“Should We Have Another Such Legislature, Would It Not Be Well to Dissolve Our State Government and Get Attached to the Indian Territory?”
June 21, 2017 § Leave a comment
“Around the Texas Capitol this year, it wasn’t unusual to hear the 85th Legislature described as the worst anyone could remember. … this session had more than its fair share of dispiriting moments. … not much got done. This Legislature passed the fewest bills in years, and while some might argue that’s a good thing, the biggest issue facing Texas—the crumbling school-finance system—went unaddressed. Instead of action, we got grandstanding over school vouchers, property taxes, and, as ever, abortion.” — Texas Monthly, June 2017.
Well, yes, the 85th deserves its place in the history books, but no one alive now is old enough to remember the 19th Legislature, and it was really a doozy compared with the rather tame 85th. Read this chapter from my recent book, Austin Murder and Mayhem, and make up your own mind.
“Should We Have Another Such Legislature, Would It Not Be Well to Dissolve Our State Government and Get Attached to the Indian Territory?”
The lawmaking process is often compared to making sausage. Little good ever comes from any Texas legislative session, but some legislatures grind out particularly wretched sausage. The Nineteenth Legislature (1885) was possibly the rudest, most feckless and most violent legislature in Texas history.
Ah, where to begin with the carryings-on of the Nineteenth…
Let’s start with the evening of Wednesday, March 11, when a disgraceful scene marred forever the history of legislation in Texas.
The Senate was discussing a bill abolishing the office of insurance commissioner, its supporters claiming that the commissioner was little more than a newspaper clipping collector and filer, and that any clerk could do the job. Augustus Houston of Bexar County made an elaborate and forcible argument in favor of its retention.
William Davis of Cooke County replied in his characteristic style and took occasion, as he often did, to ridicule. He compared Houston to a “strutting turkey gobbler.” 066
At the conclusion of Davis’s speech, Houston rose to a question of privilege and stated that in debates, criticisms were often indulged in, but never before had the personal appearance of any member been dragged into the fray, until that “little yellow, sallow-faced mummy and blackguard from Cooke” saw fit to allude to him, and that he was ready to settle the matter outside the chamber, or either within or outside of the state, as the senator might select.
Confusion followed, and the Senate president instructed the sergeant-at-arms to arrest the two senators. Comparative quiet was restored without this extreme measure, but intense excitement prevailed in the lobbies.
Davis arose and said that any senator who would take advantage of his position on the Senate floor to insult a member was a deliberate coward, poltroon and pusillanimous blackguard and that if he (Davis) wanted to raise a fight he would do it outside the Senate chamber.
As he said this, Houston passed from the Senate floor into the lobby, saying as he did so, “Come out, then.”
Davis said he would not go out into a crowd, where he would be prevented from fighting, but that he could be found on the streets, at his boardinghouse or anywhere else outside the chamber.
After quiet was fully restored, Davis took the floor and stated that he had not intended to insult anyone in the heat of the debate and he was sorry that offense had been taken.
Houston replied that if that was the case, he felt sorry, too, and took back all that he had said.
That extraordinary scene in the Senate chamber was all the chief topic of discussion the next day. The belligerent senators had yet to encounter each other, and mutual friends were trying to preserve the peace. There was little hope of an actual reconciliation, but perhaps a difficulty might be staved off. There was no doubt that a very bad feeling prevailed and very little business would be done during the remainder of the session. The Senate was hopelessly cut up into hostile factions, and bickering and antagonism would destroy the hope of the business of the public being cared for.
“Back in the day,” journalists tended to protect the reputations of the sinners they covered—but only up to a point. By March 19, the Galveston Daily News had had enough of the Nineteenth’s shenanigans and ripped the covers off of events in the Senate chamber on Monday night, March 9:
“During the delivery of this speech the senate chamber was a perfect bedlam—shouting, gesticulating, remonstrating, denouncing from all corners of the chamber, pistols were passed around, as cards are dealt at a whist-table. Messengers were dispatched for pistols, knives were taken out and opened, and for a while everyone present was morally certain that bloodshed, if not slaughter, was imminent.”
The hostilities extended beyond the statehouse. A number of legislators were eating supper at Bulian’s restaurant on the evening of March 19. Mr. Merriweather, of Frio County, came in and took a seat. He had a stick in his hand with which he kept tapping Doctor Camp, the member from Limestone. Camp at first paid no attention but finally objected. Merriweather had been drinking and was ripe for a row. Some emphatic words passed, and a fight was prevented only through the intervention of friends. The difficulty was, however, renewed on the sidewalk not long after, and flourishing their walking canes, both the gentlemen made at each other. Speaker Upton, in endeavoring to act as peacemaker, caught one of the blows, a sorry reward for his benevolent intentions. Then others again interfered, and the row was stopped for the night.
On March 28, the Dallas Herald ran the following:
Prepared for War
A few days since, when war was raging in the legislature, and the lie and “sich” was being hurled promiscuously by the members, the constituents of our representative, Mr. R.S. Kimbrough, purchased and expressed him a six-shooter, with the injunction to defend the honor and good name of Dallas county at all hazards. Yesterday the following reply, which explains itself, was received:
Austin, March 27, 1885 — W.G. Sterrett, J.G. Stephens, et al, Dallas, Texas:
My Dear Friend: The “gun” came to hand O.K.—charge 25 cts. Many thanks for the same and accompanying kind expressions. I have loaded her up and am waiting for an opportunity to “distinguish” myself. My friends were very thoughtful, indeed, for a statesman working for $2 per day here would never accumulate enough to buy a 50-cent pistol with which to defend himself and country. I needed it, and my only regret is that you didn’t think of my poor, lone condition among savages sooner. Again tendering my most heartfelt thanks to one and all, I am yours for war and reform.
P.S.—The senators don’t come in the house now, except when I am out. K.
After these preliminary rounds, real blood finally began to flow.
That same morning, March 28, an Austin Statesman headline blared: “Cutting to Kill.”
Between ten and eleven o’clock on the evening of March 27, a very serious stabbing affray occurred almost in front of the Avenue Hotel, involving Tobias Mitchell, correspondent of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and Alexander Sampson, calendar clerk of the Senate.
The origin of the row was a caricature of Sampson in the March 25 issue of the Globe-Democrat, one of a series of burlesque pictures of members of the legislature, with some little accompanying description of the man. Sampson was not at all pleased with his, only a rear view being presented, and his ill temper was ill concealed. The sketch, though a burlesque on the surface, along with the accompanying brief biographical narrative, conveyed a deeper meaning in the light of subsequent developments:
This presents a view of the handsomest part of Major Alex Sampson, the calendar clerk of the Senate. He is the only representative of the Israelites in that body, and has a great reputation for “being seen” as he terms it, or shaping the course of legislation for a reasonable consideration. He is a daisy at securing free railroad passes for himself and “particular friend,” or none at all. Like all of his race, he is possessed of the strong ability to look out for number one, and it is a cold day when a senator can get him to calendar a bill conveniently.
Other men occupying far more honorable positions with quite as much reputation at stake were hit equally as hard, both by pen and picture, and yet did not consider themselves insulted.
Sampson claimed that he and Mitchell met on the sidewalk near the Avenue Hotel. Sampson told Mitchell that he had been given a rough deal in the paper and cursed the man who did it in terms not fit to be printed. At this, he said Mitchell drew a knife, whereupon he endeavored to do the same, but it caught somehow in his pocket and he could not pull it out. Then he ran, Mitchell after him. Sampson entered the Occidental saloon, followed by Mitchell, and the difficulty was renewed, resulting in the severe stabbing of Mitchell. Sampson’s weapon was a paper knife, double edged and sharp as a razor. Policeman Jim Williams came and arrested both men. Sampson was taken to the police station and released on a bond of $150, for disturbing the peace.
The wounded Mitchell walked to his room. He was bleeding terribly. Doctors Richard Swearingen (state health officer) and Frank McLaughlin were sent for, and they did all they could. The blade had entered at the point of the left shoulder and passed downward in the direction of the axillary artery. The artery was probably severed, the doctors thought, from the great flow of blood. They would not allow him to be talked to, for his life appeared in danger at the moment. (He recovered.)
A friend who heard it from the wounded man’s lips told Mitchell’s side of the story. It differed from Sampson’s statement in one important particular. He admitted having gone into the saloon after Sampson, but his better judgment began to assert itself, and wishing to avoid a scene, he was turning to go when Sampson suddenly sprang forward and stabbed him.
Mitchell was well known in Texas journalism. He was managing editor of the Houston Post before its demise, a well-built, muscular man, weighing about 180 pounds, and possessing great nerve. He was around forty years of age and generally popular, having pleasant manners and a genial smile for every man he met. Scarcely a newspaperman in Texas was better liked.
Although arrested only for disturbing the peace, Sampson would find a far more serious charge to confront the next morning.
Sampson hailed from Galveston, where he was a ward politician. Little was known about him, except that when the legislature assembled, he sought, and was elected, the Senate’s calendar clerk. In the early days of the session, he was earning a reputation as an efficient officer, winning golden opinions from the senators and others who came in contact with him. But his true motives gradually began to reveal themselves.
