Newspapers around the country called it “the Texas Troubles” in 1860 when rumors—fanned by letters to Texas newspapers written by Charles R. Pryor, editor of the Dallas Herald—claimed that a mysterious fire on Sunday, July 8 that burned the newspaper office and all the buildings on the Dallas town square except the brick courthouse, was an abolitionist plot “to devastate, with fire and assassination the whole of Northern Texas . . .” On that same day other fires destroyed half of the square in Denton and burned down a store in Pilot Point. Fires also burned in Honey Grove, Jefferson, and Austin. The city leaders of Dallas (population 775) first blamed the extreme heat—105 to 113 degrees in the area—for causing spontaneous combustion of the volatile phosphorous matches in a box of wood shavings, which ignited a fire that quickly spread over the downtown. The citizens in Denton, after experiencing other problems with “prairie matches,” concluded that spontaneous combustion was the cause of their fire.
In Dallas, however, white leaders stirred by the intense political climate and encouraged by Pryor’s claims, blamed a sinister slave plot hatched up by two white abolitionist preachers from Iowa. The preachers were jailed, publically whipped, and sent out of the county. A committee of fifty-two men organized to mete out justice to the slaves in the county. At first the vigilance committee favored hanging every one of the almost 100 Negro slaves in the county, then cooler heads prevailed and decided to hang only three. Two days later the men were hung on the banks of the Trinity River. The remaining slaves, in consideration of their property value, were given a good flogging. Later, a judge who had been part of the vigilante committee said that the three slaves were probably innocent, but because of the “inflamed state of the public mind, someone had to be hanged.”
The “troubles” were not over. By the end of July, towns throughout North and Central Texas organized vigilance committees to find and punish the conspirators. The committees terrorized the slave community and focused their investigations on white itinerant preachers who were cited as insurrection leaders. An article in the Handbook of Texas tells of Rev. Anthony Bewley a Northern Methodist preacher who held antislavery views and operated a mission south of Fort Worth. A letter, which some people claimed was a forgery, urged Brewley to continue his efforts to free Texas from slavery. It was published widely, which convinced Brewley that he must take his family to Kansas. A posse caught him in Missouri, returned him to Fort Worth on September 13, where a lynch mob hanged him and left his body dangling until the next morning. After burial in a shallow grave, his body was exhumed three weeks later, the bones stripped of the flesh, and placed atop a storehouse. Children played with the bones. The episode ended the activities of Northern Methodists in Texas.
Despite fears of a slave rebellion that lasted until after the Civil War, there was never an organized group of slaves in Texas that shed white blood. Vigilantes often obtained “confessions” and evidence points to white leaders spreading the rumors to garner public support for secession. Approximately ten whites accused of being abolitionists and around five slaves actually died during the “troubles ” between July and September 1860.