May 7, 2013 § Leave a Comment
This is my year of turning 60, and there are a whole lotta things for me to do at least once before I die. I’ve accomplished quite a few of them during the last year or so, most of them good. Wrote a screenplay. Sang in public for money. Sold a house. Went to a Quaker meeting. Started learning Flemish. Wrote song lyrics and melodies. Produced a record. Had more book returns than sales for the first time in 30 years, thus failing to earn a royalty check. (Sigh) You can’t win ‘em all.
Now, later this week, after several delays, my first guest lecture — well, more like a guided field trip — at my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, to one of Professor Eric Tang’s classes. My daughter, Samantha, who graduated with high honors in December, thinks very highly of Professor Tang as a teacher and was the catalyst for getting us all together.
We will be gathering at one of my favorite haunts in Austin, Oakwood Cemetery, to discuss what are commonly called the servant girl murders of 1885.
It’s funny in a not-so-funny way that Austin first gained worldwide attention — or better put – notoriety, with the servant girl murders of 1885, followed by the Charles Whitman killing spree 81 years later. Obviously, we’ve been able to overcome these deadly stigmas, given the current popularity of events such as SXSW, ACL, F1 and Franklin’s BBQ.
I do not claim to be the end-all expert on the servant girl murders. There are others who have made a fetish of the killings, and something of a living off of them. More power to them. My interest in the killings is simply part of my larger interest in the style and quality of life in Austin, especially its low life and the mixing of the races, from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to 1895. I have assembled all of this knowledge in a comprehensive, exhaustive compendium, done scrapbook style, as was a popular custom of the day, called Guytown by Gaslight, Guytown being the name given to Austin’s red-light district.
This 30 year period was the most violent period in Austin history, and the servant girl murders served as sort of a catharsis for this era. With the end of this reign of terror on Christmas Eve 1885, life in Austin began to calm down, to the point that W.S. Porter, later more famously known as O. Henry, wrote in 1894: “Bad men are out of date in Austin.”
O. Henry also introduced me to the servant girl murders about 35 years ago, when I read a snatch of a letter he wrote to a friend in May 1885: “Town is fearfully dull, except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively during the dead hours of the night. If it were not for them, items of interest would be very scarce.”
Austin’s current fascination with the servant girl murders goes back perhaps 20-25 years.
Books have been written, there’s been an exhaustive article in Texas Monthly, there are probably a dozen websites, and there’s even at least one guided tour about the murders. All of these have one thing in common: they all rely on the same newspaper articles and court records that I have collected over the years and none of them solve the mystery of who committed the murders. We do not know whether the murders were committed by a single fiend or an organized band, his or their race, or even whether the same fiend or fiends were responsible for all the attacks and murders. The murders will never be solved, and that is perhaps part of their enduring lurid charm. Unlike the Jack-the-Ripper murders, to which our servant girl murders are often compared, no post-mortem photos or detailed autopsies exist of the victims. The London victims were generally notorious prostitutes killed in disreputable parts of London, the Austin victims were simple servants killed in largely respectable residential neighborhoods.
In all, only Austin four servant girls were murdered, all of them young women of color. A boyfriend and daughter, respectively, were also killed in two of the servant-girl murders. The violent deaths of two white women who were not servants, but whose murders resembled those of the servant girls, are commonly included in the unlucky group of victims.
The servant girl murders were actually part of a much larger succession of dozens of violent (but not fatal) attacks on servant girls, black and white, dozens of attacks, that occurred during 1885, and which may or may not have been perpetrated by the same fiend, or fiends.
These attacks and murders did not occur in a vacuum. They were a reflection of a larger phenomenon that had existed in Austin for the previous 10 years, a perception that Austin was headed down the road to hell, such that in 1880, it elected Ben Thompson, one of the most notorious gunfighters of his era, to the office of city marshal. Bat Masterson said of Thompson: “It is very doubtful if, in his time, there was another man living who equaled him with the pistol in a life and death struggle.”
And indeed, Ben put a lid on crime in Austin until July 1882, when he went down to San Antonio and killed the owner of a gambling hall with whom he had a grudge. When he was acquitted in 1883 and came back to Austin a private citizen, instead of returning to the job of solving Austin’s crime problems, he became a one man crime spree until he journeyed down to San Antonio again in March 1884 and was ambushed and shot dead by his previous victim’s partner. During the last few months of his life, he had Austin so terrified that men spent their Sunday afternoons in the wooded suburbs taking target practice.
Nine months after Thompson’s death, the first of the servant girl murders began. Not that there was any connection between the two, other than the general feeling that Austin’s police force had been incapable keeping a lid on crime in Austin since Ben Thompson’s departure from office.
The spree began with the murder of the young mulatto cook, Mollie Smith, on the frigid night of December 30, 1884. She had been bludgeoned to death in her room, her face smashed to a pulp, and been dragged out into the back yard, near the outhouse, where she was left, nearly nude. There were indications she had been raped. Her boyfriend, Walter Spencer, who was there at the time, had been badly beat about the head as well, but survived. Mollie, like all of the victims, was buried in an unmarked grave in the what was referred to at the time as the colored burying ground.
A black man named William Brooks, a former lover of Mollie’s, was arrested and kept a few weeks in jail, before being released for lack of evidence.
Since our principal subject today is the servant girl murders, it might seem strange to spend time discussing attacks that did not result in murder, but it’s worthwhile to do so because these victims lived to give details of the attacks that the deceased obviously could not reveal.
By March 14, 1885, Austin felt itself it gripped by terror, as the Austin Statesman commented:
“Not less than four outrageous acts occurred in this city before the break of day yesterday. It is getting to be monotonous work, this perpetual narration of midnight marauders and their diabolical deeds.
“Some time after midnight a colored woman employed as a cook at the residence of Dr. W.A. Morris was aroused by a violent shaking at the door of her apartment. She screamed. Her husband sized his pistol and fired twice at the parties outside who then retreated to the street and threw a number of rocks violently against the door and side of the room. The terrified woman kept screaming until a number of neighbors were aroused, and the villains beat a retreat. It was impossible to follow them up in the darkness.
“Two colored servant girls, sleeping in the rear of Major Joe Stewart’s house, were frightened out of their wits by repeated knocks at the door, coupled with demands of entrance. They refused to open the door, whereupon the intruder tried to open the window. The terrified girls then bolted out of the room. The fellow ran after them, caught one of them and threw her to the ground. Her screams brought several to her rescue speedily, but the villain escaped.
“The third outrage occurred at the residence of Mrs. Parrish on West Pecan street. The room in which a colored woman was sleeping was entered and she was treated to the most brutal treatment. She said both her assailants were negroes, one of them a yellow man painted black. She identified one of them as a mulatto barber who was promptly arrested.”
In the fourth incident, the fellow was foiled and ran off.
If the above state of things keeps up, the Austin Statesman wrote, “Austin will stand in need of vigilantes to rid the city of the roughs that thus go about and commit every species of felony with seeming impunity. No house seems safe from their raids and every citizen should keep a bright look out and well loaded shotgun in handy proximity to his bedside.”
On the night of March 19, after a week during scarcely a night passed without some unprotected female domestic being the victim of attempted brutal assaults, two Swedish servant girls were attacked in their apartment near the university.
The girls were aroused just before one a.m. by a knocking at the door. One of them arose, lit the lamp and was standing holding it, in the middle of the room, when a shot fired through the window on the opposite side, grazed her neck and caused her to fly screaming from the apartment. She ran outdoors where one of the ruffians seized her, and started, unsuccessfully, to drag her away. Her repeated shrieks aroused her employer’s family, several of whom came to the rescue, but no assailant was visible and all thought the attack was ended. In the meantime the other girl, Christine, had gone into the kitchen and was talking with Mrs. Pope, when a second shot was fired through a broken pane of glass striking the poor girl about midway between the shoulder blade and spinal column, inflicting a dangerous wound.
“Several hours after the attack on the Swedish girls, a colored girl who worked as a cook for Miss Ella Rust on East College Avenue was similarly visited. It wasn’t the first time and the girl was on the lookout for an assault. The fellow first broke out several panes of glass and then tore loose a wire screen across the window, demanding all the time to be let in. Grabbing a pistol, the girl blazed away at the man. Alas it was a self cocking weapon that she did not know how to manage, and so was unable to repeat the shot. The villain then coolly walked to the door and tried to push it open. The cries of the woman brought a member of the family on the scene. Standing in plain view of the intruder, she ordered him to leave. His reply was a rock hurled at the lady followed by another and another. She then gave a general alarm and two neighbor men, pistols in hand, sailed out, but were too late to put a bullet where it would do the most good.
“In both the foregoing cases the parties attacked stated that their assailant were negroes.” — Austin Statesman
Several other houses were visited the same night, among them the home of the County Attorney. None of the attacks were successful, but gave additional proof of the terrible state of existing affairs.
Night after night outrages had become more and more appalling. Outrages had been growing in number every succeeding night, until terror reigned among the females of every household. Fear seized them as the twilight came, and didn’t leave them even in dreams upon their couches until daylight came, when sneak thieves and assassins hid away and rested before other nightly prowls of rape and murder. Outrage after outrage (dozens of them, according to the Statesman) had been attempted upon unprotected women, beginning with the murder of Mollie Smith.
Then early in the morning of April 29, after several week of relative calm, a black “ruffian” entered the sleeping apartment of a Mrs. Benkhe, the wife of a tailor. She woke up and sprang from her bed, when the “scoundrel” seized her and threw her to the floor. The ensuing struggle did not wake her husband, in an adjoining room. By covering her mouth with his huge hands the screams of the frightened woman were stifled. She succeeded in taking a knife from his hands, with which he threatened to kill her, or else he dropped it before taking his flight. Had not Mrs. Benkhe been possessed of great strength, she would doubtless have been a victim of the brutal passion of this fiend.
“About one clock of the same morning, Mrs. John Calloway’s colored cook underwent a similar experience. She was alone in her room in the rear of the house. Some dresses were hanging on a line in the yard. Her assailant put on one of these and entered the woman’s apartment. When she woke up he was clutching her throat. Drawing out a razor, he threatened to kill her if she screamed. Just at this time two other colored women came in the yard and seeing the open door called to the woman inside. This scared the fellow, who rushed out past the women making vicious cuts at them with his razor as he went by. His strange appearance caused them to cry out and the noise awoke a man who lived in an adjoining house. He snatched up a pistol and running out into the yard saw a negro man trying to divest himself of a woman’s dress, and was partially cutting off the sleeves with the same instrument that he threatened to use on the woman. Mr. Caldwell took deliberate aim, but his pistol missed fire. He had forgotten to load it. The rascal then leaped over a fence into an alley and disappeared. The mutilated garment was found next morning with blood stains on it, which suggested that its wearer had cut himself in trying to cut off his unaccustomed attire.” – Austin Statesman
Just a few days after O. Henry mentioned the Servant Girl Annihilators in his letter, on May 7, 30-year-old Eliza Shelley was murdered in her cabin. She had been employed as a cook for a family named Johnson for about six weeks. In the dawn hours, her employer heard the screams of a child coming from the cabin and sent her niece to investigate. Eliza’s wounds included a hole above one ear and another between the eyes, probably from an ice pick. She had also been hit with an ax above the right eye, down into the brain. As was characteristic in all the deaths, the room was a great disorder. Eliza had been dragged from her bed and placed atop a mound of quilts and blankets, in a position that hinted at rape. No weapons were found, and only one footprint outside, in sandy soil.
