By Easter Sunday, about six weeks after (receiving a warning note from the Klan about their imagined “affair”), R.W. Burleson and Fannie Campbell had forgotten all about the Klan threat. After Sunday dinner they decided to take a ride in R.W.’s new Ford to the cemetery in Weir where Charles Campbell (Fannie’s husband who had died in 1918) was buried.
The afternoon was fading toward sunset when they turned back west on the Georgetown road to go home.
Just as they left the tiny town of Jonah, R.W. passed a car moving slowly with the curtains closed. The car appeared to be full of men, and, for some reason, they were peeping out the back through the porthole window, staring at Burleson and his friends. After Burleson had passed that car, another car with the curtains closed slowed down in front of him and the car he had just passed moved alongside his Ford and forced him to stop. As he stopped, three or four men waving guns — all strangers — jumped out of the car opposite and ordered Burleson to get out of his car.
There was no door on the driver’s side of the Ford. The men had to heave Burleson over the side. Once they had him out of the car, they began hitting him with their pistols. They knocked him down on the ground, dragged him into the back seat of their car and jammed a sack over his head.
After a short ride, the car came to a stop and Burleson was hauled out. The gang locked a heavy trace chain — the kind used to attach a horse to a carriage or wagon — around Burleson’s neck with a padlock, and dragged him to a thorn tree on the banks of a creek. The tree was located about half a mile west of the Meridian Highway that became Main Street as it entered Taylor, Texas, a town of 8,000 located a few miles southeast of Jonah.
The men threw the heavy chain attached to Burleson’s neck over a high branch of the thorn tree. One of them held the end of it and pulled R.W. up close to the tree right onto the stickers, with his head bent back. His arms were tied behind him with a rope. His attackers proceeded to pull off his trousers and rip his underwear in two, dropping it on the ground.
Once Burleson was stripped, the men began to take turns whipping him from shoulders to knees with a leather strap which Burleson estimated was about three inches wide, at least three feet long and as thick as his little finger. Each man would whip Burleson 12 or 15 times and then pass the strap on to the next man.
All the while they were demanding to know if he had stayed in Fannie Campbell’s house after he received the Klan warning and if she had bought him his new car. They also wanted to know if he had had sex with Fannie, whether it was “good,” and whether he was going to visit her anymore. When he answered no to the questions about a sexual relationship between himself and Fannie, one of the men said, “Give him some more, the son of a bitch. He will tell it. Just keep pouring it on him.”
Burleson resisted as long as he could, not only because of his own pride and his fury at this brutal treatment, but because of his belief that he needed to protect the honor of his friend. But it seemed to him that the lashes were being applied more and more vigorously.
Finally, said Burleson, he was suffering so much that he decided he had to give his tormentors what they wanted. By the time he had felt the sting of the strap at least 50 times, he began to answer yes to every question. “That was a false answer,” he said later. “I decided it was all that was going to stop them and I had stood it as long as I could.”
After Burleson had told the klansmen what they wanted to hear, the flogging stopped. He was led to the back of a vehicle, which he later identified very precisely as an Overland truck. Before long, the truck stopped at the City Hall square in the center of Taylor. The men pulled Burleson out of the truck, led him to a hackberry tree, and subjected him to one final indignity. They pulled the sack off and without any warning dumped a bucket of creosote over his head. The man holding the chain wrapped it around the tree, tied it loosely and ran. By then the rest of the group had already melted away into the darkness.
Burleson managed to untie the chain from the tree and staggered towards the nearest light he saw, carrying the chain with him. He landed on the porch of Mrs. R. Harbor’s boarding house, directly across the street from City Hall.
Mrs. Harbor sent for Constable Louis Lowe and Burleson was taken to the basement of City Hall. Lowe began to try to rub the creosote off of Burleson with coal oil. Lowe later testified that Burleson’s “eyes, mouth, ears and hair were full of this stuff.”
A hacksaw was used to remove the chain that was still locked around Burleson’s neck. By then Dr. W.S. Zorn had arrived. Between them, Zorn and Lowe managed to get Burleson’s clothes off, and Lowe saw that the poor man was completely raw from the small of his back to behind his knees with half a dozen to a dozen places where “the skin was bursted and the opening was entirely raw as a beefsteak.” There were lash marks and bruises as far up as his shoulders and as far down as his calves. There were also several bleeding cuts on his head.
The doctor put dressings on Burleson’s wounds, wrapped his head in bandages, and helped him to lie down in one of the firemen’s beds. By the time an ambulance came for him about an hour later, Burleson had bled all the way through his dressings and soaked the bed with blood.
Constable Lowe later told newspaper reporters that Burleson was “the worst beat-up man” he ever saw.
District Attorney Dan Moody, who prosecuted the Burleson case, later said, “… there was not one single thing a man could say to Burleson’s discredit, so far as his personal or business conduct was concerned.” Frequently during his trial testimony Burleson, a man with an excellent reputation, expressed his amazement that he would be so viciously set upon by men he didn’t even know.
At one point Burleson said of one of his assailants, “I had never seen this defendant … before in my life until that day that I know of. I am sure I had never heard his name before, and I had never harmed him or said an unkind word to him in my life. I had never struck him or hurt him or did anything on earth to him or to anybody that was kin to him, as far as I know.”
The group of unmasked men who abducted Ralph Waldo Burleson on a Sunday afternoon in full view of witnesses and flogged him mercilessly were motivated by their membership in the newly reconstituted Ku Klux Klan, which they believed gave them permission to police their environs and enforce their own code of morality as they saw fit.
Where did a group of very ordinary — even sub-ordinary — men, acting without legal authority of any kind, acquire the notion that what they did to Burleson was moral and correct? How did another group of men in Florida decide that they had the right to castrate a Catholic priest? Why did men in a remote corner of northeastern Louisiana think it was an honorable and proper act to murder two young men by means of prolonged and extraordinary torture? How did a cluster of thugs in Central Texas convince themselves they were honor-bound to gun down several men on the public streets of the little town of Sealy?
The answer lies in the nature and the power of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan.