From Irish Immigrant to Cattle Queen

She buried three husbands and then hit the cattle trail in 1873 with her children and a grandchild in tow. Margaret Heffernan was born in Ireland, and when she was five years old, two Irish empresarios went to New York to recruit newly arrived immigrants to settle on their

Margaret Heffernan Borland

land grant in South Texas. In 1829 her father, who had been a candle maker in Ireland became a rancher in the McMullen and McGloin Colony on the prairie outside San Patricio. Stories vary about how Margaret’s father died—either by an Indian attack or by Mexican soldiers in the lead up to the Texas Revolution. Another story claims that at the outbreak of the war, Margaret’s mother fled with her four children to the presidio at Goliad, and they were spared the massacre because they were so fluent in Spanish that they were thought to be Mexicans. I suppose that story must be true since I know of no record of women and children (Texan or Mexican) being massacred at Goliad.

Margaret married at nineteen, gave birth to a baby girl and was widowed at twenty when her husband lost a gunfight on the streets of Victoria. A few years later Margaret married again, had two more children, and lost that husband to yellow fever in 1855. About three years later, Margaret married Alexander Borland, who was said to be the richest rancher in the county. Margaret bore four more children. One of her sons-in-law, the Victoria Advocate newspaper editor and historian, Victor Rose, wrote this flowery comment about Margaret Borland: “a woman of resolute will, and self-reliance, yet was she not one of the kindest mothers. She had, unaided, acquired a good education, her manners were lady-like, and when fortune smiled upon her at last in a pecuniary sense, she was as perfectly at home in the drawing room of the cultured as if refinement had engulfed its polishing touches upon her mind in maidenhood.”

Margaret partnered with her husband in the ranching business; however, 1867 proved to be another year of tragedy. Alexander Borland died in the spring while on a trip to New Orleans. Later that year a dreadful yellow fever epidemic that swept inland from the Texas coast, killed thousands, including four of Margaret’s children and one infant grandson.

As widow and owner of the ranch, Margaret managed its operations and enlarged her holdings to more than 10,000 cattle. The Chisholm Trail had proved so profitable that in the spring of 1873 Margaret led a cattle drive of about 2,500 head from Victoria to Wichita, Kansas. She took a group of trails hands, two sons who were both under fifteen, a seven-year-old daughter, and an even younger granddaughter. After reaching Wichita, Margaret became ill with what was called both “trail fever” and “congestion of the brain.” She died on July 5, 1873, before she had time to sell her cattle

Margaret Borland,
Collection of Library of Congress on deposit at Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth.

Although at least four women are known as “Cattle Queens” for having taken the cattle trail, it is thought that Margaret Heffernan Borland was the only woman to ride the trail without being accompanied by her husband.

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THE DRAMA OF THE IMAGINATION

Newspapers around the country in 1860 called it “the Texas Troubles.” Rumors—fanned by letters written by Charles R. Pryor, editor of the Dallas Herald—claimed that a mysterious fire on Sunday, July 8, which burned the newspaper office and all the buildings on the Dallas square except the brick courthouse, was an abolitionist plot “to devastate, with fire and assassination the whole of Northern Texas . . . .”

On the same day, other fires destroyed half of the square in Denton and burned a store in Pilot Point. Fires also erupted in Honey Grove, Jefferson, and Austin. The city leaders of Dallas (population 775) first believed the extreme heat—105 to 113 degrees––caused spontaneous combustion of the new and volatile phosphorous matches. They concluded that the matches, stored in a box of wood shavings at a drug store, ignited and quickly consumed the entire building before spreading over the downtown. Citizens in Denton, after experiencing similar problems with “prairie matches,” concluded that spontaneous combustion caused their city’s fire.

In Dallas, however, white leaders stirred by the prospect of Abraham Lincoln’s election and encouraged by Pryor’s claims, decided on a sinister slave plot hatched up by two white abolitionist preachers from Iowa. They jailed the preachers, publically whipped them, and sent them out of the county.

