THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF BEN FORTSON
Benjamin Joseph Fortson died at age 34 or 35 on a hunting trip
in Navarro County, Texas in September 1855.
Hugh Cooper was charged with murdering him.
The following article was published in
A Memorial and Biographical History [of Navarro County].*
No cases of capital punishment or life sentence occurred [in Navarro County, Texas] before the [Civil War],—at least none that were carried out. The first murder case was that noticed in the earliest preserved record,—that against Cooper for the killing of B. J. Fortson, while out on a hunting expedition at night. This was a hard and ably fought case, General Thomas Harrison leading the prosecution, and Colonel Croft leading the defense. It was a case of purely circumstantial evidence, and in the lower courts resulted twice in conviction and sentence to hang. It had one element, however, that made it a "leading" case, and that also succeeded in reversing the conviction both times and finally led to acquittal. This point was the testimony of a physician on the course of the ball and his inference as to whence the ball came. The testimony was given as from an expert, but the defense claimed, and the [Texas] supreme court decided, that a physician was not an expert outside of the mere tracing of the course of the ball in the body and that his inferences were not in the realm of the expert, any more than the inference of any other man.
The following is a lawyer's account of the details of it:
"Hugh Cooper, accused of killing Benj. J. Fortson, September 17, 1855, while on a camp hunt, was the first man convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to be hung," says Colonel Croft. "He was convicted and sentenced to be hung twice, and his case was twice reversed by the supreme court, on appeal, and sent back for a new trial. The last time, he obtained a change of venue to Freestone county, where no witness ever appeared against him, and finally the case was dismissed. Cooper made a gallant soldier during the civil war, but was drowned on his way back to Texas after the surrender.
"The case was one of circumstantial evidence, and all the circumstances fitted one Jonas Taylor as closely as they did Cooper; and when the attorneys for the defense on the last trial analyzed the evidence, and denounced Jonas Taylor as the real murderer, he got drunk and never drew a sober breath for six months, when death relieved him of his fatal secret.
"The case is reported in the 19th and 23d Texas Reports."
*A Memorial and Biographical History of Navarro, Henderson, Anderson, Limestone, Freestone and Leon Counties, Texas (Chicago, Ill.: Lewis Pub. Co., 1893), pp. 129-30.