Her three young sons, who slept in bed with her, could offer no information, save for the oldest one, who said a man entered the room, and that he awoke, while his mother and other brothers still slept. The man seized him and told the boy to keep quiet or he would kill him. He could not tell whether the man was black or white. The man pulled the boy into a corner, made him lie down, and covered him with a blanket. He went back to sleep and knew nothing of what happened to his mother until he awoke at dawn.
The Statesman called on the governor to offer a reward for the murderer’s arrest, stating that it did not matter that the victim was an obscure colored woman. Her life was as dear to her, and should be held as sacred, as that of the proudest lady in the land.
A man who had lived with her briefly was arrested on circumstantial evidence for her murder. There was nothing positive against him, though in the opinion of many he was guilty.
Eliza’s murder was followed in short order, on May 23, by that of Irene Cross, who lived near Scholz Garden. She was sleeping in her room, but had left the door unlocked for her son, who kept late hours. The fiend came in. The startled woman cried out. He assaulted her with a long sharp knife, perhaps a razor, and cut a horrible gash in her arm, severing an artery. Another frightful wound was inflicted on her head, very nearly scalping her. She died a few hours later between five and six o’clock in the morning. A jury of inquest found the usual verdict of death at the hands of an unknown person.
Her death made third on the list of women of color who had been mysteriously murdered in Austin within a short period.
Anyone who has ever spent a summer in Austin knows how unbearable life can be, even with the air conditioner running 24X7. Back in 1885, you were lucky to find a ceiling fan to sit under and rich enough to order a drink with ice in it. Evidently, the servant girl murderer(s) took the summer off. Crime went on as usual, burglaries, assaults, public drunkenness, minor shootings, even an infanticide, but no sensation murders or servant girl assaults.
On Sunday morning, August 30, between four and five o’clock, some brute entered the kitchen of a Mr. Weed, on East Cedar street, where Rebecca Ramey and her 11-year-old daughter, Mary, were sleeping. He sand-bagged Rebecca and wounded here in the left temple by some sharp instrument, and then dragged Mary into the wash house adjoining, ravished her, and then drove an iron pin into both her ears, killing her in a short while. Rebecca was wounded in the left temple by some sharp instrument, and the physicians are of the opinion that she was also sand-bagged and her skull fractured.
Becky said that she didn’t recognize the person who committed the awful deed, in fact, that she was asleep when the attack was made, and didn’t know what had happened, until the doctors came to examine her wounds.
Several local ne’er-do-wells were pulled in for examination, but there was no evidence to connect them to the crime.
A local citizen, writing in the Statesman, called for a drastic overhaul of the police force.
“Another terrible crime, the seventh in a series of similar ones within the past year, has been committed. It was made known about five o’clock Sunday morning, by Mr. Weed, and the news of the horrible tragedy spread rapidly. Everybody was talking of the bloody deed, but the city marshal did not reach the scene until after 11 o’clock, nearly seven hours after the startling information had been sent out by Mr. Weed.
“The inefficiency of the police management of the city for the past year or two, has been apparent to the occasional observer. The ineffectual attempts to ferret out those who have committed the horrible, mysterious murders in this city in the recent past enforces this assertion. All the surroundings connected with of these murders indicate that they have been cunningly planned, carefully directed and intelligently consummated. No ignorant negro, such as is now under arrest, committed the crimes. They were conceived, and especially the one of Sunday, with a superior intelligence, and brain work of a higher order will have to be invoked to discover the perpetrators. The crime of Sunday can hardly be laid at the door of an ignorant negro. History of outrages upon women by negroes proves this. They rarely ever deliberately murder their victims, and experience shows that nine times out of ten they invariably leave some clue which leads to their identification and arrest.”
At an early hour on the morning of September 29, the report was flashing over the city that another murderous assault had been committed upon several colored servants, 22-year-old Grace Vance and 21-year-old Orange Washington, in a small wooden shanty on San Marcos street. Orange Washington, Grace’s common-law husband, was found lying across the bed, almost dead, with ghastly wounds in his head, while another woman, Patsy Gibson, was observed reclining upon her left elbow, on a pallet on the floor, badly wounded, conscious, but incognizant. Patsy, a cook at a neighboring residence, had been spending the night at Gracie’s. At this juncture, it was noted that Gracie was missing. Blood was seen on the shanty’s western window, further up, in the same direction blood was seen on the fence, and later, after following a bloody trail some 75 yards from her room, the murdered Gracie was found, just back of a neighbor’s stable, weltering in pools of blood, her head almost beaten into a jelly. Lucinda Boddy, another guest of the murdered couple, was the only one to recognize the assaulting party. He had struck her, she got up, lit a lamp and she spoke to him, saying, “Oh, Dock, don’t do it!”
His reply was, “God damn you, don’t you look it me.” Looking around the room, Lucinda saw what had been done, viewed the bloody scene, and again said “Oh, Dock, don’t do it.” His reply was “God damn you, don’t look at me. Blow out that light. Soon after Lucinda jumped out of the window and rushed towards Major Dunham, who, by this time, had come out of his house armed with a gun. The girl threw her arms around Major Dunham saying, “We are all killed and Dock Woods did it.”
Dock Woods, a local criminal, was arrested, but was soon let loose after he was able to prove his innocence.
There were many theories among the white population of Austin that summer about the frequent murders, and attempts at murder, of the servant girls. One theory was that it was the work of a secret organization, whose object was to stamp out “negro prostitution,” and compel the race, if they live together, to live in the bonds of matrimony. Where there were any left alive to tell of the circumstances of the murder; they had several times said that they identified the man, but shortly afterwards denied that they did. This seemed as if they had been instructed by some secret power that held them under terror. Another theory was that the murders were perpetrated by a band of negro men and out of a spirit of pure cussedness and reckless wickedness.
It was very generally understood that there was no danger of attempts of this kind being made on the white population, but it was safely stated that Austin was the best armed city in the United States at the time. The gunsmiths were doing a wholesale business and it was probable that each home in town contains at least 14 rounds of ammunition.
By mid-October a police officer told a Statesman reporter “it is next to impossible to see an Austin negro woman upon the streets, and this assertion is not confined to the women alone, most of the streets of the city are as lonesome, after dark, as a country graveyard. Men are about as scarce upon the streets as women. I have been to several negro’s houses of late, and have yet to find a house where the negroes do not sleep with hatchets, pistols and all kinds of deadly weapons under their pillows. There is a reign of terror among the entire negro population, and many of them are so badly frightened that they tremble when accosted and show many signs of being in abject terror of the visits of the midnight assassin. Others have become so badly frightened that they, like the Arabs of old, have folded their tents and silently stolen away.”
“How are the white people? Do they show signs of being terrorized?”
“A large percent of them appear to be badly frightened. It would amuse you to take a peep at the gunsmith shops. The smiths have got more than they can do for weeks to come. People call every day to have their “pops” put in repair. Some of the weapons look as if they had served in the revolutionary war, while some of the pistols are so small they would be lost in a vest pocket. Regular curiosities, fished up from old barrels and gutters to do service. While a large percent of these customers are negroes you can find a right peart sprinkling of whites.”
The year of butchery came to a close on Christmas eve 1885, with the murders of two white women, who, while not servant girls, and vastly different in age and lifestyle, were killed in similar, ghastly manners.
About 11 o’clock that night, 44-year-old Susan Hancock, the wife of Mr. M.H. Hancock, an elderly mechanic, was attacked with an ax. She did not die immediately. When a Statesman reported arrived, he found doctors dressing her ghastly wounds. Her skull was fractured in two places, and blood was coming from both ears. Her groans of agony were piercing, and with what seemed to be her expiring breath, cupfuls of blood were emitted from her mouth.
Mr. Hancock said that his daughter had gone out to a Christmas eve party, somewhere in the neighborhood, and as they were not expected to be out late the doors were left unlocked.
Something woke him up, and he suddenly realized that his house had been robbed. Feeling for his clothes, he discovered that his pants were gone. Getting up, he went to his wife’s room, which was lighted by the full glare of the moon; when he was almost paralyzed by the sight of clots of blood on the bed, and his wife n where to be seen. He went out at a back door and at the back of his yard he saw his wife, lying on the ground, weltering in a pool of blood.
Picking her up, he started back to the house, all the time calling his neighbor for help.
The neighbor helped Mr. Hancock carry his butchered wife into the parlor, and in a few minutes the doctors arrived.
City Marshal Lucy immediately set about trailing the murderous villains. The city’s blood hounds were brought to the house and given a start in the direction in which Hancock said he saw two men jump the fence.
The dogs worked all right, for a short while, but not at all satisfactory to the officer who handled them, when they were brought back and given another start, taking a trail in a westerly direction, or up the river.
While still gathering notes, kneeling by the side of the evidently dying lady, a shrill voice from the street cried to the reporter that another murder had been committed in the second ward, on the premises of Mr. James Phillips, a well known architect and builder. A small room in the house was occupied by Mr. Phillips’ son, James Phillips, Jr., and his wife, 18- year old Mrs. Eula Phillips. Jimmy was a drunkard, Eula was a sexual libertine who had cuckolded Jimmy on a number of her occasions during their brief marriage and had at least one herbally induced abortion.
For her trysts she had used what were known then as houses of assignation, where rooms could be rented by the hour or night. On several occasions, Eula had received her lovers at the house of a notorious woman of color, Fanny Whipple, with the full knowledge of her mother- and sister-in-law.
That night Jimmy and Eula and their little child retired to bed as usual. Sometime past midnight the household was awakened and their attention was attracted by yells from Jimmy calling for someone. The door of the room was found open.
The pillows and bed clothes presented a horrid spectacle, being literally saturated with blood and the sheets reddened with gore. Phillips lay on his right side, with a deep wound just above the ear made with an ax which lay beside the bed. Mrs. Phillips was not there, but her child remained all besmeared with blood, but unharmed. Search was immediately initiated for the missing woman. A trail of blood, still fresh on the floor, was followed out into the yard, and a few feet from the fence, and at the door of the water closet, Eula was found dead.
