“Whoever 
Again Calls This State Great Or Its Government Just Will Have A Lie In
Their Mouths.”

March 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

The last installment in a three-part series.

In the recent “Redlands, Red States” series, we explored the role that scoundrels and scalawags played the formation of our modern Texas. Now we will take a look at how a new generation of the same scoundrels continued the development of the sorry state of things many of us live in today.

Remember that by the 1840s, the whole of civilized Texas was awash in fraudulent land certificates. It was a Texas tradition dating back at least 20 years, and land certificate forgers and thieves would plague honest, hard-working Texans for another 40-odd years.

After the Civil War, this breed of crooks was known as “land sharks,” and their perfidies were best described by two short stories written by William S. Porter (O. Henry) who worked in the drafting department of the Texas General Land Office from 1887-1891, as an assistant draftsman: “Georgia’s Ruling,” and “Bexar Scrip No. 2692.”

The General Land Office (GLO) was created in December 1836 to “superintend, execute, and perform all acts touching or respecting the public lands of Texas,” which it did, after a fashion.

Land fraud problems continued through and the 1850s and Civil War, but we are resuming the story in the post-Civil War years..

Today, we present the O. Henry story, “Bexar Scrip No. 2692,” written in 1894 and which originally appeared in an issue of Porter’s humorous weekly, The Rolling Stone, base on a land grant found in the General Land Office archives.

William S. Porter worked for Land Commissioner Richard Hall, who served from January 1887 to January 1891.

One great care has been to so exercise the discretion given the Commissioner of the General Land Office that the public interests should ever be protected and advanced, and at the same time no right or privilege contemplated in the law for any citizen should be abridged or interfered with.”
 – Richard M. Hall

Bexar Scrip No. 2692

Whenever you visit Austin you should by all means go to see the General 
Land Office.


As you pass up the avenue you turn sharp round the corner of the court
house, and on a steep hill before you you see a medieval castle.



You think of the Rhine; the “castled crag of Drachenfels”; the Lorelei;
and the vine-clad slopes of Germany. And German it is in every line of 
its architecture and design.


The plan was drawn by an old draftsman from the “Vaterland,” whose heart 
still loved the scenes of his native land, and it is said he reproduced 
the design of a certain castle near his birthplace, with remarkable
 fidelity.


Under the present administration a new coat of paint has vulgarized its 
ancient and venerable walls. Modern tiles have replaced the limestone 
slabs of its floors, worn in hollows by the tread of thousands of feet,
 and smart and gaudy fixtures have usurped the place of the time-worn 
furniture that has been consecrated by the touch of hands that Texas will never cease to honor.


But even now, when you enter the building, you lower your voice, and 
time turns backward for you, for the atmosphere which you breathe is
 cold with the exudation of buried generations.


The building is stone with a coating of concrete; the walls are 
immensely thick; it is cool in the summer and warm in the winter; it is 
isolated and sombre; standing apart from the other state buildings,
sullen and decaying, brooding on the past.


Twenty years ago it was much the same as now; twenty years from now the
 garish newness will be worn off and it will return to its appearance of
 gloomy decadence.


People living in other states can form no conception of the vastness and 
importance of the work performed and the significance of the millions of 
records and papers composing the archives of this office.



The title deeds, patents, transfers and legal documents connected with
 every foot of land owned in the state of Texas are filed here.



Volumes could be filled with accounts of the knavery, the 
double-dealing, the cross purposes, the perjury, the lies, the bribery, 
the alteration and erasing, the suppressing and destroying of papers, 
the various schemes and plots that for the sake of the almighty dollar have left their stains upon the records of the General Land Office.


No reference is made to the employees. No more faithful, competent and 
efficient force of men exists in the clerical portions of any 
government, but there is – or was, for their day is now over – a class of 
land speculators commonly called land sharks, unscrupulous and greedy,
 who have left their trail in every department of this office, in the shape of titles destroyed, patents cancelled, homes demolished and torn 
away, forged transfers and lying affidavits.



Before the modern tiles were laid upon the floors, there were deep 
hollows in the limestone slabs, worn by the countless feet that daily 
trod uneasily through its echoing corridors, pressing from file room to
 business room, from commissioner’s sanctum to record books and back
again.


