The Thing That Comes in the Night

A story, circulated since the 1830s in South Central Texas, contains enough truth to merit a Texas Historical Marker. Residents along the Navidad River bottom in Lavaca and Jackson counties began seeing strange footprints along the riverbank, and at the same time, they began missing small amounts of sweet potatoes and corn. On moonlit nights half the food in their cabins disappeared even though an intruder had to step over sleeping dogs. Tools vanished, only to be returned, brilliantly polished and sharpened. In fall around hog-killing time families stopped fattening hogs because a fat hog was invariably replaced with a scrawny substitute. Valuables such as gold or watches were never taken although they were plainly visible when the food disappeared.

Everyone speculated about “it.” Slaves believed it was a ghost and called it “The Thing That Comes.” Settlers, finding two sets of footprints, believed one of the intruders to be a man and the other a smaller companion, perhaps a woman or child.

Many people organized search parties trying to capture the “Wild Man of the Navidad.” Sometimes they found his camp among a thick growth of trees, but he never returned to the site while the pursuers waited.

Texas folk author J. Frank Dobie in his book Tales of Old-Time Texas concluded that the phantom figure had to be a woman because several well-documented sightings reported that “it” had long, flowing hair and facial features more similar to a woman. Dobie writes of a near capture in 1846 during an intense search when a rider heard rustling in the brush just before “it” ran in the light of the moon onto the open prairie.  “She ran directly across the prairie in the direction of the main forest. The man nearest her rode a fleet horse and it needed all the speed it had to keep up with the object in pursuit. As the figure neared the dark woods, the rider was able to throw his lasso. But, as the rope neared the woman, the horse shied away and the lasso felt short. The figure darted into the woods never to be seen again.”

Dobie said the rider claimed that the creature had long, flowing hair that trailed down almost to its feet and it wore no clothing. Her body seemed to be covered with short, brown hair.

“As she fled to the woods, she dropped a club to the ground that was about five feet long and polished to a wonder,” Dobie said.

Finally, in 1851, with the help of dogs trained to hunt down runaway slaves, local residents following their baying hounds found a black man in a tree. He wore no clothes and spoke no English. Some accounts say he was put in jail where he remained for about six months until a sailor wandered through who was familiar with the native dialect of the captive’s African tribe.

The captive said his father, a chief of their tribe, sold his son into slavery for the price of a knife and tobacco. The new slave and a companion escaped after their transport ship reached Texas. They settled in the Navidad River bottom because of the abundance of wildlife and fruit. His companion died from exposure.

The captured man, whom they called Jimbo, was sold back into slavery and lived in Victoria and Refugio counties. Freed after the Civil War, he reportedly died in 1884.

J. Frank Dobie writes, “Of course all of this happened many years ago and in the telling, you can always guarantee some build up in the information will take place.  If these things did happen, I cannot explain how.”

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AIRSHIP FLYS BEFORE WRIGHT BROTHERS?

Residents in the East Texas town of Pittsburg house in the local museum a full-size replica of the Ezekiel Airship, which many old timers declare flew almost a year before the Wright brother’s claim to fame at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Burrell Cannon, a mechanical genius and part-time Baptist preacher, inspired by the first and tenth chapters of Ezekiel in which the prophet writes of angelic vehicles composed of wheels within wheels, worked over twenty years building models and improving his design for a flying machine.  In 1901, Cannon convinced Pittsburg businessmen to establish the Ezekiel Airship Manufacturing Company and issue stock for twenty thousand dollars to underwrite the project.

Employees of the Pittsburg Foundry and Machine Company built the airship between March and October 1902.  Its engine turned four sets of paddles, which powered large, fabric-covered wings—incorporating a compulsion force similar to a helicopter.

Local residents claim seeing the airship fly for about 160 feet at a height of ten to twelve feet. A former machine shop worker admitted that one Sunday, when Cannon and the other investors were out of town, the employees took the plane out to the field across from the shop and he flew it.  All the conspirators, fearing the loss of their jobs, made a pact not to tell anyone.  If the story is true, it explains why no newspaper coverage exists and why officials of the company denied the flight.

On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made their famous flight.

The next year investors loaded the Ezekiel on a flatbed railroad car for a trip to the St. Louis World’s Fair.  As the train neared Texarkana, a fierce storm blew the airship off the railcar and destroyed it.

The Reverend Cannon did not attempt another flight until 1913 in Chicago when his new craft flew only a few feet, hit a telephone pole, and received damage to the bottom of the ship. The Reverend, declaring God had not willed the airship to fly, promptly gave up the project.