Her body was entirely nude, and a piece of timber was laid across her breasts and arms, and evidently used for the most hellish and damnable purpose. The hands were outstretched and a great pool of blood, still warm and scarcely coagulated, stood in a little trench, into which the life current had flowed down from the unfortunate victim.
The body had been dragged from the room, but whether Eula was killed in the room, or she was awakened by the assault on her husband and attempted to escape, could not be determined. It was believed, however, the assassins stifled her voice, and that she was still alive when dragged into the yard where she was outraged and then the last and fatal blow delivered.
The position of the body indicated that the devilish act was perpetrated with the assistance of a second party, as both hands were held down by pieces of wood, in which position the fiends left their victim and in which she must have died.
The elder Phillips stated that while this most horrible crime was being committed everything was as silent as usual. No cutury seems to have been heard, so skillfully did the inhuman butcher or butchers carry out a crime worthy of the imps of hell.
When asked if he knew who struck him, Jimmy deeply groaned, and said he did not.
On December 29, what is considered the last attack of the year-long spree occurred. At a late hour, and officer heard screams for help from a cottage on Waller Creek. A woman and little girl, half dead with fright, explained that they had seen a man in one of the windows and that another had gained entrance to the building and bedroom, and had attempted to chloroform them. Both men, they said, had run off when the alarm was first raised, but not before the woman got a good look at them. She said both were white and well-dressed, and pointing out the direction they took, the officer got on their trail and followed them down Waller creek where he lost side of them, but learned subsequently that they had followed the creek to Pecan street, where they were seen to climb up the bank and hastily proceed in the direction of Congress Avenue, where all trail of them was lost.
Rewards were posted in January for the arrest and conviction of the party or parties responsible for each of the victims. Naturally, the two white women got first priority, at $1000 each, but a reward of $1000 was also offered for the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator or perpetrators first convicted of any one of the colored victims.
At the time of course, no one knew that the murderous spree had ended. On January 14, the Austin Statesman noted, as the full moon approached:
One thing is certain: all the terrible and cruel assassinations which occurred in this city during last year, with but one exception, were committed in the light of the moon, and below will be found the time which elapsed after the full moon when the horrible crimes were perpetrated.
The first victim to fall in the series of bloody mysteries was Mollie Smith, on the night of December 30th, 1884, and the night of the full moon.
Just four months and seven days after, or on May 7th, or exactly seven days after the full of the moon, Eliza Shelley was hacked to pieces.
On May 23rd, nine days after the new moon and 16 days after Eliza Shelley met her death, Irene Cross was assassinated.
About three months after, and five days past full moon, on August 30th, the insatiable fiend cruelly murdered and out raged little Mary Ramey.
On September 28th, nearly one month after Mary’s death, Gracy Vance and Orange Washington were killed, just four days after the full of the moon.
On December 24th, Mrs. Phillips and Mrs. Hancock met their horrible fate, and it was exactly three days past the full of the moon.
The moon will soon be full again, and then will wane. Will it be on a scene of blood and cruel and ghastly death?
It must be pointed out that Austin’s night-time lighting was wretchedly inadequate, consisting of weakly-lit gas street lamps that were located mostly along Congress Avenue. They were turned off during the nights of the full moon, since the moon gave off more light than they did. It was considered brazenly odd that the murders were not committed in the darkness of the full moon, and folks wondered if there wasn’t something about the light of the moon that brought out the maniac in an otherwise normal person. The werewolf phenomenon, in other words.
Only one person was ever brought to trial: Jimmy Phillips, for the murder of his wife, Eula. He was convicted, but the case was appealed and a new trial was ordered, which ended in a mistrial, and young Phillips was set free. Eula is buried in an unmarked grave in the Phillips family plot up on the hill. Susan Hancock is buried in Lot 459, the only victim whose resting place is exactly known.
But the rumors continued for years thereafter, and the common wisdom was that the murders would eventually be solved, most likely by someone’s deathbed confession. With the advent of Jack the Ripper a few years later, there was common speculation that Austin’s servant girl murderer had moved to London to ply his trade. It was pointed out that the advent of fast trains and steamships had made it very easy for serial killers to move about the world, killing at whim.
In February 1889, a series of foul murders in Managua, Nicaragua, were also thought to possibly be the work of the Austin murderer.
The most enduring theory as to the identity of the servant girl murderer centered around the “Malay Cook,” who was also considered a suspect in London’s Whitechapel murders.
The November 17, 1888 edition of the Austin Statesman ran this intriguing story:
A Strange Coincident.
A Malay cook suspected in London.
A Malay cook suspected in Austin three years ago. A strange coincident, to say the least.
During the year of the thrilling, startling and bloody tragedies, when dread and gloomy uneasiness brooded over the city, there was a Malay cook plying his avocation within her limits. The first and second and third and fourth, and all the murders up to little Mary Ramey, had occurred without his having been suspected. The night of little Mary’s murder was clear, with the full moon riding high up in the heavens. It was about 4 o’clock when, her body still warm, members of the family where she lived, having been attracted by the groans of her mother, who had been seriously wounded.
On that morning, so the story goes, precisely 30 minutes after the clock on the city hall pealed out the hour of two, a man apparently half seas over struggled up from the depths of the slums in the First ward. Seemingly, he was beastly drunk, and it was with difficulty and laborious exertion that he maintained his feet. Like a rudderless ship on a turbulent sea, he tossed about until he reached the neighborhood of the International depot, and drifted eastward until he reached the Avenue. Here he glided into smooth waters and settled down to steady, easy sailing. In truth, he mysteriously transformed himself, and from being drunk as a lord he became as sober as a priest.
So went the tale of one of the best detectives engaged in the work of unraveling the crime.
From where the new depot now stands this man steered a direct course up the Avenue to Sixth street down which he turned and hurried eastward to Trinity, thence southward to Pine, and then to where he committed the murder. He was traced to the spot, then all was lost. Who he was, no one knows.
Was he a Malay cook?
Certain it is that some three or four blocks from the scene of the tragedy it is said a Malay cook slept. He was rarely seen about town and nothing was known of his history. That he claimed to be a cook and was undoubtedly a Malay was about all there was known of him.
It turned out, however, that on the morning of the cruel murder of the little girl, he suddenly fell under a cloud of suspicion, and it was intensified by the discovery of fresh blood in a pool of water not far from his sleeping apartments. The murderer had stopped there to wash his hands. At least that was one of the many theories advanced at the time.
The Malay was shadowed for some time and then things went back into their normal condition and the city blissfully forgot all about the murders which had been flashed over the continent, bringing her prominently into view, and making her the tale of every hamlet and village in the land.
Then followed the Christmas eve crimes, with all their ghastly, shuddering details. Then it was that the attention of the detectives was again called to the Malay, and he was a suspect. He was kept under detective eyes, hoping that something definite would be found to warrant his arrest.
One morning, during an unguarded moment, he suddenly disappeared, and the Malay cook was lost sight of in the shuffle then going on, and was forgotten until attention was attracted by the cablegram alluded to at the outset saying a Malay cook is suspected of the London murders.
Three of the most bloody and cruel of the Austin murders occurred in the quarter of the city where this Malay is said to have slept, and none of them were over three or four blocks off. This, of itself, is somewhat singular. A Malay cook suspected in London; a Malay cook suspected in Austin.
Is the Whitechapel Malay cook and the Austin Malay cook one and the same?
It had been ascertained that a Malay cook calling himself Maurice had been employed at the Pearl house in 1885 and that he left some time in January 1886.
So who was/were the murderer(s)? Your guess is as good as anyone’s. They could have been individual crimes of passion of lover against lover, but that seems highly unlikely, given their frequency that year. These crimes usually happened only once or twice a year, and involved shootings or other less grisly methods of killing. The perps were usually captured or in some instances they committed suicide afterwards. The theory of an organized vigilance group seeking moral justice doesn’t hold much water either. To me, the theory of the Malay cook makes as much sense as anything else. It is important to remember that the sciences of fingerprint identification and blood typing did not yet exist.
If you’re interested in reading more, there is a novelized version of murders, A Twist at the End, by Stephen Saylor, that does a good job of putting the murders in the context of a larger Austin.
May 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Thanks for that brilliant flash of rap lyricism, John Lajoie! (You should hear the rest of this song; this “joie boy” has evidently never never met a biatch he didn’t disrespect.)
And now that we are in the something something merry month of May, it’s time to celebrate one of the prouder moments in University of Texas at Austin – and American – history: the prosecution of German Americans for supposed disloyalty to the American cause during the first world war.
But, first, let’s talk about sex.
May is a great month for sex. It’s National Masturbation Month — for the onanist in all of us — as declared by Dr. Betty Dodson. And then there’s the Maypole — that which children so innocently dance around today — once revered as God’s sacred phallus thrust into fecund Mother Earth.
After dancing around the Maypole, celebrants would retire to the open fields where they would have sex with anyone and everyone in the plowed fields in order to ensure the fertility of the land and prosperous yield of crops. May was a month of sexual freedom throughout rural Europe up to the 16th century. Marriage bonds were suspended for the month of May, commenced again in June; hence, June weddings (source: http://www.goddess.org/religious_sex.html).
By the 1970s, in May and any other month of the year, there was a “rule of three” among sexually active University of Texas students, that if you hadn’t slept together by the third date, it was time to break off the relationship as a waste of time.
Back in the spring of 1918, the UT “rule of three” meant that boys seldom talked about love or sentimentality until the third date and then after doing nothing along that line during the first two visits, he expected the girl to immediately succumb to him with gratitude.
Now that I have sexed up your attention (hopefully), let’s get back to May 1918 and the polar opposite of love: loathing.
Anti-German sentiment was at its height in the spring of 1918, and a number of prominent Austin citizens were denounced and put on trial for disloyalty to the American cause. In May 1918, UT professor Edward Prokosch was placed under investigation by the federal Department of Justice for possible disloyalty to America. It was charge he vigorously disputed, as the 1919 UT Cactus yearbook staff noted in April 1919, in a feature page on UT’s most distinctive faculty:
“Prokosch, Eduard – Habitually appears on a bicycle and with an American flag in his button-hole. Is reputed to dislike Ambassador Gerard for several reasons. Knows all the languages of Europe, including the Wilhemstrasse, and is taking up Chinese and Sanskrit as a pastime.”
Prokosch would resign from the University of Texas on July 7, 1919, over those questions of his loyalty to the United States during the world war.
It did not help matters that Mrs. Edward Prokosch provided entertainment for a benefit for German war babies held at Scholz Garden on February 24, 1917, before American had entered the war.
