On July 8, 1860, a fire broke out destroying much of the downtown section of Dallas. The New York Times described the fire as “one of the most terrible conflagrations it has of late been our fortune to record.” The fire began in W. W. Peak & Brothers’ new drugstore and quickly spread to Smith’s warehouse, then The Dallas Herald office, and then further to other shops and businesses in the area. Soon, an entire city square in downtown Dallas had been engulfed in flames, burning it to the ground. This was one of a series of fires in North Texas. At first, leaders of the affected communities attributed the cause of the fire to a new style of “volatile phosphorous matches”, that combined with the 110° weather, which caused spontaneous combustion. However, Charles R. Pryor wrote letters claiming that there was an abolitionist plot to “devastate this entire portion of Northern Texas.” At the time, Pryor was the editor of The Dallas Herald which lost their newspaper office in the fire. The Herald office was a total loss, with everything including four presses being destroyed. Losses from the fire were initially estimated to exceed $300,000. By July 10, John W. Swindells wrote that the loss was “variously estimated at from $300,000 to $400,000, on which there was but about $10,000 insurance.” A Dallas businessman, Mr. E. M. Stackpole estimated losses at $196,200.
One of Pryor’s letters claimed that abolitionists and slaves started the first to "to devastate, with fire and assassination, the whole of Northern Texas." Pryor’s letter was reprinted widely. Pryor suggested that a “most diabolical plot” to ruin the economy of Texas and free the slaves. North and East Texas communities formed vigilance committees which operated within interference from law-enforcement agencies. Vigilantes murdered at least thirty black and white individuals, with certain reports suggesting that the actual number killed by vigilantes to be closer to 100.
At this time, tensions were high with the recent rumors of a slave uprising and the impending Civil War. In the year prior, two men, Solomon McKinney, and Parson Blount were believed to be leading a black rebellion against the city. McKinney, a Christian minister had spoken out against the inhuman treatment of Black people and Blount had defended his claims. In 1859, the two men were captured, whipped, and forced out of the Dallas area. Even when they had left the city, the two abolitionists were still blamed for inciting further rebellion from the slaves. In several letters Pryor claimed that Blunt and McKinney were “the instigators of the plot.” Charles Pryor’s brother, Dr. Samuel B. Pryor also sent letters that were inflammatory. Dr. Pryor lost medicine, surgical instruments and library in the fire.
The Dallas Committee of Vigilance concluded their investigation with a determination that 1,071 of the 1.074 enslaved of Dallas were implicated in the arson and suspected subsequent insurrection. With talk of mass hanging, slaveholders objected, with one arguing that “killing the Negro would really be robbing him.” Another stated that they could not afford to hang too many enslaved people, therefore, they argued for hanging just the three alleged ringleaders. With many white men “anxious and eager to lend their assistance” to “quell every disturbance” the other enslaved people were whipped as punishment.
On July 23, the Committee of Vigilance, consisting of the “most respectable and responsible gentlemen of this county” announced that the three ringleaders were to hang the next day. Although the police were “active and unremitting in their efforts”, vigilantes announced with impunity plans to execute a triple murder that next day.
The alleged ringleaders were named as Patrick Jennings, Samuel Smith, and a man by the name of Old Cato despite the absence of any evidence of their wrongdoing. On July 24, the military took the men from jail and led them through the ruins of the fire to the banks of the Trinity River where they were hanged. These killings occurred in the presence of an “immense concourse of citizen and Negroes”. The vigilantes buried the men beneath the gallows. the Trinity River. The men met their death “with a composure worthy of a better cause” according to Dr. Pryor.
Today, the place where the vigilantes killed Jennings, Smith, and Cato is an official city park called Martyr’s Park near Dealey Plaza established in 1963, but only renamed from Dealey Annex to Martyr’s Park in 1991. However, there is no signage or plaque recognizing what happened there. In fact, “the spot – an official city park, though you would never know it – is easy to access if you’re willing to walk beneath the foul-smelling, trash-strewn Triple Underpass.”
“Great Fire in Texas.; THE TOWN OF DALLAS DESTROYED ALL THE STORES, HOTELS AND PRIVATE DWELLINGS BURNED.” The New York Times, July 23, 1860.
Bliss, Laura. “Dallas Has a Long, Dark History of Racial Violence.” Bloomberg, 16 July 2016, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-11/dallas-shooting-is-the-latest-episode-in-a-long-history-of-racial-violence.
