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.