In the 1960s and 1970s, America’s – and Austin’s – hatred turned to hippies, in part for their return to the free love philosophy of the Maypole days.
As America went to war in the fall of 1917, the most distinctive UT co-ed was freshman Gertrude Prokosch, Austin’s first jazz age prodigy and proto-hippie chick. She was but 14 years of age, probably the youngest university co-ed in the country at the time, and had been admitted to the University of Texas after taking examinations in English, Latin, Ancient History, German, Algebra and Geometry and making perfect grades in four of the subjects.
Her remarkable record was not due to any special training given by her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Edward Prokosch. On the contrary, her school had been often interrupted. Born in Chicago in 1903, she first attended a private school in Milwaukee, then three different schools during a year spent in Germany, finally entering the public schools of Austin when her family moved here in 1913.
Gertrude had also studied music and was an accomplished pianist. But she was unusually gifted as a dancer, interpreting the music with unerring instinct and an almost countless number of graceful movements. She was splendidly developed physically.
Best of all, she was still a child, natural and unspoiled, enjoying romps and walks outdoors, and giving doll theatre performances to her little friends, leading the dolls, speaking their parts, and often writing the plays herself.
Before entering UT, she had danced publicly in February and March 1917 in a program of folk-lore tableaux and dances given by the Mutterdank Society at the KC hall and Scholz Garden, Gertrude performed in two ensembles, Classical Dance and Fairy Dance, as Princess Ilse with the Dwarfs, and solo in Hindoo Dance. She studied artistic dancing under Miss Crosby at UT and performed original solos at campus recitals through at least February 1919.
After Gertrude and her family left Austin in 1919, she graduated from Bryn Mawr College, receiving a BA in 1922 and an MA in art history in 1928, concurrently studying music and dance in Berlin, Philadelphia, New York, and Providence, Rhode Island, from 1922-1928. She then studied music and dance at the Yale School of Drama at Yale University, from 1929-1930.
From 1923-1946 she was a teacher, performer, producer, and choreographer of modern dance.
She danced and taught professionally as “Tula” from 1922-46 before turning to the study of American Indian dance. She did extensive fieldwork and published hundreds of articles in publications like the Journal of American Folklore, Folklore Americas, and El Palacio, on Iroquois, Pueblo, Six Nations, and Great Lakes dance; she also contributed to dance theory and notation.
In 1930 she married Hans Kurath, a dialectologist and lexicographer who had studied under her father at University of Wisconsin. When Dr. Prokosch, a linguist, moved to Austin to teach German at the University of Texas in 1913, Kurath transferred to Austin to stay with his mentor and received his AB in German in 1914.
Gertrude Prokosch was a leader in organizations such as The Society for Ethnomusicology and Congress on Research in Dance. Prokosch was active in her community in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she wrote for the Ann Arbor News, and founded the Dance Research Center in 1962.
Gertrude died in 1992, without ever having enjoyed the “rap genius” of Jon Lajoie, whose other works of greatness include “Fuck Everything,” “I Kill People,” and “Everyday Normal Guy.”
As did Frank Zappa, who spent his adult life fighting for First Amendment rights.
“I am as entertaining as a fuckin STD.” You better believe it, bro fo.
Is this a great country or what?
April 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Early on the morning of October 11, 1855, the Texas state adjutant general’s office and living quarters, a log cabin, was destroyed by fire. Adjutant General James S. Gillett was aroused by the noise of fire close to him. He rushed from his room to the adjoining records room and discovered it and the archives in flames. The window shutter was open and had no doubt been forced open. The fire was burning so rapidly that Adjutant General Gillett was barely able to save a few clothes and get out alive; in a few more minutes his sleeping apartment would have been enveloped in flames. If there had been a breeze the fire would have spread to surrounding buildings.
All the records of the office and a large number of important papers filed in the cases of applicants for relief were destroyed. It was the work of an incendiary, probably by some person or persons implicated in forgery schemes, regarding state land grants to army veterans, whose guilt would be found in the records in the Adjutant General’s office. General Gillett had carefully avoided having any fire kept in his room for some time past. As mentioned, the office’s window had been found open and the fire appeared to have been built on the floor. The fire created a very strong feeling of indignation against its perpetrators.
The House of Representatives had reported in 1852 that protection and preservation practices and procedures were insufficient to protect these valuable records and recommended an appropriation to rectify this shortcoming. The records, including the invaluable muster roles of Texas Revolution veterans, were also in poor condition. That appropriation, of course, never materialized; hence their log-cabin stronghold three years later.
A Col. Boggess, deputized by the House of Representatives, found one of two suspects, a man named Hines (also often referred to as “Haynes”), near Rusk, in November. Hines confessed, and in so doing, implicated John. J. Blankenship and B.J. Lewis, saying that they had promised him $1000 for burning the adjutant general’s office, but after he had fired the office, the pair paid only half of the amount promised. Warrants were sworn out in Travis County for their arrest.
A special committee of the sixth legislature reported on January 8, 1856, that the vague and uncertain testimony of military service then in effect for land warrant eligibility made it possible for dishonest persons to obtain a large amount of bounty and donation warrants by forgery. It was alleged that some of the parties concerned in the forgeries were responsible for the fire, so as to destroy all evidence against them.
Two years earlier Gillett had told the legislature of the importance of placing these documents in a fire proof building. Speaking of his testimony before the committee, Gillett said, “Just then they were seized with a keen fit of economy and refused. They can now see the result of their unwise parsimoniousness. ‘Pennywise — pound-foolish.’”
Beginning in February 1856, several attempts were made to arrest Blankenship at his home below Waco, on the Brazos River, without success. In the first attempt, the sheriff at Waco collected a posse of 20 men but when they arrived at Blankenship’s house, they found Blankenship so strongly fortified and aided by so many armed friends, that the posse returned to Waco without accomplishing the arrest. The sheriff returned the next night with reinforcements, but found that Blankenship had fled to the safety of the Brazos River bottoms.
It is at this point that the story bifurcates and your guess as to which version is true is as good as anyone else’s.
A couple of days later, according to his defenders, Lewis passed through Waco from east Texas, headed for Austin, unaware of the warrant out for his arrest. But the Travis County sheriff met him unexpectedly with a posse, about the time Lewis reached Austin, and arrested him.
Having learned from the McLennan county sheriff at Waco that Blankenship had eluded them, the Travis County sheriff went with a force of some 30 to 40 men in pursuit of him and met Blankenship the next day, who was headed for Austin, about 40 miles up the road, and took him into custody without incident.
The other version, supported by several sources, states that the Travis County sheriff attempted unsuccessfully to arrest Blankenship at Waco, but that Blankenship pledged that he would make his appearance at Austin at the appointed time, to answer the charge against him.
On Sunday, February 10, the next day, Monday, having been fixed as his day for examination, Lewis rode into Austin, accompanied by around 20 friends, each heavily armed with double-barrelled shotguns, revolvers, and Bowie knives.
On the following morning, Blankenship rode into Austin, in like manner, with 30 friends similarly armed, declaring that all the sheriffs in Texas could not arrest him, but that they were willing to undergo examination before the magistrate. All of Austin was outraged and indignant at the pair and their supporters. Austin was in the state of highest excitement there or elsewhere in Texas for many years. The most prominent men of the city were sufficiently aroused to arm themselves to aid in carrying the law into effect if necessary. The sheriff put together a 50-man posse to arrest Blankenship at the City Hotel and make sure that none of his friends would be allowed in the courthouse unless they were needed as witnesses.
A committing trial was immediately had before justices Mann and Graves and the testimony of Hines was strong against Blankenship, but the defense introduced other evidence to prove an alibi, that Blankenship had been in Waco at the time of the fire. Blankenship was acquitted, and went on to become involved in several controversial and prominent Waco-area property cases, and in 1870, was granted permission by the Texas Legislature to erect a toll bridge over Tehauacana creek in McLennan County.
Hines was committed to confinement in default of security ($5000) to appear as a witness at the next term of the District Court of Travis County. But strangely, he was not put in the Travis County jail, but rather confined in a room in Swenson’s new building, at the cost to the state of $30 per months, guarded by four men who were paid $2.50 per day each, again by the state. Many citizens questioned this unorthodox treatment.
On March 8, Hines, called the author of the destruction of the Adjutant General’s office, had escaped from the guard of the sheriff and was at liberty. The sheriff had been authorized to employ ample guard for the safekeeping of the prisoner and he was under guard when he escaped. At the time of his escape, three of the guards were absent, and the fourth could give no account of his escape. One of the guards, Thomas Haynie, was arrested for negligence in the matter. He had a committing trial on March 11 before Justice Graves who found insufficient evidence for his commitment and released him. He claimed to have been drugged by the prisoner, a claim not supported by doctors present at the trial. Haynie was soon re-arrested for allowing a prisoner to escape.
The prisoner’s escape, and “the utter inability of the State to bring to justice the accessories, call loudly for a radical reform in our criminal laws. It seems utterly hopeless to do anything in this case in the present state of things. Even if Hines should be caught and brought back, we have no assurance that justice will be done. The admission is a deplorable one, truly, but such seems to be the fact, and it is time that we look the matter in its true light and effect some remedy.”
Suspicions of impropriety reached clear up to Governor Elisha Pease, but nothing was ever proven.
Charges were brought up in the spring term of the district court in Austin in the case of State of Texas vs. John J. Blankenship, John Cummins and Charles Q. Haley. Two of the accused persons were dismissed by the District Court in Austin and the other was transferred to District Court at Georgetown and later dismissed. This case was in the courts until April 5, 1867. With all the records destroyed, Pease suspended the office Feb 4, 1856. All his previous duties with regard to donation and bounty claims were turned over to the newly created commissioner of claims created by a legislative act on August 1, 1856.
Hines resurfaced in July 1856, as a member of a group of men engaged in robberies and thefts along the Rio Grande. The bandits were ambushed by the U.S. rifle regiment patrolling the area while stealing government horses. They had also been suspected of robbing the Catholic Church at Guerrero, Mexico. Their party had separated before they were overtaken by the Rifles, and but three of them were seen when the camp was surrounded. One of them, Hines, made his escape, not, however, without being wounded. In the saddle-bags found in their camp, were the gold and silver vases, or ornaments, taken from the Guerrero Church. One prisoner was hung, and another, while attempting to make his escape, received a shot from which he subsequently died in the hospital at Ringgold Barracks.
