(From the Henderson Daily News archives)
On Sunday night, Aug. 5, 1860, downtown Henderson was burned to the ground. Two men and a pregnant slave woman, all three abolitionists, set fire to the downtown area.
Dr. Dorman Winfrey, who served for years as state librarian before retiring several years ago, wrote a book entitled “History of Rusk County” in which he gave a detailed account of the fire and related events.
In his book, Dr. Winfrey said the fire began about eight o'clock that Sunday night in an old unoccupied shop immediately behind Wiggins, Hogg, and Felton's Drug Store on the south side of the square. (There are conflicting reports about where the fire started. Others said it started in the northwest corner of the square behind the building which later became known as the Mays and Harris building, present site of “Emporium on the Square, 102 N. Marshall St.).
In a desperate attempt to save the contents of their stores, merchants rushed to town and frantically scrambled to remove their inventory, piling goods in the middle of the street hoping to salvage something. However, this proved to be a big mistake because the fire spread over these items to the south side of the square and consumed the entire downtown area. Every available man in town was on the scene trying to help put out the fire but their attempts were futile.
Dr. Winfrey pointed out in his book that the fire was caused by an incendiary because it was not the first fire to take place in Texas that year.
The damage was severe. The total loss was placed at $220,000 of which only $8,500 was insured, leaving a net loss of $211,500.
Forty-three buildings were destroyed, including two newspapers, two drug stores, 10 retail stores, eight or 10 law offices, two family grocery stores and a number of other buildings.
Can you imagine the frustration of the people? And their anger? Nothing was left.
And what about the business owners? They had lost everything ... their buildings, their inventories, their livelihoods. How could they go on? What were they going to do? And the people, where would they buy groceries and clothing for their families? Where would they buy their farm equipment and feed for their animals?
To make matters worse, the fire came at a time of severe drought. No rain had fallen since February and it was the hottest summer ever known in Texas. In July, the temperature had risen to 112 degrees in the shade.
The account of the fire received publicity in many newspapers not only in Texas and the Southwest, but throughout the country. The following headlines appeared in the Aug. 21,1860 edition of The New York World: “Incendiarism in Texas ... Another Great Fire ... The Town of Henderson Burnt”. (It must have taken two weeks for the news to get to New York.)
The Galveston Civilian published a letter postmarked Aug. 10 from Houston that read: “A gentleman passing through Henderson on Monday morning last, reports that the town was discovered to be on fire Sunday night and was almost totally consumed when he passed through. All that was to be seen of the square was smouldering embers, except one dwelling house that escaped the conflagration.”
The late Mr. John Crow, who resided on Longview Drive and lived to be over 100 years old, told a Henderson Daily News reporter, who did a story about the fire in 1951, that he was eight years old at the time of the fire and remembered his father telling him that a fellow by the name of Green Herndon, a Union man, had hired a Negro woman to burn Henderson.
Herndon was a northerner and a pronounced opponent of secession. After the three were captured, an angry mob gathered. Tempers flared and on the Negro woman's testimony they threw a rope around Herndon's neck, tied the other end to a horse and went around the square dragging him to his death.
Later, they hung the body in a tree and shot it full of holes. His accomplice was also hanged. Herndon was buried in an unmarked grave at Pine Grove Cemetery, located nine miles east of Henderson.
The slave woman was allowed to give birth to her child, a son, several months later before suffering the same fate as her two accomplices. (Her son was evidently taken in by a local family and raised in Henderson. According to a newspaper story, he worked at the Rusk County Courthouse for many years.)
Needless to say, it was not easy to get along with folks in Henderson in those days, especially if you were a Northerner or Yankee sympathizer.