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The Texas State Capitol: Blood, Fire & Granite

Before our illustrious red granite Capitol stood at the crest of Congress Avenue, the Old Stone Capitol housed Texas’ state business for 28 years. The building went up in flames on the rainy afternoon of November 9, 1881.  Its demise was quick and final. A hole had been cut into the stone between two rooms in the basement for a stove pipe. It was believed that a flue had been installed, but it hadn’t. The pipe was attached to the stove in the east part of the Attorney General’s apartment. The other end of the stove pipe led into a storage room for papers and books. After the stove was lit, it took only two hours for the fire to turn the Old Stone Capitol building into a blackened shell. Contributing to its complete destruction was an inadequate water supply.

Construction began on the new Texas Capitol in February of 1882. Texas officials had big dreams for a new Capitol, but little money to make those dreams a reality.  So they traded 3,000,000 acres of land in the Texas panhandle to Taylor, Babcock and Company of Chicago. As for the workforce, the contractor decided to take advantage of the Convict Lease Program the state had created.

After the Civil War lawlessness and discord abounded in the Southern states, including Texas. The number of people incarcerated was staggering and the state did not have the money or space to properly house the inmates. Officials decided to lease the convicts to private companies in exchange for a small fee, room and board. The contractors were interested in making a profit in their investment, so the convicts often worked long hours with substandard food and shelter. The agreement between the state penitentiary and the Capitol contractors, known as the Capitol Syndicate stated that they would lease up to 1000 convicts, pay the state 65 cents per convict per day, and take responsibility for their food and clothing. The state did not regulate the process and many were ill-treated. Half of the prisoners were African American even though only 25% of the state population was black. For the previously unskilled convict laborers breaking tons of rock was, needless to say, dangerous work. As prisoners, these men were not held in high regard and their lives were of little value. Consequently, loss of life under these extreme circumstances was unrecognized. Nonetheless, the labor the prisoners provided was paramount to the creation of the Texas Capitol.

Convict labor was used from the very beginning of the Capitol construction when subcontractor Gus Wilke blasted and carved out the basement from solid stone.  For the next six years he would oversee all aspects of construction. In Oatmanville, known today as Oak Hill, Wilke leased a thousand acres of the limestone quarry so one hundred able-bodied convicts from the Huntsville prison could send ten railroad cars full of limestone to Austin each day. This limestone was used for the interior walls of the Capitol. At Granite Mountain in Burnet County, the red granite was donated, and was quarried by prisoners who cut, shaped and loaded a total of 15,000 rail cars to Austin for the outer walls of the building. The convicts slept in a wood frame structure on the southeaster quadrant of the Capitol grounds. Each day they worked under the watchful eye of several guards and their dogs. In addition to the work done by these convicts, the ironwork used to make the dome, columns, gates and interior decorative work was fashioned by prisoners at the foundry at Rusk State Prison.

Tales of mists, ethereal images, and unexplained lights on the Capitol grounds have been reported for years from Department of Public Safety officers, employees and visitors. In all likelihood, at least a few reports of roving lights and orbs in the trees can be attributed to the nameless, forgotten convicts who gave their labor and their lives in the shadow of the Capitol.

During those six years of construction, thousands of people contributed to the new Capitol.  Everyone was working toward a common goal: to build the largest Capitol building in the United States, even bigger than the nation’s Capitol in Washington D.C. And they succeeded

Since the completion of the original building in 1888, many changes have taken place including a restoration and expansion following the fire in 1983 that began in the Lt. Governor’s living quarters. During that fire, 102 years after the fire that destroyed the original Stone Capitol, a man died when he was overcome by smoke. Instead of running out of his bedroom door to safety, he wasted precious minutes and energy struggling unsuccessfully to open a window which was nailed shut.

Does this young man’s spirit still linger behind the walls of Texas’s Capitol? If so, he is not alone.

It was an assassination in 1903 which has resulted in the most identifiable ghost centered around a man who was such a dedicated public servant, he still walks the Capitol halls.

At 10 o’clock in the morning on June 30th 1903, the State Comptroller, Colonel R.M. Love was sitting at his desk in the east wing of the Capitol, talking with Reverend Cowden when in walked Mr. W.G.. Hill.  Mr. Hill was an unemployed, former state employee. Later it would become apparent that Love was responsible for Mr. Hill losing his job. Unaware of the intruder’s intentions, the two men greeted Mr. Hill and continued their conversation until Reverend Cowden bade his farewell, leaving the remaining two men alone.  As he left, the reverend saw Mr. Hill hand Love a piece of paper which read:

Dear Sir – Public Office is a public trust.  Public offices are created for the service of the people and not for the aggrandizement of a few individuals. The practice of bartering department clerkships for private gain is a disgrace to the public service and in the nefarious traffic you are a “record breaker.”