For more than a month, the moral atmosphere of the capital had been rendering an unpleasant odor. The lobby was filled with whispers of questionable doings, and members of both houses swapped reports of questionable methods indulged in by attaches of the legislature: of bills being extracted from the committee rooms, defaced, altered and mutilated; that officers, mostly clerks, of both houses were professional lobbyists who levied blackmail on every party who appeared before the legislature, interested in either the passage or defeat of a bill.
They levied tribute on all who would yield up a dollar. The advocates of certain new counties were bled freely. When the gambling bill was up, the gamblers were sucked dry. A telegraph lobby that appeared was rich game. The “sailors bill” (which would have prevented foreign sailors from working beyond their ship’s tackle in Texas ports) was tackled when it was first introduced, but it didn’t produce much.
The grand stand of the session was made on the bucket-shop bill. A bucket shop was a private establishment where a customer could put up a specified margin on gold, cotton or other commodities to be delivered on an agreed-upon date in the future. We call it futures dealing. Here the boys expected to make the blood flow freely. They looked for big returns and luxurious expenditures, and some of the ring’s members had planned a trip to New York, Hot Springs and other points when the bucket shop bill was called up.
When the House convened on the morning of March 28, Representative Lorenzo Fisher of Galveston exposed Sampson and company. About a month earlier, Sampson had written a letter to a well-known bucket shop proprietor in Galveston, stating that a pending bill, the bucket shop bill—which would prohibit speculation in grain and stock futures—could be suppressed if the bucket shop men would pay Joseph Tryon, clerk of the house’s Judiciary Committee No. 2, $1500. The bill was killed by placing on it a rider that would also prohibit dealing in futures in cotton and other public exchanges.
The reading of Sampson’s letter on the House floor created a great sensation. Fisher, in a vigorous speech, exposed the doings of the band of clerical blackmailers, who, he said, had infested the legislative halls since the opening of the session.
Sampson was expelled that day.
Tryon was a young man from Houston, according to the Galveston News. He was a generous, impulsive fellow, reckless and thoughtless and could easily be made a tool of by designing men. In conversation with a News correspondent following Sampson’s expulsion, Tryon admitted that others made a cat’s-paw of him, though with loyalty worthy of a better cause, he refused to squeal.
Tryon was expelled on March 30, the day before the legislature adjourned.
They returned to their respective home turfs, evidently with open arms, because in September 1886, Tryon was a candidate for Harris County attorney, and Alex Sampson for Galveston County judge, which the Galveston News regarded as a rebuke to the Nineteenth Legislature.
Sampson would play a prominent role in Galveston’s legal circles and politics for years to come.
The postmortems on the Nineteenth began weeks before its adjournment, and they cut to the bone.
The Fort Worth Gazette declared on March 18, “The legislature has been at work now since the 13th of January, and has nothing but a few local bills and several disgraceful scenes, to show to the people as the result of its labors.”
Hasn’t Texas just a wee bit too much of “good fellowship” in its legislature? A “devilish good fellow” may be place around the stove of a courthouse room or a “store”; but men who make laws should be “honorable” men in “word and deed.” “Tom, Dick, and Harry” and the slap on the shoulder may do for the street, but dignity, self-respect, and a regard for personal, as well as public, rights, are expected of statesmen. There is too much of big-boyism, “kids,” “mugwumps,” etc., at Austin, and the solons have not been without a certain newspaper encouragement in converting the legislative halls of the state into the play-ground of a village school. Indeed, it is likely, from the aid and comfort they received from one newspaper, that “the kids” actually grew to believe that people in Texas had suspended all business and were standing on tiptoe to see what “the boys” would do next; whether they would thump another newspaper man, put a mansard roof on a judge, or curse and abuse each other. Texas is sick and tired of this “kid” business, in the legislature as well as in the university.
The Austin Statesman nailed the lid on the coffin on April 9:
“The Nineteenth Legislature had no intelligent executive suggestions, until at the last hour Comptroller Swain took the bull by the horns and showed the necessity for increased taxation for State expenses, as well as for a law forcing payment for the use of lands set aside for educational purposes. The two measures suggested by him led to the only two valuable enactments of the Nineteenth Legislature.
“The Legislature failed to pass the granite bill—even permitting the capitol to be built of granite. Such was legislation to the Nineteenth Legislature. When will we have such another; and should we have another such legislature, would it not be well to dissolve our state government and get attached to the Indian Territory?”
It’s appropriate to close the books on a joke of a legislature with a joke about it, from the Statesman.
We do not know how much good or bad the legislature has thus far accomplished. They are still grinding away, but the grinding is like the turning of the crank on a peanut roaster. A countryman from Onion Creek watched a man who was turning the handle on a peanut roaster steadily for half an hour, and then he asked:
“When are you going to play a tune?”
He had taken the peanut roaster for a hand organ. The legislators are still turning the crank, but we are unable to determine just yet whether it is a hand organ for the amusement of the people or a peanut roaster for their own private profit.
April 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
To know why you’re where you’re at now, you’ve got to know where you’ve come from. With the fall elections nipping at our heels like a pack of rabid canines, the following editorial from the Austin Weekly Statesman, June 24, 1875, makes it pretty clear that the fears and prejudices of a certain voting class that resonated then still resonate now; just add “Beaner” to “Sambo” and it’s 2015, not 1875.
Is It Not a Fair Proposition?
About one-fourth of the whole population of Texas is black, and about three-fourths of the criminals are black. The greatest burden to which Texas taxpayers –negroes paying nothing – are subjected is evolved from the terrible jury and judiciary systems. Two-thirds of the cost of prosecutions arise from negro criminality, and yet negroes contribute not a groat to the payment of such costs. The burdensome public school system, costing about one-third of the whole burden of taxation levied by the State, is imposed largely in behalf of blacks, who pay nothing directly, as taxpayers, into the State Treasury. In view of these facts the black elephant assumes mastodon-like proportions, and the question arises how far we should burden ourselves to gain an impossible end and one not desired if sustainable – the equalization and homogeneity of the two races. We did not import Sambo, but bought him and gave gold when he was sold under prospective emancipation acts by the Northern people. They took the money and we the blessed negro; but now, when a day of divine settlement comes, we must lose the moneyed value of the African, to which we do not object since this trade is a good one, but would it not be fair to relieve Texas of this tax imposed to educate the sons of Ham? We have not any alarming degree of faith in the perfectibility of a race whose story and position and degree of intelligence are the same for five thousand years, and if facts, presented by the negro’s fortunes in the South since emancipation, signify anything, the race liberated will soon lose by freedom all it gained by slavery. But would it not be proper for our Northern fellow-countrymen, while we maintain courts and Ward, Dewey & Co., to relieve us of burdens incident to Sambo’s education?
July 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
With the deaths of 10 or 12 first responders (there is some dispute as to the official firefighter status of two of the victims) at West, Texas, in April; four firefighters in Houston in May; and the 19 Granite Mountain hotshot crew members most recently in Arizona, my mind, as well as the minds of the rest of us at the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office, have been occupied with trying to figure out what we and the rest of the Texas fire service can do to lessen the numbers of firefighter deaths. Being a historian by training, I do a lot of reading about the history of the Texas and U.S. fire service, and I’ve got a tragic, largely forgotten story to tell today, a week past its 120th anniversary.
Ten of millions of Americans have heard of the great Chicago fire of 1871, the tragic conflagration that killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres. The fire began on October 8, but continued into and did most of its damage on October 9, 1871. Fire Prevention Week was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire.
But almost no one remembers another tragic Chicago fire that happened nearly 22 years later, on a beautiful summer afternoon at the great World’s Fair of 1893, a fire that exacted one of the deadliest tolls in U.S. firefighter history. This is the story, told just a few hours after it happened.
CHICAGO, July 10.—Death has never done such swift and ghastly work at a fire in this city since the dark days of October, 1871, as that which turned the World’s fair grounds into a scene of mourning this afternoon. The horror of the spectacle will forever remain as a hideous nightmare in the minds of many men and women who gazed upon it. It was intensified by the dizzy height from which the victims were seen to fall into a vast furnace of blazing timber and other inflammable material. Deeds of heroism were done by the firemen who perished and those who live to grieve over their lost comrades. The Columbian guards were not lacking in bravery and devotion to duty in the hour of danger and even in the face of death.
There is mourning within the White City to-night, for the blackened remnants of humanity full of life but yesterday are lying beneath the watersoaked wreck or stretched out in the morgue outside the gates. The loss of property will probably amount to $650,000, but no one except those who have suffered financially is thinking of the money loss.
The sun was shining its brightest from a blue sky at 1:30 o’clock this afternoon, and the pleasure-seeking people passed under the shadow of the cold storage warehouse. Suddenly a boy, Wm. Sheppard, son of the guidebook publisher, saw a tongue of flame escaping from the cupola or observatory, which is the topmost section of the warehouse. From the ground to that first flame there were 380 feet of space. The boy gave the alarm, and in a few minutes the heroes of the fire stations at the Casino and the Terminal depot came dashing along with hose cart, engine and hook and ladder, many alas that never returned alive.
The altitude of the blazing tower, and its isolation from the roof, made the work of the firemen hazardous and slow from the start. Before the men got to work several painters, electric light men and others employed in the building ascended by the elevators to the main roof and afterward climbed up the spiral staircase which was built around the great death trap of a smokestack until they reached the balcony underneath the burning cupola.