A Texas Historical Marker tells the story in Pittsburg at Fulton and South Market streets beside the railroad tracks.

ANGEL OF GOLIAD

Many stories survive from the 1836  War for Texas Independence from Mexico, but several almost forgotten tales surround the deeds of a beautiful young Mexican woman whose name is shrouded in the mists of history.  To a person they called her the “Angel of Goliad.”

She steps onto the scene as the woman accompanying Capt. Telesforo Alavez when his ship from Matamoros, Mexico, landed at Copano Bay on the middle Texas coast about the same day as the fall of the Alamo, March 6, 1836.  Variously called Francita, or Panchita, or Francisca, those who met her assumed she traveled as Capt. Alavez’ wife; however camp women regularly followed the Mexican army, and later research disclosed that Capt. Alavez abandoned his wife and children in Mexico the previous year.

When Francita arrived at Copano Bay, she discovered that General José de Urrea’s army held prisoners bound so tightly that the cords cut off the blood circulation in their arms.  Several of those men remember her as the beautiful Mexican lady who convinced the guards to loosen the bonds and give them food.

As he headed to San Antonio and the Battle of the Alamo, General Antonio López de Santa Anna split his forces, directing Urrea’s army to move toward Presidio La Bahía (present Goliad), an ancient fort housing 500 militia, the largest collection of men in the Texas army.

It is unclear which route Capt. Alavez took with his cavalry regiment as he moved from the Texas coast to join Gen. Urrea’s forces.  Some accounts claim a priest and “a Mexican lady named ‘Alvarez’” convinced Gen. Urrea at San Patricio to save the lives of twenty-one captives and ship them back to prison in Matamoros, thereby ignoring Santa Anna’s repeated orders to shoot all prisoners taken in arms.

While Urrea continued his march toward Presidio La Bahía, the commander at the old fort, Colonel James W. Fannin, ignored orders from General Sam Houston to move out of La Bahía and join forces with Houston’s ragtag volunteers as they moved ahead of Santa Anna’s advancing army.

Fannin delayed for five days before he began a slow march out of the presidio, only to be overtaken in mid-afternoon by Urrea’s rapidly advancing force.  The Texans and the Mexicans fought valiantly until darkness fell.  Without sufficient water for cooling their cannon or to ease the suffering of the injured, and without the hoped-for reinforcement by the next morning, the Texans chose surrender.

Despite the decree that Santa Anna pushed through the Mexican Congress the previous December, which directed that all foreigners taken in arms against the government should be treated as pirates and shot, General Urrea agreed to appeal to Santa Anna for clemency for Fannin and his men.

Urrea’s force moved on to capture nearby Victoria while about 240 uninjured or slightly wounded under the direction of Col. José Nicolás de la Portilla, marched back to Presidio La Bahía.  Colonel Fannin who sustained an injury and about fifty more severely wounded were moved back to La Bahía over the next two days.  Again, Francita appears as a comforter of the suffering, intervening to improve care for the prisoners crowded into the presidio’s 85- x 25-foot Chapel of Nuestra Señora de Loreto.  Soon, more prisoners from other battles arrived to increase the population to over 500.

A letter from Santa Anna arrived on March 26 demanding Col. Portilla carry out the orders to execute the prisoners.  Two hours later, Portilla received a letter from Urrea imploring him to treat the prisoners with respect, especially Col. Fannin.

Despite being torn between conflicting orders, Portilla continued with plans to execute the prisoners at dawn the next morning–Palm Sunday, March 27.  The prisoners marched willingly out in three groups–some believed they were going to gather wood, others expected to drive cattle, another group thought they were headed to Copano Bay for shipment to freedom in New Orleans.

Apparently Francita heard of the plans to murder the troops, for she worked during the night with several officers to hide about twenty men.  Dr. Joseph H. Barnard, who was spared from the massacre and sent, with another doctor, to the Alamo to aid the injured Mexicans, wrote: “during the time of the massacre she (Francita) stood in the street, her hair floating, speaking wildly, and abusing the Mexican officers, especially Portilla.  She appeared almost frantic.”

Years later Benjamin Franklin Hughes, who at age fifteen served as an orderly, claimed his group believed they marched toward embarkation and freedom. He saw Urrea’s wife and a young lady he called “Madame Captain Alvarez” watching the groups move out.  As Hughes marched past, the ladies asked to have him taken from the ranks and placed between them.  Within minutes the massacre began and Hughes realized the women saved his life.

