Newspapers around the country in 1860 called it “the Texas Troubles.” Rumors—fanned by letters written by Charles R. Pryor, editor of the Dallas Herald—claimed that a mysterious fire on Sunday, July 8, which burned the newspaper office and all the buildings on the Dallas square except the brick courthouse, was an abolitionist plot “to devastate, with fire and assassination the whole of Northern Texas . . . .”
On the same day, other fires destroyed half of the square in Denton and burned a store in Pilot Point. Fires also erupted in Honey Grove, Jefferson, and Austin. The city leaders of Dallas (population 775) first believed the extreme heat—105 to 113 degrees––caused spontaneous combustion of the new and volatile phosphorous matches. They concluded that the matches, stored in a box of wood shavings at a drug store, ignited and quickly consumed the entire building before spreading over the downtown. Citizens in Denton, after experiencing similar problems with “prairie matches,” concluded that spontaneous combustion caused their city’s fire.
In Dallas, however, white leaders stirred by the prospect of Abraham Lincoln’s election and encouraged by Pryor’s claims, decided on a sinister slave plot hatched up by two white abolitionist preachers from Iowa. They jailed the preachers, publically whipped them, and sent them out of the county.
A committee of fifty-two men organized to mete out justice to the slaves in the county. At first, the vigilante 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 near the present Triple Overpass. The remaining slaves, out of 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 murdered 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. Interrogations focused on white itinerant preachers who were cited as insurrection leaders.
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.
Estimates vary from thirty to 100 Negroes and whites who died before the panic subsided. One historian described the times as “the drama of the imagination.”