You have robbed the state’s employees, and your incompetent administration has permitted others to rob the state. The man who, claiming to be a Christian, deprives others of employment without cause is a base hypocrite and a tyrant.

The greatest mind that ever gave its wisdom to the world; the mind of all others most capable of “umpiring the mutiny between right and wrong,” said: “You take my life when you do take from me the means by which I live.”

If that be true, you are a murderer of the deepest crimson hue.

Although I cannot help myself, before laying life’s burden down, I shall strike a blow – feeble though it be – for the good of my deserving fellowman.

“For the right against the wrong

For the weak against the strong.”

While Love read the letter, Hill took a 38-caliber Smith and Wesson from the pocket of his jacket and shot the comptroller in the chest. Mr. Stephens, a bookkeeper in the adjoining office, quickly left his desk and entered the room to witness Hill fire a second shot. Stephens rushed towards Hill just as the gun was turned on him.  Moving quickly, Stephens ducked beneath the line of fire and grabbed Hill around the waist with one arm and caught the pistol with the other hand.  A struggle ensued. Hill broke loose and headed for the door. Stephens caught him and the grappling men fell backwards onto the floor, each fighting for control of the gun, when a third shot sounded.  By this time, the Reverend Cowden had reentered the room with Miss Annie Stanfield, the comptroller’s personal stenographer on his heels.  Both watched in horrific suspense as the two men stopped battling and lay still on the floor.  Finally, Stephens disengaged himself slowly and rose to his feet as a pool of blood collected beneath Hill. He had been shot in the chest. Mr. Hill reached into his jacket pocket again, this time to remove a vile of laudanum, a popular opiate.  “Let me take this and die easy,” he pleaded, but as he raised the liquid to his lips, Stephens slapped it out of his hand. There would be no quick death for this assassin, but a slow, painful one.

Colonel Love struggled to his feet and attempted to walk, only to fall back to the floor stating the obvious, “I’ve been shot.” Everyone in the Capitol rushed into the east wing.  Love was placed on the couch in his office with a pillow beneath his head.  Hill was placed on a cot just inside the doors on the south side of the rotunda. One hour and five minutes later, Love’s wife, son, sisters and the Governor were at his side when he took his last breath. Remarkably, R.M. Love’s final words were of compassion and forgiveness toward the man who shot him. The Austin Statesman reporter on site stated, “With the vital blood percolating from his body in two places, converting snowy drapery into crimson folds, tossing his head from side to side, eyes closed and fingers clenched, the victim of the assassin’s bullet blessed his precious wife and children, and in the spirit of the Savior he had tried to serve, prayed ‘Ah, God forgive and save him who hath robbed me of my life.”

Mr. Hill, meanwhile, was transported to the Austin Sanitarium, where he died at 2:55 PM that afternoon.

The Austin Statesman reported on July 1, 1903:

“Texas loses her first official at the hands of an assassin. Two united and loving families are deprived of their heads. Two homes are filled with sorrowing relatives. Two souls stand before their maker at the judgment bar. The sadness is added to by the fact that both men were of exemplary habits – honorable, Christian gentlemen – respected and loved by nearly everybody in this community. The friends of one were in many instances the friends of both. Dr. John E. Hill of Manor, one of the most prominent men in Travis County, was the brother of the killer and a close friend of the killed. They were both of the oldest and best known families in the state, and both leave behind them desolate wives and weeping children.”

Not long after the shooting, the figure of a man walking through the east wing could be seen, only to fade away. Still spotted today, he is described as wearing period clothing and wandering the east hallway on the first floor. Reports abound of an oddly-dressed man, nodding to passers-by and wishing them, “Good day.” Those who give the archaic greeting a second thought may turn back to get another look, only to find that the man has disappeared.

A guest on an Austin Ghost Tour who was interning as a page at the Capitol during a special session of the Legislature was on the phone to her mother, reporting that the vote was lengthy and she would be home later than she thought. As she turned off a long hallway, a man passed by, smiled and said, “Good evening.” The young lady nodded back as he rounded the corner. She told her mom, “I’ll call you back. Someone just said hello to me. I’m not certain who he is, but he might be important and I don’t want to be rude.” She closed her phone immediately, but turning the corner to that long hallway, there was no one there. When shown a photograph of the Colonel, she was astonished. “That’s him,” she exclaimed, “I recognize the bushy mustache!”

In addition to being spotted by witnesses, Colonel Love has also been seen on security footage. Every now and then, the cameras will follow a crowd as it moves down a hallway when someone oddly dressed will jump into frame. Conversely, there are other times someone who was among a group will disappear from the camera’s view the very next second.

Does the Colonel’s soul linger, still an over-zealous public servant? Are the convicts, now without the weight of their physical bodies, released at last, allowing their bright gentle souls to wander? Visitors, security guards and state employees attest that these and other spirits roam the hallways and grounds of a state capitol imprinted with blood, fire and granite.

Researched and written by Jeanine Plumer

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