Ghost stories are a major part of Halloween and there's a reason why. The festivities are rooted in an ancient Celtic tradition that was adapted to America when a million Irish came to the country in the mid-1800s during the potato famine. The Celtic event was Samhain (History.com gives the pronunciation as sow (like wow)-win. That was the day spirits of the dead came back and walked the earth. To catch a spirit in Orange on Halloween, a walk through the old downtown area where the new riverwalk is being constructed would be the prime place. Within a block of that area some of the town's most violent gunfights and lynching's occurred. And the old tombstones embedded in a landscaping wall at Lamar State College-Orange have been separated for more than a century from the graves they once marked.
Anglo settlers came to the area that is now the City of Orange on New Year’s Day 1828. John Harmon and his family rode a log raft on the Sabine River from Louisiana, according to the book ‘Gateway to Texas’ by local historian and physician Dr. Howard Williams. The Harmons landed on the banks of the river in what is now the old downtown area and the town grew around the river. Some of the first houses and shops were around Front Street where Lamar State College-Orange is now. During those pioneering days, family members who died were often buried in the yard. That leads to the stories of the three tombstones, including one belonging to an infant, from the mid-1800s. Today, no one knows where the graves were originally. Speculation is that the tombstones were displaced when dredging was made in the river about 1900. Sand from the dredging was pumped into the downtown area, raising the land level more than a foot. Someone apparently saved the tombstones. Maybe they were stored in the post office that was once at Main and Fifth streets. Maybe they were moved to a new post office that was built in the 1940s on Fourth Street at Main. The tombstones ended up at the two-story red brick building that began its life as the post office. The building by the early 1960s became the Orange Public Library and then served as some city department offices before Lamar acquired it. The tombstones had a place for decades under the crawl space of the building. The building was demolished about 10 years ago. Lamar-Orange had the tombstones built into a landscaping wall at the corner of Second and Green Avenue.
The settlement along the river and Front Street was the site of more deaths on September 13, 1865, when a strong hurricane struck. The History of Texas Hurricanes says that 196 of the 200 houses in town were demolished and several deaths were reported. R.E. Russell, who moved to Orange as a boy in 1854, wrote his remembrances in 1911 in what is known locally as “The Russell Diary.” The houses “seemed to be nothing more than a pasteboard box in the wind,” he wrote. One of his sisters died from her injuries and he wrote about the death of a captain. Who knows how many of the dead blew into the river where 19 ships were reported to have sunk?
The “Hanging Tree” was at the southeast corner of Front and Fourth streets at the D. Call & Sons Grocery. The late historian W.T. Block, a former Orange postmaster, wrote that it was first used on August 1881 and that three men were hanged from its branches in lynchings. He said local citizens cut it down in 1892. However, Dr. Williams has said he has seen references to the tree after that date. An online website listing known lynchings has three of those events listed for Orange, one in 1889, one in 1910 and one in 1917. The sites of those lynchings are not listed. No one knows how many men died on the branches of that tree.
Travel a block west on Front and turn south on Fifth to the block where a pair of notorious killings happened. On Dec. 21, 1899, Texas Ranger T.L. Fuller shot and killed Oscar Poole, the son of County Judge George F. Poole. Different accounts of the events have been repeated. A 2012 book called “Texas Lawmen 1900-1940” by Clifford R. Caldwell and Ronald G. DeLord, says that Fuller and other Texas Rangers were in town “to quell what was described as a riotous disturbance.” The book says Fuller tried to take a man named Denny Moore to jail when he was jumped by Oscar Poole with a knife. Descendants of the Poole family, including Oscar’s granddaughter, have always said Oscar was sitting in a barber’s chair when Fuller murdered him. Whatever happened, the county judge ended up having charges brought against Fuller. Fuller came back to Orange for the trial. He went to get a shave at Adam’s Barber Shop on Fifth Street at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 15, 1900. While Fuller was in the middle of the shop washing his face at a basin, Tom Poole, the brother of Oscar, walked up and shot the ranger in the head with a Winchester. Newspapers across Texas reported that Tom Poole went to the butcher shop next door and surrendered his gun. He was acquitted at a trial on May 4, 1901. But that wasn’t the end of the shooting deaths related to the incident. In March 1902, City Marshal James A. Jett shot and killed Tom Poole on the street nearby. Then on May 12, 1902, brothers George H., Claude and Grover Poole shot and killed Jett in a street gun battle, according to Caldwell and DeLord.
That wasn’t the only gun shot that killed a lawman on Fifth Street. Go north a couple of blocks to Main and Fifth. On May 29, 1935, Police Chief Ed O’Reilly was shot and killed as he was coming out of Ingram’s Cafe after lunch. The cafe was at the southwest corner of Fifth and Main, where the Lutcher Theater parking lot is today. The man tried and convicted of murdering the chief was Edgar Eskridge, minister of the First Baptist Church. Newspaper accounts of the incident say the police chief had taken the minister’s guns away from him after he and a group raided a gambling nightclub in what is now Bridge City.
KOGT had offices and studios in a building at the same corner in the 1950s and 1960s. Retired on-air personality Richard Corder tells the story of looking up in the studio one night and seeing a man dressed in a suit standing by a window. However, when he checked, no one was there.
Are the spirits wondering downtown Orange? If so, the old Celtic tradition holds that dressing as a ghost or a ghoul will fool the ‘real’ ghosts. Dress as a ghost, and you’ll blend in with the crowd. Be sure to bring a Snickers or Kit-Kat. On Halloween they can be ghost repellants.
-Margaret Toal, KOGT-