Bad Talt Hall - The End of the Road
Jonah hitched his team of mules to the wagon and stood looking toward Virginia for a few minutes. His heart, as well as that of his family, was heavy this morning. Light had not yet come over the mountains and the darkness matched what he felt inside. His wife Sarah, who carried their nine month old baby daughter walked out of the house to join him and he helped her step up to the wagon seat to settle in with the baby. The trip to Wise was no easy feat, a long labor on any day. This day was worse.
It was September 2, 1892 and the day finally broke, cool, but brilliant with fall color. As they came upon the little town of Wise the beautiful gold and yellow of the trees rendered a scene of peace and happiness that would not be the theme this day. For days residents of the area had been coming to see what would happen. The lovely little town was bursting at its seams with people standing, sitting, climbing to every height possible to get a good seat.
Jonah strained to look around the crowd of people to see people he might know. Many of Talt's family were there, scattered among his friends, enemies and the strangers that came just to say later that they had been a witness. The town was completely overrun. Never had he seen this many people here and he wondered how they could manage to crowd their way in. How could the police keep all thee people in check.
People who had never heard of ďBadĒ Talt Hall had come to see him hang. It wasnít the man, it was the event. A hanging had never taken place in Wise County Virginia before and people wanted to witness this first one just to say they had been there.
It was still in the early hours so Jonah went to the jail house to ask to see Talton, but the guards wouldnít let him in. They let in his Catholic priest and his lawyers; they also let his sister visit with him, but Jonah didn't get inside the jail. Early in the morning, Talt had talked with a newspaper reporter from the Post in Big Stone Gap. The jailor, Charlie Renfro, had told Jonah that Taltís sister Nellie had brought him breakfast but, of course, he couldnít eat. He had sipped on his coffee and added a shot or two of liquor, as was his custom. He smoked a little of his pipe and spoke softly with his sister for a while. Talt always smoked a pipe after a meal or when he was drinking. And he most always added a shot of whiskey to his coffee.
The priest had heard Taltonís confession but no one else knew what he had confessed unless it was Doc Taylor who awaited his own hanging in the next cell. Jonah believed in Talt and knew him well enough to know that if he was confessing to his priest he would not lie about anything. Jonah knew Talt had not always been Catholic but had converted while in jail in Lynchburg, Virginia, while appealing his conviction and awaiting execution. Southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky were dominated by Regular Baptists. Jonah was Baptist, as were most of the Hall's.
Jonahís soul was in torment. He loved Talt. He was more another father or older brother than cousin. Looking at him and knowing he was going to die was unbearable. Jonah had a notoriously hot temper but he was forced to stand there and watch without lifting a finger to help him. He had visited Talt just after he had been brought back from Lynchburg and sentenced to die again. Talt had told him that if anyone made an attempt to break him out of jail, the guards had orders to shoot immediately.
Jonah said that about midmorning Talton appeared in an open window of the jail and stood looking at the mountains and then at the people in the crowd. He was unsteady on his feet and the bright sunlight appeared to hurt his eyes. He spoke to some he recognized. The crowd thought he was going to confess to the many murders he had long been accused of, but Talton only wanted to see the mountains and sky and breathe in the morning air. He was also looking for a very close friend in a tree that had promised Talt he would shoot him through the heart, to spare him the hanging. He was to be stationed in a tree and when Talt stood in the window he was supposed to shoot him. Thatís why he stayed there and kept looking around. When it didnít happen immediately, he was searching for him in the trees trying to see if he was there at all.
This was a pact they had made when Talt was first brought to Norton to stand trial. But, his friend was not there. He went back inside the jail briefly and reappeared again to gaze at the mountains. When he came to the window the second time, he stood tall and straight and seemed to be at peace with himself and God and his impending death. He was resigned to the knowledge that the Gallows was his fate because his friend had not been able to make his way through the Guard to kill him.
About two hours later, near noon, a small group brought Talt out of the jail and started toward the enclosed gallows. Nellie Bates, Talt's sister who had married William J Bates, walked beside him.
