two pieces.  Thelbert made the cement base that now holds the tombstone in place. 

Thelbert also places artificial flowers at this, and many other graves in Coleman County and helps keep many cemetery lots and markers looking their best.  Thelbert is a great asset to the history and preservation of Coleman County.

Following are several articles, from different writers, but telling more or less the same story.  Much of the current information is drawn from the books of Leona Bruce, who lived in the Coleman County Jail from 1914 to 1918.  Both her father and mother were Coleman County Sheriffs, as her father, John Banister died while in office, and his wife Emma Banister filled out his term.  In her last book, Leona expands on her earlier research, telling it from a more personal viewpoint.  Note there are slight differences in the details ... for example, court records show he was executed on October 22, 1901, but one article gives the date of October 2, and his tombstone gives a date of November 22, 1901.

"The present Coleman County jail was in 1901 the scene of the only hanging sentence ever carried out in Coleman County and the old jail's ceiling still the hole cut through to attach the hangman's noose.  The 1901 hanging was brought to light again with the submitting for publication the picture of the jury, which gave the verdict.  Many persons still living in Coleman and the general area remember the “hanging day.”  The following news story, which appeared in a Coleman newspaper several years ago and describes in full particulars on the event is reprinted below:

"It was Sheriff Bob Goodfellow’s duty to carry out the hangman’s job, and was a source of considerable agitation to him.  He confided to one of his friends, later a sheriff, that he all but refused to carry out the action, and that it bothered him a great deal through the rest of his life.  The man executed was named John Pearl, for a murder committed in Brown County, and tried here on a change of venue.

"A bulky file of aged paper, on file now in the district clerk’s office here, trace in poignant language the story of the crime and the man’s fight for acquittal.  It went on for almost a year, and finally ended at the scaffold, with Sheriff Goodfellow springing the trap.

"Pearl was a hired man for a German farmer, Ed Tusker, just south of Bangs.  Testimony of the trial showed that he killed Tusker, burned his clothing, and dumped his body in a tank on the farm after tying a heavy rock around his waist.  Pearl then took some gathered cotton of Tusker’s, and some cottonseed to Brownwood and sold them, telling the story that Tusker had sold out to him and had returned to Germany.  He also took Tusker’s wagon and team, and other equipment, including a bill of sale for some property.  This was on December 5, 1900, and by a week later his stories had excited suspicion.  The Tusker tank was dragged for two days with trotlines and the body was brought up on the second day.

"Pearl was tried and convicted in Brown County, and a death sentence imposed by the jury, handwritten simply on a sheet of tablet paper.  A petition for a new trial and change of venue brought the case to Coleman County.  District Attorney J. H. Baker and the late J. O. Woodward prosecuted him here in a spectacular court battle, marked by numerous legal obstacles presented by Pearl’s defense counsel, Coffee and Scott.  An insanity plea was argued over and over.  The defense delays held action until September when the case went to the jury and drew a quick conviction and death penalty.

"It was like fair day in Coleman on the execution day, October 2, 1901.  A gallows was built on the second floor of the jail, with a rope extended through the roof, the hole for which still shows in the tin roof of the jail.  While hundreds of people milled around outside --- some ranchers brought in all of their cowhands --- Goodfellow cut a tie rope of the gallows trap and Pearl fell to his death in a small cell area.  There were but few actual eyewitnesses."  (Coleman Democrat-Voice or Coleman County Chronicle, date unknown, probably in the 1960’s.)

Photograph said to be of the crowd waiting for word of John Pearl's execution.

Note Moore's Photography Studio on second floor of Warren Building to the right.  There were postcards published of this picture and the postcards are identified as being taken by Jesse Moore.  This picture was taken from the top of the courthouse, with the crowd assembled in front of the courthouse.  The execution took place in the jail, which is located to the left (in this picture) and behind the courthouse.

(picture to be inserted)

The Jury Which Gave the Only Hanging Sentence Ever Carried Out in Coleman

standing (left to right): Sheriff Bob Goodfellow, Mr. Ratliff, Phillip Saunders, Mr. Dockery, Jim Jameson and Lucien Love.
middle row:   R. H. Beard, J. L. Wilkerson, Mr. Tabor, Mr. Griffis.
front row:   Nelse Jameson, Jess Ratliff and Mr. Garrett.

