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True Crime Series: The Sam King Story

Photo Caption: 1878 Comal County Jail building when it was being bulldozed to make additions to the Texas Commerce, now Chase, bank building. Note the iron cell door on the second floor.

Photo Caption: 1878 Comal County Jail building when it was being bulldozed to make additions to the Texas Commerce, now Chase, bank building. Note the iron cell door on the second floor.

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —

The cool-headed, businesslike determination of the mob which killed King; the fact that the assault, for which he paid the penalty, was attempted within 100 yards of where the little girl’s father and mother were seated on their front lawn; the confession of King to the Sheriff and to a fellow prisoner; the homely story of the grief-stricken father and the life of King who was a foundling and who died because he was a boy not liable to a man’s punishment had he been regularly convicted, were some of the startling and unusual features of deep-seated human interest which developed during a day that will forever stand out as unequaled in criminology in this peaceful little German town.
— Southern Mercury United with the Farmers Union Password, July 27, 1905

So ends a newspaper account of the murder of Sam King. This is a sad story, one that played out too often in other towns and other states, but this was unique for New Braunfels. On Wednesday, July 20, 1905, 16-year-old Sam King, an African-American, was shot and killed by unknown persons as he awaited arraignment in a Comal County jail cell.

Sam King was an orphan raised by a Mexican family in Comaltown. Sam was often in trouble and had already spent a couple of overnights in the county jail for petty theft and disturbing the peace. He was well-known by Sheriff Nowotny.

William Karbach Jr., also of Comaltown, had employed Sam to do odd jobs on his farm. At dusk on Tuesday, July 19, Karbach had ordered Sam to bring in some cows from the brush about 100 yards from his yard. Newspaper accounts say Karbach’s four-year-old daughter Elsa, ran “playfully” after Sam. Karbach later testified that Sam pulled a little wagon with Elsa and her little brother behind him as he went for the cows. Too much quiet, too much time passed and Karbach went to look for them. He testified that he thought maybe Sam was hiding a cow back in the bushes.

Newspaper accounts say that Sam had told Elsa he “would kill her if she dared to give him away,” and then went out to meet Karbach. Karbach testified that his little girl was crying and that he hit Sam and told him to leave. Sam ran off and Karbach reported the incident to Sheriff Nowotny. Sam was found hiding in the home of a friend, arrested and taken to the county jail for safe keeping. After midnight, a crowd of people assembled at the jail. Three sets of doors were battered down and within minutes Sam King lay dead on the cell floor.

News accounts say that feelings in the town over the incident at the Karbach’s were “running high” that evening. No doubt. Every instance I have come across in NB history involving criminal assault on a minor has been met with anger and high emotions. It didn’t matter what race or age the perpetrator was. Rape of a child was a very big deal.

Newspapers across Texas picked up the story and I have read them; however, the Neu Braunfelser Zeitung published the transcript of the inquest which is literally like the script from a movie. Much of the following information is from this incredible document.

On Thursday afternoon after the murder of King, Justice of the Peace George Weber and County Councilman H. G. Henne conducted the required inquest. Witnesses were interrogated to determine how Sam King had died and who was responsible.

The first witness was Juan Meza. He was in the jail cell with Sam King and he testified that “King admitted to him that he intended to rape the little girl but had found her to be too young.” Juan said that he heard the noise of the jailhouse doors being battered and broken. Three masked men came in; it was impossible for him to recognize them again. He said they had lanterns but just used matches to make light. The men tried but could not open the cell door. Juan was then “told to go to the back of the cage away from where the Negro was. I did. I feared being shot.”

Having failed to get their hands on Sam, one man fired a gun though the iron grid of the cell door and shot Sam hitting him in the head; he fell to the floor. According to Juan, the men stayed for a moment, left the cells and then came back in about 15 minutes later. The same man fired a second shot, this one went into King’s chest area.

