Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Violent Life and Death of Samantha Olds

    Halloween 2015 marks the 165th birthday of Samantha Olds, one of the victims of an axe-wielding frenzy at a dilapidated Texas farmhouse in 1925.

    Violence had a strange, lifelong grip on her.
    Beautiful and vivacious, Samantha had a penchant for dangerous men, and they were equally drawn to her. Her teenage marriage to Amos Smith ended when he was gunned down in a hit orchestrated by a couple of his gambling partners in Iredell, Texas, in 1875. One of the men, according to The Austin Statesman, “was exceedingly intimate with Smith’s wife.” However, Samantha was never implicated in the crime, whereas the two gamblers and their triggerman were lynched. While awaiting execution, one of the men reportedly said, “This will make seven men who have been killed in quarrels about Mrs. Smith.”
    Soon Amos Smith’s widow was on the prowl for a new husband. She found Bill Olds, who was later arrested for theft, forgery, and murder. The daughters from the first marriage despised Olds for mistreating their mother. Samantha, however, used a gun to keep her husband at bay. She finally abandoned him in Iredell and moved to Waco with family members. “That old lady could shoot better than any man I know,” recalled a longtime Wacoan. “She lived down by the wagon yards and used to shoot up the place right regular—just for the hell of it.”
    Samantha’s legacy as a beacon of brutality passed to her daughter by Bill Olds, Maggie, who was twice widowed with the murders of her second and fourth husbands. Her choice for a fifth husband, F. M. Snow, led to the 1925 gruesome tragedy. She married the woodchopper shortly after the family moved to Erath County from Waco. Samantha’s new son-in-law, whom she called a “no-account,” was a violent ex-convict. Weeks after this unholy union, Samantha, Maggie, and Maggie’s son were butchered by Snow in an uncontrollable fit of rage. 
    No pictures are known to exist of Samantha or Maggie. Curiously, photographs of the fireplace where Snow burned her body show what some say is a woman’s face outlined on the chimney’s bricks.


Monday, July 13, 2015


That's the name of Bill O'Neal's upcoming presentation at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. We'll be there!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lizzie Borden Brings Her Hatchet to TV

One of America’s most infamous unsolved murders will unfold in Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, premiering on Lifetime, January 25 (8 p.m., ET). Golden Globe® and Emmy® Award nominee Christina Ricci takes on the title role, while Stephen McHattie and Sara Botsford portray her father and stepmother. Screen Actors Guild Award® winner Clea DuVall plays older sister Emma. The 2014 movie, however, is not a remake of The Legend of Lizzie Borden, the 1975 made-for-TV movie starring Bewitched actress Elizabeth Montgomery.
On a hot August day in 1892, wealthy Andrew Borden and his wife, Abby, were the victims of a hatching-swinging killer in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Borden’s daughter Lizzie, an unmarried Sunday school teacher, was charged with committing the double homicide, but at the sensational trial that followed, the accused murderess was found not guilty. The gruesome story, a crime writer’s dream come true, has spawned countless books, many with different perspectives and theories which set out to prove or disprove Lizzie’s guilt.
Lizzie Borden Took an Ax ­captures the tension and resentment in the Borden household, but viewers can expect the movie will take creative license with the facts. Five-foot-three Abby Borden was “very well nourished and very fleshy,” at least according to the autopsy. That hardly describes Sara Botsford, the outstanding yet oft-overlooked Canadian actress who portrays Lizzie’s stepmother.
Christina Ricci had already turned 33 when it was announced she would play Lizzie Borden, making her closer in age to her character than Elizabeth Montgomery, who was 41 when she depicted the 32-year-old accused murderess. Although it’s hard to imagine the 2014 movie—or any other incarnation—eclipsing The Legend of Lizzie Borden, Lifetime’s Lizzie Borden Took an Ax sports a fine cast and a script from Mod Squad screenwriter Stephen Kay. 

Christina Ricci stars in Lifetime's fact-based movie, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax
(Photo Courtesy of Lifetime. Copyright 2014)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A review of "Sins of the Pioneers"

Bob Alexander’s latest book, Riding Lucifer’s Line: Ranger Deaths Along the Texas-Mexico Border, includes a review of my second true-crime volume, Sins of the Pioneers: Crimes & Scandals in a Small Texas Town. Alexander wrote:
“Author Pylant creates an enlightening portrait of the routine and not-so-routine criminality and scandals, surgically exposing the underbelly of Stephenville's raunchy and racy and sometimes perilous past.”

