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.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Did John Wilkes Booth Flee to Texas?

Russell Cummings at 
the premiere of The 
Legend 
of Hell's Gate 
     Many tales are told of infamous characters such as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and John Wilkes Booth faking their own deaths and fleeing to Texas and assuming new identities. The late outlaw historian and author Phillip Steele once told me that of all of the claims he had heard, the one he considered most intriguing was that of John St. Helen, believed by many to have been John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. St. Helen, a barkeep, ended up in the small town of Granbury in the 1870s. About thirty miles away, near Stephenville, lived a woman identified only as “Mrs. Booth,” who claimed that Lincoln’s assassin was her husband’s cousin. “It is generally believed that Booth is dead, reported the Stephenville Empire (Aug. 8, 1885), “but this lady says that it a mistake; that he is still alive, and that the family knows where he is.” 
     Granbury would not only become home to John St. Helen, but also to  J. Frank Dalton, who made headlines in 1948 when he claimed to be Jesse James. Dalton was not alone; Phillip Steele found at least a half-dozen other men who claimed to be that Wild West bandit.
     I recently attended the premiere of   The Legend of Hell's Gate,a Western that depicts John St. Helen, J. Frank Dalton, and John Davis Howard (an alias of Jesse James) in Texas. St. Helen is portrayed by Henry Thomas, with Lukas Behnken as Dalton and Russell Quinn Cummings as Howard. Perhaps one of the lines in the movie best explains why John Wilkes Booth and Jesse James would supposedly end up in the same small town: “Granbury can be a great place to become someone else.”

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The State of Texas vs. One Chicken

     While searching through 100-year-old criminal records in Waco, Texas, I came across an indictment against “one Chicken.” Although it may sound like a case of a fowl running afoul of the law, it was a situation were officials filed charges against a perpetrator who was only known by his nickname: Chicken. Similarly, Erath County officials charged “One Cat-Faced Kid” with gaming within the city of Dublin in November 1891. Then in May of 1894 a charge of prostitution was filed against “One Cross-Eyed Woman.” 
     Chicken’s identity surfaces in another indictment in Waco. In January 1903 Jonathan Columbus Turnbow, alias Chicken, did “unlawfully keep and exhibit, for the purpose of gaming, a gaming table and bank.” In 1910 either he or one of his relatives, noted only as “Mr. Turnbow,” and a madam, Mary Doud, were subpoenaed as witnesses in the State of Texas vs. Mary Hayden in which the accused was charged with running a brothel in Waco.
     Sometimes indictments reveal the true identities of these colorfully-named characters when arrests were made. The accused, if posting bond, had to sign his or her name. But not so in the cases of Erath County’s feline-faced boy or the cross-eyed hooker, both of whom apparently eluded capture.