His priest, one of his lawyers, the Sheriff, and several members of the Guard from Big Stone Gap walked with them. Jonah did not try to get closer but stayed with his wife and baby in the wagon as the procession came by. For whatever reasons, Jonah did not move toward Talt and Talton never veered from the straight path to the steps leading up to the enclosed gallows.
He paused on the second step from the top and stared at the hangmanís noose in the enclosed room. As he stepped into the enclosure, the men standing inside began to speak to him and shake his hands, which were bound behind his back. He didnít utter a single word, but faced the noose hanging down in front of him. He had made no sign of fear or nervousness as he walked up the steps. He walked with firm resolve. As the boards creaked and groaned inside the enclosure, family and friends outside began to cry and to pray. Presumably the sheriff secured the noose around Taltís neck after placing a black hood over his face although Jonah could not see inside the building. Later, as the men exited the gallows Jonah could see that the sheriff cried, the jailor cried and many of the men inside the enclosure cried.
Jonah was in shock throughout most of this and was in denial until that ax fell. He kept thinking there would be a pardon at the end. Life in prison would be the final outcome, not death. The next words he heard were, ďMay God have mercy on this poor manís soulĒ.
The sound of the ax hitting the stump tied rope rang out and Jonah went to his knees in despair. He did not see him fall probably because the gallows was supposedly closed all the way to the ground. His cousin, his friend, his drinking buddy, and a man he loved as much as his own father was gone. Thomas Talton Hall left this earth. And Jonah said, ďA piece of me died with himĒ.
Jonah waited as Talt was left hanging for over 15 minutes until a doctor pronounced him dead. Jonah felt sick and beaten. He could not believe it had happened. Jonah was still thinking this terrible scene wasn't happening, hoping for a miracle, or maybe it was a bad dream he could wake up from. There was no miracle and it wasn't a dream, Talt was cut down and the rope and hood removed from his head. Nellie was allowed to tie a clean white handkerchief around his throat, to hide the rope marks, as he was loaded into the back of a two-horse drawn wagon to be taken back across the mountain for burial. He looked the same in death as he had in life. The men loading him into the wagon, his best friend, John Wright, his Hall, Bates, and Wright cousins and nephews, and other friends were hampered by two photographers from the newspaper, trying to get one last word from them. John Wright and Taltonís friends and family were beyond talking to anyone there, beyond consoling. They were devastated. Jonah wasn't aware of much around him except lots of crying and praying. He was in shock. Strangers in the crowd were as upset as Taltonís family and friends. This hanging had not turned out to be a big social event but a horrible fate heaped on the shoulders of one single man at one moment in time.
They covered Taltonís now lifeless body with a new white linen cloth. The driven clicked the reins and the wagon slowly left the jail and headed out to Pound Gap with over a hundred people walking and riding with it.
They headed back over the mountain to Talton's native land of Kentucky and when the procession reached the foot of Pine Mountain, Talton was taken to John Wrightís house in Dunham. He was laid out for friends and family to pay their respects one last time. Devil John saw that Talton was buried in same cemetery where John and Mattie Wright had buried their own sons, but John feared that Taltís enemies would deny him his final rest. To insure Talt's remains were not disturbed John Wright buried Talt in an unmarked grave in his family cemetery, where he could rest throughout eternity with family and friends, undisturbed by vengeful enemies. Even then, very few knew the exact location where Devil John and his men had actually laid Talt to rest and it wasn't where his tombstone was set.
Jonah was one of those men that knew the secret of Talt's grave and many years later he passed that information on to a 12 year old girl before he died in 1962. Throughout the telling of his story, every time he recounted it, Jonah would cry so hard, I worried about him. He was 92 when he died and he had carried and relived that day for 71 years and it never stopped breaking his heart. Yes, Jonah was my grandfather, Talt was my cousin and I am the 12 year old girl keeping that secret, sharing it with very few who want to pay their respects to a Kentucky legend.
ďBad TaltĒ Hall is gone but his legend lives on, passed down through the generations.
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