Williamson County museum exhibit shows details of 1923 KKK trial

Local prosecutors and jury members stood up against the Klan during height of its power.

Austin American-Statesman/February 6, 2010

The Williamson County district attorney and a jury stood up against the Ku Klux Klan in 1923 but Chris Dyer, director of the Williamson Museum, says not enough people know about it.

That's why the museum in Georgetown opened an exhibit Friday focused on the 1923 trial that resulted in the conviction of several Klan members who assaulted a traveling salesman.

"This trial had a very positive impact, and we wanted to cover it," Dyer said.

The trial was spurred by an incident that started in the spring of 1923, when a Baptist preacher, the Rev. A.A. Davis, delivered a letter to the traveling salesman, Robert Burleson, said Lisa Worley, the curator of the museum who researched the event. The letter, with a seal on it from the Georgetown Ku Klux Klan, accused Burleson of having an affair with a widow, Fannie Campbell, who ran the boardinghouse where Burleson was staying, Worley said. Both Burleson and Campbell were white; the Klan's objections hinged on alleged immorality.

The letter told Burleson to leave town, but he refused, Worley said. Burleson was in a car with Campbell and some of her relatives on Easter Sunday 1923 when four Klan members, who had not disguised themselves, pulled him out and pistol whipped him in front of the car's passengers, she said.

They threw him in the back of a truck, took him elsewhere and stripped him and beat him with a leather strap before padlocking him to a tree on the front lawn of the Taylor City Hall and pouring tar over his head, she said.

Burleson, who was in his 20s, managed to escape and crawled to a nearby house, Worley said. He spent a week in the hospital recovering from his wounds.

Williamson County District Attorney Dan Moody, who was later elected Texas governor, decided to try the case with a team of prosecutors from his office. The defense's closing argument lasted 6 hours and 45 minutes. The jury deliberated only 15 minutes before convicting the ringleader, Murray Jackson, of assault with a prohibited weapon. They sentenced Jackson, a 26-year-old member of the Taylor Volunteer Fire Department, to five years in prison. The other men involved, Olin Gossett, Dewey Ball and Godfrey Loftus, were all sentenced to one year in prison, Worley said.

"A perjury conviction against the Klan preacher (A.A. Davis), who instigated the incident,was especially important because Moody convinced six Klansmen to testify against their fellow Klansman," said Williamson County District Judge Ken Anderson, who has written two books about Moody. "Thus the secrecy of the Klan was also destroyed."

The Williamson County district clerk's office has the original papers from the trial. A reproduction of them, including the jury's verdict in the Jackson trial, will be displayed in the new exhibit, which will be in place for a year.

The exhibit also includes a Klan robe made about 1910, on loan from the Witte Museum in San Antonio. A list of the jurors in the trial, photos of the courtroom and the prosecutors, and material explaining the trial and the Klan's involvement in Texas will also be on display.

"The 1920s Klan was in political power in Texas and controlled a lot of elections," Dyer said.

"The Williamson County jury in the 1923 trial was probably scared and knew Klan members, but they stood up and did the right thing at their own personal risk."

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