“From 1895 to 1899, he was much of the time on the road. He inspected shipments of cattle at Fort Worth, Muskogee and Coffeyville, was a part of the time on Ranger service, and while at home at Santa Anna was summoned many times by one law enforcement agency or another to take part in the solution of cases and the tracing of the guilty ones.

“An example of this was in the murder of a farmer by his hired man, one John Pearl, in Coleman County in 1899.  The Jail records tell a part of the pathetic story and the sheriff’s records still more.  Pearl was arrested a few days after the disappearance of the farmer was noted; he claimed that his employer had gone to Oklahoma, but suspicious neighbors called officers to investigate.  Somebody a few miles away noticed wagon tracks to a secluded pond of water, the body of the missing man was found weighted with rocks, and the team and wagon tracks were found to be those of the team and wagon at the dead man’s farm.

“Unable to make bond, Pearl remained in the Coleman jail through his trial, when he was found guilty of murder, and on until his execution the following year, the only man ever hanged there.  A gallows was prepared on the second floor of the jail, and since the space was so small, the sheriff had cards of admission to the execution printed and given to those whom he wished to be present.  The one sent to Banister is among his papers today, signed by the sheriff.

“Fifteen years or so later, Banister was recalling the execution to Dr. Thomas M. Hays, who also had been present.  The sheriff had had Dr. Hays named official physician for the occasion, the only hanging he ever witnessed.  He told Banister at that time that when the sheriff indicated that he was to ascertain if the hanged man’s heart had stopped beating, that he was so nervous that he could scarcely distinguish whether the pounding pulse he felt were that of the dying man or his own.” (Banister Was There, by Leona Bruce, 1968, pages 75-76.)

“On the day that John Pearl was hanged in the jail, L. E. Callan claims that he “perched on Luke Trammell’s shoulder” and witnessed the execution.  Witnessing that hanging was by invitation only, this author having seen one of the invitations sparingly given by Sheriff Bob Goodfellow, the reluctant hangman, and the occasion seems hardly proper for a child small enough to sit on a man’s shoulder.”

“The county’s most dramatic job has been that of keeping law and order, a responsibility shared by more than 20 men and one woman.  No Coleman County sheriff has ever resigned, been discharged, or charged with dishonesty in the execution of his duty.

“The county court house was the scene of one hanging, at a time when executions were done at the county level.  It was Sheriff Bob Goodfellow’s job to pull the trap, a situation which he dreaded but considered his duty.  The man executed was John Pearl, for a murder in Brown County but brought to Coleman on a change of venue.  Pearl was the hired hand of a German farmer, Ed Tusker, near Bangs.  Testimony at the trial showed that Pearl killed Tusker, burned his clothes, and dumped the body in a surface tank with a heavy rock tied around the waist.

“Pearl then picked some cotton of Tuskers and took it to Brownwood to sell, telling that he had bought Tusker out as he wanted to return to Germany.  He also had Tusker’s wagon and team and other effects, with a forged bill of sale for some of them.  This was on December 5, 1900.

“His stories caused suspicion, and neighbors called officers, who found the weighted body of Tusker on the second day of dragging.  A Brown County jury found Pearl guilty and sentenced him to death, but an appeal brought the case to Coleman and a new trial.  Prosecution attorneys were J. O. Woodward and his son-in-law, J. K. Baker.  Defense lawyers were Coffee and Scott, and their plea was of insanity; when the case went to the jury there was a quick verdict of guilty, the penalty death by hanging.

“A gallows was built on the second floor of the jail, the condemned man hearing every blow of the hammer; a heavy oak beam was placed across a hole in the tin ceiling, and the trap was tested over and over.  Attendance was by printed invitation, signed by the sheriff, and among physicians to be present was T. M. Hays, who told later that he was so excited that he could hardly think what to do.  Sheriff Goodfellow cut the rope, the man fell and swung in the midst of the crowd, and Dr. Hays could hardly tell whether the wild pulse he felt were his own or that of the dying man.

