Cheating the Gallows

The Legend of Doc Taylor’s Escape



Growing up in Wise County, Virginia, children are blessed with story tellers who are eager to share folklore, legends, and mysteries sprinkled in with factual histories of the heroes and villains of our mountains.  One of these legends is woven around Marshall Benton Taylor.  Doc to his friends and the old Red Fox to his enemies.  Doc Taylor was hanged on October 27, 1893 in Gladeville (Wise), Virginia for leading the ambush murders of Ira Mullins and his party as they crossed the mountain from Kentucky into Virginia at Pound Gap on May 13, 1892.


Once his date with the gallows had been set, Doc Taylor told his wife to make him a white linen suit for the execution.  He planned to be dressed in white from head to toe.  Even the hood that would cover his head when the noose was placed around his neck was white. 


About 10:00 in the morning on the day of his hanging, Doc was taken to a window in the Wise County courthouse where he preached his own funeral service dressed in his white linen suit.  He preached for about two hours often waving his Bible or thumping it with his hand.  He declared that he would rise again in three days as Jesus had done and ascend into heaven. 


When his sermon finally ended, Doc Taylor was escorted to the gallows, where he mounted the steps into the enclosure and kneeled down to pray. Then he stood and the white hood was placed over his head. His hands were tied behind him.  The noose was placed around his neck and the ax came down on the rope.  Doc Taylor went through the trap door.  He was pronounced dead 19 minutes later by the attending physicians, Dr. Miles and Dr. Cherry and witnessed by about a dozen other men. 


But did he really die? 


According to legend, Dr. Miles, one of the attending physicians at the hanging, was the first person to “admit” that Doc did not meet his end on the gallows.  According to Dr. Miles, Doc was caught by several of his friends under the scaffolding as he fell through the trap door.  Under the platform, he changed into an old brown suit and boots and put on a slouch hat.  He added a sling to support his left arm with its faked injury.  During the 19 minutes before he was declared dead, a dummy made of straw-stuffed flour sacks, smuggled in the night before, was dressed in the white suit and hood. Wearing his brown disguise, Doc left the enclosure with the large group of men and walked away while all eyes were fixed on the white clad straw Doc being loaded into a coffin in the back of a nearby wagon.  The lid was placed on top of the coffin and the wagon headed out of the court yard to his home where his body would remain for three days before burial, just in case he might rise from the dead so, of course, everyone waited. When he failed to rise, the coffin was buried.


Another version of the legend says that the cunning, sly, old Red Fox, merely jumped through the trap door holding onto an unsecured rope around his neck.  The doctors pronounced him dead and with the rope still around his neck, he was laid into a coffin in the back of a wagon and taken to his home.  Once at home, Doc changed clothes and slipped away.  The coffin was filled with rocks and nailed shut.  Three days later the coffin full of rocks was buried. 


Supposedly Doc went to Missouri where his mother lived.  It is said that he became a sheriff there under an assumed name and lived out his life quietly, dying at the age of 91.


In support of these legends, it should be noted that Doc Taylor was very popular with the mountain people in Wise County, Virginia.  He was a healer, a mystic, a preacher and a friend to many.  He had delivered more babies and cured more ailments than any doctor in that area.  Ira Mullins was not well liked and few cared that he was dead. 


Doc Taylor was also a Free Mason. All of the men inside the enclosed gallows that day, including the two attending physicians were reportedly Free Masons.  A Free Mason had never been executed for a crime in the history of Wise County.  If Doc had killed Ira Mullins, most people felt that it was “vendetta”, an eye for an eye for the contract Ira had placed on Doc’s life and the lives of his family, and for all the livestock Ira had killed that belonged to Doc. The scales of mountain justice had been balanced. To punish Doc Taylor would have upset that balance again.  


Fact or fiction, tales of the old Red Fox remain rooted in Appalachian mountain culture so we keep telling the stories to keep the legends alive.    



Story researched and compiled by:

Judi Wolfe



The material on this website is copyrighted (C) 2009 by Nancy Wright Bays &  Patty May Brashear


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