Jefferson, a thriving inland port in deep East Texas, enjoyed a cosmopolitan air of success in 1877. Steamboats designed to carry a thousand bales of East Texas cotton on only three feet of water left the port of Jefferson and returned from New Orleans with the latest fashion in clothing and home design as well as immigrants heading for settlement in Northeast Texas, Dallas, and the Texas Panhandle.
The giant sternwheelers traveled the Mississippi River from New Orleans, steamed up the Red River and finally entered Big Cypress Creek for the journey to the head of navigation at Jefferson. Town residents did not blink at wealth or lavish living until January 19, 1877, when a handsome man and a beautiful young woman arrived on the train from nearby Marshall.
The woman, although tastefully dressed, wore enough diamonds to open her own jewelry store. Some accounts claim townspeople, upon hearing the man refer to her as “Bessie,” began secretly calling her “Diamond Bessie.”
After registering at the Brooks House under the name of “A. Monroe and wife,” the couple spent two days walking about town apparently enjoying the interested eyes following their every move.
On Sunday morning, January 19, the young people purchased a picnic lunch and disappeared into the fog on the footbridge crossing Big Cypress Creek.
Late that afternoon the gentlemen returned alone. To questions about his wife’s whereabouts, he claimed she decided to visit friends. He casually went about his affairs until the following Tuesday, when he boarded the early-morning train headed east carrying all the couple’s luggage.
On February 5, after several days of sleet and snow, someone looking for firewood discovered the body of the well-dressed young woman, sans jewelry, lying under a tree amid the remains of a picnic lunch. The coroner ruled she died of a gunshot wound to the head and due to little decomposition, appeared to have been dead only four or five days.
Charmed by the beauty of the mysterious woman, the town collected $150 for a proper burial in Oakwood Cemetery. Further investigation disclosed the couple registered as “A. Rothchild and wife of Cincinnati, Ohio,” at a hotel in Marshall two days before arriving in Jefferson. Authorities discovered Abraham Rothchild worked as a traveling salesman for his father’s Cincinnati jewelry business, and met Bessie Moore a few years earlier at a brothel in Little Rock.
Fred Tarpley in Jefferson: Riverport to the Southwest writes that Bessie’s real name was Annie Stone, daughter of a prosperous shoe dealer in Syracuse, New York. “Black hair, brilliant gray eyes, a flair for grooming, and a well-chosen wardrobe combined to make her an extraordinary beauty and to attract early attention from men.” At age fifteen she became, for a short time, a young man’s mistress. Then, working as a prostitute, she traveled from Cincinnati to New Orleans and Hot Springs where she met Rothchild.
Tarpley claims a “considerable inheritance from her father” and gifts from her many admirers led to her stunning collection of diamonds. The nation-wide publicity surrounding her death, and the romantic stories growing in the imagination of mythmakers, obscured the accounts of her life published in the nineteenth-century. In reality, Bessie and Rothchild were drunks, and over the two years of their association, he pimped for her when they needed money. No one ever found evidence they were legally married.
Jefferson residents raged against the murderer of the beautiful young woman as authorities headed to Cincinnati to arrest Rothchild. In the meantime, Rothchild, in a drunken state of apparent remorse attempted to shoot himself in the head. He succeeded only in blinding himself in his right eye.
Rothchild’s parents disowned him; however, the family provided the best legal defense, including a future governor of Texas and a US senator. The state, embroiled in the most high profile case of its history, involved the best legal minds available. Legal wrangling delayed the trial until December 1878. After three weeks of testimony, Rothchild was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging; however, the judge of the Seventh Texas Court of Appeals declared a mistrial.
During the second trial a witness claimed to have seen Bessie with a man, who was not Rothchild, on two occasions after Rothchild left Jefferson. Despite the prosecution’s attack on the credibility of the witness, she planted enough doubt the jury on December 30, 1880, found Rothchild not guilty.
The verdict did not put to rest the tales continuing to circulate like the one claiming twelve $1,000 bills appeared in the jury room during deliberations or the report in the 1880s of a handsome, elderly man wearing a patch on his right eye asking to visit the grave of Bessie Moore and placing roses on it.
The mystery of who killed Diamond Bessie continues to stir imaginations each year during the Jefferson Historical Pilgrimage. This year on May 3, 4, 5 & 6 the pilgrimage presents the 65th annual production of the “Diamond Bessie Murder Trial.”