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.”