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 where officials filed charges against a lawbreaker 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 kid or the cross-eyed hooker, both of whom apparently eluded capture.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Murder of Josiah Philips

     A story featured in Sins of the Pioneers: Crimes & Scandals in a Small Texas Town tells of schoolteacher Josiah Philips who had only been married a couple of months when the Lone Star State became embroiled in the War Between the States. Enlisting in the Confederate States Army, he was appointed chaplain of his regiment. Philips became a Presbyterian minister after the war, and he and his wife became parents to seven children, all of whom they raised on an Erath County farm.
(Courtesy of Stephenville Museum)
     One of Philips’s older sons, Willard, was judged insane and institutionalized, but in January of 1898 his parents brought their thirty-year-old son back home. He was not entirely discharged from the asylum, and the parents were cautioned that they may need to send him back.
     A little after dark on Saturday, May 7, 1898, Reverend Philips completed his work and returned home in his wagon. His son, hearing the father drive into the lot, took a gun and went outside to greet his father with gunfire. The fatal shot struck Josiah Philips in the lower part of his face on the right side, blasting away his jaw line. The killer was arrested and lodged in the county jail on Sunday morning. His trial was set for Monday, May 23.
     As Willard Philips was found insane, officials returned him to the asylum on November 17. Two years later residents of Erath County were shocked by similar murder in their midst. In April of 1900 nineteen-year-old farmer’s daughter May Bruce took an axe and gave her mother several whacks. May, a blue-eyed, dark-haired beauty, who had been an affectionate and attentive daughter and a good student in school, could offer no motivation for the crime. “Do not know why I did it,” she said. “There was not a cross word between us. No quarrel; nothing at all.”
    The story of mysterious May Bruce also unfolds in the pages of  Sins of the Pioneers. In researching this bizarre case, I had the opportunity to meet and visit with three of May’s nieces who shared interesting family stories for the book.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Ghost at McDow's Hole

McDow's Hole as it looks today
(Courtesy of Sherri Knight)
In Sins of the Pioneers: Crimes & Scandals in a Small Texas Town, I told the legend of Jenny Papworth, a young wife and mother who met her fate at the hands of ruthless cattle-rustlers along McDow’s Hole, in Erath County, sometime in the 1870s. Several versions of this story were repeated over the years, always ending with eerie nighttime sightings of Jenny Papworth’s ghostly return to her neighborhood. Witnesses insisted that the willowy apparition bellows a blood-curdling scream.    

Sheriff R. T. Long
(Courtesy of Stephenville Museum)
One entirely different version of the haunting at McDow’s Hole made its way into the pages of a national magazine sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s when Texas writer Lewis Nordyke wrote an article for Cavalier called “Even the Ghosts Are Greater in Texas.” According to Nordyke, Sheriff R. T. Long, believing that the screams were made by a panther, kept a late-night vigil at McDow’s Hole until he, too, saw a strange apparition, a cloud forming over the water that morphed into the shape of a woman clutching a baby. Long, as the story goes, reported hearing the cloudy figure emit a piercing scream. “There is no man on earth who can begin to describe the feeling that comes over you when you are near McDow after sundown,” Long reportedly said. "You are scared to the marrow of your bones whether you see or hear anything or not."    

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What became of prostitutes' children?

A young mother leaves her infant at a "baby farm"
    Many divorced prostitutes and madams lost custody of their children or they simply left them behind after embarking on a career in the skin trade. Others either sent their children away to live with relatives or they managed to keep and raise them in the business. Not surprising, many daughters followed their mother's professional footsteps. 
    While prostitutes used a variety of contraceptives--from alum to carbolic acid--pregnancies still resulted. Abortions, though illegal, could greatly endanger their health. History professor Ruth Rosen, author of  The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, explains that prostitutes were known to tote their unplanned offspring to what was called a "baby farm," where children were cared for by an older woman who was often a one-time worker in the skin trade. The Oldest Profession in Texas: Waco's Legal Red Light District gives examples of madams and pimps adopting the offspring of their working girls. Such arrangements were not always formal adoptions, but they were often the only choice a prostitute had to "place" her child. (Society frowned on the mainstream adoption of these "tainted" children.) 
    In 1912 The American Journal of Clinical Medicine declared that, among prostitutes, both illegitimacy and abortion were "comparatively infrequent." However, social reformer J. T. Upchurch disagreed. "There are born in the United States annually one hundred and fifty thousand babies under the scarlet curse," he wrote in his novel, The Scarlet Mask.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rube Burrow gained notoriety as a daring train robber