Farmer, William R. “A Narrative History of the Dallas Fire of 1860,” as a submission to the Texas Historical Commission for obtaining a historical marker
Pocta, Benj. “160 Years Ago This Month, a Fire Engulfed Dallas. | Central Track.” Central Track, 21 July 2020, www.centraltrack.com/160-years-ago-this-month-a-fire-engulfed-dallas.
Reynolds, Donald E. “TSHA | Texas Troubles.” TSHA | Texas Troubles, 1 Nov. 1995, www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/texas-troubles.
Wilonsky, Robert. “If Dallas Hates Erasing History so Much, Why Doesn’t Anyone Know About Park Honoring Three Slaves Who Were Hanged?” Dallas News, 6 Oct. 2017, www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2017/10/06/if-dallas-hates-erasing-history-so-much-why-doesn-t-anyone-know-about-park-honoring-three-slaves-who-were-hanged.
 “Great Fire in Texas.; THE TOWN OF DALLAS DESTROYED ALL THE STORES, HOTELS AND PRIVATE DWELLINGS BURNED.” The New York Times, July 23, 1860; Benj Pocta “160 years ago this month, a fire engulfed Dallas,” Central Track. July 21, 2020. https://www.centraltrack.com/160-years-ago-this-month-a-fire-engulfed-dallas/
 Laura Bliss, “Dallas Has a Long, Dark History of Racial Violence: Between lynchings, firebombings, and police shootings, Thursday's tragedy came with an ugly context,” Bloomberg July 11, 2016. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-11/dallas-shooting-is-the-latest-episode-in-a-long-history-of-racial-violence
 Donald E. Reynolds, “Texas Troubles,” in Handbook of Texas, Texas State Historical Association, published November 1, 1995, updated March 10, 2021 https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/texas-troubles ; Pryor letter dated July 15, 1860. William R. Farmer, “A Narrative History of the Dallas Fire of 1860,” as a submission to the Texas Historical Commission for obtaining a historical marker, 20.
 Donald E. Reynolds, revised by Randolph B. “Mike” Campbell, “Pryor, Charles R. (1832-1882),” in Handbook of Texas, Texas State Historical Association, published 1952, updated January 5, 2022. https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/pryor-charles-r
 “Great Fire in Texas.; THE TOWN OF DALLAS DESTROYED ALL THE STORES, HOTELS AND PRIVATE DWELLINGS BURNED.” The New York Times, July 23, 1860. This report is apparently from a letter written on July 9 by Charles B. Pryor to The Houston Telegraph. The Houston Telegraph, Saturday July 14, 1860, p. 3, column 2 as cited in Farmer, 12.
 Letter from John Swindells, publisher of The Dallas Hearld, to Major C. DeMorse, Clarkesville, Farmer, 13.
 Farmer, 17-8.
 Bliss ; Pryor letter to Major John Marshall, dated July 16, 1860. Farmer, 21-2.
 Reynolds, “Pryor, Charles R. (1832-1882).”; Pryor letter dated July 15, 1860. Farmer, 20.
 Reynolds, “Texas Troubles,”
 Benj Pocta “160 years ago this month, a fire engulfed Dallas,” Central Track. July 21, 2020. https://www.centraltrack.com/160-years-ago-this-month-a-fire-engulfed-dallas/
 Pryor letter dated July 15, 1860. Pryor letter to Major John Marshall, dated July 16, 1860. Farmer, 20-2.
 “Great Fire in Texas.; THE TOWN OF DALLAS DESTROYED ALL THE STORES, HOTELS AND PRIVATE DWELLINGS BURNED.” The New York Times, July 23, 1860.
 Pocta ; Dr. Pryor letter dated July 21, 1860. Farmer, 26.
 Dr. Pryor, Monday July 23. Farmer, 26.
 Dr. Pryor, Monday July 24 and July 25. Farmer, 26-8.
 Robert Wilonsky, “If Dallas Hates Erasing History so Much, Why Doesn’t Anyone Know About Park Honoring Three Slaves Who Were Hanged?” The Dallas Morning News, 6 Oct. 2017, www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2017/10/06/if-dallas-hates-erasing-history-so-much-why-doesn-t-anyone-know-about-park-honoring-three-slaves-who-were-hanged