A committee of fifty-two men organized to mete out justice to the slaves in the county. At first, the vigilante committee favored hanging every one of the almost 100 Negro slaves in the county, then cooler heads prevailed and decided to hang only three. Two days later the men were hung on the banks of the Trinity River near the present Triple Overpass. The remaining slaves, out of consideration of their property value, were given a good flogging. Later, a judge who had been part of the vigilante committee said that the three murdered slaves were probably innocent, but because of the “inflamed state of the public mind, someone had to be hanged.”

The “troubles” were not over. By the end of July, towns throughout North and Central Texas organized vigilance committees to find and punish the conspirators. The committees terrorized the slave community. Interrogations focused on white itinerant preachers who were cited as insurrection leaders.

Despite fears of a slave rebellion that lasted until after the Civil War, there was never an organized group of slaves in Texas that shed white blood. Vigilantes often obtained “confessions” and evidence points to white leaders spreading the rumors to garner public support for secession.

Estimates vary from thirty to 100 Negroes and whites who died before the panic subsided. One historian described the times as “the drama of the imagination.”

Legends of A Lady Pioneer

Two official Texas historical markers sit on the shore of Lake Texoma, the enormous reservoir separating North Texas and Oklahoma. One marker commemorates Holland Coffee’s Trading Post, now under the waters of Lake Texoma. The neighboring marker calls Sophia Coffee

Sophia Coffee Porter, Grayson County TX GenWeb

Porter a Confederate Lady Paul Revere. The colorful lives of Sophia and Holland Coffee came together in 1837 probably while Coffee served in the Congress of the Republic of Texas.

Sophia was born a Suttonfield in 1815 on the remote military post at Fort Wayne (present Indiana). As a beautiful dark-haired girl of seventeen, she ran away with Jesse Aughinbaugh, the headmaster at her school. The twosome split up in Texas—Sophia said he deserted her—in 1836 and Sophia, who told many stories about herself, claimed to be the first woman to reach the battle site at San Jacinto. She arrived on April 22, 1836, the day after Texas won its independence from Mexico. Although no record exists of their relationship in Sam Houston’s published letters or biographies, Sophia maintained that she nursed the wounded general back to health. Some historians believe she may have been a camp woman who sold her services to the general.

Coffee’s Trading Post
Grayson Co TX GenWeb

Holland Coffee established his trading post in the early 1830s on the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) side of the Red River and moved to the Texas border in 1837. The historical marker says Coffee traded with the Indians for many white captives. Coffee ransomed a Mrs. Crawford and her two children by paying the Indians 400 yards of calico, a large number of blankets, many beads, and other items. In later years, Mrs. John Horn wrote that when Comanches refused to trade for the release of her and her children, Holland wept and then gave her and the children clothing and flour. Despite being accused by settlers of trading whiskey and guns to the Indians for cattle and horses they stole from the whites, his neighbors must have forgiven him because they elected him as their congressman.

When Sophia failed to get a divorce from Aughinbaugh through the courts in Houston, she petitioned the legislature to intervene on her behalf. After several attempts to get a bill through Congress, Sam Houston, President of the Republic of Texas, used his influence and the petition passed both houses with Holland Coffee as a member of the House of Representatives voting aye.

Coffee and Sophia took a 600-mile honeymoon on horseback through Washington County, to Nacogdoches, and along the Red River, stopping at several locales to attend balls in celebration of their marriage. Coffee settled with his bride at his trading post, a popular place for Indians and for cowboys heading north with their cattle. Coffee gave Sophia a wedding gift of one-third league of land––about 1,476 acres—only the first of her many acquisitions. In her later accounts of life on the Red River, Sophia said her nearest neighbor lived twenty-five miles away.

Because of the constant threat of Indian attacks, the Texas Rangers guarded their trading post. While their slaves plowed the fields, the horses had to be watched. At preaching services, they stacked firearms nearby for easy access. The Republic of Texas built a protective line of forts along the western edge of the frontier and connected them with a Military Road from Austin to Fort Johnson on the Red River near Coffee’s Trading Post. The military base bought supplies, clothing, tobacco, gunpowder, and tools from Coffee, which injected new life into his business. He opened a ferry at a crossing on the Red River and he and Sophia continued to buy land and slaves. New settlers arrived, and in 1845 Holland sold town lots for the town of Preston.

