Boy howdy, summertime in Texas can get hotter’n Hades back-forty, as any neighbor can tell the uninitiated. Even though we’re currently enjoying pretty tolerable evenings, Denton has a history forged in disastrous fires on the Courthouse Square (which nearly or partially burned down more than a dozen times in its early frontier days). One of those blazes played a dramatic role in the 1860 “Texas Troubles," sparking secession with the Civil War Confederacy. This may have turned out quite differently had folks listened to the detective work of one of Denton’s founding fathers, Charles Alexander Williams.
As a remote frontier outpost, the township of Denton consisted of split-rail log structures that an errant spark could quickly whip into an apocalyptic tinderbox. Pioneer Charles Alexander Williams, who moved to Texas from his Arkansas Territory birthplace in 1852 and auctioned the original town lots in January of 1857 as sheriff, knew a thing or two about the hazardous necessities of fire on the frontier. Williams had been among the Old Alton founders who ceremoniously burned the prior courthouse in a celebratory bonfire when the county seat relocated, he owned his own dry goods store, and as County Sheriff he was often the investigator of frequent fire outbreaks. That was the case when an epically devastating fire on the Denton Square helped spark the notorious Texas Slave Panic of 1860, which most historians agree would play a decisive role in Texas joining the Pro-Slavery South, only two short years after Texans had elected Houston and several other pro-Union candidates to office.
Its hard to overstate the intense political tensions within Texas in the years leading up to the Civil War. The explosive national debates over slavery were made worse by the relentless drought and crop-withering heat wave that scorched the South that summer with temperatures over 100 degrees. That prior October, John Brown’s slave insurrection on a Harper’s Ferry armory in Virginia had narrowly failed, leading some Texas towns like Dallas to expel traveling abolitionist preachers from the sweltering state whose population by then was 30% slaves. It was July 8th of 1860 when all hell broke loose, as a sudden morning fire quickly engulfed downtown Dallas, leaping from one dry wooden building to the next until it had destroyed most of its business district. That same day, near-simultaneous fires razed a store in Pilot Point and devoured the west side of Denton. Starting in Smoot’s Dry Goods on the southwest corner of Denton’s downtown square, fire quickly spread to adjacent buildings and ignited 25 kegs of gunpowder in a gargantuan explosion that showered down burning debris. News travelled pretty slowly in those days, but the story spread like political wildfire as it was discovered that similar fires had occurred in several other towns that very same day. It was the excitable editor of the burned-down Dallas Herald, pro-seccessionist Charles Pryor, who sent letters to numerous political connections and other newspaper editors insisting that these fires were a coordinated pro-abolitionist conspiracy to lead a violent state-wide slave uprising. “Each county in Northern Texas has a supervisor in the person of a white man” with “each county laid off into districts under the sub-agents of this villain,” Pryor detailed from his unidentified sources and without a shred of evidence; “Poisoning was to be added” against slave owners and their wives, and “the young and handsome women to be parceled out amongst these infamous scoundrels.”
Predictably, here’s where things became ugly as hysteria turned to terror. Soon, newspapers, politicians, and partisan newsletters were fanning fearful suspicions into a full-blown public panic. By July 31, The Houston Weekly Telegraph crowed “an outraged country demands the blood of the murderers… Let the whole people organize for protection and vengeance!” Before the end of the summer, an epidemic of Texas fires in several counties and towns were being attributed to this slave insurrection conspiracy as paranoia created investigatory “vigilance committees” in every community in the state. Countless slaves were whipped or tortured by their slaveowners into confessing names as rumors wildly circulated, and a flurry of vigilante lynchings were meted out on mere suspicion alone of abolitionist sentiments. The Gainesville Hangings are still today barely discussed in polite company since the mob justice of kangaroo juries killed as many white unionist neighbors as “guilty” slaves, and few likely recall how the decomposing bones of a lynched anti-slavery minister were displayed on downtown Ft. Worth rooftops as a macabre warning of any who would oppose their new law forbidding public discussion of any possible causes for these fires other than abolitionist arson. Despite Governor Sam Houston’s pleas for reason from citizens and accusations of political demagoguery by his seccessionist opposition, Texas voted to seceed from the United States in March of 1861 to join the Confederate South.
But what were those alternate explanations for the fires? Denton County Sheriff C.A. Williams duly investigated the terrible fire and concluded that arson was not likely. Most Dentonians were at a Sunday religious meeting when the fire broke out but, when some early responders arrived to form a bucket brigade, the abandoned storefronts were curiously still locked tight (There’s actually a dispatch from Otis Welch praising the women of Denton who bravely prevented further destruction as most menfolk were tending their ranches!). Williams also learned from a colleague in nearby Lebanon that several Collin County residents had actually witnessed a fire spontaneously start near a storefront window display of “Prairie Matches,” a newfangled phosphorus-tipped and hard-to-extinguish fire-starter that was being stocked in these same dry goods stores where most fires originated. With this corroborating data echoed from several other more level-headed investigations into the record-breaking 110’ heat, and with a MacGuyver-like curiosity for the truth, this Sherlock Holmes of Denton conducted a few experiments with the matches in his own dry goods store and discovered that indirect heat was indeed sufficient to ignite a Prairie Match. Williams later recalled to the Denton Chronicle in May 1894, “there is no doubt in my mind but what the fires were all caused from the matches exploding by reason of the extremely hot weather.” Case closed, right? Unfortunately, as the mass hysteria took hold of conspiracy-minded Texans beyond dissuasion, proponents of Williams’ “Prairie Match hypothesis” were dismissively accused of being unpatriotic abolitionist sympathizers, or worse… ended up at the end of a lynch rope. Still today, historians hotly debate how or whether the Prairie Match Mystery might have changed the role of Texas in the Civil War, even as it offers somber if timely lessons for our own troubled times of contemporary political terror.
Back In The Day is an ongoing contribution from Shaun Treat. Treat is an assistant professor in Communication Studies at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. He has written about numerous local places of note and various large personalities on the Denton Haunts blog. In addition, Treat says he is forever indebted to the work of the fine folks of the Denton County Historical Commission and local keepers of history such as Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past.