The regiment pursued Hines, but evidently without success, for at this point he disappears into the fog of history, except for this tantalizing possibility, from the Louisville Journal in April 1858: “We understand that Dr. Haynes was discharged from the work house about a week ago. Several letters have been received here since from Washington and other points, mentioning various swindles committed by him. His first operations were confined to tailors; but, having ‘replenished his wardrobe,’ so as to be presentable in good society he extended his sphere of action, and soon went extensively into speculation. He took the name of Mitchel; went to Washington; stopped at Kirkwood’s, and mingled with the best society. Among other extensive speculations, he contracted with General Houston for Texas lands to the value of $86,000; but did not quite close the transaction. He made similar contracts with others, buying 35 half sections of land in one instance. Haynes, as he is commonly known, has achieved a reputation, such as it is, almost national. He has figured for many years as a swindler. He is but a short time out of the Kentucky penitentiary, where he was sent for bigamy. It is said that he originally came from Hagerstown, Maryland, and his real name is Jesse Duncan Elliott Quantrel.”
Governor Pease addressed the legislature in November 1856 and stressed the importance of providing suitable fireproof buildings for the protection of the state’s remaining archives. The State Department was in an insecure wooden building, and the then-current General Land Office, while adequately safe, was overloaded, and a new General Land Office would allow the existing General Land Office building to be used by other departments until they were supplied with fire proof buildings.
He also thought it prudent to hire a night watchman hired to guard the public buildings to prevent them from being broken into, and make them more secure from fire. The legislature agreed and approximately $40,000 to build the General Land Office that still stands today on the Capitol grounds as the Capitol Complex Visitor Center.
April 6, 2013 § Leave a Comment
“Rare earths” are vital components in the production of a range of high technology equipment. The elements are integral to modern life, and are used in everything from disc drives, hybrid cars, smartphones, catalytic converters, and sunglasses to lasers and aircraft used by the military.
Japan is celebrating the recent find of an “astronomically” high level of rare earth deposits at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, a discovery which will further undermine China’s failing attempts to control the global supply of the substances, Phil Muncaster wrote on March 25 in The Register’s (register.co.uk) science section.
China claims it holds less than a third of global rare earth reserves despite providing more than 90 per cent of the world’s supply.
Rare earth elements or rare earth metals, according to Wikipedia, are a set of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the fifteen lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium. Scandium and yttrium are considered rare earth elements since they tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides and exhibit similar chemical properties.
Despite their name, rare earth elements (with the exception of the radioactive promethium) are relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million (similar to copper). However, because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found concentrated as rare earth minerals in economically exploitable ore deposits. It was the very scarcity of these minerals (previously called “earths”) that led to the term “rare earth”. The first such mineral discovered was gadolinite, a compound of cerium, yttrium, iron, silicon and other elements. This mineral was extracted from a mine in the village of Ytterby in Sweden; several of the rare earth elements bear names derived from this location.
All of which reminds me of Texas’ only rare earth deposits, those of Barringer Hill, now far below Lake Buchanan (the first of the Colorado River’s Highland Lakes chain), near the dam itself. Only a small mound of rock and dirt 34 feet taller than the surrounding country, Barringer Hill was not even remotely interesting in appearance, but in the words of the U.S. Geological Survey, “Few if any deposits in the world, and certainly no others in America, outside of the localities where monazite is found, have yielded such quantities of rare earth metals as that at Barringer Hill.”
The Japanese deposits, Muncaster’s article continues, were found around 5.8 km under the ocean surface near Minami Torishima island southeast of Tokyo.
“We detected an astronomically high level of rare earth minerals in the mud we sampled,” Tokyo University boffin Yasuhiro Kato told Reuters.
“When researchers brought back the data to me, I thought they must have made a mistake, the levels were so high. The fact is this discovery could help supply Japan with 60 per cent of its annual needs merely with the contents of a single vessel.”
The find follows a much larger discovery by Japanese marine researchers in the Pacific two years ago and if the rare earths can be extracted cheaply enough, it could crucially give Tokyo the tactical upper hand over China in the on-going cat-and-mouse game between the two over supplies.
Beijing halted exports to Japan in September 2010 after a maritime dispute and has actively restricted exports to all countries since in a bid to drive up prices and force manufacturing investment onto its shores.
However, despite being investigated by the WTO for such policies, China has suffered in recent months as a slowdown in global demand combined with other countries re-starting their own mining operations, has sent prices tumbling.
In October last year, its largest mining company for light rare earths, Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare Earth Hi-Tech Company, was forced to suspend operations for a month to let demand pick up. Japan takes more than half of China’s supply but is thought to have imported just 10,000 tons in 2012 – its lowest volume in a decade.
While the recent undersea discovery will be well-received in Tokyo, it’s unlikely to have any big repercussions in the near term, short of forcing China to keep its prices low.
The U.S. Geological Survey has looked at all known national reserves of the elements as part of a larger assessment of the threat posed to defense by limited rare earth supplies.
It found that the domestic pipeline is “rather thin.” The U.S. boasts the third largest reserves (13 million tons) in the world after China and the nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. But the only rare earths mines the US has ever operated, are currently inactive, with the exception of the mine at Mountain Pass, California, discovered in 1949. Once the largest and most profitable rare-earth mine in the world, rare-earth mining began there in the early 1950s, and by the mid-1980s the mine supplied 60 percent of global demand and 100 percent of U.S. needs. But as Chinese production increased, operations at Mountain Pass dwindled, until 2012, when production ramped up dramatically in the face of Chinese attempts to manipulate the world market to its advantage.
Now, back to Barringer Hill. Barringer Hill was named for John Barringer, a carpenter who acquired the land in 1886 when its owner was unable to pay Barringer $50 for a house he had built for the man. At that time, the Llano area was gripped with dreams of mineral wealth, especially iron. A few months later, Barringer, while out prospecting his newly acquired land, stumbled upon an outcropping of heavy, greenish-black ore. No one in the neighborhood knew what the mineral was and later that year, Professor N.J. Badu of Llano sent ore samples to Philadelphia and New York. Meanwhile Mr. Barringer had taken out a quantity of gadolinite estimated at 800 to 1,200 pounds, which was largely picked up and carried off by persons in the neighborhood as curiosities. Some of the choicer pieces, showing crystal form, found their way into various museums. Specimens were sent to a number of places before it was finally identified.
The samples were found to be composed primarily of a radioactive yttria mineral, known as gadolinite, that had previously only been found in small amounts in Russia and Norway. Yttria minerals were extremely valuable. In 1887, pure yttrium brought $144 an ounce, at a time when pure gold brought only $19 an ounce on the London exchange. The minerals from this deposit were so valuable that they were wrapped in tissue paper, packed in iron-bound boxes, and shipped by Wells Fargo express at 100 pounds a box. At best, obtaining each pound of ore cost $10.00.
The discovery of gadolinite at Barringer Hill attracted the interest of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. William E. Hidden, a Newark, New Jersey, mineralogist with connections to both companies read a newspaper account about the discovery and obtained a piece. At that time, Edison and Westinghouse were looking for gadolinite to use in the creation of a filament for electric light bulbs but had found no accessible sources of the mineral. Hidden sent Dr. William Niven, a Scottish born Texan, to investigate Barringer Hill in 1889. Niven identified forty-seven minerals there, including five previously unknown rare earth elements.
Edison experimented with all 47 Barringer Hill minerals, but by 1903, the company could find no use for any of them. Meanwhile, German chemist Hermann Nernst, working for Westinghouse, had developed a street lamp that used raw gadolinite as a filament. Nernst had patented the lamp that bore his name in 1897, but his original design for the lamp was commercially useless, because the lamp had a life of only two hours. Another Westinghouse engineer, Marshall Hank, was able to increase this number to 700 hours. The improved lamp’s design featured a filament consisting of 25 percent yttria and 75 percent zirconia. These ingredients were made into a paste, squirted into strips, baked, and then cut into the proper lengths. When the mixture was cold, it was nonconductive, but after being heated, it became a conductor that gave off a brilliant light with wavelengths penetrating deep into the infrared.
With its technical problems solved, the Nernst Lamp Company decided to put the lamp into production and bought Barringer Hill through William E. Hidden.
George Westinghouse had developed and introduced the Nernst lamp to the commercial market in the United States, organizing the Nernst Lamp Company in 1901. Production took place in Pittsburg in a five-story factory building with a total floor area of 101,000 square feet. By 1904 a total of over 130,000 Nernst glowers had been placed in service throughout the country.
During the winter of 1902-03, the Nernst Lamp Company sent Hidden to begin excavation. In 1903, Marshall Hanks, the engineer who had improved the Nernst Lamp, arrived to run the mining operation.
A little gadolinite went a very long way in those days, and only sporadic mining was necessary. When large-scale mining began, it lasted only a year. The incandescent light bulb had been invented, and the need for gadolinite was fading, in the face of the much cheaper wire filament that would soon become the essential element in light bulbs for the next century. The Barringer Hill mine ceased large-scale operations in 1904. Only sporadic mining was done at Barringer Hill thereafter and it was one of the first areas to be covered by Lake Buchanan.
The demand for rare earth minerals lay rather fallow from that point until the 1950s and the opening of the Mountain Pass mine, when their current modern usages began.
The story of Barringer Hill is told at length in Hill Country, in the chapter, “Hermit of the Hills/The Highland Lakes.”
March 31, 2013 § Leave a Comment
“The Gift of the Magi” is, on the right day, my favorite O. Henry short story, and IMHO, about the best modern Christmas short story there is.
O. Henry’s short stories are not rife with Christian themes and sentiments, although they do often involve a sense of social justice and sympathy for the down-and-out that is consistent with the teachings of Christ.
While in Austin, O. Henry — or Will Porter, as he was then known — was a regular church-goer and sang in every church choir that would have him (he had a wonderful bass voice). During his prison experience (1898-1901) until his death in 1910, there is no evidence that he regularly – or seldom – attended church. But that is not my point today, nor does it particularly interest me, one way or the other.
In a delicious twist of irony that he would have enjoyed, Christian book stores sell collections of his short stories and the noted atheist, Ayn Rand, once wrote of him, “More than any other author, O. Henry represents the spirit of youth, specifically the cardinal element of youth: the expectation of finding something wonderful around all of life’s corners.”
O. Henry is acknowledged as a master of puns, as well as surprise and ironic endings; hence the punny last half of this post’s title, “Have a Hoppy O. Henry Easter.” Easter bunnies hop, of course, and O. Henry was a hop head, when it came to beer, at any rate.
Will Porter, who could drain a 32 oz. fishbowl of beer without pausing, once summed up the two loves of his life in Austin, in four lines:
“If there is a rosebud garden of girls,
In this wide world anywhere,
They could have no charm for some of the men,
Like a buttercup garden of beer.”
O. Henry wrote three Easter-themed short stories during his short career: “The Red Roses of Tonia,” “The Day Resurgent” and “The Easter of the Soul,” but we will save the latter stories for other times.