Glen Eden
Grayson County TX GenWeb

In 1845-46 Holland Coffee hired Mormons traveling from Illinois to Central Texas to build Glen Eden, a home that expanded over the years into the most impressive house in North Texas. Sophia entertained lavishly. By her own account, her guests included such notables as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant (no record exists of either man being there), and Sam Houston. Men from nearby Fort Washita in Indian Territory came often to Glen Eden.

Stories vary about how Coffee died in 1846. Some say it began when Sam Houston arrived to dedicate the new county courthouse in nearby Sherman and planned to stay with the Coffees at Glen Eden. Coffee’s niece had married Charles A. Galloway who offended Sophia by commenting about her former relationship with Sam Houston. She demanded that Coffee horsewhip his new nephew. When Coffee refused to publically air the family problems, Sophia said she would rather be the widow of a brave man than the wife of a coward. Coffee started an “Indian duel,” a fight to the death, with Galloway who killed Coffee with a Bowie knife.

A rich and charming widow of a brave man, Sophia, at age thirty-one managed the 3,000-acre slave plantation, tended her extensive gardens, and continued to host grand parties. On one of her regular trips to New Orleans to sell her cotton crop, she met Major George N. Butts, who returned with her to Glen Eden to manage the plantation. There is no record of a marriage in either Texas or Louisiana, but the relationship became Sophia’s happiest—Butts enjoyed the niceties of gracious living—and they paid for their lifestyle with the sale of their cotton and land. They enlarged Glen Eden, filled it with fine furnishings and china from New Orleans. She became known for her rose garden, an orchard of more than a hundred fruit trees, and grape and berry vines for jams and wines. She grew a magnolia tree in the front yard from a seedling given to her by Sam Houston. Albert Sidney Johnston brought catalpa seeds from California, which she planted, in a line down the driveway.

In 1863, William Clark Quantrill with his group of Confederate guerrillas from Kansas and Missouri moved into Sherman and began robbing and killing anyone who did not agree with Quantrill’s brand of Confederate support. Although Sophia and Butts were southern sympathizers, Butts got into an argument with one of Quantrill’s men and was ambushed one night as he returned from a cotton-selling trip to Sherman. Sophia garnered the sympathy of Sherman residents against Quantrill and got him arrested; he later escaped.

Some historians say the historical marker calling Sophia Coffee Porter a Confederate Lady Paul Revere may not be altogether accurate. Several tales surround this claim, most of them of Sophia’s own telling. One story says that when James Bourland, commander of a Texas frontier regiment, stopped at Glen Eden on his way back to Fort Washita, he warned her that federal troops were following him. When the Yankees arrived, Sophia fed them dinner and took them to her wine cellar where they proceeded to get drunk. She locked them in the cellar and then, riding a mule, forded the treacherous Red River to warn Bourland of the Union’s plans, thus preventing the invasion of North Texas. Another version of the story says she stripped to her underwear and swam the river and then whistled to get the Confederates’ attention.

At age fifty, toward the end of the Civil War, Sophia found the Red River country too dangerous. She packed her gold in tar buckets and took her slaves with her to the safer environment of Waco in Central Texas. There, she met Judge James Porter, a Confederate cavalry officer from Missouri. Rufus Burleson, president of Baylor College performed their marriage on August 2, 1865, and the Porters returned to Glen Eden. With her slaves freed, Sophia’s net worth dropped, but she and James Porter began buying land at sheriff’s auctions and reselling it quickly to increase their holdings.

James Porter apparently influenced Sophia’s desire to “get religion.” She attended a camp meeting and rushed forward throwing herself at the feet of the preacher. Before the entire congregation, the minister said Sophia must wait for twelve years because “the sun, moon, and stars were against her being a Christian.” The Methodist preacher in Sherman, however, welcomed her into the church. She gave a section of land to Southwestern University, a new Methodist institution at Georgetown and land for a Methodist Church at Preston Bend.

“Aunt Sophia,” as she became known in later years, apparently earned the respect of her neighbors. At the first meeting of the Old Settlers Park in Sherman in 1879, Sophia Porter entertained the crowd with the stories of her life as a pioneer woman along the Red River.