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Pistols, Petticoats, and Poker

     I first read about Lottie Deno in the pages of a Texas history book, Ida Lasater Huckabay’s Ninety-Four Years in Jack County, 1854-1948 (privately published by the author in 1948). Lottie Deno, Huckabay explained, was one of the most successful gamblers at Fort Griffin during the Old West days of Lone Star State. Lottie, whose real name was unknown, was also regarded as strange and very reserved. Somewhere along the way she earned the nickname Mystic Maud. 
     Jan Devereaux, recipient of awards from both the Western Outlaw-Lawmen History Association and the National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History Association, carefully backtracked the legendary Lottie Deno’s life, sifting through the folklore until she could reconstruct a true portrait of the lady gambler. Even the oft-published photograph identified as being that of Lottie Deno, Ms. Devereaux learned, was actually of someone else. 
     Lottie Deno is said to have been the inspiration for the character Miss Kitty Russell, the red-headed saloon keeper portrayed by actress Amanda Blake in the long-running TV series Gunsmoke. “We never say it, but Kitty is a prostitute, pure and simple,” said Norman McDowell, the show’s creator. Jan Devereaux found evidence where Lottie Deno was charged with “keeping a disorderly house.” Like Miss Kitty, Lottie Deno was described as having dark red hair.
     In Silver City, New Mexico, in 1880, Lottie Deno, at age 35, wedded Frank Thurmond. The marriage license records giving her name as Carlotta J. Thompkins. 
     Despite these discoveries much of the colorful Old West character’s life is shrouded in mystery. Jan Devereaux’s research unfolds in a book entitled Pistols, Petticoats, & Poker: The Real Lottie Deno: No Lies or Alibis. This well-documented, 277-page volume includes more than 100 photographs. It's available from the publisher’s website, High-LonesomeBooks.com

Saturday, May 5, 2012

"Behind the Scarlet Mask" Inspired by Real Events

J. T. Upchurch's novel exposed the
truth about prostitution in Texas
     In J. T. Upchurch’s 1924 novel, Behind the Scarlet Mask, he told of a bartender called Jo Sally, a man who was born and raised in the red light district. “His mother was an outcast, his grandmother was an outcast, his great-grandmother was an outcast, and for ten generations back his maternal antecedents were of the scarlet sisterhood,” Upchurch wrote. 
     The author, as a long-time social reformer whose mission was to stop prostitution, was very familiar with the profession and the lives of those working in the trade. He drew heavily on that knowledge when writing Behind the Scarlet Mask, often creating characters based on actual experiences and people in Texas, including Waco. While Jo Sally was likely a composite character, he may have been loosely based on a Waco businessman named W. R. “Bud” Orman. 
     Not unlike Jo Sally, Bud Orman came from a questionable family background. How his divorced mother supported her three children and two unemployed young black women is unknown, except that Mrs. Orman had a “bad reputation.” Bud earned a living as a gambler, saloonkeeper, and a real estate investor. Specifically, Orman’s real estate investing involved building a bordello. He also was known to cosign bonds when madams were arrested for running “bawdy houses.” In fact, several such establishments dotted a lane in Waco known as Orman’s Alley. As Sherri Knight and I explain in The Oldest Profession in Texas, the offspring of madams and prostitutes often kept their ties to the red light district; they knew of no other way of life.
     In September 1885 a hack driver began repeating old tales about Mrs. Orman’s alleged past as a prostitute, and her livid son responded by shooting the man to death. Bud Orman stood trial for murder the next spring.
    “The testimony is shockingly indecent,” reported the Dallas Morning News. “The courtroom was crowded.” A jury found him guilty, but his attorney succeeded in having the case reversed and remanded. When a second trial ended with the same verdict, his attorney once again won a reversal. The third trial was heard in 1888, and this time jurors decided the accused was not guilty. 
    Despite the scandalous murder trail, Bud Orman remained in Waco. He died there in 1920, four years before J. T. Upchurch’s novel appeared in print. In Behind the Scarlet Mask, Jo Sally loses control of his anger and kills a man in a saloon. But unlike Bud Orman, Jo Sally’s murder trial ends with a guilty verdict which sentences him to death by hanging. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Look at Nineteenth Century Seduction

Nineteenth century Texans deemed that a girl had reached the “age of consent” on the day of her tenth birthday. Any man having carnal knowledge of a female under the age of ten — with or without her consent — was guilty of rape. The revised penal code, as amended in 1887, raised the age of consent by only two years. The Lone Star State was not alone in that mindset; other states had also followed the old English common law. After the age had been raised to 16 in New York, two attempts were made to lower it to 14, first in 1890 and two years later. The Encyclopedia of Social Reform (1897) reported that earlier in Delaware, “the age was at the shockingly low period of 7 years!” 

“Are the fathers who pass such laws drunk or insane?” asked a journalist in 1905. By that year Texas had raised the age of consent to fifteen. In the Carolinas, however, it remained at the age of 10. 

In Texas, a man eloping with a seventeen-year-old girl was guilty of breaking the law because he did not have parental consent. Yet, had he merely seduced her without eloping, no harm had been done — unless he first promised her marriage. And that could have led to an indictment for seduction. Even though a 15 year-old girl had reached the age of consent, the seduction of an adult female as old as 25 was still an indictable offense if her lover first promised marriage. The guilty party could face a five-year prison sentence or a fine up to $5,000. But such cases were hard to prove in court. A female was considered “an incompetent witness,” at least until the law changed in 1891 which allowed her to testify.

Texas’s statute provided an escape clause if the male were willing to make good on his promise. “If the parties marry each other at any time before the conviction of the defendant in good faith…no prosecution shall take place, or, if begun, it shall be dismissed,” the law stated.