They found the fire had gone too far to be smothered by the chemicals at hand. They wailed for the firemen to join them, thinking they could be of help. Capt Harkness of the Guards ordered Sergt. Douglass to take eight men up to the blazing tower and aid the firemen. The sergeant gave his superior officer one look, such as one as the officers of the light brigade at Balaklava may have given the commanding general when he gave the order to charge in the midst of roaring Russian cannon. But the sergeant went, and eight guards followed to do their duty. By a strange chance all are alive tonight and mourn the loss of brave comrades.
Not so with the firemen. They went out on the roof and hauled up the hose with ropes to the first story of the tower on the south side of the warehouse. Others rushed up the spiral stairway to the landing next the blazing top and lowered ropes on three sides to the men below to attach the hose. Until this time the fire resembled the flaming mouth of a small blast furnace, and at a distance there seemed to be no danger. The experienced eye of Chief Murphy, in command of the World’s fair fire department, failed to suspect any danger to his men when he ordered them to go to the tower below the blaze. But, he sent nearly all of them to a death, the horror and agony of which no human tongue or pen can describe. Those few moments of realisation that the flames surrounded them above and below followed by their last act in life must have been as an eternity of hell to everyone.
A sixteen-foot ladder was placed from the first section of the tower to the landing where the men were, but no one thought of placing a big ladder from the main roof to the tower so as to connect with the small one at the main roof. The men were at work on the east and south sides. All this time the flames were burning through the larger section of the tower. The first intimation of danger came to the victims when the smoke appeared under them, and as the wind blew it into their faces they retreated around the landing to the north side of the tower with the exception of one man, a painter, who slid down the hose, which had been brought up to the south side of the tower. It may be that more would have taken this apparently sure means of escape had it not been for the smoke which enveloped them. It seemed as if the victims changed position because they feared the flames would soon follow the smoke which they saw.
Death quickly came to put an end to it all. The flames had been devouring five feet of framework which surrounded the cast-iron shaft that pierced the tower below the men. Quick as a flash, like a band of molten gold, flames burst through the square. The gold letters, “Hercules Ice, Skating Rink and Cold Storage Warehouse” were in the center of the tower, and around them the flames circulated and raised to mock and torture the poor wretches to whom the eyes of thousands were turned. In a few seconds the imprisoned ones felt the fire coming, and with one impulse of self-preservation, the men moved quickly to where the ropes were attached at the northwest corner.
They could not look down and see the flames because of the projecting cornices, but they knew where the ropes were. There they stood, huddled together, some without their coats, others hatless, and all preparing to save themselves if they could. The man nearest the rope grasped it and descended. But for only a dozen feet. The flames had no mercy. The rope was burned in two, and, with feet downward, the first victim shot through the air to the main roof. He turned partly over before he struck and bounded up.
A great cry of anguish and fear came up from thousands on the ground where the first of those awful leaps could be seen. Strong men wept and became hysterical. They cried aloud for God to save those poor souls. They fell on their knees and prayed to God that all might not perish. Women could be seen everywhere fainting and wringing their hands, turning away their faces and crying at the sickening sight. An Intramural train facing the fiery spectacle had to be stopped by some of the women on board fainting and becoming hysterical.
But worse was yet to follow. No sooner had one man struck the roof than another leaped from the tower before the horrified gaze of the spectators. His body kept straight feet-down until near the roof when he turned a somersault, and a second cry of horror came from thousands of throats. The two ropes on the north side of the tower where the doomed men were huddled were almost useless for the saving of life, yet for the first possession of the corner at least ten men fought as savage beasts. They only prolonged their consciousness of life, for all were doomed to die; yet they struggled to catch at anything which seemed to hold a chance to live. One by one, they dropped from the burning tower, some clinging to the burning rope as far as it afforded them any hold, and then shooting through a solid sheet of flame to the roof.
The sight was too much for the military men who beheld the scene from the ground to bear without a shudder and a turning away of faces. Human forms leaping through flames 100 feet or more, down, down to sure death, presented a sight the stoniest heart could not witness unmoved.
The last man on the tower died the hero’s death among all those heroes who faced the furnace below. He had waited without apparent fear until there was only himself left, like Casablanca, who stood on the burning deck. He was a fireman and he grasped the remnant of burning rope just as the whole tower structure parted diagonally and fell towards the north, right over the prostrate bodies of the poor fellows who had leaped to escape the pitiless flames. The last man who went down to death with the tower kept feet downward as far as the rope went and then the rush of flames and air was so great that his body was turned round and round in the passage within sight of all and the blazing tower fell over his form making a funeral pyre and ending his agony, if he was not dead before striking the roof.
When the tower toppled over there was no hope of saving any who had not been taken off the roof. The bodies, on striking had become imbedded nearly three feet in the gravel and tar between the wooden joists, and only a few could be taken to a place of safety before the great central tower crashed over.
The most sublime deed of heroism was performed by three firemen in an attempt to save the life of their superior officer whom they loved, Capt. Jan Fitzpatrick, the assistant fire chief at the fair. He was on the roof when the tower fell over without warning and his log was broken, being crushed by falling timbers. Being on the east side of the roof, thought he was in no immediate danger as a track ladder was close to the edge ready for any emergency. The captain crawled to the edge of the roof already on fire and held out his hands in a mute appeal for help. The hand which is now stilled in death was seen by Capt. Kennedy, of Hook and Ladder No. 8. He and two of his men climbed up the ladder, fighting their way through the flames which burst through the whole east side and from the roof, while three streams of water were turned on the brave men to keep their clothing from catching fire.
The fiery gauntlet was run to the top. Capt. Kennedy climbed over into what seemed a bed of flame, but he reappeared in a few seconds with the body of Capt. Fitzpatrick. A rope was fastened about the unconscious and dying captain’s body, and with difficulty he was lowered to the ground, enveloped in flames, hurled partly back by streams of water. The noble rescue, although it only resulted in saving the captain’s body from further mutilation by fire, was watched by thousands of people in breathless suspense and rewarded by a mighty cheer. But the doctors shook their heads doubtfully when the burned and broken form was carried in. The captain never recovered consciousness.
The foreign commissioners and United States army officers acted promptly in regard to furnishing men for guard duty during the height of the excitement which almost reached a panic when it was feared the blazing wreck would explode on account of the ammonia stored there. But the word was soon passed around that the ammonia was in solid form. All the men of the third infantry, U.S.A., on duty at the fair, the French marine corps and “Buffalo Bill’s” cowboys reinforced the 800 guards and uniformed guides, the ambulance and hospital corps were worked in order and effectively until the inflammable, towering mass had become only a smoking, black ruin, a hideous disfigurement on the fair landscape of the White City. Later in the day the most effective cordon around the ruins was formed by immense pools of water from bursted pipes, hydrants and hose. This served the firemen in good stead when they were engaged in soaking the debris and pulling away blackened timbers to get at the bodies of the victims or what remained of them.
Director-General Davis, President Palmer, Col. Rice and Director of Works Burnham were early on the scene. They were too much overcome to say much on the spot. The director general stood with blanched face like Napoleon at Waterloo when all but honor was lost. The horror of the sight forced him to turn away. He said the exposition officially had nothing more to do with the Hercules Iron Co., its exhibit and concession to supply ice and store perishable goods, than it had with any other exhibitor or concessionaire. He complimented the foreign commissioners and others who had offered their services in obtaining subscriptions for the families of the firemen. Col. Rice said but little, but that went a long way: “This is the result of the reduction of the guards by the administration. If the two guards who were taken from the warehouse last week had been there they could have extinguished the fire with the chemical at hand as they have done before in the same place. The guards were there to take precautions against fire because of the dangerous construction of the building.”
As soon as the ruins were cooled by the firemen, the work of searching for bodies began. The first body was taken out about 6:30 p.m. It was evidently a fireman, as a blue shirt covered the trunk, which was all that was found of the man. A short time later two more were taken out. Under one of the bodies was found a broken sword, a mute informer of its wearer’s identity—a Columbian guard. The other body was unrecognizable as it was charred to a cinder. Two more bundles of flesh were found at intervals about 8 o’clock and one more at 9. In all eight bodies were taken out by 10 o clock, when operations were stopped for the night on account of the risk in working under beams and iron columns and the absence of light. The search for bodies continued the next day.
More than 20 firefighters had lost their lives, along with another dozen or so fair visitors.
Two hours after the extent of the calamity was known, $24,000 had been subscribed for the families of the men who lost their lives. By July 15, about $35,000 had been contributed to the relief fund. At the pass gates at the World’s fair nearly $1,500 was dropped in by the pass holders. About the same amount was received from exhibitors on the grounds. Haverly’s Criterion theatre gave an entire week’s proceeds to the fund and there were many more benefit performances and individual contributions.
Not to devalue the role of our military and its dedication to protecting our country all over the world, but take at least a moment to also remember and appreciate the fact that your community’s firefighters protect you and your neighbors 24X7, and in Texas, 80 percent of them do it out of the goodness of their heart, as unpaid volunteers.
June 29, 2013 § Leave a comment
The other day you read my chicken scratches about the latest of Texas’ many dubious first place/last place accomplishments, in “We’re Fifty-One! We’re Fifty-One!”
Well today I am somewhat happy to say that we are not number one in one of the country’s most shameful activities, just number eight. Amarillo’s Clements Unit has only the country’s eighth highest rate of inmate-on-inmate sexual assault at male correctional facilities, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
At Clements, just 6.8 percent of inmates report they experienced sexual victimization at the hand of another inmate during the past year.