Glen Eden continued to be a social center, but Sophia no longer allowed dancing. She and James Porter continued giving money or land to churches in the area until his death in 1886. For the next eleven years, Sophia and her long-time friend and companion Belle Evans searched

Sophia Coffee Poter
Grayson County TX GenWeb

the shops in nearby Denison and Sherman and ordered from catalogs new fashions that would restore Sophia’s youth. Mrs. Evans also applied Ayer’s Hair Dye each week to maintain Sophia’s black locks that had attracted so many suitors over the years. On August 27, 1897, when Sophia died quietly at the age of eighty-one in her fine home of fifty-four years, the man at her side was Reverend J. M. Binkley, the Methodist preacher from Sherman who had accepted her into his congregation.

Sorting Truth from Legend

When an old story comes from many sources, it is difficult to glean the exact details. In this case, we know a man was scalped and lived to tell about it

Josiah Wilbarger

Farmers like Josiah Wilbarger and his wife who settled the west accepted the ever-present danger of Indians hostile to white encroachment into their homelands. Surveyors mapping the land grants for the early colonists faced an even greater threat because the Indians feared and hated surveyors, calling their compass “the thing that steals the land.”

In addition to farming his land, part of an 1832 grant, which lay a few miles east of the present city of Austin, Josiah Wilbarger worked as a surveyor. Most accounts say that in August 1833 Wilbarger and his four friends were on a surveying trip and stopped near Pond Spring to have lunch.

The attack came suddenly when a large band of Indians swooped down with rifles and bows, killing one man, shooting another in the hip, and hitting Wilbarger in the calf of his leg.

Men scrambling to mount their horses, saw Wilbarger take an arrow to his neck. Convinced Wilbarger did not survive, his friends raced several miles to the protection of the Reuben Hornsby home. They planned to return the next morning for the bodies after the Indians finished their scalping ritual.

That night Mrs. Hornsby dreamed of Wilbarger sitting under a tree seriously injured. She woke her husband who dismissed her as overreacting to all the excitement. Mrs. Hornsby dreamed a second time, even recognizing the site where Hornsby lay naked.

It’s not clear when the men returned for Wilbarger. Some say Mrs. Hornsby insisted they leave immediately; other versions claim the men waited until morning. Either way, Mrs. Hornsby provided a blanket saying, “Take this to make a stretcher. He’s not dead but he can’t ride.”

They found him as Mrs. Hornsby claimed, scalped and near death. Placing his naked body on the blanket, they carried him back to Mrs. Hornsby who applied poultices of wheat bread and bear grease.

When Wilbarger grew stronger, he told of how the arrow in his neck paralyzed him, making him unable to feel pain as the Indians hovered about believing he was dead. One of the Indians carved around Wilbarger’s scalp. When he gripped the hair to it snatch it off, the ripping sounded like a mighty clap of thunder.

Woodcut attributed to William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry

Feigning death, Wilbarger waited until the Indians finished all the scalping rituals and left. Some stories say Wilbarger pulled the arrow from his neck and passed out. When he awoke, he blazed with fever and crawled to the nearby spring to cool his pain-racked body. He started crawling toward the Hornsby house but made it only as far as the tree where he passed out again.

Upon waking he saw his sister who lived in Missouri come toward him saying for him not to worry, help was on the way. She walked away toward the Hornsby house.

Several months later, word came that his sister died the day before the Indian attack. The family buried her on the day her image appeared to Wilbarger.

A hole about the size of a large silver dollar in Wilbarger’s scalp never healed. He wore silk bandages his wife cut from her wedding dress to protect his head for the next eleven years. He died at his home on April 11, 1844, after striking his head on a low beam in his cotton gin.

John Wesley Wilbarger, Josiah’s brother, is among the many tellers of this tale. A Methodist minister and sometime surveyor, John Wesley spent twenty years collecting accounts of Indian atrocities from sources he claimed were always reliable. In 1889 he published Indian Depredation in Texas, a 672-page piece of Texana filled with 250 separate stories of attacks and counterattacks.

The book came out at a time when academics started telling a more balanced account of Indian culture and motives. John Wesley Wilbarger, however, painted Indians as unredeemable savages.

An interesting aside related to John Wesley Wilbarger’s book is the thirty-four woodcut illustrations recently attributed to Austin resident William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry.

