A Keen Fit of Economy: Fire, Land Fraud and the Texas Legislature

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. 

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