“The ownership of the old hanging-rope has been much argued. After the execution, the rope was removed by someone and acquired by a Sweetwater man, Newt Prince, and shown by him to many people.  After his death it remained in his house until discovered in 1956 when Bert Sanders was dismantling the house.  J. Paul Turner bought the rope from Sanders, and a note with it stated that it had been used in four hangings, a thing not proved or considered likely.  This rope is said to be on display at the Nolan County Museum.”  (Santa Anna’s Peak, by Leona Bruce, 1976, pages 61, 71.)

“In the ceiling of the Misdemeanor was a hole with a big beam across it.  This had been the place of execution in 1901 of John Pearl, the only man ever legally put to death in Coleman County.  Convicted in 1900 for the murder of a farmer who was his employer, Pearl had hauled the body to a shallow tank in Brown County and weighted it with rocks.  When neighbors asked about the missing man, Pearl told them that he had sold everything and gone to Arkansas to live.  But the body was found, Pearl was accused of the death, and said he knew nothing of it but claimed he had bought the equipped farm from the dead man.  Through other evidence, Pearl was tried and sentenced to death.

“The gallows was built in front of one of the Misdemeanor cells, from that time called the Death Cell.  For the execution, a platform about eight feet high was built, a trapdoor in its center, and a stairway of thirteen steps led up to it.  The big rope with the noose of -  it is said -  thirteen wraps, reached from the hole in the ceiling to the trapdoor.  It must have taken days to complete, with Pearl watching every plank nailed in place, hearing every word.  Jim Sanders and Bob Goodfellow, prominent officers and both sheriffs at Coleman during the Nineties, were in charge, and printed invitations to witness the hanging were sent out.  I have seen the one filled out with Papa’s name but cannot find it among family documents.  No doubt the coffin was brought up, the prisoner bathed and dressed, some preacher present.  Not more than fifty men would have had standing room.

“I once heard Papa and Dr. T. M. Hays of Santa Anna telling of the execution.  Dr. Hays said that he was there to examine the hanging man for signs of death.  “My heart was beating so hard,” he said, “that I couldn’t be sure whether it was mine or Pearl’s.”  “It’s bad,” answered Papa. “When I was in the Ranger service, I saw three men hanged from one tree at the same time, near Austin.”  “Banister, could you pull the lever for a hanging?”  After a pause, Papa said, “Hays, I’d rather you hadn’t asked me that.”

“When we lived in the jail, the hole in the ceiling with the beam across it was still to be seen.  The electric chair for executions had been built at Huntsville, but in the fourteen years since the Pearl hanging, I find no record of any Coleman County prisoner having been executed in it, though in later years at least two have been.

“The jail was a fascinating place for a venturesome girl.  One spring afternoon when there were no prisoners in the Misdemeanor to see me, I climbed the bars and stood on the top of the cells.  Junk and discarded things were lying there, with years of dust.  At one side was a ladder leading to an opening into the attic, and at the other side was the hole in the ceiling with the big beam across it, where the hanging of John Pearl had taken place fourteen years before.  The ladder was a further temptation; what could be up there?  And why not climb the ladder and see?  It was dark in this lofty attic, but planks across the beams led to another ladder which led up and up in the highflung little steeple, steps firmly in place, and at the top was a small door, fastened on the inside and easy to open. There I was, on top of the world, as high as a four-story building, as high as I had ever been.  A small space of roof was there, and I walked out on it, fearful of the edge but wanting to look around.  I could see fifty miles or more each way, such a vista as I had never dreamed.

“Someone called me.  Of all times for repairs to the courthouse clock, three men were at it a hundred feet from me!  One of them was Ivan Austin, a schoolboy from my own class.  I was never more embarrassed in my life.  No other girl would have done such a rash thing!  I spoke to him coldly and went back inside and down.

“But then I saw, among the debris on top of the Misdemeanor, the gallows from which Pearl had been hung, and the stairs of thirteen steps, the lumber as bright and new as the one time it had been used.  Everything was there except the rope with its noose.  They had been placed there probably the very day of the hanging, and had stayed there, forgotten.  I later learned that a sheriff who preceded Papa had sold or traded or given the rope to a collector of relics living in Sweetwater, which of course he had no right to do; it was the property of the county and should have remained with the gallows and stairs.”  (Four Years in the Coleman Jail – Daughter of Two Sheriffs, by Leona Bruce, 1982, pages 14-17, 28-30.)

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This page last updated April 9, 2007
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