“The Red Roses of Tonia” derives from his ranching days in South Texas, before he moved to Austin in 1884. And so, without further ado …
“The Red Roses of Tonia”
A trestle burned down on the International Railroad. The south-bound from San Antonio was cut off for the next forty-eight hours. On that train was Tonia Weaver’s Easter hat.
Espirition, the Mexican, who had been sent forty miles in a buckboard from the Espinosa Ranch to fetch it, returned with a shrugging shoulder and hands empty except for a cigarette. At the small station, Nopal, he had learned of the delayed train and, having no commands to wait, turned his ponies toward the ranch again.
Now, if one supposes that Easter, the Goddess of Spring, cares any more for the after-church parade on Fifth Avenue than she does for her loyal outfit of subjects that assemble at the meeting-house at Cactus, Tex., a mistake has been made. The wives and daughters of the ranchmen of the Frio country put forth Easter blossoms of new hats and gowns as faithfully as is done anywhere, and the Southwest is, for one day, a mingling of prickly pear, Paris, and paradise. And now it was Good Friday, and Tonia Weaver’s Easter hat blushed unseen in the desert air of an impotent express car, beyond the burned trestle. On Saturday noon the Rogers girls, from the Shoestring Ranch, and Ella Reeves, from the Anchor-O, and Mrs. Bennet and Ida, from Green Valley, would convene at the Espinosa and pick up Tonia. With their Easter hats and frocks carefully wrapped and bundled against the dust, the fair aggregation would then merrily jog the ten miles to Cactus, where on the morrow they would array themselves, subjugate man, do homage to Easter, and cause jealous agitation among the lilies of the field.
Tonia sat on the steps of the Espinosa ranch house flicking gloomily with a quirt at a tuft of curly mesquite. She displayed a frown and a contumelious lip, and endeavored to radiate an aura of disagreeableness and tragedy.
“I hate railroads,” she announced positively. “And men. Men pretend to run them. Can you give any excuse why a trestle should burn? Ida Bennet’s hat is to be trimmed with violets. I shall not go one step toward Cactus without a new hat. If I were a man I would get one.”
Two men listened uneasily to this disparagement of their kind. One was Wells Pearson, foreman of the Mucho Calor cattle ranch. The other was Thompson Burrows, the prosperous sheepman from the Quintana Valley. Both thought Tonia Weaver adorable, especially when she railed at railroads and menaced men. Either would have given up his epidermis to make for her an Easter hat more cheerfully than the ostrich gives up his tip or the cigarette lays down its life. Neither possessed the ingenuity to conceive a means of supplying the sad deficiency against the coming Sabbath. Pearson’s deep brown face and sunburned light hair gave him the appearance of a schoolboy seized by one of youth’s profound and insolvable melancholies. Tonia’s plight grieved him through and through. Thompson Burrows was the more skilled and pliable. He hailed from somewhere in the East originally; and he wore neckties and shoes, and was made dumb by woman’s presence.
“The big water-hole on Sandy Creek,” said Pearson, scarcely hoping to make a hit, “was filled up by that last rain.”
“Oh! Was it?” said Tonia sharply. “Thank you for the information. I suppose a new hat is nothing to you, Mr. Pearson. I suppose you think a woman ought to wear an old Stetson five years without a change, as you do. If your old water-hole could have put out the fire on that trestle you might have some reason to talk about it.”
“I am deeply sorry,” said Burrows, warned by Pearson’s fate, “that you failed to receive your hat, Miss Weaver ─ deeply sorry, indeed. If there was anything I could do ─ “
“Don’t bother,” interrupted Tonia, with sweet sarcasm. “If there was anything you could do, you’d be doing it, of course. There isn’t.”
Tonia paused. A sudden sparkle of hope had come into her eye. Her frown smoothed away. She had an inspiration.
“There’s a store over at Lone Elm Crossing on the Nueces,” she said, “that keeps hats. Eva Rogers got hers there. She said it was the latest style. It might have some left. But it’s twenty-eight miles to Lone Elm.”
The spurs of two men who hastily arose jingled; and Tonia almost smiled. The Knights, then, were not all turned to dust; nor were their rowels rust.
“Of course,” said Tonia, looking thoughtfully at a white gulf cloud sailing across the cerulean dome, “nobody could ride to Lone Elm and back by the time the girls call by for me to-morrow. So, I reckon I’ll have to stay at home this Easter Sunday.”
And then she smiled.
“Well, Miss Tonia,” said Pearson, reaching for his hat, as guileful as a sleeping babe. “I reckon I’ll be trotting along back to Mucho Calor. There’s some cutting out to be done on Dry Branch first thing in the morning; and me and Road Runner has got to be on hand. It’s too bad your hat got sidetracked. Maybe they’ll get that trestle mended yet in time for Easter.”
“I must be riding, too, Miss Tonia,” announced Burrows, looking at his watch. “I declare, it’s nearly five o’clock! I must be out at my lambing camp in time to help pen those crazy ewes.”
Tonia’s suitors seemed to have been smitten with a need for haste. They bade her a ceremonious farewell, and then shook each other’s hands with the elaborate and solemn courtesy of the Southwesterner.
“Hope I’ll see you again soon, Mr. Pearson,” said Burrows.
“Same here,” said the cowman, with the serious face of one whose friend goes upon a whaling voyage. “Be gratified to see you ride over to Mucho Calor any time you strike that section of the range.”
Pearson mounted Road Runner, the soundest cow-pony on the Frio, and let him pitch for a minute, as he always did on being mounted, even at the end of a day’s travel.
“What kind of a hat was that, Miss Tonia,” he called, “that you ordered from San Antone? I can’t help but be sorry about that hat.”
“A straw,” said Tonia; “the latest shape, of course; trimmed with red roses. That’s what I like ─ red roses.”
“There’s no color more becoming to your complexion and hair,” said Burrows, admiringly.
“It’s what I like,” said Tonia. “And of all the flowers, give me red roses. Keep all the pinks and blues for yourself. But what’s the use, when trestles burn and leave you without anything? It’ll be a dry old Easter for me!”
Pearson took off his hat and drove Road Runner at a gallop into the chaparral east of the Espinosa ranch house.
As his stirrups rattled against the brush Burrows’s long-legged sorrel struck out down the narrow stretch of open prairie to the southwest.
Tonia hung up her quirt and went into the sitting-room.
“I’m mighty sorry, daughter, that you didn’t get your hat,” said her mother.
“Oh, don’t worry, mother,” said Tonia, coolly. “I’ll have a new hat, all right, in time to-morrow.”
When Burrows reached the end of the strip of prairie he pulled his sorrel to the right and let him pick his way daintily across a sacuista flat through which ran the ragged, dry bed of an arroyo. Then up a gravelly hill, matted with bush, the horse scrambled, and at length emerged, with a snort of satisfaction into a stretch of high, level prairie, grassy and dotted with the lighter green of mesquites in their fresh spring foliage. Always to the right Burrows bore, until in a little while he struck the old Indian trail that followed the Nueces southward, and that passed, twenty-eight miles to the southeast, through Lone Elm.
Here Burrows urged the sorrel into a steady lope. As he settled himself in the saddle for a long ride he heard the drumming of hoofs, the hollow “thwack” of chaparral against wooden stirrups, the whoop of a Comanche; and Wells Pearson burst out of the brush at the right of the trail like a precocious yellow chick from a dark green Easter egg.
Except in the presence of awing femininity, melancholy found no place in Pearson’s bosom. In Tonia’s presence his voice was as soft as a summer bullfrog’s in his reedy nest. Now, at his gleesome yawp, rabbits, a mile away, ducked their ears, and sensitive plants closed their fearful fronds.
“Moved your lambing camp pretty far from the ranch, haven’t you, neighbor?” asked Pearson, as Road Runner fell in at the sorrel’s side.
“Twenty-eight miles,” said Burrows, looking a little grim. Pearson’s laugh woke an owl one hour too early in his water-elm on the river bank, half a mile away.
“All right for you, sheepman. I like an open game, myself. We’re two locoed he-milliners hat-hunting in the wilderness. I notify you. Burr, to mind your corrals. We’ve got an even start, and the one that gets the headgear will stand some higher at the Espinosa.”
“You’ve got a good pony,” said Burrows, eyeing Road Runner’s barrel- like body and tapering legs that moved as regularly as the piston rod of an engine. “It’s a race, of course; but you’re too much of a horseman to whoop it up this soon. Say we travel together till we get to the home stretch.”
“I’m your company,” agreed Pearson, “and I admire your sense. If there’s hats at Lone Elm, one of ‘em shall set on Miss Tonia’s brow to-morrow, and you won’t be at the crowning. I ain’t bragging, Burr, but that sorrel of yours is weak in the fore-legs.”
“My horse against yours,” offered Burrows, “that Miss Tonia wears the hat I take her to Cactus to-morrow.”
“I’ll take you up,” shouted Pearson. “But oh, it’s just like horse- stealing for me! I can use that sorrel for a lady’s animal when ─ when somebody comes over to Mucho Calor, and ─ “
Burrows’ dark face glowered so suddenly that the cowman broke off his sentence. But Pearson could never feel any pressure for long.
“What’s all this Easter business about, Burr?” he asked, cheerfully. “Why do the women folks have to have new hats by the almanac or bust all cinches trying to get ‘em?”
“It’s a seasonable statute out of the testaments,” explained Burrows. “It’s ordered by the Pope or somebody. And it has something to do with the Zodiac. I don’t know exactly, but I think it was invented by the Egyptians.”
“It’s an all-right jubilee if the heathens did put their brand on it,” said Pearson; “or else Tonia wouldn’t have anything to do with it. And they pull it off at church, too. Suppose there ain’t but one hat in the Lone Elm store, Burr!”
“Then,” said Burrows, darkly, “the best man of us’ll take it back to the Espinosa.”
“Oh, man!” cried Pearson, throwing his hat high and catching it again, “there’s nothing like you come off the sheep ranges before. You talk good and collateral to the occasion. And if there’s more than one?”
“Then,” said Burrows, “we’ll pick our choice and one of us’ll get back first with his and the other won’t.”
“There never was two souls,” proclaimed Pearson to the stars, “that beat more like one heart than your’n and mine. Me and you might be riding on a unicorn and thinking out of the same piece of mind.”
At a little past midnight the riders loped into Lone Elm. The half a hundred houses of the big village were dark. On its only street the big wooden store stood barred and shuttered.
In a few moments the horses were fastened and Pearson was pounding cheerfully on the door of old Sutton, the storekeeper.
The barrel of a Winchester came through a cranny of a solid window shutter followed by a short inquiry.