The report is based on the National Inmate Survey, an anonymous survey of 92,449 adult inmates in 606 prisons, jails and special confinement facilities between February 2011 and May 2012. Caveat: the survey collected allegations of sexual victimization, rather than confirmed incidents.
The survey is a child of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, enacted in an attempt to reduce sexual assault in prisons through the development of prevention standards, punishment of sexual assault and standardized data collection on the crime.
Clements’ new ranking is an improvement over previous years. In 2008 Clements was ranked second highest in terms of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
So much for the good news. As the old saying goes, “Every cloud has its silver lining.” I don’t exactly know what the opposite of this sagebrush observation would be (maybe “Every sunny summer day has its health-threatening ozone level”), but regardless of how it might read, it’s as common as dust devils in West Texas.
To wit: (1) in this latest survey, more inmates at Clements report being forced, coerced or pressured into sex or sexual contact with prison staff than any other male prison in the country.
While staff sexual misconduct at Clements is on the decline, 8.1 percent of inmates reported sexual victimization by staff involving force or threat of force, the highest rate of any prison or jail in the country, according to the survey. Clements inmates also reported the highest rate for inmates being coerced or pressured into sex among male prisons, at 8.7 percent.
In response to questions from an Amarillo Globe-News reporter, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson Jason Clark questioned the report’s accuracy due to the anonymity of surveyed inmates.
“Many allegations of sexual assault investigated by the Office of Inspector General, even if they accurately reflect the offender’s perceptions, simply do not include the basic legal elements of sexual assault, and could reflect offender attitudes toward other offensive behavior or legitimate security precautions such as strip searches,” he said.
Two other Texas prisons surveyed were identified as having high rates of sexual victimization by inmates, Lubbock’s Montford Psychiatric Facility with a rate of 8.4 percent and Beaumont’s Stiles Unit with 7.8 percent. The Clements Unit was one of two Texas facilities identified as having high rates of sexual misconduct with staff. At the Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony, 6.8 percent of inmates reported sexual activity with prison staff.
(2) All in all, the survey identified five Texas jails and prisons with high rates of sexual victimization by inmates or sexual staff misconduct — more than any other state included in the report.
To be fair, here’s TDCJ’s side of the story, courtesy of the Globe-News.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Office of the Inspector General investigates knowledge or allegations of staff sexual misconduct, said Ralph Bales, the Prison Rape Elimination Act ombudsman for TDCJ. Employees who violate TDCJ sexual abuse policies, federal or state law are subject to disciplinary penalties, including criminal prosecution, he said. Clements Unit staff receive sexual abuse prevention training, Bales said.
Sexual assault exams for inmates at the Clements and Neal units are performed at Northwest Texas Hospital, said Ric Vogelgesang, facility health administrator of the Neal Unit.
The TDCJ Safe Prisons Program screens offenders for possible vulnerability to sexual assault or aggressiveness, Bales said. Inmates take a sexual assault awareness course that includes methods to avoid victimization, and the program was expanded in 2010 to include the inpatient mental health population, he said. Almost half of the 3,557 inmates at the Clements Unit are on an inpatient or outpatient mental health caseload, Bales said.
Inmates held for violent sexual offenses and who are under psychological distress reported higher rates of sexual victimization by another inmate, according to the survey. Gay, lesbian or bisexual inmates are among those who are most at risk for sexual assault, the report said.
Understaffing, high employee turnover and the level of violence at a facility can contribute to its sexual assault rate, said Michele Deitch, jail conditions expert and professor at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs.
Higher rates can also be associated with facilities in rural locations, which can have reduced transparency, she said.
Salaries for correctional officers begin at $2,319.05 per month, according to the TDCJ.
You get what you pay for, I guess.
June 22, 2013 § Leave a comment
Update! Update! August 1, 2013
Texas ranks first in the number of least insured counties nationwide, with 22 out of the “top” 30. Yee hah! Texas proud! Another case of cutting off your balls to spite your spank toy, because all of those uninsured folks go to the emergency room when they get sick, where they can’t afford to pay the astronomical bills and we insured Texans pay for it in increased premiums. Thanks, Good Hair, and the rest of your fellow bloody-red goober pals. But as I have pointed out in other posts, saving a penny to waste a dollar is a Texas lege tradition.
For my own perverse amusement, I used to keep a list of of good things Texas ranked last in, and the bad things Texas ranked first in; e.g., first in workplace deaths and last in individual health insurance coverage. I quit toting up the bad news several years ago when I became satisfied that for millions of people, Texas is one of the crappiest states in the country in which to live, especially during the summer when the AC goes out, or if you’re like several million poor saps, you can’t afford air conditioning.
Now comes news of another glorious last, plus a couple of other close-to-the-bottom-of-the-heap findings.
Texas ranked 51st in voter turnout in 2010 — behind all other states and Washington D.C. — and 49th in the number of citizens who contact public officials, according to a study released by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin and the National Conference on Citizenship.
The state’s slacking continues when it comes to civic participation rates, ranking 43rd in donating and 42nd in volunteering, according to the Texas Civic Health Index.
“Some of the numbers are really surprising — maybe even shocking,” said journalism Professor Regina Lawrence, director of the Annette Strauss Institute, such as that 61.6 percent of voting-eligible Texans reported being registered to vote in 2010 but just 36.4 percent reported voting.
In other words, a “really active one-third” of the voting-eligible population exerts “outsized influence, if you will, on the future of the state,” she said.
And who comprises that “really active one-third?” I ask. To which I answer, the same people who elected Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate and have kept Texas a solidly blood-red state since 1994 (which in itself, is another dubious distinction): mostly older, white Texans. To my knowledge, no other state has failed to elect a Democrat to statewide office for so long period of time, at least in modern history. If I am mistaken, please, please feel free to prove me wrong.
Texas used to be, like most of the South, “yellow-dog” Democrat, referring to the old joke that folks would stoop to voting for any smelly, flea-bitten yellow cur, as long it was a Democrat. Now it’s full of “pink elephant” Republicans who would vote for a drunken pachyderm hallucination so long as it was Republican.
The study gathered data primarily from the 2011 U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey on Voting, Volunteering and Civic Engagement.
Consider that in 2012, Texas’ proportion of hourly-paid workers earning at or below the federal minimum wage ranked second among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Overall, wage and salary workers earning hourly rates in the state had median hourly earnings of $12 in 2012; nationally, the median was $12.80.The median hourly rates for men and women in Texas in 2012 were $13.05 and $10.84, respectively. For the nation, the comparable figures were $13.88 per hour for men and $11.99 per hour for women.
Further considering that minimum wage jobs are typically among the most physically exhausting in the workplace, and that many minimum wage workers are forced to work two or more jobs to make ends meet, it should come as no surprise that Texas ranks so low in donating or volunteering (although young collegiate Texans score pretty well when it comes to volunteer work).
In 2012, 6.1 million Texas workers were paid by the hour, which means that slightly over 3 million earned $12 an hour or less. Now, someone who works 40 hours per week, 52 weeks a year, without taking a holiday, vacation day or sick day, will gross $24, 960. His or her take-home pay, naturally, will be quite a bit less after taxes, plus the fact that many of these lower-paid workers receive no benefits, including paid holidays, vacation or sick days. At $96 per day, gross pay, anything beyond a handful of unpaid sick days and Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and/or Christmas weekday holidays can put quite a dent into your income; 10 such days can set you back just short of $1000.
Considering that an extremely healthy proportion of new jobs added to the Texas economy during the past decade have been at this lower end of the pay scale, it is obvious that the Texas economic miracle is not all that certain of our state leaders have cracked it up to be. The audacity of their claims would crack me up with laughter, if the reality were not so pitiful. Our fearless leader proudly points out that Texas is a “right to work” state; the more cynical among us might point out that Texas is also a “right to starve” state.
As to why we rank dead last in voter turnout and second from last in contacting public officials, your guess is as good as mine. One of the most obvious possibilities is that a healthy chunk of those non-voters have no faith in state government and their elected officials. Given the track records of our legislature, governor, lieut. governor and attorney general, it’s not a bad guess. There are certainly plenty of young eligible voters who have no faith in the system and the ability of their vote to change it, at from my admittedly unscientific polling.
Perhaps it has to do with reasons previously cited; even a few hours spent away from work voting means money lost, since most low-wage-paying employers don’t generally give paid time off to vote. And as for contacting your elected officials, perhaps it is because they live in a world so far removed from your own that you might as well be trying to talk to the man (or woman) in the Moon. You can’t relate to them any more than they can relate to you. And if you do try to contact them, you’ll probably get no further than a secretary or junior staffer and maybe a meaningless form letter for your efforts.
Study authors also posit that another possible reason for low turnout from these groups is the lack of outreach efforts from both parties to them.
Your guess is as good as mine and theirs; no matter. For whatever reason, we’re dead last in yet another category of honor, so let’s break out the Bud Light and party ‘til we start seeing them pink elephants. Greg Abbott thirsts for our votes.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
March 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
The second installment in a three-part series.
Today, we present the O. Henry story, “Georgia’s Ruling,” written in 1910.