The second witness was City Marshal Joseph Arnold. “Around 1 a.m., Mr. Hofer, the night watchman, came to me and said he was expecting a disturbance in the town tonight; Dr. Garwood had told him that a mob was coming in to lynch Sam King.” Marshal Arnold sent Hofer to go get the sheriff, then he dressed, saddled his horse and rode to within thirty yards of the jail. (The jail at this time was a lovely limestone building standing behind First National Bank [Chase] and next to what is now The Black Whale Saloon.) A crowd of 20 to 30 were assembled and someone in the group told Arnold to stay away or “he would shoot me dead. I replied, I don’t think you would shoot.” Seeing that he couldn’t do anything against so many, he rode towards the sheriff’s home in Comaltown. “I told him that the front door of the prison had been smashed in. Then we rode back together.”

Sam King was dead by the time the sheriff and Arnold returned. Not a soul remained near the jail. The lock on Sam’s cell had been bent so the two men had to break the door open. “We didn’t touch King,” Arnold said. When asked if they recognized anyone in the mob, Arnold answered “No.” When asked if he recognized the man who told him to stay away, Arnold answered “No.”

Dr. Garwood was the third witness interrogated. He said he arrived at the jail about 1:30 or 2 am “and found a dead Negro there.” He did not examine him. When asked how it was he came to the prison, Dr. Garwood said he “had heard that a mob was about to storm the jail and went downstairs. I heard some gunshots and when I got there the Negro was dead. There was no one in or near the jail at that time.” Garwood also said that he didn’t remember who had warned him and that he had heard it spoken of in general.

County Doctor Leonards then testified that King’s death was caused by gunshot wounds to the head and the heart area.

Sheriff Nowotny was the fifth called to testify. He had been riding through town around 9:30 PM Tuesday night and saw nothing suspicious nor had he heard anything about a mob assembling. Riding back across the Comal River bridge he met Willie Karbach, father of the little girl who had been molested. Nowotny said that Karbach had said, “Give me the keys; that Negro should be put to death.” Nowotny said he answered, “No. If he is not convicted, there are still opportunities enough later on to have him killed. Willie, hear what I say. Let there be no trouble.” Karbach promised him that no disturbance would occur and Karbach followed the sheriff across the bridge back to Comaltown.

I read that statement and thought, “Whoa….”, but then I realized that that is exactly the response most parents would have if their child was hurt like this. I have to keep in mind that it is different hearing a story and actually living it.

Sheriff Nowotny went on to say that night watchman Hofer knocked on his door around 1 am saying that it looked like a riot was going to happen. The sheriff still felt these were just rumors because the town was so quiet, but he got dressed and met Marshal Arnold as he left his home. Together they went back into town finding about a dozen people there telling them that the Negro was dead. Arnold, Hofer and Nowotny broke down the cell door, placed Juan Meza upstairs and left two men to guard the body of Sam King. Nowotny testified that “he found a rope in the hallway in front of the cells.” It appeared that the men had wanted to hang King but were forced to shoot him instead when they could not gain entrance to the cell.

Nowotny also said that he had arrested Sam King on Tuesday prior to midnight after Mr. Karbach came to see him and told him what had happened. They had searched, found and arrested King. King had admitted to him that he had tried to harm the little girl. Nowotny then testified that Sam had no parents and was raised until the age of 12 by a Mexican family; he had the reputation of being a thief and had been in jail before.

The last witness to testify was Elsa’s father, William Karbach, Jr., whose story was related at the beginning of this article. Karbach also testified that he knew nothing of the death of Sam King until he heard it talked about in the morning.

Justice of the Peace Weber issued the following verdict: “I find that the deceased, Sam King, was killed at about 1 am on July 20 in the Comal County Jail by a mob of unknown persons.”

I don’t know what to say. This was a terrible day in the life of this town. King didn’t get to go to court. The man who shot him didn’t get arrested. The Karbach family had to live with the trauma. But it happened … and life went on in New Braunfels.

History, good and bad, needs to be told so that we don’t commit the same sins over and over.

Sources: July posts in: New Braunfels Herald, Neu Braunfelser Zeitung, Houston Post, Fort Worth Record & Regular, Palestine Daily Herald; Sophienburg Museum genealogical collection.