“Wells Pearson, of the Mucho Calor, and Burrows, of Green Valley,” was the response. “We want to buy some goods in the store. Sorry to wake you up but we must have ‘em. Come on out, Uncle Tommy, and get a move on you.”
Uncle Tommy was slow, but at length they got him behind his counter with a kerosene lamp lit, and told him of their dire need.
“Easter hats?” said Uncle Tommy, sleepily. “Why, yes, I believe I have got just a couple left. I only ordered a dozen this spring. I’ll show ‘em to you.”
Now, Uncle Tommy Sutton was a merchant, half asleep or awake. In dusty pasteboard boxes under the counter he had two left-over spring hats. But, alas! for his commercial probity on that early Saturday morn ─ they were hats of two springs ago, and a woman’s eye would have detected the fraud at half a glance. But to the unintelligent gaze of the cowpuncher and the sheepman they seemed fresh from the mint of contemporaneous April.
The hats were of a variety once known as “cart-wheels.” They were of stiff straw, colored red, and flat brimmed. Both were exactly alike, and trimmed lavishly around their crowns with full blown, immaculate, artificial white roses.
“That all you got, Uncle Tommy?” said Pearson. “All right. Not much choice here, Burr. Take your pick.”
“They’re the latest styles” lied Uncle Tommy. “You’d see ‘em on Fifth Avenue, if you was in New York.”
Uncle Tommy wrapped and tied each hat in two yards of dark calico for a protection. One Pearson tied carefully to his calfskin saddle-thongs; and the other became part of Road Runner’s burden. They shouted thanks and farewells to Uncle Tommy, and cantered back into the night on the home stretch.
The horsemen jockeyed with all their skill. They rode more slowly on their way back. The few words they spoke were not unfriendly. Burrows had a Winchester under his left leg slung over his saddle horn. Pearson had a six shooter belted around him. Thus men rode in the Frio country.
At half-past seven in the morning they rode to the top of a hill and saw the Espinosa Ranch, a white spot under a dark patch of live-oaks, five miles away.
The sight roused Pearson from his drooping pose in the saddle. He knew what Road Runner could do. The sorrel was lathered, and stumbling frequently; Road Runner was pegging away like a donkey engine.
Pearson turned toward the sheepman and laughed. “Good-bye, Burr,” he cried, with a wave of his hand. “It’s a race now. We’re on the home stretch.”
He pressed Road Runner with his knees and leaned toward the Espinosa. Road Runner struck into a gallop, with tossing head and snorting nostrils, as if he were fresh from a month in pasture.
Pearson rode twenty yards and heard the unmistakable sound of a Winchester lever throwing a cartridge into the barrel. He dropped flat along his horse’s back before the crack of the rifle reached his ears.
It is possible that Burrows intended only to disable the horse ─ he was a good enough shot to do that without endangering his rider. But as Pearson stooped the ball went through his shoulder and then through Road Runner’s neck. The horse fell and the cowman pitched over his head into the hard road, and neither of them tried to move.
Burrows rode on without stopping.
In two hours Pearson opened his eyes and took inventory. He managed to get to his feet and staggered back to where Road Runner was lying.
Road Runner was lying there, but he appeared to be comfortable. Pearson examined him and found that the bullet had “creased” him. He had been knocked out temporarily, but not seriously hurt. But he was tired, and he lay there on Miss Tonia’s hat and ate leaves from a mesquite branch that obligingly hung over the road.
Pearson made the horse get up. The Easter hat, loosed from the saddle-thongs, lay there in its calico wrappings, a shapeless thing from its sojourn beneath the solid carcass of Road Runner. Then Pearson fainted and fell head long upon the poor hat again, crumpling it under his wounded shoulders.
It is hard to kill a cowpuncher. In half an hour he revived ─ long enough for a woman to have fainted twice and tried ice-cream for a restorer. He got up carefully and found Road Runner who was busy with the near-by grass. He tied the unfortunate hat to the saddle again, and managed to get himself there, too, after many failures.
At noon a gay and fluttering company waited in front of the Espinosa Ranch. The Rogers girls were there in their new buckboard, and the Anchor-O outfit and the Green Valley folks ─ mostly women. And each and every one wore her new Easter hat, even upon the lonely prairies, for they greatly desired to shine forth and do honor to the coming festival.
At the gate stood Tonia. with undisguised tears upon her cheeks. In her hand she held Burrow’s Lone Elm hat, and it was at its white roses, hated by her, that she wept. For her friends were telling her, with the ecstatic joy of true friends, that cart-wheels could not be worn, being three seasons passed into oblivion.
“Put on your old hat and come, Tonia,” they urged.
“For Easter Sunday?” she answered. “I’ll die first.” And wept again.
The hats of the fortunate ones were curved and twisted into the style of spring’s latest proclamation.
A strange being rode out of the brush among them, and there sat his horse languidly. He was stained and disfigured with the green of the grass and the limestone of rocky roads.
“Hallo, Pearson,” said Daddy Weaver. “Look like you’ve been breaking a mustang. What’s that you’ve got tied to your saddle ─ a pig in a poke?”
“Oh, come on, Tonia, if you’re going,” said Betty Rogers. “We mustn’t wait any longer. We’ve saved a seat in the buckboard for you. Never mind the hat. That lovely muslin you’ve got on looks sweet enough with any old hat.”
Pearson was slowly untying the queer thing on his saddle. Tonia looked at him with a sudden hope. Pearson was a man who created hope. He got the thing loose and handed it to her. Her quick fingers tore at the strings.
“Best I could do,” said Pearson slowly. “What Road Runner and me done to it will be about all it needs.”
“Oh, oh! it’s just the right shape,” shrieked Tonia. “And red roses! Wait till I try it on!”
She flew in to the glass, and out again, beaming, radiating, blossomed.
“Oh, don’t red become her?” chanted the girls in recitative. “Hurry up, Tonia!”
Tonia stopped for a moment by the side of Road Runner.
“Thank you, thank you, Wells,” she said, happily. “It’s just what I wanted. Won’t you come over to Cactus to-morrow and go to church with me?”
“If I can,” said Pearson. He was looking curiously at her hat, and then he grinned weakly.
Tonia flew into the buckboard like a bird. The vehicles sped away for Cactus.
“What have you been doing, Pearson?” asked Daddy Weaver. “You ain’t looking so well as common.”
“Me?” said Pearson. “I’ve been painting flowers. Them roses was white when I left Lone Elm. Help me down, Daddy Weaver, for I haven’t got any more paint to spare.”
March 30, 2013 § Leave a Comment
One of my favorite movies is 1932’s If I Had a Million, which had seven directors, each of whom were responsible for a single vignette.
The plot is driven by a wealthy dying businessman’s decision to leave his money to eight complete strangers.
My favorite vignette is “Road Hogs.”
Ex-vaudeville performer Emily La Rue (Alison Skipworth) is very content with her life, running her tea room with the help of her partner, ex-juggler Rollo (W. C. Fields). Only one thing is lacking to make her satisfaction complete: a brand new car. When she and Rollo take it out for its inaugural drive, it is wrecked when another driver ignores a stop signal. Heartbroken, Emily returns to her tea room, where the generous millionaire finds her and gives her $1 million.
She comes up with an inventive way to spend part of her great windfall. She and Rollo purchase eight used cars and hire drivers. They all take to the road in a long procession. When they encounter an inconsiderate road hog, Emily and Rollo immediately set off in pursuit and crash into the offender’s automobile. They then switch to one of their spare cars and repeat the process, until they run out of automobiles. At the end of the day, Emily purchases another new car, but it too is destroyed in a collision with a truck. No matter. Emily tells Rollo it has been “a glorious day.”
Which is a roundabout way to start to get to the point of this post. Every legislative session, there occurs a phenomenon called “Austin bashing,” in which one or more bills designed to impinge on Austin’s right to rule itself as it pleases is introduced, often by a goober representing some place like Dothysister in Sixtoe County.
One of the more punitive bills introduced this session comes from the honorable freshman representative, Drew Springer, from the tiny town of Muenster (as in cheese and Germany), near Wichita Falls. The Honorable Representative wants Austin to bag its new plastic bag ban. His bill is called “The Shopping Bag Freedom Act” and would force Austin to abandon its new plastic bag ban.
The Honorable Representative Springer says that House Bill 2416 will give retailers and consumers the freedom to give and receive plastic and paper bags across the state and stop the overrreach of big government; no matter that Austinites elected the officials who enacted the ban and have for the most part gracefully accepted it, at least the people who frequent the places where I shop. The notable exception to this seemingly common acceptance is found in the Austin American Statesman’s comment forums, which are filled with diatribes from people who evidently find more time to fulminate than to work for a living.
The Honorable Representative cites a study by the Home Food Safety Program that says too much water will be wasted washing reusuable bags and most people will not wash them (so how could too much water be wasted?), and he says that plastic bags make up just six percent of Austin’s litter. If so, why do I see these bags flying through the air almost every day from my high-rise office window and see them caught in tree tops and wire mesh fences everywhere. And where does the Honorable Representative think the “wasted” water would go? Down the River Styx to cool off hell? No, like the rest of our treated wastewater it would pour into the Colorado River, where it would flow down to the coast to replenish the bays and estuaries that nourish our rich and delicious supply of seafood, and which are growing ever saltier and deadlier to their delectable inhabitants because of the reduced flow of fresh water into them.
IMHO, the Honorable Representative would be better advised to apply his world-improvement energies to real problems, such as the dirty diaper conundrum: which is worse, the amount of water and polluting bleach it takes to wash cloth diapers or the vast amounts of precious landfill space taken up by disposables? At least the buried disposable diapers produce methane gas, which could be extracted from the landfills and used to help free us from foreign oil dependence.
The Home Food Safety Program study also found that only 15 percent of Americans wash their reusable bags, a problem that the Honorable Representative from Muenster said, quoting from the report, has led to spikes in E. coli poisoning in places such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Unless I am buying raw dirt at my HEB, I see little need for washing my reusable bags, since they are mostly filled with prepackaged goods in clean containers, and I (as do most Austinites) separately place my fruits or raw meats in the still-legal clear plastic bags dispensed at HEB et al, and are meant to be used precisely to avoid the possibility of E. coli poisoning. I followed this exact same separate bagging procedure when disposable plastic grocery bags were still legal, and when using paper grocery sacks for decades before that. It’s just common sense, something most Austinites have.
Could that common sense possibly be less plentiful in the town that bears the name of a foreign cheese, and a morbidly humorous and eccentric TV family (Tongue firmly in cheek)? Someone was responsible, after all, for electing the Honorable Representative to our esteemed Legislature.
The Statesman also reports that the Honorable Representative Springer is worried about what might come next: “If a municipality can ban bags, what is to say they won’t mandate how large a soda can be or how much salt one can put on their food.”