The honest but ignorant settler, bent on saving the little plot of land 
he called home, elbowed the wary land shark who was searching the
 records for evidence to oust him; the lordly cattle baron, relying on 
his influence and money, stood at the Commissioner’s desk side by side 
with the preemptor, whose little potato patch lay like a minute speck of 
island in the vast, billowy sea, of his princely pastures, and played 
the old game of “freeze-out,” which is as old as Cain and Abel.



The trail of the serpent is through it all.



Honest, earnest men have wrought for generations striving to disentangle 
the shameful coil that certain years of fraud and infamy have wound. 
Look at the files and see the countless endorsements of those in
authority:


“Transfer doubtful – locked up.”



“Certificate a forgery – locked up.”



“Signature a forgery.”



“Patent refused – duplicate patented elsewhere.”



“Field notes forged.”



“Certificates stolen from office”–and soon ad infinitum.



The record books, spread upon long tables, in the big room upstairs, are 
open to the examination of all. Open them, and you will find the dark 
and greasy finger prints of half a century’s handling. The quick hand of 
the land grabber has fluttered the leaves a million times; the damp
 clutch of the perturbed tiller of the soil has left traces of his 
calling on the ragged leaves.



Interest centres in the file room.



This is a large room, built as a vault, fireproof, and entered by but a
 single door.


There is “No Admission” on the portal; and the precious files are handed 
out by a clerk in charge only on presentation of an order signed by the
 Commissioner or chief clerk.


In years past too much laxity prevailed in its management, and the files 
were handled by all corners, simply on their request, and returned at
 their will, or not at all.


In these days most of the mischief was done. In the file room, there are
 about —- files, each in a paper wrapper, and comprising the title
 papers of a particular tract of land.


You ask the clerk in charge for the papers relating to any survey in
Texas. They are arranged simply in districts and numbers.



He disappears from the door, you hear the sliding of a tin box, the lid
 snaps, and the file is in your hand.



Go up there some day and call for Bexar Scrip No. 2692.



The file clerk stares at you for a second, says shortly: “Out of file.”



It has been missing twenty years.



The history of that file has never been written before.



Twenty years ago there was a shrewd land agent living in Austin who
 devoted his undoubted talents and vast knowledge of land titles, and the 
laws governing them, to the locating of surveys made by illegal 
certificates, or improperly made, and otherwise of no value through 
non-compliance with the statutes, or whatever flaws his ingenious and 
unscrupulous mind could unearth.



He found a fatal defect in the title of the land as on file in Bexar
 Scrip No. 2692 and placed a new certificate upon the survey in his own 
name.


The law was on his side.



Every sentiment of justice, of right, and humanity was against him.



The certificate by virtue of which the original survey had been made was 
missing.


It was not be found in the file, and no memorandum or date on the 
wrapper to show that it had ever been filed.



Under the law the land was vacant, unappropriated public domain, and
 open to location.


The land was occupied by a widow and her only son, and she supposed her 
title good.


The railroad had surveyed a new line through the property, and it had 
doubled in value.


Sharp, the land agent, did not communicate with her in any way until he 
had filed his papers, rushed his claim through the departments and into 
the patent room for patenting. Then he wrote her a letter, offering her the choice of buying from him 
or vacating at once.


He received no reply.



One day he was looking through some files and came across the missing 
certificate. Some one, probably an employee of the office, had by 
mistake, after making some examination, placed it in the wrong file, and 
curiously enough another inadvertence, in there being no record of its 
filing on the wrapper, had completed the appearance of its having never 
been filed.


Sharp called for the file in which it belonged and scrutinized it
 carefully, fearing he might have overlooked some endorsement regarding 
its return to the office.


On the back of the certificate was plainly endorsed the date of filing,
 according to law, and signed by the chief clerk.



If this certificate should be seen by the examining clerk, his own
 claim, when it came up for patenting, would not be worth the paper on
 which it was written.


Sharp glanced furtively around. A young man, or rather a boy about
 eighteen years of age, stood a few feet away regarding him closely with 
keen black eyes. Sharp, a little confused, thrust the certificate into
 the file where it properly belonged and began gathering up the other
 papers.


The boy came up and leaned on the desk beside him.



“A right interesting office, sir!” he said. “I have never been in here 
before. All those papers, now, they are about lands, are they not? The 
titles and deeds, and such things?”


“Yes,” said Sharp. “They are supposed to contain all the title papers.”



