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 
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.”