Jane Elkins Died for Us


Darn, I missed the anniversary of Jane Elkins’ hanging again. It was May 27, 1853, when they carried out Judge John H Reagan’s orders and hanged her in downtown Dallas, right where the Old Red Courthouse is today. There’s an elementary school named after Reagan. Nothing for Jane. Every year, I try to remember to try to get people to commemorate Jane Elkins day.

Last year, she was a character in a play. She’s mentioned in some of the material at the Old Red Courthouse museum because she is officially the first woman ever executed in Texas. They probably hanged plenty of others, but they didn’t write it down. Most people don’t know about Jane.

At that time, the population of Dallas was around 1,500. Another 500 or so lived nearby on the socialist La Reunion communal lands. In the notes from her trial, available in the Dallas Public Library, they say that Jane was “worth” about $700. Figuring inflation, it would be about the same amount as a cheap used car today. Her price was an important part of her trial, as was the permission of her “owner.”

As Jane was named “Elkins,” and there were some lawyers in Dallas at that time named Elkins, I assume she “belonged” to them. The story, pieced together from the trial notes, is that she was loaned out to a widower named Mr. Wisdom in Farmers Branch, near Dallas. She was supposed to take care of his children.

Mr. Wisdom laid down to sleep and never woke up. Jane split his head with an ax. The trial notes From May 17, 1853, don’t say why and, apparently, nobody asked. Supposedly she answered, “Yes, and I’d do it again!” The trial notes record that she had “nothing to say.” There are several versions of the story, but no motive in any of them.

We are left to figure out her motive for ourselves.

I think Jane should be honored every year as an anti-slavery advocate and Texas’ first feminist. I wrote a little operetta about it:

Jane Elkins: The First Feminist of Dallas County


  • Narrator: Ordinary person in normal clothes.
  • Jailer: A strong white man, or a man in whiteface. His clothing and makeup (or mask) emphasize whiteness.
  • Judge John H Reagan: This could be the same person as the narrator, but he wears a black robe and stands or sits behind something that could pass as a judge’s desk, preferably up high.
  • Jane Elkins: Jane is a young Black woman wearing cheap, ill-fitting clothing
  • The set: Only the Judge’s desk. A Jury will consist of a painting, possibly on cardboard, with six seated male figures, all painted with the whitest of faces.

The narrator announces the title of the play and reads excerpts from the 1986 Dallas Morning News column that explains that Jane Elkins was the first women officially hanged in the state of Texas and ends with the memorable line, “Everybody forgets Jane.”

As the curtain opens, the spotlight picks out Jane. She stands in a heroic pose. If the actress needs a microphone, she can hold it in one hand with the other hand aloft. She is the picture of a strong, independent woman. The actress need not fake an old southern accent, even though she uses the a few words of the vernacular. She sings her pleading introduction:

Dassn’t anybody want to know?
Dassn’t anybody want to know?

Oh, I am Jane Elkins
Of Dallas county
On the day of my death
For they are hanging me

They’re clear on the story
They know all the facts
That I killed John Wisdom
With a double bladed ax

Dassn’t anybody want to know?

When you hear my death screams
And you hear my cries
Dassn’t anybody want to know?
Dassn’t anybody want to know?
Dassn’t anybody want to know?

//The jailer comes on from stage right. He grabs Jane by the hair and around her middle and roughly throws her on the floor before the judge. He pushes her into a servile position. Throughout this short play, he will alternate between pushing her down and lasciviously stroking her face and different parts of the exposed (left) side of her body. Jane will constantly push his hand away, attempt to bite him, or use any method of resistance. This play is about slavery and injustice, it should not be soft-pedaled//

The jailer sings his introduction while holding Jane down and stroking her:

Oh I am the jailer of Dallas County
I do what I want and nobody stops me
Don’t put up resistance, don’t put up a fight
And I’ll treat you fair just as long — as you’re white…

The judge interrupts:
Hear ye , Hear ye, the court of Dallas County is convened. Judge John H Reagan presiding

I’m Judge John H Reagan of Dallas County
I’m bringing justice through history
I’m fair to all white men for they are my brothers
I’m famous for fairness, except for the others…

Jane: Make him stop it judge! If you are so high and mighty, can’t you make him take his hands offa me?

//jailer grins salaciously and continues pushing alternately pushing Jane down and stroking her//

Judge: Now you are the Negress Jane Elkins.
//speaking to the jury at first, then round to the audience//

Let the record show that you received a fair trial. You are accused of murder, Jane Elkins, in that you did deliver a death blow to John Wisdom of the Farmers Branch settlement on the night of May First, 1853. How do you plead?