“This one, now,” said the boy, taking up Bexar Scrip No. 2692, “what 
land does this represent the title of? Ah, I see ‘Six hundred and forty
 acres in B—- country? Absalom Harris, original grantee.’ Please tell 
me, I am so ignorant of these things, how can you tell a good survey 
from a bad one. I am told that there are a great many illegal and 
fraudulent surveys in this office. I suppose this one is all right?”



“No,” said Sharp. “The certificate is missing. It is invalid.”



“That paper I just saw you place in that file, I suppose is something
 else – field notes, or a transfer probably?”



“Yes,” said Sharp, hurriedly, “corrected field notes. Excuse me, I am a 
little pressed for time.”



The boy was watching him with bright, alert eyes.



It would never do to leave the certificate in the file; but he could not 
take it out with that inquisitive boy watching him.



He turned to the file room, with a dozen or more files in his hands, and
 accidentally dropped part of them on the floor. As he stooped to pick 
them up he swiftly thrust Bexar Scrip No. 2692 in the inside breast
pocket of his coat.


This happened at just half-past four o’clock, and when the file clerk 
took the files he threw them in a pile in his room, came out and locked
 the door.


The clerks were moving out of the doors in long, straggling lines.



It was closing time.



Sharp did not desire to take the file from the Land Office.



The boy might have seen him place the file in his pocket, and the
 penalty of the law for such an act was very severe.



Some distance back from the file room was the draftsman’s room now
 entirely vacated by its occupants.



Sharp dropped behind the outgoing stream of men, and slipped slyly into 
this room.


The clerks trooped noisily down the iron stairway, singing, whistling, 
and talking.


Below, the night watchman awaited their exit, ready to close and bar the 
two great doors to the south and east. 
It is his duty to take careful note each day that no one remains in the
 building after the hour of closing.


Sharp waited until all sounds had ceased.
It was his intention to linger until everything was quiet, and then to 
remove the certificate from the file, and throw the latter carelessly on 
some draftsman’s desk as if it had been left there during the business 
of the day.


He knew also that he must remove the certificate from the office or
 destroy it, as the chance finding of it by a clerk would lead to its 
immediately being restored to its proper place, and the consequent
 discovery that his location over the old survey was absolutely worthless.


As he moved cautiously along the stone floor the loud barking of the
 little black dog, kept by the watchman, told that his sharp ears had 
heard the sounds of his steps. The great, hollow rooms echoed loudly, 
move as lightly as he could.


Sharp sat down at a desk and laid the file before him. In all his queer 
practices and cunning tricks he had not yet included any act that was 
downright criminal. He had always kept on the safe side of the law, but
 in the deed he was about to commit there was no compromise to be made 
with what little conscience he had left.


There is no well-defined boundary line between honesty and dishonesty.


The frontiers of one blend with the outside limits of the other, and he
 who attempts to tread this dangerous ground may be sometimes in one
 domain and sometimes in the other; so the only safe road is the broad
highway that leads straight through and has been well defined by line
 and compass.


Sharp was a man of what is called high standing in the community. That 
is, his word in a trade was as good as any man’s; his check was as good
 as so much cash, and so regarded; he went to church regularly; went in 
good society and owed no man anything.


He was regarded as a sure winner in any land trade he chose to make, but 
that was his occupation.



The act he was about to commit now would place him forever in the ranks 
of those who chose evil for their portion – if it was found out.



More than that, it would rob a widow and her son of property soon to be 
of great value, which, if not legally theirs, was theirs certainly by 
every claim of justice.


But he had gone too far to hesitate. 
His own survey was in the patent room for patenting. His own title was
 about to be perfected by the State’s own hand.


The certificate must be destroyed.



He leaned his head on his hands for a moment, and as he did so a sound
 behind him caused his heart to leap with guilty fear, but before he
could rise, a hand came over his shoulder and grasped the file.



He rose quickly, as white as paper, rattling his chair loudly on the 
stone floor.


The boy who land spoken to him earlier stood contemplating him with 
contemptuous and flashing eyes, and quietly placed the file in the left 
breast pocket of his coat.


“So, Mr. Sharp, by nature as well as by name,” he said, “it seems that I
 was right in waiting behind the door in order to see you safely out. You
will appreciate the pleasure I feel in having done so when I tell you my 
name is Harris. My mother owns the land on which you have filed, and if
 there is any justice in Texas she shall hold it. I am not certain, but I think I saw you place a paper in this file this afternoon, and it is 
barely possible that it may be of value to me. I was also impressed with 
the idea that you desired to remove it again, but had not the 
opportunity. Anyway, I shall keep it until to-morrow and let the
 Commissioner decide.”