A study of Fannin’s command indicates 342 executed, including Fannin and the wounded that were shot in the fort’s quadrangle.  Only 28 escaped the firing squads—diving into the nearby San Antonio River or escaping through the woods along the riverbank.  A group of blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and other artisans that served the Mexican army also escaped the massacre.  About eight avoided execution because Portilla claimed they were not captured while bearing arms.

Although Francita accompanied Captain Alavez to Victoria, she continued to send messages and supplies to the surviving prisoners at La Bahía. The grandson of one of the Victoria families preserved stories of the wives of Mexican officers throwing themselves in front of a firing squad, successfully halting the execution of three or four prisoners.

After Texas won independence from Mexico and captured Santa Anna in the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, the Mexicans began a slow retreat.  Captain Alavez evacuated his Victoria post and returned first to Matamoros where Texans told of “Señora Alavez” ministering to the prisoners.  After she followed Captain Alavez to Mexico City, he abandoned her.  Returning to Matamoros penniless, she found friends among the Texans who remembered her kind treatment.  However, none of the people who told the story of her humanitarian deeds ever bothered to accurately record her name.

World Renowned Sculptor in Texas

When most people think of Texas in the late 19th Century, they think of cattle drives and stage coaches, one-room schoolhouses and dirt roads.  They think of saloons, not salons.  But there is more to the story.

Long before anyone heard the phrase “women’s libber” Elisabet Ney fit the mold.  Born in Münster, Westphalia, in 1833, she grew up helping her father, a stonecutter who fashioned statuary and gravestones.  At nineteen, certain that she could become a portrait sculptor and “meet the great persons of the world,” she finally convinced her parents to allow her to enroll as the first female to study at the Academy of Arts in Munich.  After graduating at the top of her class, she went on to study in Berlin with Christian Daniel Rauch, Germany’s greatest living sculptor.  Rauch introduced Ney to the artistic and elite in Europe’s social and political world. Her talent and charm led to friendships with Europe’s notables who in turn opened the door for her to meet others.  The reclusive philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer agreed to sit for Ney and was so pleased with his portrait and with their conversations that he wrote a series of letters about “the incomparable Ney”.  She developed friendships with “great persons of the world,” and gained fame for her portraits  such as King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Otto von Bismarck, and Giuseppe Garibaldi.

After a ten-year courtship, she finally agreed to marry Dr. Edmund Montgomery, a Scottish physician who shared her idealist vision of a world of peace and beauty.  For the rest of her life she called Montgomery her “best friend.”  The two dreamers, looking for a utopia, settled for a couple of years in Georgia before moving with their two little boys to Texas in 1872.  They bought Liendo a 1,100-acre former slave plantation about 50 miles northwest of Houston.  Here they planned an idyllic life of Montgomery continuing his scientific research; Ney running the plantation and raising their children in an artistic and scientific environment away from the temptations and influences of contemporary life.  Ney often said she gave up her career to “sculpt flesh and blood.”

Things didn’t work out quite like they planned.  The oldest boy died and over time the other child began resenting his mother’s controls.  Further, “Miss Ney,” as she insisted on being called, shocked her neighbors in the rural community by trying to help the area freedmen change their lifestyle, by refusing to say she was married, by wearing bloomer-like britches, and by riding about the plantation like a man astride her horse.

After twenty years struggling to make a success of the plantation, Miss Ney answered a request to execute statues of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston for the Texas Exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.  She moved to Austin, the state’s capital city, and built Formosa, a small, classically styled limestone studio reminiscent of a Greek temple.

Formosa became the social center for culture in Austin.  One friend described the gathering place as a “salon” for serious intellectual conversations, an unusual description in a town better know for its saloons.

The next fifteen years offered the idyllic life for Miss Ney.  She and Dr. Montgomery regularly traveled the 100-miles between Austin and Liendo; he continued his scientific research in the solitude of the plantation; and she pursued her work in the stimulating environment at Formosa.

Her most ideal work, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, is displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. The Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin statues stand in the Texas State Capitol and in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol.

Upon her death in 1907, she was buried at Liendo where four years later her best friend Dr. Edmund Montgomery was laid beside her.  In 1911 Elisabet Ney’s friends and supporters founded the Texas Fine Arts Association in her honor.  Today, Formosa houses The Ney Museum and 100-piece portrait collection and offers a range of educational programs, lectures, exhibits, and workshops.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: RABBI HENRY COHEN

When you travel Texas highways, you see historical markers that tell some of Texas’ best tales.  For several years I wrote some of those marker stories and in the process I discovered a lot of Movers & Shakers that history books never mention.  I plan to share some of the stories in my blogs.