Jane, struggling to resist the jailer: What?

Judge: Did you do it or not?

Jane: Kill Massa Wisdom? Of course I did, everybody knows I did. It ain’t no secret. Dassn’t anybody want to know what for? Dassn’t anybody want to know what Massa Wisdom did?

Judge: Tell us in your own words the last thing that happened?

Jane: The last thing that happened was that he went to sleep. He must have been having very pleasant dreams. All I did was make sure he never woke up. What we need to talk about, judge, what everybody needs to know, is not the last thing that happened. What everybody needs to know, is the next-to-last thing that happened…

//the Judge takes a double-bladed ax out and holds it up for the audience to see//And is this here the ax that you used to murder Mr. Wisdom?

//Jane struggles to get up and reaches for the ax, still restrained by the jailer//

Jane (craftily): I’m not sure judge, that might be the ax. Let me see it for a minute…

//The judge, in fright, snatches the ax back away from Jane’s outstretched hand. The jailer reacts in fear and roughly pushes her face to the floor. Both men have lost their staged composure and revealed themselves as the cowardly brutes that they are//

Judge (Straightening his robe, composing himself and attempting to regain stature, speaking grandly): Let the record show that you, Jane Elkins, are the property of attorney Elkins of Dallas county. Let the record show that your total value is seven hundred dollars. Let the record show that your legal and official owner is not objecting to this trial and my decision. Let the record show were rented to John Wisdom of Farmers Branch to take care of his kids. And that on the night of May First, 1853, you did with malice and aforethought murder said John Wisdom with this double bladed ax. Do you have anything to say before I sentence you to be the first woman ever officially hanged in the state of Texas? //Jane struggles to rise// Before you even start, I’ll let you know that we’re not writing any of this down, because Black people in Dallas in 1853 have no rights that any white man has to respect. (to the jury) Let the record show that this negro girl has nothing to say! //to the audience// We will forget this Jane Elkins just the very minute that we hang her dead!

Jane casts off the hands of the jailer and rises. She sings her plea, first toward the jury and then fully to the audience:

Dassn’t anybody want to know? Dassn’t anybody want to know?

//The jailer begins to sing his introductory ditty. As he reaches the second line, the judge begins his introductory ditty, overpowering the first voice. The jailer repeats his song until all the singing of the three is done. As the judge reaches his second line, Jane’s voice rises above them both as she sings and strategically resumes her strong, heroic pose, She might even take the ax as she sings, then hold it aloft heroically when she finishes the song//:

Dassn’t anybody want to know? Dassn’t anybody want o know?
Oh I am Jane Elkins
Of Dallas county
On the day of my death
For they are hanging me

They’re clear on the story
They know all the facts
That I killed John Wisdom
With a double bladed ax

Dassn’t anybody want to know?

//Jailer and Judge stop singing and remain still. The spotlight is on Jane alone//

When you hear my death screams
And you hear my cries
Dassn’t anybody want to know?
Dassn’t anybody want to know?
Dassn’t anybody want to know?

(breathlessly) Why?

The curtain closes

//I am weeping as I finish this first draft. If the audience isn’t weeping as the curtain closes, then I have failed. It is 7:28AM on 11/28/12. The entire play is 6 minutes long//

–Gene Lantz

  1. I wonder if Camp Wisdom is named after or somehow related to this “Mr. Wisdom”? also the money conversion is more like $19,000 dollars. that was a pretty substantial amount of money.


    • i doubt if Camp Wisdom is named after him as he was a farmer in Farmers Branch. I was told that the money equivalent was roughly the price of a used car nowadays. It’s probably pretty complicated to figure out. Every year, I always hope to get someone to perform my little operetta. I figure we could get by with 3 characters and some paper cutouts for “jury.”
      Let’s make an effort to have some kind of commemoration next May. It’s close enough to May Day… –gene


  2. Evelyn Myers said:

    How very sad…..I wonder what that horrible man did to her? I wish someone had bothered to find out. That poor, poor girl.


  3. Greg said:

    Camp Wisdom in Oak Cliff was named after John Shelby Wisdom who donated his land to the Boy Scouts so they could hold their campouts and meetings. This was in the early 1920s. Also Mr. Lantz- is the image of the lady hanging, an actual photo of Jane Elkins or was this a re-creation? Thanks so much.


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