That’s the same sort of logic that says if we allow gay marriage, then (1) legalized bestiality and marriage between man and beast is just around the corner, and (2) if we legislate any form (no matter how timid) of gun control, we are all doomed to become slaves of a communist/fascist/anarchist/world order government.
Next, we have our very own Honorable Representative, Paul Workman, a Republican who represents parts of South and Southwest Austin and western Travis County (read “subdivisions”), who has filed a series of bills that would weaken many of Austin’s development restrictions.
The noble Representative Workman has said he is representing constituents who think Austin has been overstepping its legal authority and the bounds of good judgment. He has also filed legislation that would undermine Austin’s Save Our Springs Ordinance.
The Honorable State Senator Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has rightfully said that the Legislature shouldn’t step into what he considers a city matter.
“People who oppose development rules that Austin has lived under for more than 20 years have every right to try to change them through traditional democratic means at City Hall,” Watson has said. “But when they start to turn legislators — most of whom live a long way from Austin — into a city of Austin appeals court, it starts to look a little undemocratic. That’s why the Legislature has been so skeptical of Austin-bashing bills in recent years. And it’s why I think legislators will be skeptical of these, as well.”
Well, let’s hope so, Honorable Senator Watson. I, for one, am not as optimistic about the lege’s skepticism.
Another of the Honorable Representative Workman’s bills would, ostensibly for the sake of wildfire protection, allow property owners to circumvent tree-protection rules in the Austin area and San Antonio.
Austin requires permission from the city arborist to cut down a tree with a trunk 19 or more inches wide, and in some cases, if permission is granted, the city also requires paying into a tree-planting fund. The city’s “heritage tree” ordinance also requires a property owner to prove, in the case of some species, that a tree with a trunk 24 inches or more wide cannot be saved.
The Honorable Representative Workman has said that those requirements prevent property owners from preparing for wildfires, such as the ones that raged through Bastrop and western Travis counties in 2011.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure there are no barriers to people protecting their homes,” the Honorable Representative has said. “In the (2011) fires we lost 2,000 homes. In some cases, they were up against a greenbelt and weren’t allowed to remove (potentially threatening) trees.”
The Texas Municipal League disagrees with the Honorable Representative from western Travis County, and wrote a letter to the Honorable Representative, René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, chairman of the House committee through which the bill must pass, noting that cities commonly allow tree removal for safety purposes. The League contended that the legislation’s main effect would be to “allow a property owner or a developer to clear cut.”
The Honorable Representative Workman has notably failed to acknowledge (1) that the vast majority of lost homes were in the “Lost Pines” of Bastrop County, where fire-proofing your home and property by removing excessive, flammable vegetation was (and still is) a legal, often encouraged, but usually ignored practice and (2) that the now-widespread subdivision practice of zero-lot lines or “garden” yards makes it much easier for fires to jump rapidly from one house to another.
In Travis County, at least, those potentially fire-threatening trees the Honorable Representative refers to are almost exclusively mountain junipers, AKA “cedars,” with trunks considerably less than 19 inches wide and which therefore would not require permission to cut for fire-safety purposes. I do not know of one “heritage” cedar tree in Austin. And even if tree removal for safety purposes weren’t legal, I can’t think of anyone in Austin or Travis County who wouldn’t turn a blind eye to the loss of any number of cedar trees for safety’s sake, in the face of the miseries nearly all of us suffer during cedar fever season. In fact, because of the tree’s negative environmental effects, cedar eradication is (with certain limited endangered species exceptions) an encouraged practice, as long as the cut trees are replaced with appropriate vegetation, such as native grasses, to prevent erosion and such.
So, coming back to If I Had a Million, if I had a million dollars with which to buy, say, 100,000 votes, I’d run for a seat in the legislature when I retire and have nothing else better to do.
Once elected, I would file “meddling” bills against every city and duckburg that have elected representatives and senators who have previously filed Austin-bashing bills. One of my first bills, meant to preserve the proud cedar-chopper heritage of southwest Austin and western Travis County, would outlaw the construction of McMansions there and instead require log cabins or trailers or tents, and at least one dead car and one cord of cedar posts in each yard, and a moonshine still hidden in a cedar brake or manure pile out back.
Muenster (pop. 1600), like most small towns in Texas, has a motto extolling the virtues of living there, to wit: “Where German Tradition Meets Texas Hospitality.” And I’m sure that the Muensters enjoy living there. Heck, I might even like living there; any town that has pretzels, pastry, draft beer, and sausages as its main attractions can’t be too bad.
But following the logic of patriotic Americans who believe that every Muslim in America and the rest of the world is a jihadist, al Qaeda and Taliban supporter, and mourns Osama Bin Laden’s passing, I am suspicious of the patriotism of anyone with a German surname living in a town named for a German city that proudly calls attention to its German heritage and traditions (Tongue again firmly in cheek).
Everyone of Japanese descent, even those who were second-generation and/or American citizens, was herded into internment camps during World War II because of possible Japanese sympathies they might harbor. In the days immediately following Pearl Harbor, my patriotic, Milwaukee-born, German American grandfather was barred from guarding local bridges and train stations as a member of his town’s ad hoc civilian guard because of his suspected possible Nazi sympathies. As a result, my grandparents stopped speaking German for the rest of their lives and never taught my father and uncles the language. Heck, being half-German myself, I am unceasingly suspicious that I might harbor secret Nazi sympathies that I am still not aware of, even at 60 years of age.
Never mind that Muenster was one of the most anti-Nazi cities in Germany during World War II. It also had one of the heaviest concentrations of Wehrmacht troop barracks in Germany, precisely to keep it in line. Following the same logic expressed above, I can’t help but wonder if Muenster, Texas, might harbor secret German sympathies; above all — horror of horrors – to anti-American abominations like the metric system and the Green Party (Tongue again very firmly in cheek).
In that America-first spirit, I would also introduce a bill requiring that Muenster change its name to something patriotic like “Processed American Cheese Food Productville” to prove its loyalty to the United States.
I acknowledge that my chances for re-election would be slimmer than Saddam Hussein’s return from Hell, (the lege would almost certainly find a way to pass some sort of law preventing my re-election), but to paraphrase Emily La Rue, it will have been “a glorious session.”
Don’t get me wrong. I am not especially enamored of living in Austin anymore, not with a bevy of negatives such as SXSW, Formula 1, Austin City Limits Festival, IH-35 traffic jams on Sunday afternoons and an annual $5000 property tax bill on a 57-year-old house that has never been remodeled.
Austin was a lot nicer 40 years ago when we counted barely more than 200,000 inhabitants, it was the cheapest city in the country in which to live, and chicken fried steak was as gourmet as our cuisine got. But Austin’s still my city, and I don’t like outsiders trying to interfere with the way we live our lives here, any more than I imagine the Muensters would enjoy outside meddling.
As the old saying goes, “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” and I’m in an awfully chilly mood at the moment.
March 28, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Ah, our beloved Governor, who bloviated to a conservative audience at a Faith and Family Rally (What other kind of audience attends such rallies?) in Austin earlier this holy week, employing a logic as twisted as a Steely Dan pretzel, about what he perceives as a sustained attack on traditional family values by gay rights activists.
“This is a very unsettling time in our nation’s history,” Governor Perry said, according to the Associated Press. “These are the days when a person is vilified when they state that they believe fundamentally that marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Now, I’m not going to dwell on his grammatical ineptness regarding the unholy mixing of the singular “a person” and the plural “they” when referring to the same entity in the preceding sentence. What else should one expect of a solid “C” and “D” Aggie (I graduated from UT with Honors and Special Honors, in contrast.)? Lord, forgive him; he knows not what he says.
Perry’s pontification took place a couple of hours after SCOTUS heard arguments on Proposition 8 (California’s gay marriage ban), and the day before the justices considered a case challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Getting back to his pretzel logic, Perry suggested that the fight by LGBT-rights advocates for equal treatment was proof that they were themselves intolerant.
“The underlying problem is that there is this very vocal, very litigious minority of Americans willing to legally attack anybody who dares utter a phrase or even a name that they don’t agree with,” he said. “In a twisting of logic, they insist on silencing the religious in the cause of tolerance. Now I ask you, where is the tolerance in that?”
So, at this point, as a tolerant, church-going Christian, married and never divorced heterosexual male with children, who has never been involved in an abortion, I ask our blessed Governor, where is the tolerance in his stance?
I have never attended a gay-rights rally, and never will, but considering our country’s current divorce rate, I don’t see how gay marriage or legal civil unions could train wreck the institution of traditional marriage any more than it already is.
And unlike Faith and Family stalwarts, I don’t think that same-sex marriage will start us down the slippery slope toward marriage between man and beast. Bestiality in or out of marriage is a tradition as old as the Bible itself and will continue as long as there are consenting farm boys and heifers.
The Austin American-Statesman reported that a heckler at the back of the crowd shouted out that the governor was finished politically. One can only hope.
Perry has been a consistent opponent of gay rights throughout his reign as chief goober among all Texas goobers. He has supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and pushed through a 2005 state ballot amendment that officially defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. During his Quixotic/idiotic quest for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, the governor put out an anti-gay rights campaign ad that quickly became one of the most disliked videos on YouTube.
At the afore-mentioned Faith and Family Rally, Perry told reporters that Texas was “fairly clear about where” it stands on gay marriage.
“The people of the state of Texas, myself included, believe marriage is between one man and one woman,” Perry said, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Well, Governor, you speak for some of the people of Texas, and a shrinking, dying group at that.
One ongoing poll of Texans shows that overall opposition to same sex-marriage has been on a slow and steady decline during the last decade, especially among young people and suburbanites.
Among the overall population, roughly 60 percent of respondents now favor some sort of same-sex union, be it gay marriage or civil unions. While 32 percent supported civil unions and 29 percent supported gay marriage in June 2009, in February 2013, 28 percent supported civil unions and 37 percent supported gay marriage, making support for gay marriage the clear plurality position in Texas and support for some sort of legal recognition of same-sex relationships a clear majority.
The governor of Texas has never spoken for me and never will, despite the fact that we are both approximately the same age, have the same first name, are proudly Eagle Scouts and have dachshunds for pets. I think and speak for myself, and myself alone, thank you. Unlike His Unctuous Honor, I am not arrogant enough to presume that I speak for anyone else, much less for a whole state.
And unlike our governor, when I don’t have anything worthwhile to say, I keep my pecan-pie hole shut.
So, to conclude: Happy Easter, y’all, and celebrate it in the true spirit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who never met a sinner He didn’t love, even the recalcitrant governor of our country’s second-largest, and smallest-minded, state.