A Medical Charlatan

John Romulus Brinkley

By the time John Romulus (changed to John Richard) Brinkley came to Texas in 1933, he had amassed a fortune and become famous for transplanting goat glands into his male patients. A natural salesman with a smooth voice and plenty of confidence, Brinkley had been performing his $750 “restorative” operation at his clinic in Milford, Kansas, and offering medical advice and selling his patent medicine over his Kansas radio station, KFKB. In addition to long lectures on rejuvenation and testimonials from satisfied patients, Brinkley’s station featured country music (including The Carter Family), and fundamentalist preachers. Brinkley conducted a “Medical Question Box” that allowed him to diagnose ills and prescribe medicine over the radio. The program became so popular that many pharmacists cashed in on the deal by selling Brinkley’s concoctions at inflated prices and returned an estimated $14,000 a week to Brinkley.

Finally, Dr. Morris Fishbein, executive secretary of the American Medical Association (AMA) and editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association called Brinkley a quack. Brinkley countered, claiming the AMA was a “meat-cutters union” and said its members were jealous of him because he was taking their business.

Brinkley had tried unsuccessfully for years to get a medical degree from one of the diploma mills, even traveling to Europe in 1925 in search of an institution that would give him an honorary degree. After several places turned him down, an Italian institution finally awarded him a diploma, only to have it revoked by nonother than Benito Mussolini at the urging of Brinkley’s nemesis—Dr. Morris Fishbein.

Fishbein’s accusations finally forced the Kansas State Medical Board to revoke Brinkley’s medical license, and the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) refused to renew his broadcasting license.

Brinkley decided to fix the problem by running for governor and with a victory, replace the Kansas Medical Board. He barnstormed around the state in his private plane; promised Kansans free textbooks, lower taxes, a lake in every county,

Drugstores sold Brinkley’s concoctions at greatly inflated prices.

and more rainfall. He narrowly lost the governor’s race because as a write-in candidate, many of his votes were disqualified for not being “exactly right.”

Meanwhile, he relocated his family and all his medical operation to Villa Acuña, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas. Using the powerful radio transmitter across the border in Mexico, Brinkley broadcast his message to listeners all over the Midwest. In his new enterprise, he offered six small vials of colored water for $100, which he claimed would aid the libido. He performed fewer goat gland transplants, offering instead a “commercial glandular preparation.” He began prostate operations (charging up to $1,000 per procedure) and started using a Mercurochrome shot and pills to restore youthful vigor.

Brinkley sold air time to advertisers at $1,700 an hour, which encouraged new hucksters selling anything from life insurance to religious items such as autographed pictures of Jesus Christ. When mind readers and fortune-tellers were banned from U.S. radio by the FRC, they followed Brinkley’s lead and began opening “border blasters” across the border in Mexico.

By 1936 Brinkley’s lavish lifestyle included—a Del Rio mansion sitting on sixteen acres, a dozen Cadillacs, a greenhouse, a garden with a foaming fountain surrounded by 8,000 bushes, and a pool with a ten-foot diving tower. It has been estimated that Brinkley earned $12 million from the time he moved to Del Rio in 1933 until 1938 when his empire began to crumble. A rival moved to town and began offering similar procedures at greatly reduced prices. When city officials refused to put his competitor out of business, Brinkley moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, and opened a hospital.

In 1938 Fishbein was back again, publishing a series called “Modern Medical Charlatans” that completely repudiated Brinkley’s career and his medical credentials. Brinkley sued Fishbein for libel and lost, with the jury finding that Brinkley “should be considered a charlatan and a quack in the ordinary, well-understood meaning of those words.” That verdict opened a series of lawsuits that reached a purported $3 million. The IRS began investigating Brinkley for tax fraud. In 1941 Brinkley declared bankruptcy; an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico resulted in Brinkley’s Mexican radio station being shut down, and the U.S. Post Office opened an investigation for mail fraud.

The famed healer, known by some of his Kansas followers as “The Milford Messiah,” the man who was credited with over 16,000 goat gland transplants, who wore a goatee and named his Milford baseball team the Brinkley Goats, developed a blood clot that required amputating one of his legs. Then he suffered a series of heart attacks. Before the mail fraud case went to trial Brinkley, penniless, died of heart failure in San Antonio on May 26, 1942.