I first heard of Rabbi Henry Cohen when I received a fat folder of information that had to be squeezed into a historical marker story of not more than 24 lines. In that sparse space I tried to capture the life of the extraordinary man whose boundless energy and love of humanity burst from every page.

In 1888 the wiry little man, barely five feet tall, with a booming British accent arrived in Galveston to serve Temple B’nai Israel. He wore black, tuxedo-type suits, starched white bow ties, and white shirts with stiff cuffs on which he wrote his appointments and sermon notes. (I imagine his wife loved getting those cuffs clean.)  Dressed in this formal getup, he rode about Galveston on a bicycle from jail cell to hospital bed to Galveston’s red-light district ministering to and helping every person in need regardless of his or her faith or lack thereof. He was known for saying “there is no such thing as Episcopalian scarlet fever, Catholic arthritis, or Jewish mumps”.

He may have been small but he showed a giant’s determination when facing injustice.  Hearing of a girl being kept in prostitution against her will, he tore across town on his bicycle, barged into a whorehouse, and found the girl half naked. Wrapping her in a blanket and walking with one arm around her and the other guiding his bike he led her to a clothing store where he told the merchant to “fit her out from head to foot”.  Then, he took her home to his wife and found her a job. His fearlessness quickly created a name for himself in the back streets of Galveston.  When a woman on her deathbed asked to be given a “Christian burial”, Rabbi Cohen received the call to conduct the service.  Not bothering to ask what kept a Protestant minister from showing up, Rabbi Cohen marched to the cemetery where he found a large crowd had gathered from the bordellos.  He led the service using prayers from the New Testament.

Millions of European Jews arrived on the East Coast without the means to survive in the strange new world.  They settled with fellow emigrants in the slums of New York’s lower East side where whole families crowded into tiny rooms, even sleeping in hallways.   Unable to speak English or find work, they huddled in congested, impoverished conditions that led to child labor and crime.  Many in the Jewish community that had come to America and prospered became embarrassed at so much suffering. They devised a plan that allowed immigrant ships to bypass Ellis Island and go instead to Galveston where Rabbi Cohen set up an immigration office and met most every ship.

Since he traveled extensively preaching in cities and towns that did not have a rabbi, he had developed a network of contacts in communities that let him know what occupations they needed.  It might be cobblers, hat makers, tailors, carpenters or clerks. El Paso for example asked to have trunk, harness and saddle makers, whereas Corsicana needed weavers, spinners, and doffers for its new textile industry.  Between 1907 and 1914 Rabbi Cohen and his group placed 10,000 immigrants in jobs and homes west of the Mississippi.

After World War I the Ku Klux Klan began making inroads in towns across the South and Midwest.  When the Klan came to Galveston and tried to get a parade permit, Rabbi Cohen and his friend Father James Kirwin used their considerable influence with the city commissioners to block the parade.  The Klan never got a foothold in Galveston.

Rabbi Cohen worked for prison reform, often having prisoners paroled into his care. He found them jobs, loaned them money, and remained in touch with them after they began new lives.  After he heard of a man raping a twelve-year-old girl and being set free, Rabbi Cohen worked for years to get legislation to raise the age of consent in Texas from ten years old to eighteen.

My favorite story concerns Rabbi Cohen hearing that an immigrant had arrived illegally and faced immediate deportation.  In his usual dramatic fashion, he boarded a train for Washington D.C., and demanded a meeting with President William Howard Taft. And he got it.  Explaining to the president that the man faced a firing squad if he returned to his own country, Rabbi Cohen added that he could find the man a job in Texas.

President Taft listened courteously, and then said he could do nothing for the gentlemen.  The president added, “I certainly admire the way you have gone to so much trouble and expense for a member of your faith.”

“Member of my faith!  This man is a Greek Catholic.  A human life is at stake.”

President Taft picked up the phone and arranged for the man to be released to the custody of the fiery little rabbi.

Rabbi Cohen was fluent in eleven languages; he held the respect of presidents, governors, and cardinals; he wielded influence in state and national legislatures; but the legacy that he would claim with pride was that he made life more bearable for thousands of his fellow human beings.Rabbi Cohen played a major role in providing jobs and homes for immigrants throughout the South and Midwest.  From 1880 to 1920