Far back among Mr. Sharp’s ancestors there must have been some of the
 old berserker blood, for his caution, his presence of mind left him, and 
left him possessed of a blind, devilish, unreasoning rage that showed 
itself in a moment in the white glitter of his eye.


“Give me that file, boy,” he said, thickly, holding out his hand.



“I am no such fool, Mr. Sharp,” said the youth. “This file shall be laid
 before the Commissioner to-morrow for examination. If he finds — Help!
 Help!”

Sharp was upon him like a tiger and bore him to the floor. The boy was 
strong and vigorous, but the suddenness of the attack gave him no chance 
to resist. He struggled up again to his feet, but it was an animal, with 
blazing eyes and cruel-looking teeth that fought him, instead of a man.


Mr. Sharp, a man of high standing and good report, was battling for his 
reputation.

Presently there was a dull sound, and another, and still one more, and a
 blade flashing white and then red, and Edward Harris dropped down like
 some stuffed effigy of a man, that boys make for sport, with his limbs 
all crumpled and lax, on the stone floor of the Land Office.


The old watchman was deaf, and heard nothing.
The little dog barked at the foot of the stairs until his master made 
him come into his room.


Sharp stood there for several minutes holding in his hand his bloody 
clasp knife, listening to the cooing of the pigeons on the roof, and the 
loud ticking of the clock above the receiver’s desk.



A map rustled on the wall and his blood turned to ice; a rat ran across 
some strewn papers, and his scalp prickled, and he could scarcely 
moisten his dry lips with his tongue.


Between the file room and the draftsman’s room there is a door that
 opens on a small dark spiral stairway that winds from the lower floor to 
the ceiling at the top of the house.


This stairway was not used then, nor is it now.



It is unnecessary, inconvenient, dusty, and dark as night, and was a 
blunder of the architect who designed the building.



This stairway ends above at the tent-shaped space between the roof and 
the joists.


That space is dark and forbidding, and being useless is rarely visited.



Sharp opened this door and gazed for a moment up this narrow cobwebbed 
stairway.


* * * *



After dark that night a man opened cautiously one of the lower windows
 of the Land Office, crept out with great circumspection and disappeared 
in the shadows.


* * * *



One afternoon, a week after this time, Sharp lingered behind again after 
the clerks had left and the office closed. The next morning the first
comers noticed a broad mark in the dust on the upstairs floor, and the 
same mark was observed below stairs near a window.


It appeared as if some heavy and rather bulky object had been dragged
 along through the limestone dust. A memorandum book with “E. Harris”
 written on the flyleaf was picked up on the stairs, but nothing
 particular was thought of any of these signs.


Circulars and advertisements appeared for a long time in the papers 
asking for information concerning Edward Harris, who left his mother’s
 home on a certain date and had never been heard of since.



After a while these things were succeeded by affairs of more recent 
interest, and faded from the public mind.



* * * *



Sharp died two years ago, respected and regretted. The last two years of
his life were clouded with a settled melancholy for which his friends 
could assign no reason. The bulk of his comfortable fortune was made 
from the land he obtained by fraud and crime.


The disappearance of the file was a mystery that created some commotion
in the Land Office, but he got his patent.



* * * *



It is a well-known tradition in Austin and vicinity that there is a
 buried treasure of great value somewhere on the banks of Shoal Creek, 
about a mile west of the city.


Three young men living in Austin recently became possessed of what they
 thought was a clue of the whereabouts of the treasure, and Thursday
 night they repaired to the place after dark and plied the pickaxe and
 shovel with great diligence for about three hours.


At the end of that time their efforts were rewarded by the finding of a 
box buried about four feet below the surface, which they hastened to
 open.


The light of a lantern disclosed to their view the fleshless bones of a
 human skeleton with clothing still wrapping its uncanny limbs.



They immediately left the scene and notified the proper authorities of 
their ghastly find.


On closer examination, in the left breast pocket of the skeleton’s coat,
 there was found a flat, oblong packet of papers, cut through and through 
in three places by a knife blade, and so completely soaked and clotted 
with blood that it had become an almost indistinguishable mass.



With the aid of a microscope and the exercise of a little imagination 
this much can be made out of the letter; at the top of the papers:



B–x a– —rip N–2–92.


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Again Calls This State Great Or Its Government Just Will Have A Lie In
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