If you should chance to visit the General Land Office, step into the draughtsmen’s room and ask to be shown the map of Salado County. A leisurely German – possibly old Kampfer himself – will bring it to you. It will be four feet square, on heavy drawing-cloth. The lettering and the figures will be beautifully clear and distinct. The title will be in splendid, undecipherable German text, ornamented with classic Teutonic designs – very likely Ceres or Pomona leaning against the initial letters with cornucopias venting grapes and wieners. You must tell him that this is not the map you wish to see; that he will kindly bring you its official predecessor. He will then say, “Ach, so!” and bring out a map half the size of the first, dim, old, tattered, and faded.
By looking carefully near its northwest corner you will presently come upon the worn contours of Chiquito River, and, maybe, if your eyes are good, discern the silent witness to this story. The Commissioner of the Land Office was of the old style; his antique courtesy was too formal for his day. He dressed in fine black, and there was a suggestion of Roman drapery in his long coat-skirts. His collars were “undetached” (blame haberdashery for the word); his tie was a narrow, funereal strip, tied in the same knot as were his shoe-strings. His gray hair was a trifle too long behind, but he kept it smooth and orderly. His face was clean-shaven, like the old statesmen’s. Most people thought it a stern face, but when its official expression was off, a few had seen altogether a different countenance. Especially tender and gentle it had appeared to those who were about him during the last illness of his only child.
The Commissioner had been a widower for years, and his life, outside his official duties, had been so devoted to little Georgia that people spoke of it as a touching and admirable thing. He was a reserved man, and dignified almost to austerity, but the child had come below it all and rested upon his very heart, so that she scarcely missed the mother’s love that had been taken away. There was a wonderful companionship between them, for she had many of his own ways, being thoughtful and serious beyond her years.
One day, while she was lying with the fever burning brightly in her cheeks, she said suddenly:
“Papa, I wish I could do something good for a whole lot of children!”
“What would you like to do, dear?” asked the Commissioner. “Give them a party?”
“Oh, I don’t mean those kind. I mean poor children who haven’t homes, and aren’t loved and cared for as I am. I tell you what, papa!”
“What, my own child?”
“If I shouldn’t get well, I’ll leave them you — not give you, but just lend you, for you must come to mamma and me when you die too. If you can find time, wouldn’t you do something to help them, if I ask you, papa?”
“Hush, hush dear, dear child,” said the Commissioner, holding her hot little hand against his cheek; “you’ll get well real soon, and you and I will see what we can do for them together.”
But in whatsoever paths of benevolence, thus vaguely premeditated, the Commissioner might tread, he was not to have the company of his beloved. That night the little frail body grew suddenly too tired to struggle further, and Georgia’s exit was made from the great stage when she had scarcely begun to speak her little piece before the footlights. But there must be a stage manager who understands. She had given the cue to the one who was to speak after her.
A week after she was laid away, the Commissioner reappeared at the office, a little more courteous, a little paler and sterner, with the black frock-coat hanging a little more loosely from his tall figure.
His desk was piled with work that had accumulated during the four heartbreaking weeks of his absence. His chief clerk had done what he could, but there were questions of law, of fine judicial decisions to be made concerning the issue of patents, the marketing and leasing of school lands, the classification into grazing, agricultural, watered, and timbered, of new tracts to be opened to settlers.
The Commissioner went to work silently and obstinately, putting back his grief as far as possible, forcing his mind to attack the complicated and important business of his office. On the second day after his return he called the porter, pointed to a leather-covered chair that stood near his own, and ordered it removed to a lumber-room at the top of the building. In that chair Georgia would always sit when she came to the office for him of afternoons.
As time passed, the Commissioner seemed to grow more silent, solitary, and reserved. A new phase of mind developed in him. He could not endure the presence of a child. Often when a clattering youngster belonging to one of the clerks would come chattering into the big business-room adjoining his little apartment, the Commissioner would steal softly and close the door. He would always cross the street to avoid meeting the school-children when they came dancing along in happy groups upon the sidewalk, and his firm mouth would close into a mere line.
It was nearly three months after the rains had washed the last dead flower-petals from the mound above little Georgia when the “land-shark” firm of Hamlin and Avery filed papers upon what they considered the “fattest” vacancy of the year.
It should not be supposed that all who were termed “land-sharks” deserved the name. Many of them were reputable men of good business character. Some of them could walk into the most august councils of the State and say: “Gentlemen, we would like to have this, and that, and matters go thus.” But, next to a three years’ drought and the boll-worm, the Actual Settler hated the Land-shark. The land-shark haunted the Land Office, where all the land records were kept, and hunted “vacancies” – that is, tracts of unappropriated public domain, generally invisible upon the official maps, but actually existing “upon the ground.” The law entitled any one possessing certain State scrip to file by virtue of same upon any land not previously legally appropriated. Most of the scrip was now in the hands of the land-sharks. Thus, at the cost of a few hundred dollars, they often secured lands worth as many thousands.
Naturally, the search for “vacancies” was lively.
But often – very often – the land they thus secured, though legally ”unappropriated,” would be occupied by happy and contented settlers, who had laboured for years to build up their homes, only to discover that their titles were worthless, and to receive peremptory notice to quit. Thus came about the bitter and not unjustifiable hatred felt by the toiling settlers toward the shrewd and seldom merciful speculators who so often turned them forth destitute and homeless from their fruitless labours. The history of the state teems with their antagonism. Mr. Land-shark seldom showed his face on “locations” from which he should have to eject the unfortunate victims of a monstrously tangled land system, but let his emissaries do the work. There was lead in every cabin, moulded into balls for him; many of his brothers had enriched the grass with their blood. The fault of it all lay far back.
When the state was young, she felt the need of attracting newcomers, and of rewarding those pioneers already within her borders. Year after year she issued land scrip – Headrights, Bounties, Veteran Donations, Confederates; and to railroads, irrigation companies, colonies, and tillers of the soil galore. All required of the grantee was that he or it should have the scrip properly surveyed upon the public domain by the county or district surveyor, and the land thus appropriated became the property of him or it, or his or its heirs and assigns, forever.
In those days – and here is where the trouble began – the state’s domain was practically inexhaustible, and the old surveyors, with princely – yea, even Western American – liberality, gave good measure and over-flowing. Often the jovial man of metes and bounds would dispense altogether with the tripod and chain. Mounted on a pony that could cover something near a “vara” at a step, with a pocket compass to direct his course, he would trot out a survey by counting the beat of his pony’s hoofs, mark his corners, and write out his field notes with the complacency produced by an act of duty well performed. Sometimes — and who could blame the surveyor? — when the pony was “feeling his oats,” he might step a little higher and farther, and in that case the beneficiary of the scrip might get a thousand or two more acres in his survey than the scrip called for. But look at the boundless leagues the state had to spare! However, no one ever had to complain of the pony under-stepping. Nearly every old survey in the state contained an excess of land.
In later years, when the state became more populous, and land values increased, this careless work entailed incalculable trouble, endless litigation, a period of riotous land-grabbing, and no little bloodshed. The land-sharks voraciously attacked these excesses in the old surveys, and filed upon such portions with new scrip as unappropriated public domain. Wherever the identifications of the old tracts were vague, and the corners were not to be clearly established, the Land Office would recognize the newer locations as valid, and issue title to the locators. Here was the greatest hardship to be found. These old surveys, taken from the pick of the land, were already nearly all occupied by unsuspecting and peaceful settlers, and thus their titles were demolished, and the choice was placed before them either to buy their land over at a double price or to vacate it, with their families and personal belongings, immediately. Land locators sprang up by hundreds. The country was held up and searched for “vacancies” at the point of a compass. Hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of splendid acres were wrested from their innocent purchasers and holders. There began a vast hegira of evicted settlers in tattered wagons; going nowhere, cursing injustice, stunned, purposeless, homeless, hopeless. Their children began to look up to them for bread, and cry.
It was in consequence of these conditions that Hamilton and Avery had filed upon a strip of land about a mile wide and three miles long, comprising about two thousand acres, it being the excess over complement of the Elias Denny three-league survey on Chiquito River, in one of the middle-western counties. This two-thousand-acre body of land was asserted by them to be vacant land, and improperly considered a part of the Denny survey. They based this assertion and their claim upon the land upon the demonstrated facts that the beginning corner of the Denny survey was plainly identified; that its field notes called to run west 5,760 varas, and then called for Chiquito River; thence it ran south, with the meanders – and so on — and that the Chiquito River was, on the ground, fully a mile farther west from the point reached by course and distance. To sum up: there were two thousand acres of vacant land between the Denny survey proper and Chiquito River.
One sweltering day in July the Commissioner called for the papers in connection with this new location. They were brought, and heaped, a foot deep, upon his desk – field notes, statements, sketches, affidavits, connecting lines – documents of every description that shrewdness and money could call to the aid of Hamlin and Avery.
The firm was pressing the Commissioner to issue a patent upon their location. They possessed inside information concerning a new railroad that would probably pass somewhere near this land. The General Land Office was very still while the Commissioner was delving into the heart of the mass of evidence. The pigeons could be heard on the roof of the old, castle-like building, cooing and fretting. The clerks were droning everywhere, scarcely pretending to earn their salaries. Each little sound echoed hollow and loud from the bare, stone-flagged floors, the plastered walls, and the iron-joisted ceiling. The impalpable, perpetual limestone dust that never settled, whitened a long streamer of sunlight that pierced the tattered window-awning.