In an article written by Dr. Joe Schwarcz, he claims that Brinkley’s last words were: “If Dr. Fishbein goes to heaven, I want to go the other way.”

Oil Man Who Gave Away Millions

If you are driving south from Austin on US 183, you know when you’ve arrived in Luling. Even if you’re the passenger and your eyes are closed, you’ll recognize Luling. It stinks. Yes, oil pumping stations (pump jacks) operate all over town—even in the heart of the city. Nobody in

Pumpjack

Pumpjack in downtown Luling

Luling minds the odor. They say it is the smell of money. In fact the residents appreciate the oil so much that all nine of the pumping stations are decorated. You’ll see Uncle Sam, a girl eating a watermelon slice (yes, it’s also watermelon country), a grasshopper, Tony the Tiger—you get the idea.

The story of Luling’s oil business dates back to 1919 when the little town of 1,500 with a railroad running parallel to its dusty main street and wooden sidewalks was struggling to recover from the effects of WWI. Edgar B. Davis a loud-talking, over-sized bachelor from Massachusetts with a strong Yankee accent showed up. The residents welcomed the jovial fellow who had already made a million in the shoe business and over $3 million in the rubber business.

Edgar B. Davis

He had come to Luling because his brother Oscar asked him to look into a $75,000 investment he had made in oil leases that weren’t producing.

Against the advice of everyone, including geologists, Davis bought his brother’s interest, ordered the drilling to go from 1,700 to 3,000 feet, and promptly drilled six dry wells in a row. Almost broke and deeply in debt, Davis drove out to the seventh well site on August 9, 1922. Suddenly, black gold shot straight up in the air announcing the arrival of Rafael Rios No. 1. Within two years the field produced 43,000 barrels of oil a day.

In 1926 Davis sold his leases to Magnolia Petroleum Company for $12 million (half in cash), an oil deal considered the largest in Texas up to that time. If that were the end of the story, it would just be another ho-hum tale of a rich man almost going broke and rebounding into even more wealth. This is no ordinary story. Although Edgar B. Davis did not belong to a church, he held a strong belief that Providence guided his life. He planned a “thank offering” for his friends, associates and employees. He bought forty wooded acres on the north side of town and built an athletic clubhouse for blacks. South of town, on the banks of the San Marcos River, he bought 100 acres and laid out a golf course and clubhouse facilities for whites. He fully endowed both sites. Then, he hosted a barbecue, strung Japanese lanterns, built polished, outdoor dance floors, imported bands, and brought in singers from the New York Metropolitan Opera. Estimates of attendance ranged up to 35,000. The food reportedly cost $10,000 and included all the accouterments, even Havana cigars.

Next, the man who believed that he was an instrument of God gave bonuses to his employees of 25 to 100 percent of their total salary—an estimated $5 million. But he wasn’t done. With the firm belief that he had been “directed” to deliver Luling and the surrounding counties from the oppressive one-crop cotton economy, Davis purchased 1,200 acres west of town and established the Luling Foundation. This experimental farm continues to conduct research in all facets of farming including experimental and management programs in cooperation with Texas A & M University.

When I visited Luling to research this story, I heard several strange tales about Edgar B. Davis. Perhaps the strangest came from an older gentlemen who reported that Davis continued to wildcat and eventually found himself in such financial straits that the bank was about to foreclose on his home. In a series of mysterious late-night raids, his house was burned to the ground. When I questioned why anyone in the whole region had reason to burn Davis’ home, the old gentlemen said. “I guess folks figured if Edgar B. Davis couldn’t keep his home, nobody else was going to get it.”

Before Davis died in 1951 at age 78, he rebuilt his fortune. He was buried on the grounds of his destroyed home. Today the Seton Edgar B. Davis Hospital, which opened in 1966, operates on the home site of the man who believed that the more one gives, the more one has.

Edgar B. Davis grave on the grounds of his home and current hospital.

THE MURDER OF DIAMOND BESSIE

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

Diamond Bessie

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.

Abraham Rothschild

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 facts about her life. 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 that 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 that 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 from April 28 through May 1, the pilgrimage presents the 63rd annual production of the “Diamond Bessie Murder Trial.”

Diamond Bessie Murder Trial