Skip to main content

Texas Talk


By Texas TalkNo Comments

Throughout the four years of trials and appeals, the three defendants strongly protested their innocence. The trio contended with constant threats against their lives. During this period, as Texas transitioned from frontier justice to an established legal system, public trust in courts and judges was still shaky. Conviction rates were low and suspects literally got away with murder. Some frontier residents preferred lynching rather than risking a trial. Judges and appeals courts were wary of overturning convictions lest the public lose faith in the legal system and revert to vigilantism. During the time from their initial arrests to their trials and appeals, Ben Krebs, James Preston, and Aaron Taylor were frequently threatened with lynching. In addition, their families were treated like pariahs in their own communities.


By Texas TalkNo Comments

The specter of lynching hung over the England murder case for years. While their appeals worked through the court system, the defendants were required to pay for their expenses while in prison. The families of the three men were forced to sell all their land and their possessions to pay for prison expenses and attorneys’ legal fees. As a result, the families were left almost destitute.


By Texas TalkNo Comments

Because he was a teenager, Aaron Taylor was sentenced to life at hard labor at Huntsville Prison. Ben Krebs and James Preston were convicted of murder in the first degree and were scheduled to be hung with a third man named Noftsinger in April 1880. Several days before the scheduled execution, Texas Governor O. M. Roberts commuted the murder convictions of Krebs and Preston to life at hard labor. District Judge J. A. Carroll, who had presided over all of the England murder trials, had expressed serious reservations regarding the pair’s guilt and asked the governor to commute their sentences. Before announcing the commutations, however, Roberts had prison officials remove Krebs and Preston from the Gainesville jail and put them on a train to Huntsville. The governor acted none to soon, as a vigilante mob of close to 100 people converged on the jail to lynch the two men.


By Texas TalkNo Comments

When Krebs and Preston arrived at Huntsville in April 1880, Aaron Taylor had already served almost two years of his life sentence. Taylor died of tuberculosis a short time after their arrival and was buried in the prison cemetery. Originally called Peckerwood Hill, the cemetery was later renamed after Captain Joe Byrd, who helped clean up and identify many of the graves. Taylor is buried near this historical marker.


By Texas TalkNo Comments

Krebs and Preston remained at Huntsville until 1883, when officials transferred a number of prisoners to a new state facility at Rusk, Texas. Many of the convicts at Rusk worked at the prison’s iron foundry making pipe and castings. Prison life was grim. Inmates worked long hours, enduring nauseating meals, brutal beatings, and sadistic guards. During this period the State of Texas leased prison operations to private companies. Some prisoners were forced to work in outside labor camps. The mortality rate in these camps was high. Numerous inmates died from the poor diet and long hours at hard labor. Others were shot trying to escape. Lifers, convicts with life sentences like Krebs and Preston, were kept inside the prison walls where they worked 10-12 hours a day.


By Texas TalkNo Comments

The notoriety surrounding the England murders persisted for years. Ben Krebs’s family left their North Texas homestead and moved across the Red River to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) for a fresh start. They settled in Lone Grove, near present-day Ardmore. Here are some period artifacts found at the old Krebs homesite near Denton Creek in Montague County, Texas.


By Texas TalkNo Comments

James Preston’s family also moved to Indian Territory, near present-day Tupelo, Oklahoma, eighty miles northeast of Lone Grove. Preston’s daughter-in-law Vesta (married to son James Jr.) and grandson Earl are buried near the Preston home in Wilson Cemetery, located in Coal County in between Tupelo and Clarita, Oklahoma.


By Texas TalkNo Comments

The England murder case spanned two decades. The legal aftermath involved five Texas governors, five trials at Montague and Gainesville, and five appeals to the Texas Court of Appeals. During this time, Ben Krebs and James Preston remained in prison, condemned to a life at hard labor. The two men continued to protest their innocence, claiming that others had committed the brutal slaughter of the England family. Over time, additional evidence came slowly to light. Locals in Montague County were fearful of speaking up, fearful of being lynched by local vigilantes allegedly in league with the county attorney. Finally, by the 1890s, some of them were willing to go on record with what they knew about the case.

What was the truth regarding the England murders? Did Krebs, Preston, and Taylor kill the Englands or were they framed for a crime they did not commit? Were others responsible? It has been almost a century and a half since William England, Selena England, and two of her children, Susie and Isaiah, were murdered six miles south of Montague, Texas. Texas Governor James S. Hogg called the case “the strangest, most novel and peculiar . . . . The blackest pages of criminal justice do not portray or present a blacker nor more fiendish deed than the destruction of the England family.” For avid readers of mystery and true crime, the England murder case is full of numerous, fascinating plot twists and developments. For anyone interested in Texas and its legal history, the case offers a realistic snapshot of frontier justice and retribution in North Texas following the Civil War, as vigilante justice grudgingly gave way to an established system of law and order.

For an in-depth look at this compelling murder mystery, read Murder in Montague: Frontier Justice and Retribution in Texas, published by University of Oklahoma Press, and available on our secure online webstore. The book is also available at University of Oklahoma Press and Amazon.