It seemed that Hamlin and Avery had builded well. The Denny survey was carelessly made, even for a careless period. Its beginning corner was identical with that of a well-defined old Spanish grant, but its other calls were sinfully vague. The field notes contained no other object that survived – no tree, no natural object save Chiquito River, and it was a mile wrong there. According to precedent, the Office would be justified in giving it its complement by course and distance, and considering the remainder vacant instead of a mere excess.
The Actual Settler was besieging the office with wild protests in re. Having the nose of a pointer and the eye of a hawk for the land-shark, he had observed his myrmidons running the lines upon his ground. Making inquiries, he learned that the spoiler had attacked his home, and he left the plough in the furrow and took his pen in hand.
One of the protests the Commissioner read twice. It was from a woman, a widow, the granddaughter of Elias Denny himself. She told how her grandfather had sold most of the survey years before at a trivial price – land that was now a principality in extent and value. Her mother had also sold a part, and she herself had succeeded to this western portion, along Chiquito River. Much of it she had been forced to part with in order to live, and now she owned only about three hundred acres, on which she had her home. Her letter wound up rather pathetically:
“I’ve got eight children, the oldest fifteen years. I work all day and half the night to till what little land I can and keep us in clothes and books. I teach my children too. My neighbours is all poor and has big families. The drought kills the crops every two or three years and then we has hard times to get enough to eat. There is ten families on this land what the land-sharks is trying to rob us of, and all of them got titles from me. I sold to them cheap, and they aint paid out yet, but part of them is, and if their land should be took from them I would die. My grandfather was an honest man, and he helped to build up this state, and he taught his children to be honest, and how could I make it up to them who bought from me? Mr. Commissioner, if you let them land-sharks take the roof from over my children and the little from them as they has to live on, whoever again calls this state great or its government just will have a lie in their mouths.”
The Commissioner laid this letter aside with a sigh. Many, many such letters he had received. He had never been hurt by them, nor had he ever felt that they appealed to him personally. He was but the state’s servant, and must follow its laws. And yet, somehow, this reflection did not always eliminate a certain responsible feeling that hung upon him. Of all the state’s officers he was supremest in his department, not even excepting the Governor. Broad, general land laws he followed, it was true, but he had a wide latitude in particular ramifications. Rather than law, what he followed was Rulings: Office Rulings and precedents. In the complicated and new questions that were being engendered by the state’s development the Commissioner’s ruling was rarely appealed from. Even the courts sustained it when its equity was apparent.
The Commissioner stepped to the door and spoke to a clerk in the other room – spoke as he always did, as if he were addressing a prince of the blood:
“Mr. Weldon, will you be kind enough to ask Mr. Ashe, the state school-land appraiser, to please come to my office as soon as convenient?”
Ashe came quickly from the big table where he was arranging his reports.
“Mr. Ashe,” said the Commissioner, “you worked along the Chiquito River, in Salado County, during your last trip, I believe. Do you remember anything of the Elias Denny three-league survey?”
“Yes, sir, I do,” the blunt, breezy, surveyor answered. “I crossed it on my way to Block H, on the north side of it. The road runs with the Chiquito River, along the valley. The Denny survey fronts three miles on the Chiquito.”
“It is claimed,” continued the commissioner, “that it fails to reach the river by as much as a mile.”
The appraiser shrugged his shoulder. He was by birth and instinct an Actual Settler, and the natural foe of the land-shark.
“It has always been considered to extend to the river,” he said, dryly.
“But that is not the point I desired to discuss,” said the Commissioner. “What kind of country is this valley portion of (let us say, then) the Denny tract?”
The spirit of the Actual Settler beamed in Ashe’s face.
“Beautiful,” he said, with enthusiasm. “Valley as level as this floor, with just a little swell on, like the sea, and rich as cream. Just enough brakes to shelter the cattle in winter. Black loamy soil for six feet, and then clay. Holds water. A dozen nice little houses on it, with windmills and gardens. People pretty poor, I guess – too far from market – but comfortable. Never saw so many kids in my life.”
“They raise flocks?” inquired the Commissioner.
“Ho, ho! I mean two-legged kids,” laughed the surveyor; “two-legged, and bare-legged, and tow-headed.”
“Children! oh, children!” mused the Commissioner, as though a new view had opened to him; “they raise children!”
“It’s a lonesome country, Commissioner,” said the surveyor. “Can you blame ’em?”
“I suppose,” continued the Commissioner, slowly, as one carefully pursues deductions from a new, stupendous theory, “not all of them are tow-headed. It would not be unreasonable, Mr. Ashe, I conjecture, to believe that a portion of them have brown, or even black, hair.”
“Brown and black, sure,” said Ashe; “also red.”
“No doubt,” said the Commissioner. “Well, I thank you for your courtesy in informing me, Mr. Ashe. I will not detain you any longer from your duties.”
Later, in the afternoon, came Hamlin and Avery, big, handsome, genial, sauntering men, clothed in white duck and low-cut shoes. They permeated the whole office with an aura of debonair prosperity. They passed among the clerks and left a wake of abbreviated given names and fat brown cigars.
These were the aristocracy of the land-sharks, who went in for big things. Full of serene confidence in themselves, there was no corporation, no syndicate, no railroad company or attorney general too big for them to tackle. The peculiar smoke of their rare, fat brown cigars was to be perceived in the sanctum of every department of state, in every committee-room of the Legislature, in every bank parlour and every private caucus-room in the state Capital. Always pleasant, never in a hurry, in seeming to possess unlimited leisure, people wondered when they gave their attention to the many audacious enterprises in which they were known to be engaged.
By and by the two dropped carelessly into the Commissioner’s room and reclined lazily in the big, leather-upholstered arm-chairs. They drawled a good-natured complaint of the weather, and Hamlin told the Commissioner an excellent story he had amassed that morning from the Secretary of State.
But the Commissioner knew why they were there. He had half promised to render a decision that day upon their location.
The chief clerk now brought in a batch of duplicate certificates for the Commissioner to sign. As he traced his sprawling signature, ”Hollis Summerfield, Comr. Genl. Land Office,” on each one, the chief clerk stood, deftly removing them and applying the blotter.
“I notice,” said the chief clerk, “you’ve been going through that Salado County location. Kampfer is making a new map of Salado, and I believe is platting in that section of the county now.”
“I will see it,” said the Commissioner. A few moments later he went to the draughtsmen’s room.
As he entered he saw five or six of the draughtsmen grouped about Kampfer’s desk, gargling away at each other in pectoral German, and gazing at something thereupon. At the Commissioner’s approach they scattered to their several places. Kampfer, a wizened little German, with long, frizzled ringlets and a watery eye, began to stammer forth some sort of an apology, the Commissioner thought, for the congregation of his fellows about his desk.
“Never mind,” said the Commissioner, “I wish to see the map you are making”; and, passing around the old German, seated himself upon the high draughtsman’s stool. Kampfer continued to break English in trying to explain.
“Herr Gommissioner, I assure you blenty sat I haf not it bremeditated –sat it wass — sat it itself make. Look you! from se field notes wass it blatted — blease to observe se calls: South, 10 degrees west 1,050 varas; south, 10 degrees east 300 varas; south, 100; south, 9 west, 200; south, 40 degrees west 400 — and so on. Herr Gommissioner, nefer would I have — “
The Commissioner raised one white hand, silently, Kampfer dropped his pipe and fled.
With a hand at each side of his face, and his elbows resting upon the desk, the Commissioner sat staring at the map which was spread and fastened there – staring at the sweet and living profile of little Georgia drawn thereupon – at her face, pensive, delicate, and infantile, outlined in a perfect likeness.
When his mind at length came to inquire into the reason of it, he saw that it must have been, as Kampfer had said, unpremeditated. The old draughtsman had been platting in the Elias Denny survey, and Georgia’s likeness, striking though it was, was formed by nothing more than the meanders of Chiquito River. Indeed, Kampfer’s blotter, whereon his preliminary work was done, showed the laborious tracings of the calls and the countless pricks of the compasses. Then, over his faint pencilling, Kampfer had drawn in India ink with a full, firm pen the similitude of Chiquito River, and forth had blossomed mysteriously the dainty, pathetic profile of the child.
The Commissioner sat for half an hour with his face in his hands, gazing downward, and none dared approach him. Then he arose and walked out. In the business office he paused long enough to ask that the Denny file be brought to his desk.
He found Hamlin and Avery still reclining in their chairs, apparently oblivious of business. They were lazily discussing summer opera, it being, their habit – perhaps their pride also – to appear supernaturally indifferent whenever they stood with large interests imperilled. And they stood to win more on this stake than most people knew. They possessed inside information to the effect that a new railroad would, within a year, split this very Chiquito River valley and send land values ballooning all along its route. A dollar under thirty thousand profit on this location, if it should hold good, would be a loss to their expectations. So, while they chatted lightly and waited for the Commissioner to open the subject, there was a quick, sidelong sparkle in their eyes, evincing a desire to read their title clear to those fair acres on the Chiquito.
