Charlie Henniker got a speedy trial; an impartial jury, perhaps, not so much.
No one other than his mother, perhaps, ever called Charlie Henniker a nice man.
Not even his lone friend, on whose word he was hanged.
Charlie Henniker was variously described as cruel, vile, contemptible, a demon even. The kindest recorded description was that he was “quarrelsome.”
Henniker landed on the island no later than the 1830s, part of the initial German diaspora that helped settle what would become the Republic of Texas, and plowed his savings into 10 acres, “down the island” from Galveston, on which he planted a market garden with vegetables he hauled into the city to sell.
His little plot, however, provided only a sparse living given competition and the rigid dictates of supply and demand.
Perhaps for that reason, Henniker on the warm Wednesday morning of Sept. 28, 1843, paid a visit to one such rival, his neighbor Benjamin Tyson, and brought down on his head a mallet before tossing his then seemingly dead body down a well.
Henniker then put Tyson’s modest home to the torch.
It was only after the latter deed that Henniker spotted his victim emerging, quite alive, from the borehole. So it was that he bashed in his neighbor’s head with a substantial scantling and shoved him back down the well, where at last he indeed lay dead.
When word of the murder reached town, Sheriff H.N. Smyth sent a deputy named Pillans to check it out.
Given his “quarrelsome” nature, Henniker from the get-go was Pillans’ prime suspect. Finding Tyson’s house ablaze and, soon enough, its owner deceased, the deputy turned his horse and set out to visit Henniker, who swore he knew nothing of such vile acts, but nevertheless he was arrested.
Henniker’s aforementioned lone friend, a roomer at his house, and possibly more, was, it turned out, scared to death of him. Only after assurances that she would be protected from his wrath, did she admit all he had confided to her.
In an age when justice was swift, Henniker soon enough met his fate.
The sixth of the Bill of Right’s 10 amendments, ratified half a century before Henniker went before the bar, assured, among other things, that “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.”
Charlie Henniker certainly received his speedy and public trial, appearing before a jury on Nov. 2, not a month and a half after his arrest.
As for that jury’s impartiality, history’s not so clear.
It couldn’t have helped Henniker’s cause or case that his enmity with most he ever met had become mutual.
Nor did it help that he had entered into an arrangement with an attorney named Joe Swett, of the local law firm of Blackstone and Coke, a deal in which Henniker promised that the councilor would receive half of the defendant’s 10 acres in the event of an acquittal — and all of the property in the event of a conviction, the folly of which apparently escaped him.
“When Hon. B. Shones telled me what bargain I make mit lawyer Schwett, den I knows I was a hung Tutchman,” the English-challenged Henniker said.
Before that epiphany, however, while his life still hung in the balance of Lady Justice’s scales — and on Swett’s legal prowess and commitment — Henniker went on trial.
The testimony was brief: His roommate recounted what the defendant had told her; the deputy testified as to what he had found; and that was about it.
The jury, as it turned out, wouldn’t be late for supper, reporting after a brief deliberation that, “We, the jurors in the case of the Republic of Texas vs. Charles Henniker, indicted of murder, find a verdict of guilty.”
On Dec. 8, Henniker savored a final pipe while seated on his coffin in the back of a cart carrying him to gallows built just for him along the bay in downtown Galveston.
Asked if he had any final words, Henniker proceeded to denigrate everyone he could recall.
Sheriff Smyth, apparently at the end of his rope, eventually cut him off; the trapdoor swung opened, and then Henniker was at the end of his.
The drop, however, didn’t snap his neck, and so it was that Henniker hung onto life another minute or so until, with a final spasm of one foot, he was, as Smyth’s notice of execution recorded, “dead as the devil.”