Homer Stephen holds the weapon Rube Burrow 
used in his train robberies.  
(Courtesy of Stephenville Museum)
    "Organized Crime," a chapter in Sins of the Pioneers, ends with a brief story about Reuben Houston "Rube" Burrow, who formed a band of outlaws. The Burrows gang gained infamy throughout the South as the most daring train robbers since Jesse James. In 1872 Rube Burrow left his native Alabama and came to Texas, first settling on the small ranch of his uncle, Joel Burrow. After being joined in Erath by his brother, James Buchanan "Jim" Burrow, Rube organized an outlaw gang.
     Harry Hawkeye's Rube Burrow, the Outlaw (Baltimore: I. & M. Ottenheimer, 1908, pp. 9-11), states:
     "At this time his party, consisting of Jim Burrow, Nep Thornton and Henderson Bromley [Brumley], returning from a bootless excursion into Indian Territory, rode in the direction of Bellevue, a station on the Fort Worth and Denver Railway. Here Rube proposed to rob the train, which they knew to be due at Bellevue at 11 o'clock a.m. Hitching their horses in the woods a few hundred yards away, they stealthily approached a water tank three hundred yards west of the station, and where the train usually stopped for water. Thornton held up the engineer and fireman, while Rube, Bromley [Brumley] and Jim Burrow went and robbed the passengers, but did not molest the express.
     "The booty amounted only to a few hundred dollars and some miscellaneous jewelry of no great value.
     "This, his first train robbery, a rather impromptu affair, far from satisfied the greed of the amateur and stimulated his predisposition to take up the business as a profession."
     While none of Rube Burrow's robberies happened in Erath, he did garner arrests for less serious offenses in the county.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Legend of Old Man Snow

     Killer F. M. Snow, convicted of the 1925 murder of Bernie Connally, became a character in folklore--while sitting on death row--when Milton Brown wrote a song entitled "Old Man Snow." (Brown is now remembered as "the father of Western swing.") Decades later came Carroll Martin's ballad, "The Legend of Ole Man Snow."  Both ballads were reprinted in the updated Blood Legacy: The True Story of the Snow Axe Murders
     Now only did several embellished versions of F. M. Snow's bloody saga unfold in detective magazines over the years, but the gruesome tale inspired two vignettes in Mary Joe Clendenin's Galloping Ghosts (1997). Most recently, the murders and the Snow farm made appearances in Donna Walker-Nixon's novel, Canaan's Oothoon (2010).

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

1976 Murder Case Continues to Fascinate

    Today marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the shocking shooting rampage at a Fort Worth mansion that left two people dead and two others wounded, all at the hands of "a man in black." 
     Cullen Davis stood trial for the crime and was acquitted in 1977. Melody McDonald, a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, recently interviewed attorney Richard "Racehorse" Haynes about his defense of Davis. The saga unfolded in a television miniseries as well as several books, most recently in Sex, Murder and the Unwritten Law by Bill Neal. Cullen Davis declined to comment for the Melody McDonald article. However, a few years ago  I interviewed him for an online magazine article, "A Texas Oil Dynasty," which told about the roots of the Davis family. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Red Light District of Waco

Photograph by David Houghton
    Sherri Knight and I were interviewed by J. B. Smith, a staff writer for the Waco Tribune-Herald's July 27, 2011, issue about our joint writing endeavor, The Oldest Profession in Texas: Waco's Legal Red Light District. This 380-page paperback (released in May) was the subject of Smith's excellent, in-depth article about "the Reservation," the name given to the red light district of Waco. "The Oldest Profession in Texas takes a nonjudgmental tone toward the Reservation era," Smith writes, "but Pylant said he thinks Waco's containment strategy for prostitution was a mistake that trapped hundreds of women in an underworld." 
    While the legalization of prostitution brought money into city offers, it did nothing to curb crime in the red light district. Reservation women were frequent victims of assault, robbery, arson, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, and murder. 
    We were also interviewed by Paul Romer about Reservation madam Cora McMahan for the Temple Daily Telegram. Romer's article then went nationwide on May 29, 2011, when it caught the attention of the Associated Press. Cora, not unlike other workers in the skin trade, took up with the wrong man. This led to her being ambushed and executed by a group of vigilantes in 1890.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bill Olds's Final Resting Place

     Murderer F. M. Snow's father-in-law, Bill Olds, garnered arrests for theft, forgery, and murder. Bad Bill's quite demise happened some years before his wife, daughter, and grandson became victims of his hatchet-happy son-in-law. When the aging Bill Olds became too infirm to pose a threat to relatives, he was forced to leave the family home. Having no income or anyone willing to care for him, Bill spent his remaining days at the Erath County Poor farm, an early welfare system. (The new edition of Blood Legacy includes a photograph of the old farmhouse.) Olds died there sometime between 1910 and 1919, and he was buried in one of the unmarked graves in the farm's cemetery near Smith Springs, Texas. Here's how that cemetery looks today. The heavy iron crosses that adorn each of the graves give an almost Gothic appearance to the thickly wooded burial ground.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Alabama Man Finds Roots in "Blood Legacy" -- and changes his name

     The May-June 2011 issue of Family Chronicle includes a three-page feature, "So You're Related to An Axe Murderer," about the re-release of my first true-crime volume, Blood Legacy. "How would you react to finding an axe murderer in your family tree?" I asked in the article. 
     Just as that issue went to press, my question was answered, albeit coincidentally, in a newspaper article.
     A story in The Arab Tribune, May 27, tells of Rick Kirby, an Alabama man stationed in Afghanistan, whose early life is described as a "war zone." His wife, while digging into the roots of his family tree, discovered a dark history. "His grandmother is depicted as the killer in the true-crime book Blood Legacy: The True Story of the Snow Axe Murders by James Pylant," wrote reporter David Moore. "After that," writes Moore, "Kirby changed his last name to what it is today."
     Rick Kirby, however, can count many kind, wonderful people among his living relatives. In researching and writing Blood Legacy, I encountered some two dozen people who share a family connection to those involved in the saga of the Snow murders. "Far removed from the tragedy of past generations," as I wrote in Blood Legacy, "they are baffled at how violence became so entrenched in the lives of their ancestors."