A clerk brought in the file. The Commissioner seated himself and wrote upon it in red ink. Then he rose to his feet and stood for a while looking straight out of the window. The Land Office capped the summit of a bold hill. The eyes of the Commissioner passed over the roofs of many houses set in a packing of deep green, the whole checkered by strips of blinding white streets. The horizon, where his gaze was focussed, swelled to a fair wooded eminence flecked with faint dots of shining white. There was the cemetery, where lay many who were forgotten, and a few who had not lived in vain. And one lay there, occupying very small space, whose childish heart had been large enough to desire, while near its last beats, good to others. The Commissioner’s lips moved slightly as he whispered to himself: “It was her last will and testament, and I have neglected it so long!”
The big brown cigars of Hamlin and Avery were fireless, but they still gripped them between their teeth and waited, while they marvelled at the absent expression upon the Commissioner’s face.
By and by he spoke suddenly and promptly.
“Gentlemen, I have just indorsed the Elias Denny survey for patenting. This office will not regard your location upon a part of it as legal.” He paused a moment, and then, extending his hand as those dear old-time ones used to do in debate, he enunciated the spirit of that Ruling that subsequently drove the land-sharks to the wall, and placed the seal of peace and security over the doors of ten thousand homes.
“And, furthermore,” he continued, with a clear, soft light upon his face, “it may interest you to know that from this time on this office will consider that when a survey of land made by virtue of a certificate granted by this state to the men who wrested it from the wilderness and the savage – made in good faith, settled in good faith, and left in good faith to their children or innocent purchasers — when such a survey, although overrunning its complement, shall call for any natural object visible to the eye of man, to that object it shall hold, and be good and valid. And the children of this state shall lie down to sleep at night, and rumours of disturbers of title shall not disquiet them. For,” concluded the Commissioner, “of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
In the silence that followed, a laugh floated up from the patent-room below. The man who carried down the Denny file was exhibiting it among the clerks.
“Look here,” he said, delightedly, “the old man has forgotten his name. He’s written ‘Patent to original grantee,’ and signed it ’Georgia Summerfield, Comr.”‘
The speech of the Commissioner rebounded lightly from the impregnable Hamlin and Avery. They smiled, rose gracefully, spoke of the baseball team, and argued feelingly that quite a perceptible breeze had arisen from the east. They lit fresh fat brown cigars, and drifted courteously away. But later they made another tiger-spring for their quarry in the courts. But the courts, according to reports in the papers, “coolly roasted them” (a remarkable performance, suggestive of liquid-air didoes), and sustained the Commissioner’s Ruling.
And this Ruling itself grew to be a Precedent, and the Actual Settler framed it, and taught his children to spell from it, and there was sound sleep o’ nights from the pines to the sage-brush, and from the chaparral to the great brown river of the north.
But I think, and I am sure the Commissioner never thought otherwise, that whether Kampfer was a snuffy old instrument of destiny, or whether the meanders of the Chiquito accidentally platted themselves into that memorable sweet profile or not, there was brought about “something good for a whole lot of children,” and the result ought to be called “Georgia’s Ruling.”
March 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
The first installment in a three-part series.
In the recent “Redlands, Red State” series, we explored the role that scoundrels and scalawags played in the formation of our modern Texas. Now we will take a look at how a new generation of the same type of scoundrels continued the development of the sorry state of things in which many of us live 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 continue to 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.”
Land fraud problems continued through the 1850s and Civil War, but we will resume the story in the post-Civil War years, beginning with sketches of the land commissioners of the time.
Jacob Kuechler, born in Germany in 1823, moved to Texas at the age of 24. He became land commissioner by appointment of General Joseph Jones Reynolds of the military Reconstruction government in January 1870 and held the office until January 1874.
Kuechler had worked as a surveyor until 1861. He was commissioned by Governor Sam Houston to enroll state militia troops for Gillespie County. He was viewed as a traitor, however, because he only recruited Unionist sympathizers of German descent. More than half of Kuechler’s force of 61 men were massacred (some executed after being captured) along the Nueces River in 1862 as they attempted to escape Texas to go to Mexico, and eventually meet with union forces.
Kuechler anticipated civil service reform, and protected employees whose political views differed from his own. He was the first commissioner to suggest reforms and regulations for land surveyors as well. He stated that the incompetence of county surveyors led to a tremendous amount of additional work for land office staff, causing business to lag. He was also the first to recommend employing a state land surveyor at the GLO.
Johann Jacob Groos served as land commissioner from January 1874 to June 1878 and was the second German-born Commissioner of the General Land Office
Born in Germany in 1824, Groos worked as a surveyor before coming to Texas in 1845.
Groos dealt with many of the same problems as his predecessors. Difficult land laws and land speculators were among his biggest professional problems; however it was the Oklahoma border that captured Groos’ interest in 1877. He claimed that Greer County should be recognized as Texas land, rather than belonging to the United States.
He was quoted as saying “I hold it to be doubtful economy to retard the public business, particularly of that portion pertaining to this office, in which both the State and individual citizens are so deeply interested, in order to save the State a few thousand dollars, when the sequel will prove it both unwise and impolitic, and fails to effect that object.” It was during this period that the land sharks thrived. Groos died while in office.
William C. Walsh took over the commissioner’s job upon the death of Groos and served until January of 1887.
He wrote of his first week in office: “I found the Land Office files and records were in a tangled condition, so I closed the office for five days to take account of stock. Carelessness during and immediately subsequent to the Civil War permitted, if it did not invite, an organized gang of forgers and land thieves to raid the archives of the office.”
William C. Walsh came to Texas six months after his birth in Dayton, Ohio in 1836. At the age of 21 he began work as a clerk for the General Land Office.
Walsh resigned from his position with the GLO on April 30, 1861, to join the Confederate Army.
In January 1873, he was elected Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives. He left this post when Governor Richard Hubbard appointed him to fill the rest of the term of the late Johann Jacob Groos, in June 1878, at the GLO.
Land frauds were running rampant in Texas, “dragging their slimy forms about the State and enmeshing many people and land titles,” Walsh said. This was one of the most difficult and dangerous times in land office history, with numerous threats made on Walsh’s life. Bodyguards had to guard the land office and armed sentinels protected Walsh’s home at night.
As land commissioner, Walsh launched the prosecution of a ring of forgers and land thieves who had raided the archives of the land office; 30 were convicted and sent to the penitentiary, while at least 100 fled the state. Walsh also uncovered a scheme to defraud the school fund of pine timber lands acreage.
Walsh was defeated in the 1887 race for commissioner by Richard M. Hall. He eventually returned to the Land Office under Commissioner J. T. Robison.
Richard Hall served from January 1887 to January 1891.
Richard M. Hall was born in North Carolina in 1851. Educated in civil engineering and mathematics, Hall secured a job as county surveyor for Grayson County upon moving to Texas. Hall purchased a farm in La Salle County for him and his family, as well as an old family friend from North Carolina, William Sidney Porter, better known as “O. Henry.” Hall ran on the Democratic ticket for Texas Land Commissioner in 1886. He won and took office on January 10, 1887. He hired William Sidney Porter to work as a draftsman for the GLO, which is how the legendary short story writer became associated with the GLO.
During his administration, Commissioner Hall faced considerable political pressure from Attorney General Jim Hogg and the railroad industry because of the contentious Sidings and Switches Controversy. The Sidings and Switches Controversy specifically dealt with the Houston and Texas Central Railroad Company (H&TCRR), however, it would have far-reaching effects on all land granted since statehood if Attorney General Hogg was successful in his pursuits. Hogg claimed that H&TCRR received more land for internal improvements than was appropriate. Hogg contended that the railroad companies were making land claims based on their main rail line, in addition to supplemental and support rail lines that were not initially proposed, or part of the original contracts. These extra lines were known as sidings and switches. Hogg’s proposed lawsuits meant that the State would receive between 20 million and 38 million acres of land back that had already been granted. Hall pointed out, however, that the railroad companies had sold off approximately 96 percent of the land received for internal improvements, and this legal action would result in countless citizens being forced off their land by the government, which wouldn’t have been a good option, or, settlers would be forced to pay twice for land they already owned, which was also not a good option. Hall felt that the impending lawsuit would be difficult to administer, but would also infringe upon citizen’s property rights. He refused to take part in any lawsuit that would take land from citizens that had already been granted.
In 1890, Hall ran for Governor; his platform was based on two main issues: to have a relatively weak Railroad Commission, and the increased use of proceeds from the sale of public lands to benefit education in West Texas counties. Hall was unsuccessful in his quest for the governorship, and so both he and Porter left the General Land Office.
(Thanks to the General Land Office for its biographies of the above mentioned land office commissioners.)
Next time, the O. Henry story, “Georgia’s Ruling,” written in 1910, followed by “Bexar Scrip No. 2692,” a not-so-funny story written in 1894 for his humorous weekly, The Rolling Stone.
March 15, 2013 § 1 Comment
The Texas legislature may resemble a Daffy Duck “Loony Tunes” epic at times, but the thrill, drama and sheer physical danger of the olden times is long gone. Our politicos still shoot nasty words at each other all the time, but the knives have long since been sheathed, and though many are packing concealed heat, they carry their pea-shooters mostly to protect themselves from their angry constituents, not from each other.
Political cat-and-dog fights in Texas just aren’t what they used to be.
On this day, the Ides of March, in 1846, Gen. James S. Mayfield of La Grange, Bartlett Sims of Bastrop, and Judge Robert M. “Three-Legged Willie” Williamson of Washington on the Brazos, were together in a room at Swisher’s hotel in Austin, engaged in conversation, when Mayfield took offence at a remark made by Sims. Mayfield promptly drew a pistol and was about to shoot him. Sims was a powerful man and Williamson was rather below the medium size, and slim. In order to avoid being shot, Sims grabbed Judge Williamson in his arms and held him between himself and Mayfield, exclaiming: “Shoot, damn you, shoot!” Judge Williamson did not like his position between Sims and the irate Mayfield, who was trying to get a shot at Sims without harming the Judge. Williamson was unable to help himself, so he vented his feelings in alternate expressions of eloquent imprecation and denunciation.
Williamson first earnestly appealed to the belligerents, saying: “Gentlemen, this matter can be settled amicably; there is no necessity for bloodshed. For God’s sake, Mayfield, don’t shoot!” Then as Mayfield pointed the pistol at Sims, Williamson said: “Mayfield, make a center shot; for, damn you, I will kill you, sure, if my life is spared!”
“Bart, damn your soul, let me down!” From this appeal, or threat, or for some other reason, Gen. Mayfield cooled down, and desisted. Mayfield afterwards swore that “Three-legged Willie” saved Sim’s life on the occasion.
Although “Three-legged Willie” Williamson is the central character in this story, it is not complete without a look at the other two players.
James S. Mayfield was born in Tennessee in 1809 and moved to Texas in 1837. In January 1839 he was practicing law in Nacogdoches and later that year was chosen to go with Albert Sidney Johnston to propose to the Cherokee Indians that they leave Texas. Mayfield represented Nacogdoches County in the Fifth and Sixth congresses (1840–42) and served very briefly as secretary of state in 1841 under Mirabeau B. Lamar.
In September 1842, Mayfield assembled a company of volunteers from La Grange in an attempt to drive Gen. Adrián Woll’s Mexican army from San Antonio. His group, joined by others, arrived at the scene of the Dawson massacre on Salado Creek while it was occurring. Mayfield, as the commanding officer, determined that his group was too far outnumbered and remained in the distance until the following day, when he joined the command of Mathew Caldwell. In 1842 Mayfield was a member of the Somervell expedition but did not join the subsequent Mier expedition. In 1843 he presented himself as a candidate for major general of the Texas army but removed himself from consideration because, he said, of ill health. But accusations of cowardice stemming from his refusal to come to the aid of his comrades in the Dawson Massacre leveled by Mathew Caldwell and Edward Burleson had just as much to do with his decision. In 1845 Mayfield challenged Burleson to a duel but did not go through with the engagement.
In April 1846 Mayfield helped organize the Democratic party in Texas. He was living in La Grange in 1849, the year he killed Absolom Bostwick in a political argument. It is not known when or how he died.
Bartlett Sims, surveyor, Indian fighter, and member of Stephen F. Austin’s Old Three Hundred colonists, was born in Tennessee, about 1792. He visited Texas as early as 1822. In August 1824 he received title to one sitio of land in present-day Wharton County. Sims became a surveyor for Austin’s colony in October 1824 and continued to make surveys in Texas until 1858. In 1825, Sims married. Sally Curtis. The couple had nine children.
Sims was captain of a company sent on an expedition against the Waco and Tawakoni Indians in June 1826. But in the years leading up to the Texas revolution he advocated peace with Mexico. He served in Robert M. Coleman’s company in various 1835 campaigns and with Thomas S. McFarland at San Antonio. From 1836 until 1840 Sims was Bastrop County treasurer, surveyor, and tax collector. In August 1839 Sims commanded a company as a captain under Col. Henry Wax Karnes. In 1840 Sims moved to Travis County and participated in the battles of Brushy Creek and Plum Creek and several other area battles. In 1842 he was captain of a company under Alexander Somervell. According to some sources, Sims was one of two men that founded the Texas Rangers.
In 1846 he started on a surveying expedition to the Pedernales River, but was attacked by Indians. His nephew and the other two men of his team were killed. By 1850 he was farming and ranching in Williamson County on the south side of Brushy Creek. Sims died at Rice’s Crossing, Texas, in 1864.
Robert McAlpin Williamson was born in Georgia in 1804 or 1806. When he was 15 years old an illness confined him to his home for two years and left him a cripple for life. His right leg was drawn back at the knee; the wooden leg which he wore from the knee to the ground gave him the nickname “Three Legged Willie.” He subsequently had all his pants tailored accordingly. Williamson read much during his illness, and was admitted to the bar around the age of nineteen.
In the late 1820s he migrated to Texas and settled at San Felipe de Austin. In 1829 he established a newspaper called the Cotton Plant, which he edited from 1829 to 1831. He made an early appeal for the Texas colonists to resist Mexican tyranny. He was sent as a delegate from Mina (Bastrop) to the Consultation, and the provisional government established there commissioned him major on November 29, 1835, and ordered him to organize a corps of rangers. He participated in the battle of San Jacinto in William H. Smith’s cavalry company, for which he received 640 acres.
In December 1836, the First Congress of the republic elected Williamson judge of the Third Judicial District, automatically making him a member of the Supreme Court. The town of Columbus had been burned during the Runaway Scrape, and as there was no suitable structure to hold court proceedings, the first term of District Court, Republic of Texas, was convened by the Honorable R. M. Williamson, under a large oak tree next to the lot where the Colorado County Courthouse was later built in April 1837. In 1840 he was elected to represent Washington County in Congress. He served in the republic’s subsequent congresses.
After annexation, which he had advocated so strongly that he even named one of his sons Annexus, he served in the Senate of the first two legislatures, retiring in March 1850. As judge and lawmaker Williamson became the subject of numerous legends inspired by his personal characteristics, his unique decisions, his adroitness as a campaigner, his amusing legislative manipulations, and the succinctness of his oratory. Williamson married Mary Jane Edwards in 1837. They were parents of seven children.
After his defeat in the race for Congress in 1850, he retired to his farm near Independence and devoted himself to the education of his children and writing a history of Texas leading up to the Texas Revolution. He was an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 1851. In 1857, illness affected his mental brilliance, which was further impaired by the death of his wife in 1858. His mind never entirely recovered. He died at the home of his father-in-law in Wharton on December 22, 1859. Williamson County, established in 1848, was named for him.
In the early months of 1848, settlers in the western section of Milam County petitioned the Texas legislature asking for the creation of a new county, suggesting San Gabriel and Clear Water as possible names. The legislators created their county but named it after their esteemed colleague, Robert McAlpin “Three-legged Willie” Williamson. Legend has it that when the bill to create the “County of San Gabriel” came before the Texas Senate, Three-legged Willie arose and excitedly protested having any more saints in Texas. Willie never resided in the county named for him, but he traveled through it often.
A popular old-timer’s story says that legislators voted to name the county for Williamson after he told the following tale on himself: A few years earlier, Colonel Frank W. Johnson had headed a surveying party that charted a ten-league land grant inside what would become Williamson County. Williamson was part of the surveying party. There were still great herds of buffalo on the scene, and on this particular day, Williamson determined to chase down one or more of the massive beasts. Colonel Johnson advised against the chase, for the ground was exceedingly wet, uneven, and full of holes. But Williamson was not to be denied and galloped off astride his horse. They were approaching full speed when his horse suddenly turned a somersault, throwing rider, gun, and crutch off into an inglorious heap. Once the horse was upright, it continued on after the buffalo. Williamson attempted to regain his equilibrium, but each time he stood up, his peg leg and crutch sank deep into the black waxy mud. After “swearing like an army mired in Flanders,” he gave up and lay still in the mud until his horse was brought back to him some hours later.
Another version of the story says that every time he tried to stand up, a charging buffalo calf would knock him back down. He finally retaliated by shooting the calf from a prone position.
When Willie was judge of the Third Judicial District for the Republic of Texas, Gonzales County was part of his circuit. Court met under a spreading live oak tree, and the bar of justice was a rough-sawn plank laid across a couple of whiskey kegs. The judge sat on a nail keg. Williamson sat down and leaned his rifle and walking stick against the oak tree. He laid out his law book and gavel on the plank and pronounced court in session. The spectators got rowdy and the more and louder the judge called for order in the court, the rowdier they got. But Willie wasn’t intimidated. He reached for his long rifle, laid it on the table, cocked the hammer and put his finger to the trigger. There was suddenly a deafening silence.
“This court is coming to order,” Willie pronounced, “and if it doesn’t come to order right now I am going to by God kill somebody and I’m not particular who I kill.”
Court quickly came to order and did so every session thereafter when Williamson presided.
There are quite a few more ‘Three-Legged Willie” Williamson stories, and one of the best concerns an incident in Rutersville. A camp meeting was going on, and Williamson—being mistaken for a preacher—was asked to pray. As a drought was then gripping the countryside, the day had been set aside for rain prayers. Willie acquiesced to the worshippers’ request and began praying: “Lord, we have met today to pray for rain. Lord thou knowest how much we need rain for man and beast. We need copious rains, real copious rains: rootsoakers, gullywashers. Lord we ask thee not to send us little sunshowers that will make our corn produce nubbins that all hell couldn’t shuck.” At this point his prayer was drowned out by a deafening sea of amens from the horrified congregation.
So, Happy Ides of March, y’all, and remember, that just as Brutus was “an honorable man,” so are all our legislators and other elected state officials, “honorable men.” Always have been, always will be.